My visit to Dudmaston could best be described as a game of two halves: I arrived in time for the Hidden Stories talk, but then took a break from the history to meet an old friend for lunch (which ran over into afternoon tea!), before touring the house and grounds later in the day.
The extra long refreshment break was a pleasant interruption but didn’t help to keep my mind on the job. What I really needed was some quiet time in the garden reading the guidebook as that would have set me up perfectly for the rest of my visit, but Dudmaston has run out of guidebooks and the new one hasn’t been printed yet… a particularly poor bit of organisation considering it’s the summer holiday season. This is actually the second time the Trust has let me down in this way within the past couple of months but while The Needles Batteries escaped a black mark when a member of staff dug out an old copy for me, Dudmaston didn’t oblige in the same way so a black mark it is… ⊗
I made do with what they call a ‘short guide’ and then had to photograph a number of relevant display boards for extra info. As Dudmaston is still a family home, photography is not allowed inside the house but I admit that I broke the rules in the downstairs exhibition room so I could get a picture of the family tree. I then had to resort to pen and paper and jot down notes from the exhibition’s timeline of the house and estate. As I type, though, a copy of the old guidebook should be winging its way to me from an eBay seller, so if there’s anything in there that warrants a mention I’ll add a postscript or two below.
As usual, the introductory talk was helpful in laying out some of the basic facts about the property and its people, and we also benefited from an impromptu tour of the stable clock and its winding mechanism, arriving there just as (the rather attractive!) Simon came by to give it one of its twice weekly boosts.
Later on the tour, our guide pointed out a plaque on a wall in the stableyard that commemorates William Whitmore, who was one of the estate’s more influential owners. The initials on the plaque may make the modern viewer think of something entirely different as WWW is now an established term in modern digital life, so it is extremely fitting that Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of the computer’, was married to William’s daughter and spent a lot of time at Dudmaston.
The plaque is dated 1789 but Dudmaston’s history goes back much further than this and the exhibition room displays the original deed to the estate, which was granted to Harlewyn de Butailles in 1127. Dudmaston has remained in the same family, by inheritance or marriage, ever since. The Wolryche name entered the line in 1403 when Margaret of Dudmaston married William Wolryche and it was Sir Thomas Wolryche who built the existing manor house in the late 1690s. A later owner – Reverend Francis Henry Laing – took his mother’s surname when inheriting the estate so as to keep the Wolryche-Whitmore line going.
William Wolryche-Whitmore (son of the William Whitmore previously mentioned) made a number of renovations to the estate in the 1800s, including the addition of the Big Pool below the garden’s terraces and the Regency staircase, my favourite part of the house. Captain Geoffrey Wolryche-Whitmore was another particularly important personage in Dudmaston’s history as he recognised the need to change the focus of the estate from farming to forestry in order to make ends meet. During his lifetime, he passed the estate over to his niece Lady Rachel Labouchere on the understanding that she would prepare it for presentation to the National Trust, which happened in 1978. Interestingly, Lady Rachel was a descendant of the Abraham Darby who built Ironbridge’s famous bridge and was herself President of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in its early days so Shropshire’s tourist trade certainly owes her a debt.
The Laboucheres were a very important influence on the Dudmaston we see today. Lady Rachel quickly realised that the house was not particularly unusual and risked being a little overlooked in the National Trust’s impressive catalogue of stately homes, so she and her husband set about adding value to the property, mainly through the creation of modern gallery spaces in one wing. They filled these with their various collections and today you can see Sir George’s modern art and ceramics and Lady Rachel’s costumes and botanical watercolours in several separate galleries. There is also some interesting information about their past life on the road as Sir George was a British ambassador posted abroad for almost 25 years, including stints in Stockholm, Nanking, Buenos Aires, Vienna, Budapest, Brussels and Madrid, before landing back in Shropshire. The Laboucheres’ influence spreads beyond the galleries, though, with examples of modern art also lurking in various quiet corners of the gardens, while the pretty staircase hall wouldn’t be quite the same without its impressive chandelier, which is said to be modelled on one from the British embassy in Spain.
Through no fault of its own (unless I can blame the cattle grids), Dudmaston may stick in my memory for the wrong reason as a suspension coil on my car snapped on the way out of the car park, stranding me in the wilds of Shropshire waiting for a breakdown truck. For some, the modern art would have compensated for that but I don’t really have an eye for abstracts, so instead I will simply give Dudmaston credit for its beautiful staircase, lovely views and charming clock winder!
Highlights: Regency staircase hall; views down the garden terraces to Big Pool
Refreshments: Vegetable soup, bread and crisps; hot chocolate and shortbread cookie; a ham and salad sandwich to have later at the hotel. (Another small black mark here as the restaurant hadn’t really catered for a coach party that they had in so when we went for lunch at about 12.45 there was very little choice of hot food left.)
Purchase(s): ‘A short guide to Dudmaston’