It is becoming a habit to kick off my NT year the day before the Cheltenham horse racing festival and this year I took a trip from my racing base in Chipping Campden up to Baddesley Clinton on the outskirts of Birmingham. I had visited this moated manor house a couple of times in the past but these were purely tea-and-cake visits with a friend so I had never ventured across the bridge to look inside.
Unfortunately, the usual spring sunshine that I have come to expect during Cheltenham week was nowhere to be seen so it was a very soggy drive up the A429 and umbrellas were needed for a quick wander around the walled garden before we joined a tour of the house. There was a shortage of volunteers (I can’t blame them for staying away in the prevailing conditions) so all visitors had to join a group tour, but I wasn’t complaining as I always appreciate the insights of the local expert and our guide was a member of the Baddesley Clinton Archive Group who clearly knew her stuff.
It was appropriate that the welcoming party at the house was a group of ducks – great weather for them! – but after waddling back and forth across the bridge they soon got bored when they realised that the visitors had brought umbrellas with them but no snacks. Huddled in the porch with our fellow intrepid tourists, we were soon welcomed through the massive wooden door (and I mean truly huge) and through the inner courtyard into the house.
Architectural enthusiasts will be fascinated by the hotch-potch of periods on display at Baddesley Clinton. There has been a manor on this site since before the Norman conquest, but much of what is present today dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, with further additions along the way as the property has been modernised and altered. As usual though I was most inspired by the stories of the people who occupied rather than built the walls. While the property’s name comes from the de Clinton family who lived at Baddesley for several generations, it is the Ferrers family that dominates the house’s story, from the time when Sir Edward Ferrers married his way to ownership of the house at the end of the 15th century until it was sold to Thomas Walker, a distant relative, in 1940. Even then though the Walkers took on the Ferrers-Walker name in respect of the family that was so integral to the history of the house.
It is also notable that no Protestant ever owned Baddesley in the 400+ years of Ferrers control and the family remained staunch Catholics throughout even the most turbulent of times. It is therefore no surprise to find a Priest’s Hole hidden in the walls of the house, rather ingeniously – if unpleasantly! – positioned beneath the shaft of the privy. Baddesley Clinton’s history featured in the recent BBC drama about the Gunpowder Plot as it was briefly the home of Anne Vaux, a supporter of the Catholic plotters, but the house itself was not used for filming. The religious ties of the house are also in evidence in the private chapel located near the entrance to the Priest’s Hole; this was re-consecrated in the 1870s by the so-called ‘Quartet’, four colourful occupants in the latter half of the 19th century.
The story of the Quartet was a fascinating part of the tour, which was told to us in the Drawing Room where portraits of the four look down on the visitor. Marmion Ferrers, his wife Rebecca (née Orpen), her aunt Georgiana, Lady Chatterton, and her second husband Edward Dering (later also Rebecca’s second husband!) lived at Baddesley together for many years, with Dering pouring money into the house, while Rebecca poured her artistic talent into a multitude of paintings, including many that can be seen on display today, plus the panels and triptych in the Chapel, which sadly cannot be seen today because the Chapel is kept so dark (sorry if you’ve read this before in these pages but ‘forever, for everyone’ is a totally misleading motto for the Trust as in many cases it should read ‘forever, for no one… except those lucky enough to get a glimpse when the blinds are up’).
The Quartet were a genuinely artistic bunch – seemingly the Bloomsbury Set of their day. They knew many artistic people and both Lady Chatterton and her husband wrote novels, copies of which are held in the house’s large Library. It also appears that Marmion often dressed rather eccentrically, donning the kind of old-fashioned garb that his Ferrers ancestors might have worn. He was unique in other ways too as his name very much broke the Ferrers mould, with the string of Edwards and Henrys perhaps turning in their graves at the christening of a Marmion.
An earlier occupant of the house who is particularly noteworthy is Henry Ferrers, aka Henry the Antiquary (to differentiate him from the many other Henrys). Henry the Antiquary made a lot of changes to the house, including the introduction of many heraldic window glasses, plus panelling and fireplaces. It is perhaps surprising that Henry survived the Catholic persecutions of his era as it was he who rented the house to Anne Vaux and her posse of priests, while he also sold the lease on a London house to Thomas Percy who proceeded to store the plotters’ gunpowder there.
Going further back to the pre-Ferrers residents, the Bromes were also interesting occupants, with the older John Brome having been murdered and then avenged by his son Nicholas who killed not only his father’s murderer but later also a priest who he thought was flirting with his wife. Blood on the library floorboards is said to date back to this killing, but it seems there is more pig than human DNA in the grisly marks! Nicholas later ordered that on his death he be buried under the entrance to Baddesley Church, hoping that he would be forgiven his sins if he were walked on for the rest of eternity.
Jumping forward several centuries, we come back to the Ferrers-Walkers who eventually gave the house to the Trust in 1980, benefiting from an endowment that was donated by the then owners of Packwood House (just up the road from Baddesley). The Walkers had their own fun stories in the archives, including the tale of the younger Thomas coming home from the army one day and setting off thunderflash grenades to rouse his parents before finding himself face to face with the business end of his father’s shotgun. Thomas the elder was said to be a very grumpy man, who preferred cats to people, so his son was perhaps lucky to survive this incident.
As usual, I have gone on too long, so I will finish up with a couple of other things that stood out on my tour of the house. As with many houses of its period, the panelling and relatively low ceilings give a fairly dark feel to the place (even when the blinds are raised!), but I was impressed by some of the carved stone fireplaces and the heraldic glass in the windows is also an effective period touch. As ever, I like an oddity so make sure you don’t miss the narwhal tusk in the Great Hall, the fox-headed stirrup cup on the Dining Room table and the enormous toasting fork in the Dining Room hearth. Our guide couldn’t say what the fork’s real use was so I’m sticking with the giant toast theory, although I also can’t help imagining a pillow-sized marshmallow gently browning away!
Highlights: The story of the Quartet; the Catholic history
Refreshments: Roasted vegetable tart with roast potatoes, coleslaw and salad leaves; pot of tea and ginger cake (made to a 1900s Baddesley Clinton recipe)
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Living Waters: 600 Years of Family Life in a Moated Manor’ by the Baddesley Clinton Archive Group; ‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave from the secondhand bookshop
NT Connections: Packwood House, whose owner Graham, Baron Ash was friends with the Ferrers family and helped them out financially by buying a lot of artefacts from them, while his sister and niece later donated much of the endowment when Baddesley Clinton was given to the Trust; Basildon Park, whose owners acquired a piano from Baddesley and also looked at it as a possible house to buy before opting for Basildon