This Way to Longleat
“Either I will find a way, or I will make one.” – Sir Philip Sidney
It was the third time we’d passed the small picture of a castle on a green road sign. It seemed to follow us around each roundabout we used that day. This way to Longleat. We were at the beginning of a planned-down-to-the-minute, 18-day road trip of southern England and Wales – but we were ahead of schedule. We’d already strolled through the history of Highclere Castle that morning (the place used for the TV show Downton Abbey), and traipsed through the chilly ruins of Farleigh Hungerford Castle. All we had left was the drive back to our hotel in Basingstoke and a dinner reservation still hours away, and yet … this way to Longleat.
The drive up to the estate felt off. Great tall trees and pavement through the winding countryside roads were peppered with billboards advertising attractions and live animals. Surely, this wasn’t the way to Longleat, but rather a theme park. To our surprise, it was the right way. And no, those signs were not a joke. It turns out that the 900 acres of parkland surrounding Longleat contain a zoo and simulated safari setting. Lions, tigers, cheetahs, monkeys, elephants, rhinos, and more are caged for your entertainment, just outside of the English home built in the 1500s. It screams both English imperialism and present ingenuity.
During the trek from the parking lot to the estate, we were greeted by a car-sized statue of a lion – the symbol of Longleat. By the time we arrived, we’d learned the house itself was only open for another hour. We bought our tickets and rushed in, choosing the history inside instead of the wildlife outside.
Longleat’s interior feels as old as it looks, but the sparkle of built-to-impress has not yet faded. We shuffled through the dining hall, library, and array of grand rooms, eventually making our way up the large banister staircase. Volunteers began closing doors and ushering people to make their way back downstairs and towards the servants’ areas and kitchens – the way out.
I ducked into one of the bedrooms, and immediately noticed a familiar sight.
Hanging on the wall was a portrait I had been shown many times in my life: Sir Philip Sidney, my 3rd cousin 13 generations back – and my namesake. This portrait, however, I’d learn was the real deal, and not just a source of familial pride. The original. My mother noticed too, and asked the docent preparing to lock one of the doors about the painting. The docent explained that it was, indeed, the original. Surprising to us, since we were planning to visit the Sidney family estate of Penshurst the next day. A copy actually hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, but why was the original painting at Longleat? It turns out that when the Sidney family began to lose their fortune, much like many established English families over the centuries, they sold what they could. Including the portrait of one of their most famous members.
The Sidney family has long held a place amongst literary and political English history. Mary Sidney Herbert, Sir Philip Sidney’s sister, was a patron to Shakespeare. Some also enjoy theorizing that she herself wrote parts, if not all, of Shakespeare’s work. Sir Philip Sidney was a soldier and poet to Queen Elizabeth I, but he died young at 31 from a wound at the Battle of Zutphen. The docent joked that Elizabeth did enjoy her young pretty men, and especially enjoyed sending them to the front – possibly as trophies to show off. The painting itself has a long history, but while the wood frame is dated between 1561 and 1577, the artist is unknown.
Our docent had obviously been ready to be done for the day. I’d overheard her be quite annoyed with the people that had gone into the room before us. But as soon as we started asking questions about the Sidneys, she perked right up. She even escorted us through the remainder of the house, offering detail upon detail as she guided us. Quickly, yet reenergized.
I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Highclere Castle: both homes had seen better days, but were still alive with energy. Both full of inflated history and puffed up lineages. And both had made sacrifices and choices to keep their estates going over the centuries. Highclere had struck TV gold, while Longleat had positioned itself as a different form of entertainment, appearing to meet the future head on, while still trying to hold on to its status.
Longleat House was full of surprises. It’s a place of history, nature, and presence, coexisting thickly for survival. I’d compare my encounter to when you visit old cathedral after cathedral, and expect the same deal, just a different location. Cold stone, stained glass windows, wooden pews. But sometimes you enter a cathedral and stumble upon a church service, transforming you from tourist to interloper. And sometimes you find portraits of your ancestry in unexpected places.
We never did see the family-friendly attractions and curated zoo experience. The sun was setting behind the gray skies of England, the doors had been locked behind us, and our dinner reservation was getting closer. The lions would have to wait for another time.
“Philosophy deals in the abstract and the universal, but not in the particular. History deals only in the particular, not with general principles. Poetry deals with both, illustrating universal principles with particular examples or embodiments of those principles:
Now doth the peerless poet perform both: for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposeth it was done; so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example.
Another advantage poetry has over philosophy is greater clarity: the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher. Essentially, poetry shows history more brilliantly than history, and explains philosophy more cogently than philosophy.”