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Highclere Castle is world famous thanks to Downton Abbey. Other stately homes in the UK are less well-known, but six are so special, they are the stars of Britain’s Hidden Heritage.

Britain's Hidden Heritage
Britain’s Hidden Heritage – Photo courtesy of APT

What is it about British manors that holds such fascination for so many people? Their Britishness, for a start. The juiciness, though, is in their histories, from the owners, to the magnificent contents within them. And it is the stories of six lesser-known stately homes that shaped Britain’s past that is the focus of Britain’s Hidden Heritage.

Presented by antiques and heritage expert Paul Martin, author of Paul Martin’s Britain, the series has him traveling across Great Britain — “a treasure trove of hidden heritage” — to bring the stories of these “undiscovered treasures and forgotten places” to the television-viewing public.

Also presenting segments in the series, some related to great British homes, some about other aspects of British history, are award-winning broadcaster, journalist, and author Clare Balding OBE (Walking Home: My Family and Other Rambles), architectural designer and TV presenter Charlie Luxton (Restored to Glory), and other British media presenters and celebrity guests.

I had the opportunity to watch the first episode of Britain’s Hidden Heritage in its entirety, which has as its focus…

Dumfries House

Britain's Hidden Heritage: Dumfries House
Britain’s Hidden Heritage: Dumfries House – Photo courtesy of APT

All manner of superlatives are assigned to Dumfries House, located in Ayrshire, Scotland — “one of the country’s greatest historical treasures,” “one of Britain’s most remarkable heritage secrets,” and “surely one of the most elegant country houses in Britain.”

For most of its 250 years, this second home of the 5th Earl of Dumfries sat mostly empty, largely untouched and often unlived in. Except for its massive collection of 18th century furniture and furnishings. To this day, Dumfries House is still filled with nearly all of its original contents, which is one of the reasons why this place is so unique.

We’re talking handcrafted chairs and beds and tables and mirrors, including 50 pieces made by Thomas Chippendale, “the Shakespeare of the furniture world.” Of the collection, the pièce de résistance is Chippendale’s rosewood bookcase, bought in 1759 for £47 and 5 shillings, and valued by Christie’s in 2007 at £4 million. (Crikey!)

It was also in 2007 that the then-owner of Dumfries House decided to put the estate up for sale and auction off its contents. Enter His Royal Highness, Charles, the Prince of Wales, who “helped save the house for the nation.” He led the consortium that raised the £45 million necessary to purchase Dumfries House, the estate and all of its contents, in charitable trust. Prince Charles stated:

“I heard about this house, you see, that there was difficulty with it, and that they wanted to sell it and find a solution, but unfortunately it didn’t happen… I tried to find a way to see if we could help sort it out or find somebody who might help, a sponsor, a donor, whatever, but it was just such an enormous task.

“The reason why I wanted to do something about it was because the house is so unique with its contents. There are so few houses which are left now which have their original furniture, everything, designed for that house… And I just felt it would have been a tragedy of immense proportions if the whole thing had just been split up and then we’d be left with a shell of a house, and I know it would’ve just become a ruin.”

Today Dumfries House is open to the public, while certain parts of the estate and some of the furnishings are still undergoing renovation and restoration. (If you’re looking for a posh venue for your wedding or some other major event, this is it.)

Britain's Hidden Heritage
Britain’s Hidden Heritage: (L-R) Clare Balding, Paul Martin, Charlie Luxton – Photo courtesy of APT

In another segment, Clare Balding visits Audley End in Essex, “one of the UK’s finest country houses, a monument to Jacobean magnificence.” But what brings her here isn’t the magnificence of the home, but the incredible history held within one small book.

Written in the 1880s by Avis Crocombe, the cook for the 5th Baron Braybrooke and his large clan, this handwritten, leather-bound manuscript is a collection of nearly 150 Victorian recipes that read more like mini-essays. As noted by a current Audley End staff member about the contents, “[The book] ceases to be a collection of recipes and becomes a record of cooking in the English country house.” (Several recipes from the book are available online in the Audley End section of the English Heritage website.)

Charlie Luxton ventures to an “industrial time capsule” in the form of the 19th-century J.W. Evans Silver Factory in Birmingham, England, “the workshop of the world,” where he learns to make wine labels. And guest presenter John Sergeant (Barging Round Britain) fulfills a childhood dream by flying wing-to-wing with the Avro Vulcan XH558 bomber plane, an icon of the Cold War.

Cragside House

Britain's Hidden Heritage: Cragside House
Britain’s Hidden Heritage: Cragside House – Photo courtesy of APT

In the second episode, Paul Martin visits Cragside House in Northumberland, the home to 19th-century armaments manufacturer Lord William Armstrong. The unique claim to fame of Cragside House is one of its rooms was the first room in the world to be lit by electricity.

Charlie Luxton uncovers some dark secrets about Britons’ Victorian past when he spends the night at Lincoln Castle, a Norman castle built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and used as a prison from the late 1700s until approximately 130 years ago. Clare Balding discovers an enchanting place once ravaged by the forces of a Tudor king in North Yorkshire, and guest presenter Charlie Boorman (Long Way Round) searches the ocean floor for a forgotten piece of naval history: the sunken remains of Britain’s very first submarine.

Boughton House

Britain's Hidden Heritage: Boughton House
Britain’s Hidden Heritage: Boughton House – Photo courtesy of APT

And in the last episode of Season 1, Paul and his team travel to Northamptonshire to visit one of Britain’s most stunning stately homes: Boughton House, “the English Versailles,” so named for the French architectural influences, including for the exterior, which evokes a French chateau. The house began its life as a monastic building, before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was converted into a mansion in the early 16th century. It contains a wealth of antiques, art, music, and literature, some of which is still being uncovered.

Also on the show, Charlie visits an overgrown valley with claims to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution, Clare travels to a house in Yorkshire that might have been the inspiration for one of Britain’s greatest romantic novels, and novelist Ann Widdecombe (An Act of Treachery), goes to Staffordshire in search of one of her own heritage passions: the escape route of Charles II.

Season 2 of Britain’s Hidden Heritage opens with Paul Martin traveling to Osborne House — built as a summer home and seaside retreat for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and one of the most popular tourist attractions on the Isle of Wight — where he discovers intimate family life details of Britain’s longest-serving monarch.

Clare Balding heads to Gloucestershire and delves into the weird and wonderful collection of Charles Paget Wade, an English architect, artisan, and poet, and quite possibly Britain’s first extreme hoarder. Charlie Luston travels to Scotland to visit a forgotten ruin that was once an architectural masterpiece, and Richard E Grant (The Scarlet Pimpernel) goes behind the scenes at Pinewood Studios to reveal secrets of British cinema and the classic films that inspired him as a young actor.

The second episode find Paul visitsing Mount Stewart, a 19th-century, neoclassical country house and garden in County Down, Northern Ireland, which was bequeathed to the nation in 1957, and Clare Balding drops in on the restoration of one of the greatest ecclesiastical treasures in the world: the medieval Flemish stained glass of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire.

Charlie Luxton heads north to the Lake District, to the shores of Lake Windermere, and gets to grips with 19th-century machinery and the lost industry that once littered the Lakes. And television presenter Nick Hewer, one of Lord Sugar’s previous advisors on The Apprentice (UK), takes to the skies to celebrate Britain’s first aerial photographic collection and the two pioneers who started it.

The series concludes with Paul’s journey to Gloucestershire and the Norman fortress of Berkeley Castle, which dates back to the 11th century and has been the home of the Berkeley family for nearly 900 years. Berkeley Castle’s extraordinary archive collection includes seven lost arias by Vivaldi, discovered in 20014 amongst old documents, and one of them is performed during this episode.

Clare accesses the photographic archive of Country Life magazine to investigate how the 1150-year-old collection has helped to restore the most unlikely of country house interiors, and Charlie goes behind the scenes to sing the praises of a famous and much-loved piece of 1960s concrete architecture: London’s BT Tower. Lastly, double Olympic Champion and former army sergeant Dame Kelly Holmes reveals the history of a forgotten piece of military hardware that changed the course of World War II: the Matilda Tank.

Released on the 1st of January, Britain’s Hidden Heritage I & II begins premiering this month on the following public TV stations. Check your local listings or contact the station that serves your area for broadcast details. If you’re a viewer outside the cities listed below and you’d like to watch the series, contact your local station or American Public Television to request the program.

MINNESOTA Minneapolis, St. Paul
NORTH CAROLINA Asheville, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Concord, Edenton, Greensboro, Greenville, Jacksonville, Linville, Lumberton, Raleigh-Durham, Roanoke Rapids, Wilmington, Winston-Salem
OHIO Cincinnati
OKLAHOMA Cheyenne, Eufaula, Oklahoma City, Tulsa


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Britain’s Hidden Heritage: Visit Real-Life Downton Abbey-Type Homes in Public TV Documentary