I think the best way to describe Lytes Cary is as a ‘gentle’ visit. It was a lovely morning, the staff were all very friendly and helpful, the tea and cake went down a treat, the gardens were pretty and surprisingly still floral considering it’s now mid-September, and the house is fairly intimate and cosy. There is nothing about the place to dazzle or amaze you but there are days when ‘gentle’ is just the ticket and this fits the bill.
The Chapel, which is entered separately from the main house, is the oldest part of the Manor, dating back to 1348. I thought it was quite amusing that a board inside reports that it was ‘newely repayred’ by Thomas Lyte and his wife Constance in 1631. So even the ‘new’ repairs date back almost four hundred years!
The Lyte family is clearly at the heart and soul of Lytes Cary, not only in its name but also in every corner as their coat of arms – featuring three white swans – appears absolutely everywhere. In fact, if you’re visiting with children, it might be a challenge for them to identify as many examples of the coat of arms as possible. Tell them to look for examples in wood, stained glass, stone, plaster and paint. They really are everywhere!
Although various Lytes contributed to the expansion of the manor over the years, the most interesting member of the family was probably Henry Lyte (1529-1607) who was a learned chap best known for translating the Dutch Niewe Herbal herbology book into English. In the Great Hall, you can see an original copy of this book, printed in 1578. The book is kept under a cloth to prevent too much light damage but visitors can have a look and as a lover of the printed word it was wonderful to see something so old and well preserved.
The Lytes were associated with Lytes Cary from the 14th to the 18th centuries but finally in 1755 failing fortunes forced them to leave. After this, the manor was neglected for many years until it was bought by Sir Walter Jenner and his wife Flora in 1907. Now, before you go asking any of the volunteers, Sir Walter is no relation to Edward Jenner who created the smallpox vaccine. In fact, if you value the volunteers’ sanity, it’s probably best not to mention this as it appears they get asked the same question quite often!
Sir Walter is actually the son of Queen Victoria’s physician Sir William Jenner so there is a medical connection of sorts. However, he himself was an army man. When he found Lytes Cary, parts of it were being used for the storage of cider and farm equipment so it was a huge rebuilding and renovation project. Inside, instead of buying historically precise furniture, he introduced a range of pieces to suggest a gradual accumulation of furnishings over time. His sister-in-law was also skilled with a needle and contributed various embroidered items.
The house was bequeathed to the Trust on Sir Walter’s death in 1948. His wife had pre-deceased him as had his two children – one as an infant and one at the age of 37 – so he decided that the Trust should look after the house once he was gone, in order to commemorate his restoration work and to ensure that the manor was not neglected again. Only part of the house is now open to the public, with another part used as a holiday home. Prior to this, the extra part was tenanted by Jeremy and Biddy Chittenden, who are to be thanked for their roles in transforming the gardens into the tranquil series of ‘rooms’ you can see today. My favourite view in the garden is the approach to the front entrance with the ‘12 apostles’ yew hedges lining the path, an excellent name for what are fairly unusual examples of topiary (see top photo). And look out for members of the local croquet club who regularly use the croquet lawn and are rather more skilled at wielding a mallet than the average visitor.
I’d also like to shout out a thank you to the couple who saw us trying to take a photo of the front of the house and rapidly leapt behind an ‘apostle’ bush to leave a clear view! It was much appreciated.
Highlights: The 12 ‘apostles’; the chapel; seeking out the Lyte coats of arms
Refreshments: Tea and fruit cake
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Sign of the Cross’ by Chris Kuzneski (from small secondhand book stall)
NT Connections: Avebury Manor, which was owned by Walter Jenner’s brother Leopold
As with other days, we weren’t satisfied with just one NT visit today and headed off from Lytes Cary to find the Stembridge Tower Mill, which is the only thatched windmill still surviving in England. Like a few of the other Somerset finds from a few days ago, it was a quick stop-off to have a look and take a photo. There is a sign board in the (very small) parking area so you can read a bit about its history and see how the machinery operates inside. The interior is open on only three days a year and this time we hadn’t timed it perfectly… doh! But a windmill is always a nice sight and a thatched one isn’t something you see every day so it was a nice detour.