Every summer I read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (my second favourite novel) or have the audio book version read to me while I’m out walking in the countryside. The best is where Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte at university and then falls under the spell of his ennobled family who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle. The sumptuous 11-part mini-series set at Castle Howard in Yorkshire did lavish justice to the novel.
I read that Evelyn based Brideshead Castle on Lytham Hall in Lancashire after he stayed there in June 1935. He based the character Sebastian Flyte on Henry Clifton who was the last squire to own Lytham Hall. While on the Fylde coast I thought I’d go and have a look at Lytham Hall.
Evelyn had visited here in June 1935 and wrote to a friend, “A very beautiful house with first-class Italian plaster work. A lap of luxury flowing with champagne and elaborate cookery. The Cliftons all are tearing mad. The children bright and giggling. Mrs C. more sombre and full of soul. Large park entirely surrounded by trams and villas. Adam dining room. Five hideous Catholic churches on estate. All sitting at separate tables at meals. Two or three good pictures including a Renoir.”
I had a walk around the grounds, stables, gardens and inevitable tea rooms. I crossed the main lawn at the front and leant on a fence post looking at the hall. I must have read Brideshead Revisited over fifteen times and Brideshead Castle in the novel was based on this building in front of me. The long drive up to it promised a good view of a stately home and it hadn’t disappointed me (although once close up to the walls you see how weathered they are.) It was probably quite splendid in June 1935 when Evelyn Waugh visited.
The Clifton family had lived here then - just one family and a gallery of staff to look after them. In the 19th/20th the Clifton’s family’s fortunes soured. Henry Clifton - who Sebastian Flytde was based on - had lived an enviable life but frittered money with reckless aplomb. He decimated the estate to fund his lavish lifestyle and pay crippling gambling debts. He sold off huge portions of the 2500 acres (only 80 acres remain), mountains of his mum’s antique furniture and family jewels. He kept a suite at The Ritz Hotel in London and decided to take on another at The Dorchester Hotel. When asked why he replied that if he was passing The Dorchester on the way back to The Ritz and felt tired he could rest there.
I strolled around the gardens which had obviously seen better times. This was the Clifton’s back-up mansion though - there was another estate in Islay in the Hebrides. However this went too and Henry died a penniless recluse in Brighton. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian is a spoilt feckless alcoholic whose live tapers to dust. I went to the main entrance and cupped the door knob. Had Evelyn Waugh who wrote my second favourite novel touched it? “Is it open?” a tanned coupled said from twenty feet away. I said I didn’t know I wasn’t going in. They must have thought I was nutty. In keeping with the regal feeling about the place I put some Mozart’s Requiem on my mp3 player and had one last stroll around the wood at the rear. A squirrel spiralled itself up a tree trunk and stopped to look at me. It seemed to say, “I live here; isn’t it brill?” It was and I must go back regularly.
At the entrance to Lytham Hall that inspired the Brideshead Revisited novel…
Going up to Lytham Hall that inspired Brideshead Revisited filmed at Castle Howard…
Henry Clifton was the alleged inspiration for Sebastian Flyte…