Strictly Come Dancing star Lynda Bellingham talks Country House Sunday

The Loose Women and Calendar Girls star is on the road in Britain for her new show, exploring some of England’s most incredible stately homes…

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Strictly Come Dancing star Lynda Bellingham talks Country House Sunday
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Jade Bremner

In the first part of Lynda’s new show Country House Sunday we see her at Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, where she gets a peek at how both halves live upstairs and downstairs (watch it on ITV Player or Sundays at 8.25am). During the next dollops of the show we’ll watch as she explores grand manor houses Ragley Hall in Warwickshire and Ugbrooke House in Devon. Chefs James Tanner and Paul Ainsworth will prepare food in each stately kitchen. Meanwhile, Larry Lamb walks us through the local countryside, encountering Bronte, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie territories along the way. We catch up with Lynda on the phone during filming, for more on what to expect…

What stately home are you at now?

We’re down in Devon now. I have to say it’s been a joy – we’re going to film tomorrow at Ugbrooke, which is the third of our stately homes. So I’ve done two already.

How would you describe the show?

We spend a week in each one, and because the programme is four parts, I link everything together through the episode. I talk to the Lord or Lady of the manor. I talk to the cooks, the gardeners, and then we have a piece from Ed Baines, Claire Richards or Stacie Stewart, who go off and find local food sources. We had a rhubarb triangle in Derbyshire, which is really interesting, and there was a Yorkshire pudding champion. Then you have another section where Larry Lamb does different kinds of walks, because he loves walking. So they’ll show you certain walks that you can go on. I have to say I’ve learned so much about everything, it will keep you happily amused on a Sunday. Then we do another section where Paul Hayes, who’s an antiques expert, will take a piece each week from one of these houses and talk about them. Then there’s a lovely lady called Sarah Edwards, she’s a historical cook. She does a Georgian cooking demonstration, a Victorian cooking demonstration and a 1940s frugal wartime rationing ­– Jesus, you have no idea how little food people had.

What is it about stately homes that fascinates you?

Well my mother and my sister both used to do quite a lot of trading in antiques and things. My mum’s idea of heaven was to go into a house clearance sale. As a child I was always being toted around stately homes and probably didn’t enjoy them as much as I do now, I have to say.  I think as you get older you become much more aware of your heritage and your history and I just think it would be so lovely having gone round to these places and been hands-on.

Do you think people are more interested in stately homes and watching shows like Downton Abbey, since the recession? Are they fascinated by the extreme divisions of wealth?

Yeah, I think they are. What’s even more important is that people understand ­– I think we sadly went through a period of years where people who lived in the town seemed to think they had nothing to do with people who lived in the country, and somehow aristocratic country people lived in stately homes in these great piles of money and didn’t know what was going on, whereas people who lived in urban areas where all living on the edge and trendy. Of course a lot of these stately homes are a millstone around the necks of the families, so you’ve got all that history. They can trace their families back four-five hundred years, but to maintain them they have to work very hard, and what’s impressed me is just how straightforward they are and how hands-on they are. They have a huge sense of reality and what it’s like for their children. Can you imagine the cost – it sounds wonderful that you’re going to inherit a stately home. I would run a mile.


Visit various stately homes with Radio Times Travel, see here for more info


Exactly how much is the upkeep?

Millions. I mean Ragley Hall, I can’t begin—I don’t know where you start, but it has to run itself as a business so it’s 6,000 acres now and it’s a farm estate and they sell lamb. Then you think about that, it’s not like the old days where you just fed England. You know you’ve got the whole of bloomin’ Europe and the world. They are really hands-on and yet at the same time, they can’t possibly live in these stately rooms, because the wear and tear on the furniture would be ridiculous. So most of the time, they live in a little bit of it. They don’t even have a home of their own, really. They’re custodians or they’re sort of caretakers.

Would you hope that the IKEA generation takes a few notes from the show?

I hope that younger people will. Everything is throwaway now, even if you know nothing about antiques, your instinct tells you that some of these silks and the carpets are beautiful. Take the lady doing the flowers at Ragley, she’s been the nanny there for 15 years. Now the children have grown up, so she’s taken to doing the flowers. There’s nothing to stop us all from going and buying a bunch of daffodils and just putting a little bowl in a corner. 

Have you got a favourite stately home?

Well no – well they were all so different. I suppose the most beautiful or the most impressive would be Ragley Hall. It’s like a mini-Buckingham Palace. But then Renishaw was interesting because they built on it. George Sitwell, whose family became very big in the industrial revolution, built it in the 17th century. They sold nails can you believe. So every time they made more money, they built a little extension to increase their house. It’s not the prettiest house probably, but the gardens are phenomenal. Lady Sitwell, who is still alive, has actually handed it over to her daughter, Alexandra Haywood. It’s all very complicated because of course Alexandra Haywood can’t have the title of Lady, because it comes down through the male. It all gets very Downton—don’t even begin to ask me to explain that, because I have not a clue. Tomorrow we’re going to the most lived-in of the three houses – Lord and Lady Clifford live in a lot of it, although it’s open to the public. You become a bit like someone watching an animal in the zoo. “Oh look! There’s an aristocrat over there. What’s he eating?” But all of them are so accessible and charming and interesting and lovely to talk to. So I feel very privileged, the big impression I have is gratitude to these people, who have put themselves with this huge sense of responsibility to keep it all going for us.


Visit various stately homes with Radio Times Travel, see here for more info


It sounds like you’ve become quite the travel journo, what with recently with Tasty Travels last year and now Country House Sunday

I tell you what I could take you around the UK now and show you the best and worst of our hotels, that’s for sure. Well I was thinking the other day I’d write a little a book about it, because I’ve been away for four years on and off with Calendar Girls and Tasty Travel, and I’m off again in August.

What’s your favourite destination in the UK?

West is pretty special, going off from Somerset down. Well having said that though the Cotswolds is so picture-perfect. It’s almost too perfect. When you go to Yorkshire, there’s a ruggedness about it. You’re much more aware of nature and the houses have very much been built to survive nature. Whereas the warmer it gets down south, people could afford to have a prettiness in their homes. Of course you get down Plymouth this sort of way [Devon] and there’s a flood aspect to it. It is extraordinary the UK is such a small island and has so many types of houses, stone and cultures.

Do you always go for the history and heritage holidays or do you like going further afield too?

Holidays are so precious and so rare, and because of the bloody weather my idea of a holiday is to go far away and preferably east, which I’ve discovered now. I went to Malaysia last year when I was writing my novel and I just loved it. I love the food, I love the people, so my husband and I as soon as we got half a minute, we’d like to go and do China and Japan. I don’t see the point of going somewhere and sitting in a holiday resort ­– you never see the country. I like to see the country and I like to see the history. Although I’m too old for trekking up the side of a road to buy food from a roadside stall, it’s not my cup of tea anymore. I’d rather watch Rick Stein doing that on Saturday Kitchen.


Visit Malaysia and Asia with Radio Times Travel, click here for more info


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