This article is about our 2014 Society Stories Tour, which will be back by popular demand in 2015. Learn more about our 2015 tour offering here.
“That’s my house,” Wayne Thornton, Chartwell’s Volunter and Community Development Manager, hollered over the engine. He jutted a finger against the window, pointing to a rustic cottage at the crest of a hill that evoked idyllic country living so perfectly I chuckled, unsure if he was kidding. “It really is,” he assured me as we descended the hill, cruising through the backroads of Kent between Chartwell and Knole. Trees limbs obscured the brilliant sunshine.
Moments later, this green canopy gave way to the expanse of Knole’s deer park, which itself seemed small beside the enormity of Knole and its hundreds of rooms. I gaped, stunned by the view and indeed the entire journey. I had to see more.
The Royal Oak’s “Society Stories” tour, organized by JustGo! Holidays, gave me a chance to do just that. I was in England to represent Royal Oak on the tour and experience for the first time some of the National Trust properties I am responsible for communicating about. The tour offered authoritative guides and the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable travel companions I could hope for: our members. We covered a rich selection in a whirlwind five days, hitting National Trust highlights and pop culture icons alike.
The tour kicked off with a visit to world-famous Highclere Castle—“the real-life Downton Abbey,” as was proudly proclaimed throughout the house. The property is a mix of museum and home; the family portraits, centuries old, peer down upon the Canarvons’ collection of contemporary literature.
After our visit to Highclere, we swung east, to The National Trust’s Greys Court, the property with which I was least familiar before the tour. As so often happens in these curated visits, this surprise became a favorite of mine, with its lush medieval gardens and its stately mansion complementing each other wonderfully.
We then made our way towards the banks of the Thames to visit the lavish Strawberry Hill House. Horace Walpole’s creation looks to be straight out of Disney. Its deep colors, Gothic architecture and extravagent gold accents were conversation points.
A short ride over the Thames took us to Ham House’s impeccably maintained gardens and fine art collection. We had company, as the BBC TV program Horrible Histories was filming on-site. Moving amongst the costumed actors, we discovered Ham’s rich Restoration Era history before taking advantage of sunny weather in the garden. The entire experience—sumptuous gardens outside and a true treasure house packed with history within- made for a memorable day.
Ham House was the highlight of my trip, but The Vyne, site of the next day’s excursion, proved stiff competition. Our thorough guided tour drew on Jane Austen’s strong ties to the property (family friends owned it and hosted the Austens frequently), and culminated with a visit to the chapel. Its ornate stained glass and rich marble lent the chamber a sense of hushed magnificence—awesome in the true sense of the word.
The tour through these brilliant houses was just part of the experience; the hotels JustGo arranged for our group offered the full country-living experience. The feeling of pulling up to an actual castle, like Hampshire’s Rhinefield House Hotel, and knowing that you were to spend the night was astounding.
Evenings at the hotel provided the chance to get to know each other and bond over our shared adventures. By the final night, when our coach driver and practicing hypnotist, Adrian, offered a hypnosis demonstration, the entire tour group gathered around and offered predictions on who would be most susceptible. The genuine comradery, punctuated by moments of madness such as this, completed the travel experience, making bus rides feel short and conversations rich.
Those rich conversations – with guides, National Trust staff and, most of all, members – proved the perfect way to learn. At its core, this trip was about engaging with Royal Oak’s mission and the National Trust’s work and I was able to begin that education in a very concrete way through the “Society Stories” tour. I am enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this world so directly, and encourage all members to consider joining Royal Oak on tour in the near future.