We just left the coolest place on earth, at least if you like old Scottish estates, history, and stuff like that.
I’m referring to a little piece of history in the south of Scotland called Traquair House. The oldest part of the house was built in 1107 as a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland, and it’s considered the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, whatever that means. Over the years, the house was expanded by a long line of family members who have continuously occupied it since 1491. Think about it – this house has been occupied by the same family since the year before Columbus set sail for the New World. The family includes its current resident, the 21st Laird of Traquair, Lady Catherine Maxwell, who, on our first night there, led a tour through the place with the ease and grace of a darned good docent.
The fact is that the Maxwells and the Stuarts (who were on the other side of the family tree) probably never had the kind of money that the really really rich people in these parts had, so this is no Versailles. Instead, it’s just an amazingly cool old house that still has its original furnishings, and in addition to being open for tours and running a cute little gift shop, they rent out three rooms to the public. Good for us.
Oh, and they have a brewery that has been making beer, on and off, for hundreds of years, fermenting the stuff in three hundred year old oak barrels from four hundred year old recipes that they found in the house’s archives. And this is not the nun’s tinkle that passes for beer in most of the world – this is some serious dark, malty, Scottish ale that weighs in at 7 or 8 percent alcohol. This stuff will warm you so you don’t have to wear leggings with your kilt.
Oh, and to ensure that Traquair House is the single greatest accommodation on the planet, it has screamy fast wifi! What more could a person ask for?
There is nothing I didn’t like about Traquair. There is a hedge maze in the back. A maze! On our first night, Janine and I decided to give it a go. Within minutes, we were hopelessly lost inside the quarter mile of dead ends when it started raining. Oops. Yet somehow that added to the ambiance, although we were pleased that it soon stopped raining.
Our room was big and lovely. Like many old estates, the house has been added on to over the years, and our room is relatively modern, having been completed by 1599. It has a very cool canopy bed and it looks out over the maze at the back of the house. The house itself is open for tours during the day (although our room has a very impressive-looking “private” sign on the door) but when the people go away it’s just us and nine hundred years of history to keep us company.
When we arrived they handed us our keys. Unlike, say, the Marriott, which gives you a cruddy plastic key card, at Traquair you are presented with three ancient skeleton keys. One opened the sitting room in the “new” wing, which was completed in 1695. Another opened our room, and the largest key opened the massive ancient front door to the castle itself. Stay at Traquair and they give you the keys to the castle.
There are two other guest rooms at Traquair, but there were no other guests while we were there, so we had the sitting room to ourselves. We were encouraged to light a fire and avail ourselves of the honor bar, which was well stocked with a variety of bottles, including plenty of the house beer. We were free to roam the house alone in the morning before it was opened to the public, and we tried out the hidden door that was built to allow the house’s priest to escape when it was raided periodically (the family remained steadfastly Catholic even after Catholicism was outlawed). The servant bells that we’ve all seen on Downton Abbey are still in place, and they still work. We spent some time admiring the bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots slept with her newborn son. We marveled at the two libraries, with more than four thousand books that have never left the house, and were amazed that almost all the furnishings are original to the place.
The really impressive thing is that the house is still owned and operated by the family. Lady Catherine, her husband and their three children live here in the winter (she and her husband sleep in our room) but they decamp to another house on the property when the house is opened to guests in the spring. She’s an amazingly down to earth woman who seems to fully appreciate the responsibility of keeping a millennium-long legacy going. On our first night in the house, she led a tour for a group of travel agents, and graciously allowed us to crash the party.
The whole thing is fabulously unpretentious, and yet it is deeply, amazingly impressive all the same. If you have ever dreamed of staying at a castle or a manor house, do yourself a favor and come here.
Before we came to Traquair, we spent a few days in the Lake District in northern England.
We arrived at the Keswick Country House Hotel (pronounced Kezzik – nothing here is what it seems) in the area that inspired Wordsworth to write his early environmental poetry.
The Keswick Hotel is one of those big old hotels that you see in black and white movies. Its claim to fame was a visit by the queen sixty or seventy years ago. We had a nice big room with high ceilings and bay windows that looked onto a large green lawn covered with rabbits. In the morning it was a large green lawn covered with rabbit poop. There was an ornate dining room and a cozy pub, and while the place could use a bit of sprucing up, it was definitely a change of pace from all the airbnb apartments we’ve called home for most of our trip.
When we were planning our visit, we saw that there was a theater company in Keswick called Theatre by the Lake, which seemed like a twofer – we’d see some theater and chances are we’d get to see a lake. Community theater can surprise you from time to time – we’ve seen some really wonderful theater in some far flung places. But it can also be surprisingly, audaciously bad.This was such a time
We went to see a play called Lucky Sods, about a couple from Yorkshire who win the lottery. Well, apparently the only thing worse than winning the lottery is a play about winning the lottery. I felt for everyone associated with production, especially the nervous-looking woman dressed in stagehand black I spotted before the performance sitting in the front row with a script in her hand. It turns out that she was nervous for an extremely good reason. Every few minutes she had to throw a life preserver to a cast member, calling out a line to a drowning actor. I’ve seen a lot of theater over the years, but I’ve never seen a cast as a whole forget their lines as much as this lot did. It was so bad that at one point I wondered if the play was performed by a group being treated by a memory loss clinic, or whether it was some kind of innovative treatment for head trauma victims. Perhaps it was the audacious work of an early-onset Alzheimer’s program. If not, it was one of worst things we’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. Lest you think I’m being hopelessly snobbish, throughout the play, a woman right behind Janine regularly interjected observations like, “It’s not well done!” to her significant other. At the intermission, Janine was desperate to leave, but with such a small theatre I worried that the certain exodus would demoralize the stalwart but sadly overmatched troupe. Well, I was wrong. Every last audience member returned for the second act, bless them. After all, they’re British and they’re polite. We would hardly have been missed. Janine was not pleased with me. She still wants those two hours of her life back. Like most goofy experiences I’ve had during the past nine months, I was secretly fine with it – at least it would be fun to write about.