A look behind the scenes at Sizergh Castle in the Lake District
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 April 2020
©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
Henry Hornyold-Strickland is proud of his ancestral home, near Kendal, but says living in a castle is not as luxurious as you might think.
Tell someone you live in a castle and the chances are they’ll picture you in grand palatial rooms with luxurious decor. For Henry Hornyold-Strickland, the reality is rather different.
His family have lived at Sizergh Castle for almost 800 years and while the parts of the house open to the public fit that image, his living quarters in the north wing are much less opulent.
His kitchen, for example, features a centuries old fireplace and an Aga, but no running water. For that he must go to the scullery with its sloping floor and wonky Belfast sink which is at such an angle that water settles at the lower end, the right, leaving the plughole high and dry on the left.
There are, as Henry puts it, ‘issues with stability’. Some of the thick stone walls are slowly sinking, causing the internal walls and floors to assume unnatural angles. A six foot marker among the generations whose heights are measured on the scullery doorframe is now nearer five foot ten.
The kitchen walls – last decorated by Henry’s mother, Angela, in about 1970 – are littered with a network of cracks. And those cracks are about the only consistent feature of the decor in the north wing and are particularly pronounced in some of the first floor bedrooms.
The house was given by the Hornyold-Stricklands to the National Trust in 1950, on the condition that the family could continue to live there.
‘The family ran the opening of the house for a couple of decades on behalf of the National Trust, but I think my mother found that quite difficult,’ Henry says.
‘There were obvious issues about privacy and whose house it actually was. For my mother it was the family home, except on the relatively rare occasions when it was open.
‘The system changed in the 1970s when the Trust became more involved in opening the house and initially that was quite difficult. But I think much of the conflict was because we didn’t understand each other.’
They understand each other much better now. Henry has a friendly working relationship with the National Trust’s project curator at Sizergh, Georgina Gates, who lives on the estate.
‘I’m not sure people knew why they were coming here at first,’ Henry says. ‘I suspect they were just curious. There was a higgledy piggledy collection of furniture all bundled together – you might have found G-Plan alongside medieval furniture and it looked a bit odd.
‘The Trust changed the presentation, with resistance from the family. Some rooms were made more uniform, but we’re moving away from that now because it looks too much like a museum. Visitors like the fact it looks and feels like a family home – and we’re not putting it on, it is a family home. It’s important we keep it that way, we don’t want it to be fixed in aspic.’
Sizergh, which stands beside the A591 a couple of miles south of Kendal, now welcomes about 75,000 visitors in the eight months it is open, with around 180,000 people coming to the estate each year.
Georgina, who has previously worked at Harewood House and Chatsworth House, says: ‘We do what we can to see the house used as a genuine family home.
‘Visitor expectations change over time – they used just to want to see how the other half lived, now it’s about making our collections relevant and engaging. And we want to develop and change what we offer so visitors will come back. Younger people don’t just want to visit somewhere, they want to experience it.’
Henry is a business consultant who works from his kitchen at Sizergh and from London, where his wife and sons spend most of their time. Henry also spends a lot of time in the Sizergh archives.
‘The archive room is like the internet on steroids. I can go in there for five minutes and come out five hours later,’ he says.
‘There is an extensive archive and I have started to look at it properly – it tells us quite a lot about what was going on here through the generations; who did what, when and why and the problems they were having.
‘The family has been here a very long time and the house developed because of what they were doing and we want to reveal their stories. They had lots of ups and downs financially – mostly because they backed the wrong side almost every time since the Wars of the Roses. They were, and remain, Royalists and Catholics and it all had an effect on their financial situation – they were often trying to find someone rich to marry.
‘The Trust’s ownership is also a reflection of that. After World War Two my grandfather could see the spectre of high taxation. A lot of houses like this were being demolished but my grandfather understood it was about trying to retain it as a family home without any financial obligations.’
So, what is it like to live in the home where not only he grew up, but generations of his forebears were born and died?
‘It’s not odd at all for me to be surrounded by the past, it’s rather nice actually and quite grounding,’ says Henry.
‘I’ve got used to living in an environment that’s medieval. There’s no running water in the kitchen but I’m totally used to it, so it’s not a problem. There are some issues with light, but it’s not a problem for me because I know my way round and it doesn’t bother me that it can all be so dark, I don’t trip over things.
‘I consider the whole of the house home. In the past it really was but the reality now is that I can’t often use the rooms that are open to the public.
‘The house has grown ike topsy through the generations; floors are on angles and if you don’t prop up one end of the bed you’ll be on the floor by the morning, but it’s all part of the charm of living in a building like this.’
And he adds: ‘From a very early age I assumed I would live here so my whole life was geared around that expectation and I made decisions based on that. That’s why I have spent so much time in the archive; it was necessary for me to understand as much as possible.
‘I see myself as the next link in the chain and my decisions are focused on keeping options open for the next generation.’
* The house is currently closed due to the lockdown caused by the coronavirus.
Visit the website for the latest updates on openings.