Hooray! March has arrived and that means that my challenge is back in business as, after a couple of barren months, a lot of NT houses are now re-opening their doors. March also brings the Cheltenham horse racing festival – an annual pilgrimage for me – so I took the opportunity to squeeze in one of my visits en route to the Cotswolds and headed off to Greys Court in Oxfordshire.
As ever, I wanted to take advantage of the house tour on offer so we (my Mum and I) booked in for the second of the day’s two guided talks. Before that, we took advantage of the Cowshed tearooms for a toasted teacake and a cuppa before checking out the gardens. The Cowshed has pictures and information about the Guernsey cattle owned and shown by the Brunner family, which is a nice touch, while in another nearby outbuilding is a very rare and large donkey wheel, which was used to raise water from the 200-foot-deep well, so that is also worth a look.
The gardens aren’t much to write home about in March; there were some spring bulbs but the daffodils weren’t yet out and the snowdrops were just about over. I suggest May would be the ideal time to visit as there is an enormous 120-year-old wisteria trailing over a network of trellises with a bed of bluebells beneath and that should be pretty spectacular in a couple of months’ time. Other walled gardens within the Greys Court grounds include a rose garden, a white garden, a knot garden, a cherry garden, a large kitchen garden and a brick and grass maze, which is a relatively recent addition. Another highlight of the grounds is the old tower, which is all that remains of the fortifications that were added in the 13th and 14th centuries by the early de Grey barons, members of the de Grey family who took their name from the place a couple of hundred years before that.
The house tour begins in the Drawing Room where you are invited to sit in the comfy chairs for the first part of the talk. It was pointed out that one of the places on the sofa was occupied by Zoe Wanamaker during filming of Poirot at Greys Court. I was tempted to tackle the other people on the tour in order to snag that particular spot, but was reluctant to embarrass my mother, so I settled for the window seat (which was actually a good choice as the radiator was directly underneath and it was far from a warm day).
One of the main highlights of Greys Court is its varied family history. The de Greys were here from the 11th to mid-15th centuries, then the Lovells were resident for a while but Francis Lovell fought for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and then led rebellions against Henry Tudor so his bridges were pretty much burnt to a crisp and he had to flee to Ireland. In 1514, the property was given to Robert Knollys (apparently pronounced Knowles), a member of Henry VII’s court, and there were Knollyses living here until the early 1700s. It was Robert’s son Francis who, over a period of 37 years in the 16th century, built the Elizabethan house that stands at Greys Court today. He hoped that Queen Elizabeth would come to visit his rebuilt home but she never did, so unfortunately it fails to make it onto my increasingly long list of properties once visited by royalty.
The Knollyses will make it onto another of my lists, however, as there appeared to be a tradition of using the name Lettice for female members of the family and Lettice Knollys just has to feature on the list of unusual names associated with NT properties.
Another interesting fact about the Knollys (for any Tudor buffs among you) is that Sir Francis’ wife was Catherine Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn, who was herself the sister of Anne Boleyn and former mistress of Henry VIII before he switched his attentions to Anne. So, is there a chance that Catherine was actually Henry’s daughter and that royalty did in fact live at Greys Court at one time, albeit illegitimate royalty?
After the Knollyses, the Stapleton family owned Greys for more than 200 years from 1724 to 1935. This challenge has already made it clear to me how many close links there are between the Trust’s many properties and here is another example as Sir Thomas Stapleton, the second of the Stapleton baronets to live at Greys is also linked to the NT’s West Wycombe where his cousin Sir Francis Dashwood founded the notorious Hell-Fire Club. As a member of the club, it is suggested that Stapleton may have hosted meetings in the Dower House at Greys and it bears a Latin inscription over the front door translating as ‘Nothing is better than the single life’.
The next owner of the house for a short spell from 1935 to 1937 was Mrs Evelyn Fleming, the mother of travel writer Peter Fleming and the more famous James Bond creator Ian Fleming, which makes her of immediate interest to an author junkie like myself. I imagine her sons visited the house during her tenure and I can guarantee you if someone had pointed out a sofa once occupied by Ian Fleming, no one could have stopped me bagging that seat (embarrassed mother or not)!
The last owners of the house before the Trust took it on were Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth Brunner. Although Sir Felix died in 1982, his wife was living at Greys right up until 2003 and was said to be a regular presence in the house and grounds regaling the paying public with her stories and insights. The furnishings and contents of the house still belong to the Brunners and it does feel very much like a family home. The family have given approval for visitors to sit on any of the chairs in the house (so not a pinecone or thistle in sight!), but they do insist that there is no photography inside the house. The lived-in feel even stretches to a television in the Schoolroom, while the Kitchen is a fascinating amalgam of Elizabethan beams, Tudor panelling and sixties formica work surfaces!
Both sides of the Brunner family were interesting: Sir Felix was the grandson of Sir John Brunner, co-founder of the Brunner Mond chemical company, later amalgamated to form ICI, while Elizabeth was the grand-daughter of the Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving, whose (very handsome!) bust adorns the piano in the Drawing Room, while a belt with daggers and scabbards that he once wore in a production of Macbeth live in a display case over the Dining Room window.
The Brunner line was originally from Switzerland and one of the highlights of the furnishings is a Swiss card table in the Entrance Hall. The slate-topped table sports a carved German inscription that translates as ‘Felix Brunner had me made in the year 1584 in this house I must stay’. This particular Felix was probably not a relation but simply a namesake of the Greys Brunners so it was a real find for the family. Our guide also informed us that the black slate, featured in place of green baize on top, would have been used by the Swiss card players to chalk their scores directly onto the table, which I thought was a slightly ingenious idea – very practical, these Swiss.
One major disappointment from this visit was the absence of Moss. I don’t mean the green fluffy stuff that decorates many a wall and rooftop, Moss is actually black and fluffy and is the resident cat at Greys Court. The Greys Court website directs you to Moss’ online blog (a feline version of me?!) and tells you to keep an eye out for him. I’m a complete sucker for a cute animal so eyes were peeled throughout my visit but Moss never materialised. According to his own blog, he’s partial to ice cream so perhaps I should have waved a cornet around to draw him out. But, again, Mum might have taken exception to those kinds of antics so I’m afraid I had to give up on Moss. If anyone does ever meet him, let me know!
Highlights: The wealth of family stories; the Swiss card table; the wisteria (or at least it will be in May!)
Refreshments: Toasted teacake and redbush tea; cream of tomato and basil soup and apple juice
Purchase(s): Guidebook, Birthday card
NT Connections: West Wycombe Park (Sir Thomas Stapleton was cousin to Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe and a member of Dashwood’s notorious Hell Fire Club)