We felt as if we had stepped into an 18th century English landscape painting. Set in rolling green sheep pastures, the Gothic Temple at Stowe was built in 1741 as an addition to the gardens created for Richard Temple, a politically ambitious soldier also known as Lord Cobham, who served under the Duke of Marlborough. That same year, Capability Brown--whose work formed the basis for Tom Stoppard's hit play Arcadia--arrived as gardener and helped pioneer the naturalistic landscape. Thanks to the Landmark Trust, the temple and its beautiful surroundings were ours for the weekend.
After a two-hour drive northwest from London, we got our first glimpse of the temple--and it was pure magic. We and another couple would be the sole occupants of this fairy-tale creation for about $115 a night total. Swinging open the temple's massive wooden door adorned with grinning leaden masks, we walked into a circular room with molded stone pilasters and plaster vaults. Sunlight streamed in as lambs frolicked outside. From the first-floor gallery, we could see the gardens--an idealized, classical landscape dotted with temples, columns, and arches. Later, with a full moon rising, we ate a candlelit dinner beneath the temple's vaulted ceiling, painted with the intricate heraldry of Lord Cobham's successors.
DORIC PIGSTY. The Gothic Temple is just one of the historic buildings available for vacation rentals from the Landmark Trust. Founded in 1965, this charity has restored more than 200 buildings in Britain, Italy, and the U.S.--including medieval castles, an abandoned arsenic mine, and even a Doric-fronted pigsty in Yorkshire. To help fund its operations, it rents out many of its rescued properties, mostly on a weekly basis, though sometimes for long weekends as well. All of its properties have well-equipped kitchens, and bed linens and towels are provided. Furnishings are simple but tasteful. The temple, for instance, had old oriental rugs on the stone floors and a vase of wildflowers by the bath.
The trust's aim is not simply to preserve old buildings. In the words of founder Sir John Smith, it is also "to rouse people's interest in their surroundings in the widest sense--their surroundings both in space and time." The temple at Stowe certainly did that. Shelves were filled with books on the gardens, the property's Buckinghamshire surroundings, the Gothic revival movement, and the Cobham family. We also found a map marking footpaths and two visitors' logbooks filled with drawings, poems, and observations. There seemed to be a continuing treasure hunt to discover the temple's secrets, including the whereabouts of Hootie the Owl, who happens to be painted on the ceiling and visible only from parts of the first-floor gallery. The housekeeper provided one diary entry, dispelling the idea that a hidden cellar existed in the building. Apparently, the previous guests had shuffled around furniture looking for it.
The temple's restoration was one of the trust's earliest projects. It had been neglected since an abrupt decline in the fortunes of Lord Cobham's descendants. In the 1840s, the family was forced to sell the contents of the house and some 36,000 acres to stave off bankruptcy. Even so, Stowe remained in family hands until the 1920s, when it was sold to a boarding school. Using the temple as an armory, the school blocked most of the first-floor windows and built a wooden hut on the side for storage. Unable to pay for the repair of the garden buildings, the school asked for the Landmark Trust's help in 1966. It gave the trust a long lease on the temple soon after. Facing huge upkeep expenses, the school in 1989 turned just the gardens over to the National Trust, another charity devoted to preserving historic sites.
By staying in the temple, we had full run of the gardens--even when they weren't open to the public. When they were, our private temple turned into a very public attraction. Early one morning, I was wandering along the first-floor gallery in my nightdress, baby in arms, when a hiker waved to me from below. By lunchtime, streams of tourists were circling the temple and peeping in the windows.
Few Landmark Trust properties are in quite so public a position. Yet staying in one won't appeal to everyone--for other reasons. Because the trust aims to preserve the character of its buildings, such amenities as central heating and plentiful hot water are sometimes lacking. As noted in the handbook, the Gothic temple's heating "has to work hard to be noticed." Tap water had to be filtered or boiled.
MUESLI WITH SHEEP. To make the temple more comfortable would have required disfiguring alterations. Instead, the trust figured that guests would put up with minor inconveniences in return for the chance to soak up the architecture and atmosphere. "The Landmark Trust doesn't necessarily try to make its guests 100% comfortable," explains Peter Randall, a 42-year-old laboratory manager who has stayed in more than three dozen Landmark properties since 1983. "We've shared our bath with shrimp in Wales and our morning muesli with sheep who have wandered into the kitchen. It's all character-building stuff." Randall realizes that some people don't relish such experiences--especially since some trust properties, such as Villa Saraceno, a 16th century residence outside Venice that sleeps 16, cost as much as $4,320 a week.
Yet even the fussiest traveler would enjoy browsing through the trust's handbook. How about staying in the Pineapple, an elaborate summer house built for the fourth Earl of Dunmore? As one visitor wrote in the logbook: "What a folly--staying for only three nights!" Or the Mackintosh building, designed by the famous Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the turn of the century? Or staying in the former official residence of Oxford University's Steward of the Union?
The trust's rental properties in Italy include a flat in the building where the poet John Keats died, located at the base of Rome's Spanish Steps. In Vermont, the trust rents out Naulakha, the 11-acre estate near Brattleboro that Rudyard Kipling bought in 1892. "To sit in Kipling's chair and read The Jungle Book where he wrote it is a marvelous experience," says Raymond Skinner, a retired university professor who rented Naulakha last autumn. The Landmark Trust's handbook costs $19.50 when ordered from the U.S. office at R.R. 1, Box 510, Brattleboro, Vt., 05301 (802 254-6868). Rental prices are listed in British pounds and vary by season.
BOOK EARLY. Likewise, the National Trust rents a wide variety of properties, ranging from flats in great country houses to castle follies and lighthouses. Standen, an 1890s family house in West Sussex, is decorated with fabrics and wallpaper by William Morris, the influential British designer whose works can be viewed this summer in a major retrospective exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. The National Trust rents an apartment on the property. Also, it has cottages on the Cliveden estate, given by the Astors, and at Bosloe, a country house in Cornwall surrounded by acres of manicured lawns and gardens. Prices range from $195 a week for the most modest cottages in low season to $1,829 a week for the most sumptuous at peak times. Electricity costs and bed linens are generally not included.
Popular properties such as Bosloe, where a six-bedroom apartment is one of the most expensive, often get booked up more than a year in advance. For information and to make reservations, get in touch with the National Trust's U.S. affiliate, the Royal Oak Foundation, at 285 West Broadway, New York, N.Y., 10013 (800 913-6565 or 212 966-6565). Although the Landmark Trust's emphasis on unusual or curious buildings differs from the National Trust's broader focus on preserving properties of national value, both offer vacationers the chance to occupy a bit of history for a short while.