Hazel McHaffie

Mellerstain House

Time travelling!

A few days away visiting stately homes with fabulous gardens, has taken me right into the world of Georgette Heyer’s novels which regular viewers know I’ve been dipping into again somewhat nostalgically.

Picture fabulous mansions …

long skirts swishing across the grass, embroidered coats glinting in the sun, buckskin boots crunching on the gravel …


earnest conversations in the formal gardens, flirtatious dalliances in the shrubbery, serious businesses transacted in the magnificent libraries, sedate quadrilles in the drawing rooms …

The enormous wealth that enabled families to add whole wings to their mansions; the titles inherited and lost; the long hard hours of the servants … it’s all writ large in the histories of these real life families, echoed by the fiction we soak up for entertainment. I felt as if these two worlds merged seamlessly in those enchanted hours away.

Where was I wandering … dreaming … imagining …? Floors Castle, Abbotsford and Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders. All superb backdrops for a spot of romantic escapism.


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A stately measure

I’m rather partial to stately homes and beautiful gardens. So a trip to the Borders to visit Mellerstain House, home to the 13th Earl and Countess of Haddington, was just what the doctor ordered in a rather fraught week.

It’s about thirty years since I last went, and it more than lived up to my memory of it. A fabulous castellated mansion (one of Robert and William Adam’s finest works) – exquisite ceilings and fireplaces, unusual woodwork (I’d never even heard of Manchineel wood), centuries-old damask wall coverings, countless portraits, stunning garden views. But with a lovely lived-in feel, and friendly people everywhere ready to inform and guide.Mellerstain House

It was originally built in 1725. And as ever, I stood lost in wonder at the vision and skill of architects who could create such loveliness. But I also went back in my imagination to the scenes created by contemporary authors 300 years ago.

We’re talking about the time of Queen Anne (her name always conjures up the nonsense poem I learned at school about Sir Smasham-up! Remember?
A chair-allow me, sir!…Great Scott!
That was a nasty smash! Eh, what?
Oh, not at all: the chair was old –
Queen Anne, or so we have been told.
We’ve got at least a dozen more:
Just leave the pieces on the floor
I digress. The time of Queen Anne and the first two King Georges. The age of enlightenment and reason.

With books increasingly easy to make and buy – as you sense in the library at Mellerstain too, with its hundreds of ancient tomes protected by grilles. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift … it was their era.

But most especially I could easily picture Jane Austen’s immortal heroes and heroines mincing and languishing in the rooms and gardens of Mellerstain. (OK, OK, I know she wasn’t born until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but she fits with the period of architecture, so allow me a little bit of latitude.)

Roses at MellerstainI envisaged demure maidens in want of a husband, playing the spinet, embroidering the samplers and bed curtains, gazing along the immaculate garden to the folly, engineering chance encounters under parasols with eligible young men in the shrubbery.

The LakeThere was even the lake for Mr Darcy to cool his ardour in – although he’d have been draped in duckweed if he’d come up out of these waters!

For a few hours it was easy to forget the hustle and bustle of twenty first century life, all the problems of an economic recession, and just enter that romantic age.

Romantic? Hello? As it says in the one rudimentary washroom at Mellerstain, complete with portable baths: it was unusual to find a bathroom in houses of the period. I shudder to think of the reality. But that’s the power of good fiction.

A perfect combination then: an afternoon dreaming amidst grandeur and history, reliving some of my favourite novels; an evening in all the luxury and convenience of the present day – my own modest home! My equilibrium was restored.

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