Blogger Cathy Murray posting on her weblog “Cabbages and Semolina” has discussed several country houses that have inspired literary locations. After mentioning the connection between Highclere Castle and Downton Abbey and that between Castle Howard and Brideshead Castle she notes that:
A less well known Evelyn Waugh adaptation is the 1988 film of A Handful of Dust. This film used Carlton Towers in Yorkshire as the location for Hetton Abbey. In the novel the house is a Victorian reconstruction in neo-Gothic which is the pride and joy of the main character, Tony Last.
As is the case with Castle Howard, it seems unlikely that Waugh himself had Carlton Towers specifically in mind when he described Hetton Abbey in his novel:
Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey. This, formerly one of the notable homes of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest…It contains some good portraits and furniture. The terrace commands a fine view.
Waugh commissioned a drawing of the house to appear in the frontispiece of the novel. He wrote to Tom Driberg that “I instructed the architect to design the worst possible 1860 and he has done well” (Letters, p. 88). The drawing does bear an uncanny resemblance to Carlton Towers (see link), particularly because of the clock tower (although the apparent addition to the left of the main building facing the house is inconsistent with the drawing). Carlton Towers also has a similar history to Hetton Abbey, having been a substantial 19th c. reconstruction and remodeling of a previous house on the site. But there is nothing to suggest Waugh visited there prior to writing the novel or proposed the house to the artist as a model.
Waugh does record a visit to Carlton Towers in July 1939, several years after A Handful of Dust was published. He was accompanied by Miles Howard, son of the owner of Carlton Towers, and two others identified only as Loftus and Lewis. (Miles Howard 1915-2002 later became the 17th Duke of Norfolk and made a career in the military; awarded the Military Cross in WWII; the family were recusant Roman Catholics.) They travelled to Yorkshire on a crowded train but in a carriage hired by Howard that was occupied only by their small party. At the house, they joined a party that also included several family members as well as the nature writer Gavin Maxwell. Waugh described the house in detail in his Diaries (p. 434):
First sight of the house is staggering, concrete-faced, ivy-grown, 1870-early-Tudor bristling with gargoyles, heraldic animals carrying fully emblazoned banners, coroneted ciphers; an orgy of heraldry. Two prominent towers, water and clock, the latter in the style of a Flemish belfry, which from the younger Pugin’s original drawings were to have been mere turrets compared with a vast Norman tower which was to complete his wing, leading to church and ‘Hall of the Barons’.
There follows a comprehensive description of the interior of the house and its contents. If Waugh had seen the house before he wrote the novel and intended it as a model for Hetton Abbey, he would surely have mentioned it in this detailed diary entry.
It has also been suggested that there is some resemblance between Hetton Abbey as depicted in A Handful of Dust and Madresfield Court, which has an outwardly Gothick appearance. It has a tower, more of a steeple really, but no clock is visible in available photos.