I’ve hit the milestone of my fiftieth visit! I would say it puts me a fifth of the way through but I actually started with 257 properties (albeit a slightly flexible number) so I still need to do one or two more before I hit that. Not to worry, though, there’s two planned for tomorrow and another on Monday before I even decide whether to add a further one on Tuesday so I’ll have ticked off over a fifth of the list within the next few days. But that’s all incidental. I’m supposed to be talking about Barrington Court so let’s get back on track.
If you’re looking for a stately home full of antique furnishings and art, Barrington Court is not the place for you. However, it has plenty to offer in other ways, including beautiful gardens, the fascinating story of a house in need of rescue and a lovely waitress-service restaurant in a beautiful setting. And the other thing that struck me about the place is the pure peace and quiet. At Montacute, you could hear some traffic noise in parts of the grounds but I’m sure we could have heard a pin drop at Barrington. It really is a remote and peaceful spot.
We started with the gardens and there’s something for everyone, including orchards, herbaceous borders, formal walled gardens (including a lily garden, a rose and iris garden and a white garden) and one of the best kitchen gardens I’ve ever visited. There are maps of the kitchen garden available so you can identify any unusual vegetables you might not recognise on first sight. Some of the more unusual highlights were the squash pergolas and the clay forcing pots for rhubarb. In the Strode Restaurant, a chalkboard shows what is being served from the garden today so we tucked into home-grown new potatoes, carrots and berries during the course of our wonderful lunch.
In fact, the restaurant at Barrington Court is worth the visit on its own! Slightly unusually for the Trust, it is a waitress-service restaurant with comfortable, upholstered chairs and atmospheric 1920s background music. We were early for lunch so we got a table right by the window looking out to the Lily Garden, which currently has an absolutely stunning display of bright red dahlias, and it felt more like sitting in an upmarket hotel restaurant than a National Trust property. The food did nothing to alter this view; we both had cod loin with creamed leeks, crushed new potatoes and fresh vegetables, followed by apple and berry crumble with clotted cream, all washed down with Barrington apple juice. And not a mouthful could be faulted. But if you’re not interested in a full lunch, there are a couple of sandwich options available or you can eat in the café near visitor reception, which has a more everyday food choice. (Although, quite frankly, I think you’d be mad not to try the restaurant!)
I seem to have digressed a little with a long description of my lunch (it really was nice!) so back to Barrington Court. There are actually two attractive buildings at Barrington, the Court itself made from Ham Hill stone, which dates from the 1550s, and Strode House (as it is now called), which is a brick-built former stable block added about a hundred years later (and now home to the shop and restaurant). The two buildings are now attached via a covered walkway added during the Lyle renovations.
Interestingly, Barrington was built slightly earlier than Montacute House but the two houses are relatively similar, with the same E-shaped construction and use of the local Ham Hill stone. They also share a Great Hall and a Long Gallery as was the wont with those Tudor and Elizabethan builders. Like Montacute, Barrington also sports a lot of glass windows but it is altogether plainer than Montacute, built by William Clifton, a wealthy merchant with perhaps fewer designs on impressing visitors than Edward Phelips. Interestingly, in 1605, after three generations of Cliftons, the house was actually sold to Sir Thomas Phelips, a member of the Montacute Phelips family (that’s one for my connections list).
The house was sold again in 1625, this time to William Strode, whose son William Strode II built Strode House in the 1670s and whose initials can still be seen outlined in its brickwork (you can see these from one of the windows of the Court’s Long Gallery).
Things went downhill for Barrington after this, however, as it passed through many different hands and gradually disintegrated so that by the end of the 19th century, it was little more than a derelict shell with bricked up windows. It was here in 1907 that the newly-formed National Trust (just 12 years old) got involved, with Barrington Court becoming its first purchase of a major country house. It was nearly a disaster for the Trust, however, as its upkeep was so expensive that it was quite some time before they would buy another. Apparently, ‘remember Barrington’ was the regular refrain when anyone suggested the purchase of another big house.
Enter Colonel Arthur Lyle, a director of the Abram Lyle & Sons sugar business, which was later to merge with Henry Tate & Sons to form Tate & Lyle. The 99-year lease that Lyle took on in 1920 brought sweeter times for Barrington (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). He and his architect friend JE Forbes, together with advice from garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, remodelled the Court and its grounds, bringing it back from the brink. Lyle actually had a collection of historic woodwork from old houses just like Barrington and the Court was the perfect place to install this. Today, this collection is perhaps the highlight of the Court building itself, with some fine examples of wood panelling and an ornate staircase to be seen in the unfurnished house.
Despite the lack of furniture, Barrington has some very informative boards and displays, including a discussion of Lyle’s involvement in an exhibition in a corridor of Strode House (between the shop and restaurant). The main rooms in the Court also feature information boards giving little snippets of information about its use and the Lyle family’s involvement.
There are also recordings playing in the Sluice Room and the Porch Room, the former relating a boy’s life at Barrington Court during the Second World War when a school was evacuated there and the second featuring the childhood memories of Andrew Lyle, grandson of Arthur. There is also an old wind-up gramophone on a window sill in one room on the ground floor so I now know how to work one of those. I think the other visitors maybe wished I’d never found out, though, as the volume was quite loud and the record very scratched! I quickly found out how to stop an old gramophone record too.
Other things to look out for are the linenfold panelling in the Great Hall, the Long Gallery and the Delft tiles in some of the bathrooms, including a couple of handsome chickens (right). It was quite amusing that the old toilets in the bathrooms feature signs explaining that they are for show only and not for use. Just as you’re thinking that this is a bit ridiculous and that no one would be silly enough to try using them… you realise that someone somewhere probably would!
I’m actually quite amazed at how long this review has become, considering that Barrington Court is actually an empty house! But it just goes to show that even an empty shell can be presented in such a way as to be interesting, informative and enjoyable. It seems to me that more and more empty National Trust properties are now being reopened to the public and they could do a lot worse than use Barrington Court as a template to follow.
Highlights: The gardens; the restaurant; the historic woodwork; the peace and quiet
Refreshments: Cod loin with creamed leeks, new potatoes and fresh vegetables (including carrots and potatoes from the kitchen garden); apple and berry crumble with clotted cream; Barrington apple juice (all extremely yum!)
Purchase(s): Guidebook; silver leaf necklace from the on-site craft workshops
NT Connections: Montacute House (both built from local Ham Hill stone and once owned by Phelipses).