The Wimpole Estate was another property that featured as part of the ‘Inside the National Trust’ television documentary in 2014 so I was half hoping to bump into some more familiar faces as I had done at Wordsworth House in Cumbria. Unfortunately, this time it was not to be.
Faced with a very large estate, including parkland, formal gardens, kitchen gardens, a rare breeds farm and the Hall itself (not to mention the restaurant, which just has to feature in my visits!), it was something of a challenge to decide what we could fit in and in what order. Indications from the car park and notices in the Stable Block hinted that a busy day was expected, so we decided to start with the Home Farm and hopefully see some lambs before the hordes of families arrived with their children.
It was probably a wise plan as we managed to get a good, uninterrupted view of the various piglets, lambs, chicks and calves that have all joined the rare breeds’ population this spring. We even arrived 20 minutes after the birth of one little calf so we stood and watched his (or ‘her’, no one had checked yet!) struggles with an unruly herd of larger cows around him until he was stumblingly, but happily, reunited with his mum. It was definitely the right time of year to visit the Farm. As an aside here, I’d like to mention that one of the Dusty Jackets is a teaching assistant and has clearly spent far too much time on farm trips as she was full of facts about lambing and even about the barn doors!
We followed up on our fun visit to the Home Farm with a trip to the Walled Garden, where there was a colourful display of tulips, although a number of the beds are still fairly empty as they lay in wait for the summer crops. We then broke for a very tasty lunch in the Old Rectory Restaurant before tackling the Hall.
Now, while Wimpole Hall is clearly a striking building with an interesting history and a long cast of characters, it is not very visitor friendly if like me you want to gain an understanding of the place while you are there. At the Stable Block, we were told that introductory talks would be available at the house on the hour, or even the half-hour, but we arrived to find that there was no one there to give the talks that day (maybe one of the dangers of going on a Sunday when fewer volunteers are signed up?) so we were on our own.
Having borrowed an old guidebook from my Dad a week earlier, I had hoped to read up on the history before our visit but quickly gave up on that idea as the book was extremely wordy and offered no easy summaries or overviews. As a result, I was expecting to find a new and snappier version at Wimpole but was again disappointed and had to buy simply an updated version of exactly the same hefty, dry book, which includes extremely long analyses of the various owners and a seemingly never-ending rundown of architectural features and lists of paintings and pieces of furniture. Just as at Petworth, where the two available guides were either too short and flimsy or far too complex and detailed (and expensive), I was left with no useful guide to accompany my visit.
Hoping I could skim read as I went around, I opened my guidebook in the Entrance Hall but quickly realised it would be little use at all until I had time to sit and read it all properly. Instead, I hoped for some laminated sheets in each room, just to pinpoint the items of particular interest or the anecdotes about the owners that were relevant to specific locations. But while a few rooms had a very short sheet (although sometimes only two copies per room), others offered nothing at all for the poor visitor stumbling around in the dark (not the literal dark on this occasion, just an information blackout!)
The Dusty Jackets will confirm that I was in a bit of a tiff over all of this and spent the first few rooms complaining vociferously about the situation. So, thank heavens for the Red Room. This is being gradually converted into a display room where information will be provided about the people associated with Wimpole, including its inhabitants and those that worked on it over the years. It is not complete yet, but the sign boards dotted around the room in date order finally allowed me to get a grip on who was who in the Wimpole timeline. Unfortunately, the Red Room doesn’t come around until you have already visited six rooms so the complaints lasted quite a while before my questions were finally answered!
There was an easy-read summary of the various owners of Wimpole Hall in this room so I took a photo of that to help with this report and I have also since waded through the guidebook, so here is my own timeline of the life of Wimpole Hall for anyone wanting to get an idea of its history before their own visit.
- 1400s-1500s: the manors around Wimpole are gradually acquired by the Chicheleys.
- 1640-1686: owned by Sir Thomas Chicheley, who builds a gabled manor house.
- 1686-1693: bought by Sir John Cutler.
- 1693-1710: inherited by Elizabeth Cutler and her husband Charles Robartes, 2nd Earl of Radnor (note, the Robartses return to this summary in about 200 years’ time!).
- 1710-1711: bought by Sir John Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.
- 1711-1739: inherited by Henrietta Cavendish-Holles who married Edward Harley in 1713 and he became 2nd Earl of Oxford in 1724. And here’s where the activity picks up! Harley hired the architect James Gibbs whose contributions to Wimpole over 20 years included the Chapel and the Library extension, which was needed to house Harley’s significant book collection. Much of this was unfortunately sold by his widow, however, as Harley’s extravagance left her bankrupt.
- 1739-1764: bought by Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, who chose Henry Flitwick as his architect. It was during this period that the South and North Fronts of the house were redesigned to look much the way we see them today. There’s a slightly tenuous NT Connection here too (not strong enough for my list but worth a mention) as the 1st Earl’s sister Elizabeth married Admiral Anson, some of whose fortune was used to develop the family’s property at Shugborough.
- 1764-1790: inherited by Philip Yorke, 2nd Earl of Hardwicke, who was another scholarly chap and refilled the Library shelves with his own books. In 1769, he also hired Capability Brown to make some changes in the park and it was at this time that the Gothic folly was built.
- 1790-1834: inherited by Philip (again!) Yorke, 3rd Earl of Hardwicke, the nephew of the 2nd Earl. He met the architect John Soane while on the Grand Tour so when he inherited Wimpole, he turned to Soane to make some changes and we end up with the dramatic Yellow Drawing Room as well as the Bath House with its plunge pool. Soane also built the new Home Farm and the barn that is still standing today, while he extended the ante room to the Library to create the Book Room, a bright airy place to read and one of my favourite spots in the house.
- 1834-1873: inherited by Charles Philip Yorke, 4th Earl of Hardwicke, and again a nephew of the previous Earl. The last big changes to the house were made by Henry Kendall, although in fact much of his work has since been demolished. The most notable remnant is the new Stable Block where the visitor reception, shop and second-hand bookshop can now be found.
- 1873-1894: inherited by Charles Philip Yorke, 5th Earl of Hardwicke, and methinks the most entertaining of all the Earls as he was known as Champagne Charlie! Unfortunately, a surfeit of champagne isn’t conducive with running a large estate so our Charlie, who spent little time at Wimpole, all but ran it into the ground, eventually having to sell it to pay his debts. And here endeth the run of the Hardwickes.
- 1894-1906: the Robartes now reappear after 200 years as Chairman of the Agar-Robartes bank, the 2nd Lord Robartes, took on the estate as satisfaction for some of Champagne Charlie’s debts. Five years later, Robartes became the 6th Viscount Clifden and moved to the family seat at Lanhydrock in Cornwall, taking many of Wimpole’s contents with him! Lanhydrock is another NT property and certainly merits its inclusion as a connection considering its ‘theft’ of many Wimpole treasures.
- 1930-1939: inherited by Gerald Agar-Robartes, 7th Viscount Clifden, who let the property to tenants, the last being George and Elsie Bambridge in 1936. Elsie was the daughter of Rudyard Kipling and he gave financial assistance for her and her husband to buy Wimpole in 1939.
- 1939-1976: it is to the Bambridges that Wimpole owes much of its attraction as a tourist spot as without them it would be a fairly empty house. They spent a great deal on maintaining and improving the property and on filling it with art and furniture, and then Elsie bequeathed it all to the National Trust on her death.
Although this summary is still a bit ‘listy’, it includes some of the types of information that I would like to hear in a 10-minute introductory talk or in an easier-to-read guidebook. So, Wimpole, have a heart, if one of these isn’t on offer, the other certainly should be. I’m not fussy which!
We finished up with a visit to the formal parterre at the back of the house, another trip to the restaurant for (the almost compulsory!) tea and cake, and a wander down the drive to get a photo of the full glory of the South Front. The last stop was the second-hand bookshop and there was no danger of me visiting two consecutive bookshops without buying something so I headed home with a couple of novels for the pile.
Highlights: Home Farm; Book Room; Yellow Drawing Room
Refreshments: Vegetarian shepherd’s pie with celeriac mash topping; pot of tea and marmalade cake
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Outcast’ by Sadie Jones and ‘The Undertaking’ by Audrey Magee, both from second-hand bookshop
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets
NT Connections: Lanhydrock (both having been owned by the Robartes family)
PS: There is a regal visit to log at this property too as Queen Victoria visited the 4th Earl of Hardwicke in 1843.