I woke up in the Cotswolds to a very snowy morning today, with a fairly thick covering on the cars and gardens. It did make me wonder whether my plan to visit Packwood would have to change but fortunately the sun came out, the melt began, and the roads were fine for my journey north into Warwickshire.
I don’t think Packwood had experienced the same blizzard but unfortunately a persistent period of wet weather in recent days means that parts of the grounds are waterlogged and consequently closed to the general public. I was particularly disappointed to hear that the Yew Garden was out of bounds as this appears to be something of which Packwood is particularly proud. However, I was offered a garden tour that would take in the closed areas of the garden and park, so I jumped at the chance to see the parts other visitors could not reach.
While I have taken many tours on my NT travels to date, this was (surprisingly) the first time that I had joined a garden tour. I am not sure what that says about my green fingers (or lack thereof) as even now I seem to have chosen the tour for access rather than information. I am not sure how it compares with other garden tours – I’ll have to try another one soon for reference – but it focused largely on identifying certain plants around the gardens and giving just a little background to the history of their layout. Whether visitors choose to take the tour or not, however, I would say that the gardens are a significant part of Packwood’s appeal and I was pleased to have spent longer in the grounds than I might otherwise have done.
The garden tour actually affected my house visit as my arrival time wasn’t very convenient for the start time of the tour. Entry to the house is by timed ticket so I had a ticket allowing entry between 11 and 12. With just 45 minutes before the start of the tour, I went straight into the house and sped around more quickly than I might have done so as to get back to the meeting point in time. I could have gone back and got another timed ticket for later on, but to be honest, I did feel that I had seen enough as the house wasn’t really my cup of tea. It is full of very typical Tudor décor and furnishings, with lots of very dark oak and faded tapestries, all wrapped up in deep gloom as the Trust keeps the lighting levels as low as possible to protect the textiles. This over-sensitivity to light is still one of my bugbears as the inability to see the objects in a house does tend to detract from their merit! I understand the arguments for protecting fragile antiques from the obvious damage that light causes, and there is a fine balance to be found between preservation and the visitor experience, but I sometimes feel that the former has taken over too much in recent years. After all, what is the point of preserving things for the nation if the nation can’t actually see them? And I don’t remember such dark and dismal houses in my childhood Trusting experiences, so this fear of the light appears to be a modern condition.
Getting back to the house, Packwood was owned by the Fetherston family for over 250 years, with generation after generation of Fetherstons making it their home, but this story is not really a part of Packwood’s visitor experience as, by the time the house moved out of Fetherston ownership, very little of the original Tudor building remained and today’s Packwood is very different from the Fetherston Packwood. When the property was bought by Alfred Ash for his son, Graham Baron Ash (‘Baron’ being a second Christian name, not a title), in 1905, only the roof structure dated back to the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. In the 1920s and 1930s, Baron Ash (he preferred to drop the Graham) remodelled the house completely, adding a Long Gallery and Great Hall – so familiar from genuine Tudor manor houses – and re-creating room after room in the Tudor fashion, with original panelling, furniture and tapestries from a number of other properties around the country. One house that was fully milked of its relevant pieces was nearby Baddesley Clinton so I will be interested to see what actually remains there when I visit at a later date. It seems that Baron was a friend of Baddesley Clinton’s Ferrers family and apparently helped them out of some financial holes by buying up a lot of their belongings.
The story of Baron Ash is well told in the house and there are many quotes dotted about – cleverly printed on cushions and plates – to give a picture of the man himself. Several from James Lees-Milne build an interesting impression of a tidy and fastidious man. For example: ‘If one stayed a night at Packwood and left a book lying on a downstairs table it would be removed a minute after one quitted the room.’ Or: ‘It never was a proper country house, with worn hats and tobacco pouches in the hall, dogs’ baskets and children’s toys in the living rooms. Heaven forbid! Baron would have died of horror at the idea’. Instead, it appears the house was already a lived-in museum in Baron’s time and was passed on as such to the National Trust in 1941. I have to say, from what I have read of Baron Ash so far, I am not sure I would have wanted to stay in his house; I’d have been far too worried about spilling something or making any kind of mess. Some notable names who did visit and risk the wrath of Baron include Queen Mary in 1927 and George Bernard Shaw and his wife in 1932.
I may change my impression of ‘The Baron of Packwood’, after reading the brief biography that was given to me for free on the condition that I bought the old guidebook and not the new one. Hopefully I didn’t miss any updated information that might be included in the new guide, but I couldn’t resist the freebie (and I like to think I’ve helped Packwood clear some of their old guidebook stock… which was presumably the reason for the special offer!).
I would say that if you like old Tudor houses – and are not afraid to try one that is a re-creation rather than an original – then you would probably enjoy a house visit at Packwood. But if not, I certainly wouldn’t write it off as the gardens are worth a visit by themselves. The Yew Garden, with its supposed layout of the Sermon on the Mount, is particularly striking, while I would recommend a walk around the lake (although perhaps on less soggy days). The garden tour took me as far as the bluebell wood, which is just starting to impress, and the tour guide pointed out some of the follies that now grace the grounds, including the giant wooden four-poster bed with its ‘mattress’ of grass for visitors to lie on (I refer you back to the comment about less soggy days, however).
Besides the bluebells and the last of the daffodils, there wasn’t a huge amount in flower at the moment, although the yellow border and its tulips were notably pretty as was the magnolia against the wall of the Great Hall. The next few weeks promise blossoms in the orchard and then perhaps wisteria and alliums. So, as always with gardens, I enjoyed what I saw but still left slightly disappointed at what I missed out on. I’m just a glass half empty kind of girl!
After grabbing some lunch in the café, I made a final stop-off at the Kitchen Garden. There isn’t much to see at this time of year, but I’d like to thank the gardeners for sending me home with a smile on my face – a blackboard just outside the garden cheerily asked me ‘What is small, red and whispers?’… The answer: A hoarse radish! The common or garden puns are always the best!
Highlights: The Yew Garden, the story of the house’s re-creation
Refreshments: Egg mayonnaise sandwich, crisps and a chocolate brownie
Purchase(s): Guidebook (with free booklet about Graham Baron Ash), birthday cards
NT Connections: Baddesley Clinton (Graham Baron Ash was friends with the Ferrers family of Baddesley Clinton and became something of a financial lifeline through buying a lot of artefacts from them)