To paraphrase a well-known movie quote, Chastleton had me at ‘hello’! The second I walked through the gates I was totally sold on the place and was keen to see more, although I would also have been quite happy just staring at the Jacobean exterior for most of the afternoon. I’ve admitted before that ruins and ancient history aren’t really my cup of tea, but Chastleton is a beautiful china mug of steaming hot English Breakfast with a Rich Tea biscuit on the side, just the way I like it! It’s a delightful sight to reward you after the downhill walk from the car park (obviously this is uphill on the way back, you have been warned!).
The visitor reception, toilets, second-hand bookshop and garden exhibition are all based in the stable block to the left of the driveway and you have to visit reception to get your timed ticket for the house. I was allocated a time just 15 minutes after I arrived so I sat in the stableyard and read some introductory info about the property while I waited for my slot.
Chastleton has had a varied and interesting past, with an earlier building on the site being the home of Robert Catesby, one of the Gunpowder Plotters, before his untimely demise left the house in the hands of one Walter Jones, a lawyer descended from a family of Welsh wool merchants. He demolished the old manor and built the existing house between 1607 and 1612. However, it wasn’t long before the Jones family slid into debt so ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ certainly wasn’t at all advisable with this lot (they should maybe have taken a lead from the Lucys of Charlecote and discovered the art of marrying money!). A particularly bad time came after Arthur Jones fought for King Charles II against Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War, leading to fines being levied against the Royalist family. In the late-1940s, one of Arthur’s descendants was fond of telling visitors that the family had lost its money in the war, meaning the Civil War of 300 years past not the recent World War! There is also a juicy story about the Civil War: after the Battle of Worcester, Arthur fled back to the house only to be followed by Cromwell’s soldiers who stayed the night in what is now called the Cavalier Room, with Arthur ‘the Cavalier’ hiding in an adjoining ‘secret’ room. It is said that his wife gave the soldiers ale laced with laudanum so she could sneak her husband out while they slept. He wouldn’t return to Chastleton for two more years.
The Joneses were also not quite as lucky as the Lucys with regard to the line of inheritance as the house had to be passed to a cousin in 1828, thus changing the family name to Whitmore-Jones, and then later to a nephew, who changed his name from Whitmore Harris to Whitmore-Jones. By then, the financial burden was too much and the house was let to the Richardson family for over 30 years. Irene Whitmore-Jones, wife of the former Whitmore Harris nephew, returned to Chastleton in 1934 and died in 1955 at which time the Jones name disappeared entirely, with another cousin, Alan Clutton-Brock and his wife Barbara, taking over. Barbara was the last inhabitant before the sale of the house in 1991 and appears to have spent her twilight years living in a crumbling house surrounded only by cats.
From the second I wandered into the Great Hall to the scent and sound of a crackling log fire, I was just as struck with the inside of the house as I was with the outside, which is perhaps surprising considering the dilapidated state of some rooms. I think it was the atmosphere of the place more than anything, with different rooms bringing to life some of the stories I had read. The ‘secret’ closet off the Cavalier Room is suitably dark and ominous, while Barbara Clutton-Brock’s shabby bedroom, the Sheldon Room, is ostentatious enough to have been a poignant reminder to its occupant of the house’s former glory days.
After taking it on, it was apparently several years before the Trust could make the house safe enough for visitors, and there are still signs of work, with one staircase still carrying supporting buttresses. The Trust has also taken an approach of conservation rather than renovation, so the old creaking floorboards remain throughout (just try to walk through this house quietly, I dare you!) and some rooms have blank, cracked ceilings where the ornate Jacobean plasterwork – still to be seen in other rooms – has collapsed. This made me a little nervous in the Great Chamber, which has plaster bosses hanging down from its surviving ceiling, with worryingly pointy ends aimed straight at the visitors’ heads!
Tapestry fans will appreciate a number of fine examples throughout the house, while the ornate plaster friezes in many rooms are a real highlight. A particular oddity in the Great Hall is the deer on the end wall, which comprises real antlers on a wooden deer’s head with a two-dimensional deer’s body painted on the wall, certainly something I’d never seen before. Just a day after seeing some more old drinking glasses, similar to those at Mompesson, I came across yet more 18th century examples, this time on the dining table in the Great Parlour.
But it wasn’t until I got to the very top of the house that I came across what I consider to be the jewel in Chastleton’s crown – the Long Gallery. Running 22 metres above the entire north front of the house, it is said to be the longest surviving barrel-vaulted ceiling of its date in England. It is a light and airy space and the Richardson children were reported to have played badminton there during the family’s tenancy. It is certainly a perfect indoor space for exercise if the weather is inclement outside but I wouldn’t advise doing a Usain Bolt along it now as you could well come a cropper on the uneven floorboards.
Leaving the house, it didn’t take long to wander around the garden and I decided to skip the half-hour garden tour and sit on a bench to read the guidebook instead. There are two croquet lawns at Chastleton, which is perhaps unsurprising as it was a Whitmore-Jones (Walter) who codified the rules of croquet in 1866. The Joneses appear to have been big fans of game-playing, with Walter’s sister Mary having written books on Patience and invented the Chastleton Patience Board to hold playing cards in tiers. Walter himself also created a ‘Game of War’, while his brother Wolryche (yes, really!) devised Squails, a cross between shove-halfpenny and table bowls. Both of these latter games were produced commercially for a while and a box of Squails can be seen in the White Parlour alongside Mary’s Patience Board.
The highlight of the garden would be the Best Garden (perhaps unsurprisingly!), a round area bordered by a yew hedge and crammed with 24 box topiary bushes (no, I didn’t count them, I’m quoting the guidebook). Over the years, these box bushes have been formed into a range of interesting shapes but were overgrown when the Trust took over, so it simply trimmed them into a suggestion of their former shapes, leaving a unique collection of bubbly, amorphous blobs (or ‘cloud-like forms’ as the guidebook prefers to call them).
Before you leave Chastleton, I would recommend a quick trip into the neighbouring churchyard to have a cup of tea and slice of homemade cake laid on by volunteers (not NT). It was certainly odd sitting on a plastic chair among the gravestones of past village residents tucking into chocolate cake, but it was welcome sustenance to fuel my walk back up the hill to the car park.
PS: The run of Queens has been broken; as far as I can tell no Queen ever visited Chastleton. Although I really think at least one of them should have done!
Highlights: The Long Gallery, the Great Hall, plasterwork friezes, the Best Garden and its ‘blobs’
Refreshments: Cup of tea and homemade chocolate cake among the gravestones!
NT Connections: Polesden Lacey (the barrel-vaulted ceiling of Polesden’s picture corridor is modelled on that of the Long Gallery)