ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Lyme celebrates 600 years of ownership by one family

May 26, 2018 GMT

England’s National Trust certainly knows how to market its properties. Take, for example, the historic house and grounds at Lyme about a half-hour by train from Manchester. Ever since the BBC selected the estate to serve as a stand-in for Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in the six-part miniseries based on Jane Austen’s perennially popular novel “Pride and Prejudice,” photos of Colin Firth as Elizabeth Bennet’s haughty suitor have been emblazoned on a host of items for sale in the gift shop.

Of particular interest to the scores of Austen fans making pilgrimage to Lyme is the pond from which Firth as Darcy emerges after a quick plunge to find a startled Elizabeth Bennet somehow transported to his home turf. This unexpected confrontation with Darcy, who is dripping wet in his undershirt, marks a moment of alteration in Miss Bennet’s heretofore “prejudiced” appraisal of the “prideful” master of Pemberley.

On the day of my visit to Lyme earlier this month, there was indeed a number of visitors navigating the grounds, hoping to find the exact spot where Firth emerged from the lake. That particular body of water, the Italian gardens and the extensive deer park surrounding the great house, all offer attractive possibilities for recreation even on the typically cloud-covered day to be found in Britain during all seasons.

Yet, the massive house alone was enough to make my short excursion to Lyme worthwhile. It stands as an amazing record of one family’s 600 years of occupation. The core of the house is Elizabethan, dating to 1570, with some rooms still boasting the original oak paneling. Significant additions/embellishments were made in 1720 in the Italian Renaissance style; and other adjustments, primarily in interior design, were made in the early-19th and early-20th centuries.

What of the family whose remarkable shifts in fortune made the great house their home? It’s amazing that the Leghs (pronounced “Lee”) managed to hold onto the property as long as they did especially with the rising taxes and diminished land rents of the last century. Coal mines fueled the family finances until all mineral rights in Britain were nationalized in 1939 and the family was forced to surrender their estate to the National Trust a few years thereafter.

Interestingly enough, long before a financial shortfall brought an end to their residency at Lyme, there were moments in the family’s earlier history when their collective fate was touch-and-go. Consider the so-called Stag Parlour where after the enforced exile of James II in 1688, the head of the family, Peter Legh XII, plotted with other like-minded Jacobites to try to put the absolutist Stuart monarch back on the throne. Twice Peter XII was hauled to the Tower of London on the charge of treason; acquitted both times due to a lack of evidence, he reluctantly learned his lesson and gave up his support for the exiled Stuart line.

A century later, the head of the family was Col. Thomas Peter Legh, whose exploits in the battlefield were matched by those in the bedroom. He fathered seven different illegitimate children by seven different women. Since he produced no offspring within the confines of wedlock, the future of Lyme was once again in jeopardy; it was only by declaring near the time of his death in 1797 that his eldest son, however scandalous the occasion of his birth, was now the rightful heir to the estate that Lyme remained in the family.

That son, by the way, was one of the most colorful of the lot. Labeled the “fearless explorer,” Thomas Legh, while only 18, ventured into unchartered territory in North Africa and the Middle East, bringing back priceless antiquities to Lyme and to the British Museum. A flamboyant portrait of Legh in Turkish dress is a major feature of the Grand Staircase.

This introduction to the colorful history of Lyme and the Legh family is the first in a three-part travel series; the next two Friday installments will take my readers to Haworth in the heart of Brontë country and to Liverpool with its memorialization of the Beatles.