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.