No rest for the wicked. A day after Hughenden, I was let loose on the Cotswolds and headed to Charlecote Park. This was my first property classified in the Midlands region so I’m counting that as another milestone – I need to give myself milestones so I feel I’m making progress, even though I’m still just over a twentieth of the way through the challenge!
Charlecote was another repeat visit although I last came on a Wednesday when the house wasn’t open so that first time didn’t really count. On arrival, my first port of call (after the toilet, that is!) was the gatehouse where I gathered with some other interested folk to listen to a welcome talk. I can’t stress enough how useful these talks are as an introduction to a property and the Charlecote version was no exception, giving me some helpful background and some anecdotes about the Lucy family, particularly those members of the clan who have shaped the house and grounds.
Descendants of the Lucys (the Fairfax-Lucys) still live in the south wing of the house to this day and the Lucys can claim to have one of the longest-lasting relationships between a family and its English lands, with ties to the site dating back to the 12th century. The Norman family based at this location was originally known as de Cherlecote and then became de Luci through marriage, which was then adjusted to the anglicised Lucy.
According to my trusty (no pun intended!) volunteer guide, there were three Lucys that had a particular influence on the house. The first was Sir Thomas Lucy I (1532-1600) who built the main body of the Tudor brick building at Charlecote and later hosted Queen Elizabeth I there, a major claim to fame for Charlecote (and incidentally my third property in a row to have had visits from queens or future queens). The visit in 1572 also prompted the construction of the ornate entrance porch, which features the Queen’s coat of arms above the door.
The second of the significant Lucys was George Lucy (1714-1786), ‘the bachelor squire’, who called in Capability Brown to sweep away the 17th century formal garden and create the kind of parkland estate so popular at the time. This was a big job and involved filling in several lakes and even redirecting the course of the River Dene, which flows into the Avon as it runs through the estate. He was also responsible for bringing in the flock of black and white Jacob sheep, descendants of which are still munching their way through Charlecote grass today.
The third of our influential Lucys was Mary Elizabeth Lucy (1803-1890), née Williams, who married George Hammond Lucy. Mary Elizabeth brought money to the match and was the latest in a string of Lucy brides to have done so – it seems that this was the most popular strategy for maintaining the Lucy estates at Charlecote! Alongside her husband, Mary Elizabeth proceeded to oversee major changes to the building, including a large extension at the back, the addition of bay windows and various other Victorian touches. She and George also embarked on two Continental tours and brought back many of the finest pieces of furniture in the house, including some of the pietra dura tables and caskets, which feature designs made from a mosaic of different stones. Having studied gemmology for a while, these were a particular highlight for me, and one casket in particular stood out as it features a design that is very familiar as it is recreated on the place mats on my parents’ dining table!
My welcome talk was completed with the tale of Shakespeare’s supposed association with Charlecote, where he was said to have been caught poaching deer. The first Thomas Lucy was a justice of the peace at the time and was said to have known Shakespeare’s father, so young Will escaped with relatively minor punishment. Thomas was also reported to be a real bore, regaling everyone with stories of his family’s deep Warwickshire roots and it has been suggested that Justice Shallow, who appears in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and whose coat of arms features the same white pike as the Lucy arms, is based on Thomas; this cannot be proven, however, and modern opinion is said to be sceptical.
Talk over, I wandered around the grounds for a while. The service wing to the south of the main house includes a laundry, the old kitchens and scullery, a stable block (complete with second-hand bookshop), and three carriage rooms in which a collection of Lucy family coaches and carriages used in the 19th and 20th centuries can be seen. There is also an old brewhouse.
Further out, there is a bridge over the Dene, where I watched some of the fallow deer for a while. It would seem that the does live on one side of the river and the bucks on the other, only meeting during the mating season, when the bucks swim across the Avon for some entertainment! I also spotted some sizeable fish in the Dene, probably carp, while there is said to be a large heronry in the nearby trees so Charlecote certainly delivers on its wildlife. Walking down to the Cascade to take some photos of the deer across the river (carefully dodging deer poo as I went), I was joined by another enthusiastic photographer and we compared notes for a while, although from the size of the zoom lens on his camera, I imagine he got some better shots than I did!
I quickly took in the croquet lawn, the woodland garden and the herbaceous borders, which were still quite colourful even in late-September. I also walked around the edge of the formal garden, which is bordered by a deep ha-ha. This could be something of a pain for walkers as it would be easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the ha-ha and having to walk a long way round to get back into the grounds of the house. But it does its job, there’s no deer poo to negotiate on the inside of this barrier!
The Orangery restaurant was located nearby so I popped in for a very nice hot lunch before heading into the house.
Unlike Hughenden’s slightly intimate rooms, Charlecote instantly gives more of an impression of grandeur. The visitor enters straight into the Great Hall and it is certainly not inappropriately named. One can just imagine Queen Elizabeth I and her retinue being welcomed there and I was quite excited to be walking in her footsteps. There’s an awful lot to see in the house, including numerous portraits of Lucys (the first Sir Thomas would be so proud!), plus furniture and ornaments brought back from George and Mary Elizabeth’s Grand Tours. Besides the pietra dura, other highlights for me were as follows:
- The Charlecote buffet or sideboard in the Dining Room: quite frankly hideous but certainly unusual and worth seeing! It is also home to a cute little fella at the moment (see below), who is nestling in the carved wood, just one of many dotted around the house for the children to seek out on the ‘Deer Hunt’.
- The ebony and ivory cabinets and chairs in the Library: really intricate and beautiful to look at if you can ignore the rather un-PC presence of a large quantity of ivory.
- The carved ‘tête à tête’ settee in the Drawing Room: really beautifully carved.
- The Dutch cabinet at the foot of the stairs: decorated with impressive floral marquetry.
Another notable aspect of the house is that some of the most impressive carved wooden ceilings are not wood at all but plaster painted to look like wood. And a pretty good paint job it is. I’d never have known had I not read it in the guidebook.
You may have noticed that many of my previous NT visits have literary connotations and my love of books means that I appreciate any such associations. Charlecote didn’t let me down with its own little gems. Besides the possible Shakespeare link, a relatively recent inhabitant of the house was one Alice Fairfax-Lucy, née Buchan, daughter of the novelist John Buchan. She later wrote her own books about the history of Charlecote and its occupants, while her husband Brian also wrote a short novel entitled The Children of Charlecote (available in the shop).
As I left, the same woman was giving a welcome talk to new arrivals so, just like the lady at Hughenden, another volunteer with strong vocal chords and the patience for constant repetition. The walk back to the car park took quite some time as I had to stop and photograph the fallow deer bucks as they pottered around under the trees. My friend with the super zoom lens was nowhere to be seen this time, but I expect he’s at home now looking at his superb shots while I’ve had to pick out one of the few that doesn’t have motion blur!
Highlights: Pietra dura tables and caskets; deer!
Refreshments: Chicken, Ham & Leek Pie with new potatoes and seasonal veg