Eastnor Castle and its magnificent rooms

The entrance hall, with its flight of red carpeted steps leading up to the doors to the great Hall, flanked by portraits of the first Earl Somers in the 12th Earl, later Duke of Shrewsbury are a magnificent entrance, and when that is enhanced by the strains of a string quartet playing in the great Hall, then the magic is complete. I can well remember still my feelings of astonishment the very first time I entered what was then a rather dusty and grubby great Hall, but now with its restoration complete this magnificent is eternal, and that sense of awe and amazement hits me every time I enter, even now.

And the thing I like about playing music at Eastnor Castle is that it is always warm. I'm well used to playing in churches, which are similarly large and tall structures, and in the winter I'd read it. They are mostly freezing cold and very unpleasant to play music in. One has to wait until summer to enjoy playing in most churches, although Pershore for Abbey for example, does have a very good heating system. So as I said, Eastnor Castle is warm in temperature and also warm in feel. Despite its huge size, it feels homely and comfortable. I've sat down on a huge sofa with a cup of coffee there, and felt completely at home. That's quite different to playing somewhere like the pump rooms in Bath, or the assembly rooms, again in Bath and even larger, where I have played with my ceilidh and barn dance band as well as with a string quartet. They are magnificent places to, but they are not homely. They're not the sort of places you would happily sit down and read a book, whereas at Eastnor Castle, you could.

It's quite amazing really now I come to think of it. I've been a member of the National trust for many years, firstly the National trust for Scotland, and then more lately the National trust for England. (Just as an aside, which has nothing to do with string quartets, barn dance bands or jazz bands, let me reflect on the National trust. When I got married we moved up to Scotland after a couple of years and had many happy years living up in the hills between Edinburgh and Glasgow. We joined the National trust for Scotland because of a love the countryside. At that time the Scottish National trust had lots of land they were protecting, such as Kintail with the 5 sisters range of mountains, that's up near the crossing to sky, which in those days was much more fun on the ferry before they built that bridge across to the island. I suppose the islanders are glad of the bridge, and it is quite an elegant structure, much more attractive than say the Ballachulish bridge, but it makes the communities less remote and perhaps alters the ceilidhing tradition somewhat, where once the village ceilidh involved everyone from miles around and the members of the ceilidh band were local heroes.

I just realised that I may be seen as criticising the Ballachulish bridge, which is wrong of me. It does have a certain utilitarian ruggedness of design that does reflect the dramatic and stark ruggedness of the surrounding mountains and the loch. Again, Ballachulish used to have a ferry, (now that gives my age away!) And in the summertime the queues were horrendous. You could drive around the head of the loch, but that took over an hour if I recall. Looking back on it I don't know why I didn't take my fiddle out of the car and go up and down the rows of parked cars with board tourists and screaming children, playing Scottish reels. I probably could have earned myself a reasonable bit of money doing that. I often took my fiddle with me when we went on holiday up that way, because if I was having to play string quartets when I got back, if I hadn't played for a couple of weeks my fingers would get a little out of practice. Even in those days, on the major tourist locations there would often be Highland piper playing a skirl on the pipes, and collecting money from the Sassenachs. I missed out on a trick there!

The bridge has eliminated the weighting. But it was this exciting ride on that ferry, which only took a handful of cars it was very small, when the tide was running on the water was hurtling in or out of the lock. I also wonder what it's like in Kinlochleven, at the head of the loch, now that hardly anybody must pass through it. As it destroyed it or has it improved it? Next time I'm up that way I really must go and have a look.

Anyway, when we moved to England, it was in the days when the National trust were extremely snooty. Although our Scottish membership allowed us entry to English properties, it was common to get a disdainful look and an "oh, I'm not sure that we take these cards" (where it was said tthhoooooosssse with a downward inflection!). Because of this, I refused to join the English National trust and would use my Scottish membership card with great glee to try and annoy the snooty people on the entrance desk.

The just as Eastnor Castle has changed for the better, with its restoration, so has the National trust change for the better. The attitude is completely different now. Staff are friendly and helpful. Their properties are a pleasure to visit. When the change came about, we joined the English National trust. Since then I have personally played at many of their properties, both with my string quartet and also with my barn dance and ceilidh band. We've also had jazz bands and pop bands playing at National trust venues around the country.

So, back to Eastnor Castle and the great Hall. This is the symbolic heart of the baronial castle, its scale never failing to impress. Originally it was relatively plain and there are photographs of trestle tables and benches being set up when tenants and employees were entertained there. Gradually though, the room became embellished with more and more decorations and the walls became decorated with exotic motifs. The hall was decorated with armour and weapons, very much like the whole of a genuine castle, but in 1989 under the guidance of Prof Bernard and Neville, much of the armour was removed to the Redhall and only 12 suits remain, (only I said well, how many suits of armour if you got in your house?). In all the 3rd Earl Somers bought 33 suits of armour in Milan in 1853. It is thought that the armour may have been used by the bodyguards of Emperor Charles V.

Nowadays the hall is set out as an Edwardian living all or drawing room. The Ottoman, sofas and armchairs are covered with old fabrics. This is the hall where guests will gather for drinks before the wedding, serenaded by one of our string quartets, but I'll go into more detail of that later.

Leading off the great Hall is the staircase hall, where 16th century tapestries are hung. This is where we play as the bride and bridesmaids make their entrance from the upper floors down the stairs, but again more of that later. There are numerous animal heads staring at you as you play the. It really is quite surreal.

On the far side of the hall is the red or inner hall with impressive armoured horse and armoured knights carrying a massive sword. This is the hall that the bride, groom, bridesmaids, parents and all the guests processed through on the way from the staircase hall to the Gothic room where the ceremony is held. Nobody has had their head chopped off yet, but the Knight looks as if he might come to life at any moment and wreak havoc. On occasions string quartet have played in this hall with the doors to the dining room open for guests to hear music wafting through.

Leading off from the Redhall is the Gothic drawing room in which civil wedding ceremonies take place. How can I describe it? Absolutely breathtaking and magnificent is the only thing I can think of. It has to be seen to be believed. So many stately homes look faded and dull, but this is brilliant and in its full splendour, all of the decorations and tapestries restored to as they would have been and how they were intended. The room was designed by AWN Pugin for the 2nd Earl in 1849. The chandelier, (which I hope has at least a 9 inch nail in the roof beams to hold it up), is absolutely enormous and was exhibited at the great exhibition in 1851 and is a work of art in metal made by the company Hardman of Birmingham, and based on an earlier work from a Nuremberg church. There is an identical version of the chandelier in the House of Commons, which formally hang at Alton Towers. (I assume that was in the stately own part, not part of one of the fairground rides! These things certainly get around the place.) The Brussels tapestries are bright and clear, so unusual.