“OUR inn was a scurvy one and had not beds for all,” wrote the disgruntled Lord Perceval after his stay at Stowe’s New Inn in 1717.
“Never were accommodations so wretched,” complained a Mrs Lybbe Powys after her visit in 1775.
Despite unflattering reviews, the New Inn at Stowe provided lodgings for generations of well-heeled visitors who came to view Stowe’s magnificent formal garden, one of Britain’s earliest tourist destinations.
The coaching inn, next to Stowe’s Corinthian Arch, was a virtual ruin when the National Trust bought it in 2005. Barns and other structures around the coachyard were little more than heaps of brick and tile, and parts of the main building were in danger of collapse.
Now, after a £9 million makeover, the inn has taken on a new lease of life as the National Trust’s visitor centre for Stowe.
While modern amenities such as a 400-space car park and an impressive new restaurant will cater for the demands of the modern tourist, the rebuilding has been carried out as carefully as possible to create a vibrant portrait of late 18th century life.
David Brooks, the National Trust’s property manager at Stowe, said: “Until now we were lacking a heart to the property – somewhere worthy of the magnificent grounds.
“Rebuilding the New Inn means that daytrippers can now follow in the footsteps of the original Georgian tourists.”
After staying the night at the New Inn, early tourists would enter the garden at Bell Gate, where they would ring a bronze bell and pay a gardener to escort them around the grounds.
Bell Gate has been restored and reopened for modern visitors. The old garden entrance near Dadford, now solely for the use of school traffic, was originally the back door to Stowe.
“The reinstatement of Bell Gate means that visitors will now catch their first glimpse of the breathtaking grounds as they were originally intended, ” added Mr Brooks.
A careful warts-and-all approach to the restoration means much of the 18th century colour and atmosphere has been preserved.
New additions such as the gift shop and the impressive 85-seat restaurant have kept to the inn’s original footprint as far as possible, and much of the original timber, brick, cobble and tile has been reclaimed and reused.
Damaged bricks were only restored where necessary to keep a realistic look, and other walls are covered in traditional chestnut lath and lime plaster.
Although the “fleas and gnats” complained of by 18th century guests are gone, visitors can still sit and play cards by an open fire, sample ale in the old tap room on special days, and see the laundry and kitchen at work.
New Inn project manager Richard Hill said the National Trust had been very careful not to over-restore the property.
“I hope we’ve tried to be as gentle and sensitive to these buildings as we can, ” he said.
Inside the inn, original Georgian furniture has been used in public rooms wherever possible, and a team of prop-buyers has added authentic touches such as crockery, rushlights, and even food.
Electric lighting has only been installed in the inn’s stone-flagged cellar to prevent any mishaps.
Among the surprises uncovered during restoration was the discovery of some of the National Trust’s oldest-known wallpaper.
Dating from around 1720, the paper is exactly the same as that found at the imposing Erddig estate in Wales. What such expensive paper was doing inside a country inn is a mystery to the trust’s experts.
The inn also had what has been dubbed the “deadly bedroom”.
Andrew Brook, the National Trust’s paper conservator, said: “The deadly bedroom was found to have arsenic wallpaper, which was at its nastiest in a damp room like this one.
“Mold grows on the paper and releases arsenic gas that can lead to death.”
An 18th century extravaganza will celebrate the New Inn visitor centre’s offical opening on the weekend of March 24 and 25.
Entry is free all weekend, and family activities will be available.
Music will be performed in the inn’s parlour, and visitors can sample Chiltern Brewery’s New Inn Restoration Ale for free.
Visitors can also see a group of costumed re-enactors enjoying a typical 18th century picnic and games.
See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe for more information.