The National Trust bought its first property, Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex, for £10 in 1896

The National Trust bought its first property, Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex, for £10 in 1896. 

Since then the Trust has acquired more than 200 historic houses, industrial sites, castles, lighthouses, and even 39 pubs – it was never just about stately homes.

If walls could talk, what tales these buildings could tell about the people who lived and worked in them. 

Imagine being in Churchill’s dining room at Chartwell in a fug of cigar smoke as the great statesman played out battles with decanters and forks.

Or in Beatrix Potter’s Cumbrian cottage as she dreamed up The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck.

Statesmen and soldiers, literary legends and inventors, society beauties and scullery maids, they’ve all left their stamp on the houses where history comes to life.

Now we’re giving away 50,000 passes so you can enjoy them for free…

The National Trust bought its first property, Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex, for £10 in 1896.

Since then the Trust has acquired more than 200 historic houses, industrial sites, castles, lighthouses, and even 39 pubs – it was never just about stately homes inclusing Bateman’s in East Sussex

Bateman’s, East Sussex

When Rudyard Kipling bought Bateman’s in 1902, it felt like a haven. 

Recently returned from America, where he’d been living for several years – and after a feud with his in-laws that caused some distressing publicity – he fell in love with this 17th-century mansion at first sight. 

‘A real house in which to settle down,’ he thought.

Kipling was a literary celebrity, author of Kim and the two Jungle Books – the JK Rowling of his day. 

From his study at Bateman’s (you can still see his ink-spotted desk) he published some of his best-loved works.

Including If, the poem of paternal advice (‘You’ll be a man, my son’) which caused his son John torment at school. 

‘Why did you write that stuff?’ he complained in a letter home, having had to write the poem out twice as lines for some schoolboy misdemeanour.

Rudyard was a doting father to his children John and Elsie. 

When Rudyard Kipling (left) bought Bateman’s in 1902, it felt like a haven. Recently returned from America, where he’d been living for several years – and after a feud with his in-laws that caused some distressing publicity – he fell in love with this 17th-century mansion at first sight.

Left: Bateman’s, and David Haig as Rudyard Kipling and Daniel Radcliffe as his son, with Kim Cattrall and Carey Mulligan, in the 2007 film My Boy Jack

But when the First World War broke out his only son was keen to fight for his country.

When John was initially rejected because of his appallingly bad eyesight Kipling pulled strings to get him into the Army.

In September 1915, at the Battle of Loos, the new recruits had little training and chlorine gas released by the British blew back into their own trenches. 

John was reported missing on his first day of action, six weeks after his 18th birthday. 

As good as blind after losing his spectacles, he was reputedly last seen screaming in agony after his face was shattered by a shell.

For two years Rudyard and his wife Carrie clung to hope that John might still be alive. 

Rudyard toured hospitals interviewing soldiers for scraps of information. He struggled with guilt and remorse for the rest of his life.

In 1992, the grave of a previously unidentified officer was declared to be John’s; sadly, recent research has proved that not to be the case. 

To this day, where John lies is ‘Known unto God’, the epitaph coined by his father, as literary adviser to the War Graves Commission, for all unidentified soldiers.

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Chartwell Kent

In 1922, when Winston Churchill bought Chartwell for the bargain price of £5,000, it was a damp, dilapidated Victorian mansion with dry rot, but he had fallen in love with its panoramic views over the Weald of Kent.

His wife Clementine wasn’t so keen, worried about Winston’s extravagant spending and all the expenses of upkeep that came with country house life.

They moved in with their four children – Randolph, 13, Diana, 15, Sarah, ten, and toddler Mary – in 1924.

Churchill threw himself into transforming Chartwell into a comfortable family home. 

A dab hand at bricklaying, he built a heated swimming pool and a play cottage in the kitchen garden for his daughters.

Chartwell was Churchil’s home for 40 years, a hive of activity as he dictated thousands of words to his secretaries, working from his bed or his bathtub late into the night, fortified by cigars and whisky and water.

Chartwell would be his home for 40 years, a hive of activity as he dictated thousands of words to his secretaries, working from his bed or his bathtub late into the night, fortified by cigars and whisky and water. 

It became the hub of Churchill’s own intelligence service in the 1930s as he gathered confidential information and struggled desperately to alert the nation to the dangers of Hitler’s rise to power. 

During the war he visited only rarely – for Chartwell’s exposed position made it vulnerable from the air.

After the war, beset by expenses, he considered selling the house until a group of friends and admirers bought it for the National Trust with the proviso the Churchills could live there until they died. 

The Churchill family requested that Chartwell should always have a resident marmalade cat with white socks called Jock – and the present-day incumbent is Jock VII.

In 1922, when Winston Churchill bought Chartwell for the bargain price of £5,000, it was a damp, dilapidated Victorian mansion with dry rot, but he had fallen in love with its panoramic views over the Weald of Kent.

Churchill finally retired from politics aged 89, and one of his most frequent visitors was Field-Marshal Montgomery, but the Chartwell visitors’ book lists hundreds of the great and famous: the Queen Mother, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier, suffragette Christabel Pankhurst.

The house is full of fascinating mementos.

There’s the torch dented by shrapnel Churchill carried in his breast pocket that possibly saved his life during the First World War, and the bronze portrait bust that shows the scar on his forehead acquired when he was hit by a taxi in New York in 1931.

If he hadn’t been wearing a heavy overcoat he might have been killed. 

A few weeks later the Daily Mail paid him £600 – more than a year’s Parliamentary salary – for the story of a misadventure that ranks as one of the greatest ‘what ifs’ of history. 

Hughenden, Buckinghamshire

‘Dizzy married me for my money,’ Mary Anne Disraeli was wont to say.

‘But if he had the chance again he would marry me for love.’

Hughenden was the country residence of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, but it was also the backdrop to an extraordinary Victorian marriage. 

Disraeli was an outsider, a dandy with huge debts, and if he was to succeed in politics he needed to raise his social status. 

His grandfather was an Italian Jew, and had a synagogue dispute not led Dizzy’s father to raise his children as Anglicans, his political career would have been a non-starter, for Jews were debarred from Parliament until 1858.

Hughenden was the country residence of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, but it was also the backdrop to an extraordinary Victorian marriage

Mary Anne was a wealthy widow 12 years his senior, and when he married her in 1839 people assumed his motives were mercenary. 

And they were.

He bought Hughenden in 1848 as his entrée into the landed gentry. But Disraeli came to cherish her for her vivacity and good humour. 

She was a one-off in staid Victorian society, renowned for her indiscretions. 

She confided to Queen Victoria – who found her ‘very vulgar’ – that she always slept with her arms around Dizzy’s neck.

On one occasion, when another lady’s pale complexion was admired, Mary Anne retorted, ‘I wish you could see my Dizzy in his bath.’

But she proved herself a devoted political wife. One evening husband and wife set off to Parliament in their carriage, where Dizzy was due to make an important speech. 

The door slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb – but she didn’t make a sound, lest she upset him before his speech.

When he found out later what happened, Disraeli removed the door from the carriage and preserved it at Hughenden – where it hangs on a wall to this day.

Greenway, Devon

The holiday home of Agatha Christie, this imposing Georgian manor overlooking the River Dart was purchased by the Queen of Crime in 1938, following her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan. 

She furnished the house with treasures from their travels and from her childhood home in Torquay. 

Agatha guarded her privacy fiercely, rarely granting interviews, and Greenway was her retreat from fame.

But family and friends would descend on the house in summer, and gather in the drawing room to hear readings from her latest manuscripts. 

The holiday home of Agatha Christie, this imposing Georgian manor overlooking the River Dart was purchased by the Queen of Crime in 1938, following her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan.

A house remarkably similar to Greenway features in Christie’s 1956 novel Dead Man’s Folly. 

Its garden, boathouse and local area are so accurately described that ITV chose Greenway as the location for their adaptation of the book, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, in 2013. 

Hill Top, Cumbria 

A visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s Lake District cottage, is like stepping into the pages of her enchantingly illustrated books, for Beatrix painted what was around her, from her own furniture and teapot to the doll’s house that sparked a trail of destruction in Two Bad Mice.

But Hill Top was more than a writer’s inspiration. It brought an unmarried middle-aged woman independence from her controlling parents – and new happiness after the tragic death of her fiancé Norman Warne. 

Beatrix began negotiations to buy Hill Top in 1905 when she was 39, with the royalties from Peter Rabbit.

Warne was her publisher, and their love had blossomed despite opposition from the snobbish Potters who disapproved of him being ‘in trade’. 

A visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s Lake District cottage, is like stepping into the pages of her enchantingly illustrated books, for Beatrix painted what was around her, from her own furniture and teapot to the doll’s house that sparked a trail of destruction in Two Bad Mice.

When Norman proposed, Beatrix’s outraged parents refused to recognise the engagement and dragged her off on a family holiday to Wales. 

They never saw each other again. A month after Norman’s proposal, he died of leukaemia.

But Beatrix became a farmer at Hill Top, achieving the freedom she’d never known in her youth.

In 1913, at 47, Beatrix married solicitor William Heelis, who’d handled her purchase of additional land. 

When she died in 1943 she left 4,000 acres and 14 farms to the National Trust.

However, she never forgot her first love and wore Norman’s ring to the end of her life.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

There’s no doubt who built Hardwick Hall – Bess of Hardwick’s initials are everywhere.

Bess rose from modest beginnings to bury four husbands and become the richest woman in England after Elizabeth I.

Her first marriage to Robert Barlow, who was only 13, was probably still unconsummated when he died the next year. Then came the much older Sir William Cavendish who had accrued a fortune from the dissolution of the monasteries. 

Bess persuaded him to buy the Chatsworth estate in her home county of Derbyshire, but he died in 1557 leaving her with six children.

Husband number three was William St Loe, who doted on Bess and left her one of the wealthiest women in England with an annual income equivalent to £19 million today. 

There’s no doubt who built Hardwick Hall – Bess of Hardwick’s initials are everywhere.

Bess rose from modest beginnings to bury four husbands and become the richest woman in England after Elizabeth I.

And then came marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury, which made Bess a Countess. 

But there were three people in this marriage because Shrewsbury was made custodian of Mary Queen of Scots, who was under house arrest in his charge for 15 years. 

After years of quarrels and rancour – it was rumoured that Shrewsbury and the Queen of Scots were lovers – Bess moved back to the old manor house at Hardwick, her childhood home, and started building. 

Before she had finished Hardwick Old Hall, her husband died – leaving her richer still – and before he was cold in his grave she was digging the foundations of Hardwick New Hall (above) – a house to rival any royal palace. 

There were so many windows that local people coined the ditty ‘Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall.’

Polesden Lacey Surrey

‘Most people leave their money to the poor.

I intend to leave mine to the rich,’ Edwardian society hostess Margaret Greville would boast publicly. 

So it must have been a great surprise and disappointment to Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, when Mrs Greville left Polesden Lacey – the country house where she spent part of her honeymoon in 1923 and thought she might inherit – to the National Trust. 

‘It is a difficult place to keep up, terribly expensive… perhaps it is just as well,’ wrote Queen Elizabeth, stoically.

Cecil Beaton called Maggie, as she was known, ‘a greedy, snobbish old toad who watered her chops at the sight of royalty’, and Queen Elizabeth thought she was ‘amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty’.

‘Most people leave their money to the poor.

I intend to leave mine to the rich,’ Edwardian society hostess Margaret Greville would boast publicly. So it must have been a great surprise and disappointment to Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, when Mrs Greville left Polesden Lacey – the country house where she spent part of her honeymoon in 1923 and thought she might inherit – to the National Trust.

Cecil Beaton called Maggie, as she was known, ‘a greedy, snobbish old toad who watered her chops at the sight of royalty’, and Queen Elizabeth thought she was ‘amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty’.

Maggie was heiress to a beer fortune.

‘I’d rather be a beeress than a peeress,’ she gloated. When she bought Polesden Lacey in 1907 she employed the architects of The Ritz to indulge her taste for bling. 

One guest likened the gold saloon to an ‘extremely expensive bordello’.

Royalty, politicians and celebs could enjoy lavish hospitality and discreet bed-hopping there.

Born in 1863, Maggie was the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant and millionaire brewer William McEwan, but the couple later married.

Maggie then wed the Hon. Ronald Greville, part of the fast-living set who surrounded Edward VII and his mistress Alice Keppel – the socially ambitious couple were known as ‘The Grovels’.

When she died in 1942, Maggie left her fabulous jewellery collection to Queen Elizabeth.

Today the whopping Greville diamond tiara is often worn by Alice Keppel’s great-granddaughter the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Greville emerald tiara was worn by Princess Eugenie on her wedding day.  

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