Each National Trust property is unique but it can be difficult to make a property stand out from the crowd and memorable for all the right reasons. Berrington Hall seeks to do just that. Added to the quintessential Georgian mansion, gift shop, room guides and NT Cookbook scones is added two contemporary art installations and an exhibition celebrating the return lost piece of the collection. The question is if it's not the scones you remember Berrington for will it be The Dress, the giant pink pineapple or the hanging eyes?
Berrington Hall, Near Leominster, Herefordshire.
Open everyday between February and November, 10am-5pm. Weekends only November to February, 10am -4pm except 24th, 25th,amd 26th December when it is closed and 27th Dec -1st Jan when the property is open Mondays, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Exact dates vary each year.
Opening hours are not straight forward with a departure from the traditional NT winter closing and also the more recent 363 opening hours. There is the potential for confusion, especially as the mansion opens one hour after the property opens with last admission one hour before closing. This is standard NT opening policy with a mansion property but could prove disappointing with those uninitiated with the NT.
Free for Members, Adult £10.35, Child £5.15, Family Two Adults £25.85, Family One Adult £15.50, Groups £9 per adult & £4.70 per child. All prices ex GA.
Berrington Hall is the quintessential National Trust property; a Georgian Mansion, walled garden, lake, plantation, gift shop and tea room all set within a Capability Brown landscape - his final landscape in fact with stunning views from the front of the house. What makes this property different is what they've done to stand out from the NT crowd.
Brown and Henry Holland were commissioned in 1775 by the first owner, Thomas Harley, to create the house, garden and parkland and it is the eighteenth century story that dominates. The property is Grade II* listed
The mansion has the feeling of a doll's house, the interior is that of a much grander house but scaled down so everything is not quite the proportions one would expect of such an interior. The house epitomises the life of social climbing Georgians with the quality of finish being just short of the grander houses it seeks to emulate, the spirit of place is summed up on the interpretation by 'Georgian grandeur on a human scale'.
The collection within the house is not indigenous as the majority of the contents was dispersed in the 19th Century due to the 7th Lord Rodney's enthusiasm for gambling, therefore what can be seen is principally the Elmar Digby Collection bequeathed to the Trust in the 1980's. This means the house is relatively sparsely furnished with the entire upper floor being dedicated to exhibition space, in this case A dress fit for a King and the associated art work Eye am She by Lorna Brown.
A dress fit for a King is the exhibition running until December 2019 which explores Ann Bangham who lived at Berrington. The court mantua dress was discovered at auction in 2016 and acquired by the Trust, after undergoing conservation the silk dress woven with gold thread dating from the 1760's is now on display along with a film showing conservation. The upper floor exhibition displays the dress; the story of Ann Bangham; explores what it would be like to go to court including dressing up in replica hoops; has a replica of the mantua dress and paper wigs and finally an artistic response to the life of Ann Bangham and the origins of modern celebrity culture. The exhibition and associated art work is linked to the 100th anniversary of women first gaining the right to vote in the onsite literature and wider Trust events, however the link is a little tenuous.
The formal gardens are relatively small comprising of the flower garden which surrounds the walled garden. The former kitchen garden is now leased to a tenant farmer but the distinctive curved wall that encloses it can just be seen through viewing holes in a gate. The walled garden is the location of LOOK!LOOK!LOOK!, a Trust New Art installation supported by Arts Council England. The 8 metre tall pink pavilion was created by Heather and Ivan Morison who were inspired by eye catchers in the Georgian era. The garden does however house small pleasing nuggets, such as the potting shed and the auricular theatre, along with a plethora of unusual fruit trees.
Visitor facilities extend to a children's play area, two catering facilities, a gift shop with plant shop and second hand book shop. These are discussed more in the Catering and Retail section below.
LOOK!LOOK!LOOK!, A dress fit for a King and Eye am She is reviewed more fully below.
On arrival visitors receive the standard Individual Property Leaflet which is mostly dedicated to orientation. There are also additional leaflets covering the exhibition and Eye am She and the Walled Garden Project.
Interpretation within the mansion itself is the usual NT format of room guides and written pieces in picture frames, on the whole this is done well. Other forms are folders which are done less well, for instance there could be more care and attention taken to the presentation. Plastic folders and ring binder files are not ideal, both in standing up to the amount of use these items get and also on an aesthetic level. One ring binder was in desperate need of new plastic wallets which were torn and the pages within them becoming very crumpled, this was a shame as the content was interesting and enhanced the visit but the presentation did not and was not consistent with the property spirit of place of 'Georgian grandeur'. The folders could also have benefited from a little onsite branding to help create a consistent look and feel. Visitors are not enticed to pick up additional material and find out more if the outside is not appealing. There was no obvious children's interpretation available, it is clear that their target audience is the NT Curious Minds audience rather than the Explorer Families.
The exhibition space is fairly standard but well done with text applied directly to the walls, content is is interesting but not hugely engaging. The dress itself and the accompanying film is by far the most interesting aspect of the exhibition. The viewing area for the dress is however too small, realistically a maximum of three people can see the dress and film at once. As the film is being shown alongside the dress is does create a longer dwell time than might otherwise be achieved if it were shown separately. The film benefits from being shown alongside the dress but the location does mean that a bottle neck occurs due to the longer dwell time. Combined with the room having one entrance / exit it makes movement within the cramped space difficult. The location of the room chosen to display the dress also seems to side line it, it feels tucked away in a corner not being given pride of place as a treasure of the collection not being given the prominence it deserves.
The dress was sold along with the contents of the house in 1901 and has been privately owned ever since, placed in auction at Christie's in 2016 the Trust acquired the incomplete cannele brocade dress woven with gilt meander and flowers for £6,250. As one of the few objects to belong to Berrington's history it is a shame it is not more prominent.
There is clearly a very talented needlework volunteer group associated with Berrington as the house is filled with beautifully executed replicas. One aspect of the exhibition allows you to try on replica hoops to gain an understanding of what it would have been like to wear a mantua dress. This is good fun and also adds another dimension to an otherwise static exhibition, the child size hoop is a nice touch. The addition of an volunteer to engage with visitors at this point would have been beneficial but not essential.
Although the exhibition is being linked to the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote the links are tenuous nothing is made of the link within the exhibition itself. There is very little known of Ann Bangham and so consequently it is hard to create an exhibition based on her life, what would have been interesting to explore more fully is the wider role of women at the time.
The wife of Thomas Harley, the fourth son of the Earl of Oxford, it was Ann's fortune which enabled Harley to become a wine merchant and laterly to supply uniforms to the British Army creating a fortune which enabled Berrington to be built. She has to have been an important part of the story as Thomas Harley became Lord Mayor of London and he and his wife attended court. We have her dress so we know how tall she was, what her waistline was, we can even infer what her personal taste was but yet we don't know what she looked like as no portrait exists. A portrait does exist of her husband. In the year of the 100th anniversary of women gaining the vote a greater link to women's rights and role in society needs to be shown if the exhibition is going to be incorporated into a wider theme.
Eye am She is an artistic response to the question of how Ann Bangham, the daughter of the MP for Leominster, might have felt when she was thrust into the public eye attending court and entertaining royalty. The work consists of an ante room and the main art work following the exhibition, with a statement from the local artist Lorna J Brown. Brown states that the dress hints at the physical Ann, her artwork explores the emotional Ann through mixed media and highlights themes relevant to the Georgian period and life today.
The eyes reference the lovers eye miniature which became popular in the late eighteenth century as well as reminding the viewer of the importance of appearances and being constantly watched, not only at court and in society but also by a wider public. This was the beginnings of celebrity and particularly celebrity women.
Reflection is stated as being a key part of the artwork with everything that a woman did being shaped by the social expectations of men, with acknowledgement of the way women turn the gaze back upon themselves and others.
Flowers mark the popularisation of the language of flowers, chosen for their associations with fertility, family and fruitfulness. The abundant hollyhocks from the bed represent the eight children that Ann bore, not an usual number for the period. Although both of her sons died in infancy her daughters survived to adulthood and made good marriages, fulfilling one of Ann's obligations as a wife to advance the family.
Images of unusual and notable women of the period appear on one wall, including Mary Wollstonecraft (English writer and philosopher), Marie-Louise Lachappelle (French midwife), Dorothea Erxleben (first female doctor in Germany) and Anna Morandi Manzolini (anatomist). Brown imagines that these women could have been inspiration for Ann Bangham although no evidence is given to support this.
There is an undoubted 'Wow moment' when walking through the door and first seeing the installation, this is diminished on closer inspection simply due to the quality of the finish of the work. The execution of the individual eyes are slightly crude, the plastic flowers could be of better quality and realism and attached to the scaffolding poles which create the frame around the room with greater care. The flowers are sparse on the frame so that the scaffolding shows through as does the cable ties used to attach them. It could be artistic intent to show that it is first impressions that count in this world and not to scratch the veneer of respectability as all may not be as it seems, however this is not stated as an artistic intent and may be a generous reading of the artwork. It is however an interesting interpretation and nice to see contemporary artwork being used in this way to support an exhibition. It certainly makes the exhibition unusual and memorable, which I suspect was part of the brief. Feed back is gathered via comment card before using the servants stairs to exit the mansion.
One of the most interesting aspects of the interpretation is actually on exit and left over from a previous exhibition showing the servants life at Berrington. The doors from the servants stair case that lead into the principal rooms have been covered with a sepia image of the room beyond, showing how the servants would have been able to secretly navigate the house without being seen by family or guests. This very simple and relatively inexpensive method worked extremely well to convey how the house would have run along and making the trek down the stairs far more than a simple exit route.
Contemporary art continues in the walled garden with the Trust New Art installation LOOK!LOOK!LOOK! by Herfordshire based Heather and Ivan Morison. Trust New Art is a programme that sees contemporary art placed within National Trust settings with the support of the Arts Council England. These projects are often linked to wider conservation projects and take many forms.
This project marked the start of the fundraising to fund the research and restore the walled garden to its Georgian origins and will be in place until December 2019, the aim is to be a focal point for a programme of events such as music and high tea.
The pavilion is 8 metres wide by 8 metres high and was inspired by the popularity of garden buildings or eye-catchers in the Georgian period. The shape reflects the geometric shapes found within the interior of the mansion and also a pineapple, there is a possibility that pineapples were once grown at Berrington. First designed using origami the structure was made from timber structure on metal foundations overlaid with a woven fabric and a burnt timber cobbled floor. The striking pink colour was selected from the Georgian palette.
This piece of art would work much better when being used for events or to be looked at from a distance than from the interior. The open roof provides no shelter nor is the interior interesting or atmospheric enough to merit spending any time within it. The views are much better of the structure than the views from it. The interpretation could also have been improved, both in content and in presentation. The presentation of the single side of laminated A4 within the structure felt like an after thought presented in a high street photo frame was a shame considering the obvious time and investment that had been given to the project.
The structure itself dominates the walled garden and is visible from outside the garden. The installation is expected to run until December 2019, however the woven fabric was already showing signs of deterioration with over 12 months left to run. As a home to events I can see this being a great focal point and it certainly catches the eye as intended. It would have been nice to see a fuller explanation as to the inspirations and influences as the references to pineapples is slightly non specific to Berrington as they may or may not have been grown here. The artists spent over 12 months researching the walled garden it would have been interesting to see how this research influenced and inspired their designs with greater reference to Berrington rather than just gardens of the period. As a piece of art the installation falls down on its contexual links to its setting. As a focal point for events this space would work very well, as a piece on it's own it requires a little more to make it fully deliver. Although I suspect every child would disagree with me as it would be amazing to run in and out of as a five year old.
The experience kicks off with the car park and the slightly confusing signage and road layout. Visitors travel through the first smaller section of the car park and then at the point of no return at the exit visitors turn left to double back on themselves to reach the main car park. This could be confusing as you approach signs stating Exit in large letters and a clear exit road before seeing the car park. The confusion is then added to on exit as you don't head back the way you came to the sign marked Exit to leave but instead after turning round with all the other cars who have now seen the No Entry chalk board continue towards the entrance in a circle to rejoin the main entrance road which will take you to the exit. Sound confusing? It was with a crying baby in the back and I can imagine even more so with fighting children desperately wanting the loo. On busy days having a section of road where cars are entering and trying to park are also being joined by those trying to leave must create traffic jams and frustration. Not to mention if you fall into the trap of following the car in front which could see you exiting the property on arrival and having to rejoin the busy A49 and enter the property all over again.
Three separate leaflets are available on arrival: the Individual Property Leaflet, Walled Garden and Pleasure Grounds Project and A dress fit for a King. The latter two cover the specific projects and exhibitions with the former acting as orientation and general overview of the property. The map used for orientation around the mansion is based on the 1887 map of Berrington and works well, helped by the fact that the site is a simple one to navigate. Signage is simple, new and effective, utilising property branding or estate colours rather than the traditional NT green. The map opens out to provide suggested estate walks and points of interest.
One thing the NT generally does well is VE staff and Berrington is no exception, Visitor Reception staff were lovely and friendly, as were the volunteer room guides. Visitor toilets were being refurbished so the alternative was portaloos, not the best but quite serviceable at the facilities were sensibly being upgraded during the reduced opening hours quiet season. The current baby change within the pay barrier was grim, facilities in the car park were decidedly better but did involve a bit of a trek back to the car park to take advantage of them. Hopefully this is being addressed with the current refurbishment work.
The art works greatly enhanced what would otherwise be a very standard issue NT property, they gave a focus and also an individuality to the property which otherwise might have been hard to highlight. Although I think there are improvements which could have been made to the individual installations they certainly delivered in creating a more enjoyable experience and crucially for a quite generic property some individualism. A review of each is covered in the interpretation section above.
If there is one specific area where the visitor experience could be improved it's around the sense of place, without the temporary art installations and mantua dress there would be very little to set Berrington apart from similar houses. The landscape is the final creation of Capability Brown, very little was to be found regarding this. I could easily have left without knowing anything about Brown, the landscape or why it was important that Berrington is conserved and cared for. Cause messaging was poor with exceptionally little being conveyed about the work of the Trust, the need for support by members or why this property in particular deserved or needed help.
Retail and Catering
There is a small gift shop and plant shop, all well appointed with a nice selection of the usual goods. One standout collection is the branded LOOK!LOOK!LOOK! merchandise, cut flowers reflecting the garden add a finishing touch.
The secondhand bookshop is excellent, it's large with a good selection ranging from academic study guides, children's books, the obligatory biographies to vintage books. Vintage books are priced separately with paperbacks at £1 and hardbacks £2. The outdoor shop operates on an honestly box system and is presented very well and the books are miraculously still in their categories despite being unattended.
Catering is via two outlets, the Stables Cafe which opened in May 2018 and the Tea Room. The Stables Cafe has step free access whereas the Tea Room is accessed by a flight of steep stairs with a wheelchair lift available. Food quality and service were good, one sticking point was the naming of each outlet. The menu was different at both, with the Stables Cafe offering a coffee shop style and the Tea Room offering a wider cafe style. The differences were not marked on the map or suggested by the names themselves, leaving open the possibility of confusion which never enhances a trip and missed revenue for the property.