As we’d recently had the pleasure of viewing the exquisite toys and dolls on display at the Ilkley Toy Museum we couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing them once again whilst they were on loan to Harewood House.
Harewood is a stately home in North Yorkshire, located mid way between Harrogate and Leeds and it’s the first time in five years that the House and Gardens have been opened during the festive season. Much of the filming for the popular ITV television series Victoria took place at Harewood and to celebrate this, Michael Howells, the programme’s award winning set designer returned to dress the state rooms and kitchens for visitors to come and enjoy.
Edwin Lascelles, 1st Earl of Harewood, started building Harewood in 1759 and employed the finest craftsmen of the time, with no expense spared in creating his palatial Yorkshire residence. The title has now passed on to David Lascelles, 8th Earl of Harewood who lives in the house and is a first cousin once removed of the Queen. Viewing the decorations, it’s not difficult to imagine the lavish celebrations the family must have enjoyed over the years.
We started our tour in the Robert Adam designed grand entrance hall with its huge welcoming Christmas tree as its centrepiece, giving us an indication of what lay in store as we toured the state rooms.
The Drawing Room was resplendent with elaborate Victorian decorations yet still had a homely feel with its roaring fire and displays of toys and dolls on loan from the Ilkley Toy Museum. It’s hard to believe, but at the beginning of the 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated but towards its end, things began to change rapidly.
Queen Victoria introduced one of the most prominent aspects of Christmas, that of celebrating around a Christmas tree, a tradition reminiscent of Prince Albert’s childhood in Germany. It was not long afterwards that almost every home in Britain had their own Christmas tree. The Victorians continued to transform the idea of Christmas and invented the Christmas cracker. This was originally a simple package filled with sweets that were later replaced with small gifts and paper hats similar to those we decorate our dining tables with today.
Another festive favourite was the Christmas card which started when Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card in 1843. As these were expensive, people started making their own and by the 1880’s the sending of cards had become extremely popular.
Continuing our tour of the rooms, the State Dining Room was laid out to give the impression that good food and wine had been enjoyed and the guests had retired to the Drawing Room to relax. It must have been a grand affair sitting around the large Chippendale dining table. In this room we found more toys, board games, toy soldiers and dolls helping to bring the Victorian Christmas to life.
We then took a look below stairs in the kitchens and scullery where we could feel the hustle and bustle of life in service, amidst the preparations for an indulgent Christmas. Food delicacies of the period were on display and we enjoyed collecting some recipe sheets to try at home. These included spiced parsnip soup and red cabbage with walnuts and stilton both of which sound interesting and I think I’ll make at home.
Observing all this festive fare was making us feel hungry, so our next stop was to the Courtyard Cafe where we enjoyed a light lunch of vegetable soup, homemade cakes and coffee. We then looked in the gift shop and the children’s activity centre which was well equipped with craft items and instruction sheets demonstrating how to make both Victorian Christmas cards and crackers.
From the courtyard, we explored the grounds and gardens. There are over 100 acres of gardens at Harewood, this magnificent setting having been laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. It was a bitterly cold late November day but viewing the bird garden with its penguins, flamingoes, owls and parrots helped to lift our spirits. An unexpected bonus was to see a red kite hover overhead. Red kites were released onto the Harewood Estate in 1999 as part of a conservation initiative involving the RSPB. Numbers have gradually increased and there are now around 300 red kites in this part of North Yorkshire.
Before leaving the grounds, we strolled around the lakeside path following the Christmas Carol family trail. From an activity sheet we’d picked up indoors, we searched for clues hidden along the path helping us solve the names of eight Victorian carols – a fun way to complete our visit to Harewood’s Victorian Christmas.
If you are also interested in experiencing The Victorian Christmas at Harewood it is taking place between 24th November – 31st December (excluding 24th-26th December), adult admission is £16. Visitors arriving by bus can gain half price admission on production of their tickets. A free shuttle bus then meets passengers at the main entrance archway taking them down the long sweeping drive to the house.
I would like to thank Harewood House for inviting me to attend a preview of their Victorian Christmas. As always all views and opinions are entirely my own.
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