125. Beningbrough Hall & Gardens – 5/5/2018

The rear view – a brighter, sunnier picture than the one taken from the front!

When I booked this spring’s holiday cottage in North Yorkshire, I was completely unaware that the visit (with Mum in tow once again) would coincide with the annual 4-day Tour de Yorkshire cycle race. And that our holiday cottage was directly on Saturday’s route from Richmond to Scarborough! In an ideal world, we could have stayed here in Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe for the day and joined the enthusiastic locals cheering the cyclists as they whizzed through the village, but my NT trips don’t often allow for going ‘off piste’ and this week is no exception with little time to spare for non-NT activities. So, we had to simply plan a little creatively: leaving the village before the rolling road closure kicked in and returning after the road had re-opened. All went smoothly and we then watched the cycling highlights on TV in the evening.

The front view

We headed south to avoid any other inadvertent contact with the race route and made our way to Beningbrough Hall & Gardens. During my travels, I have come across a few properties that I tend to think of as ‘no strings attached’ houses, i.e. properties that the Trust has been able to mould in its own way without too many historical ties or limitations, and Beningbrough seems to be one of these. In this instance, the house came to the NT in 1958 with few significant contents and with a rundown garden so it was initially tenanted for a number of years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began to create a visitor attraction. What has been done with Beningbrough – in association with the National Portrait Gallery – is actually fairly special and has turned what could have been a relatively empty house into an interesting space, blending Baroque architecture and decoration with a modern art gallery. The visitor travels from the awe-inspiring double-height Italianate Great Hall right up to the top floor’s display galleries, which would not be out of place in a contemporary museum.

Perhaps because of this, there is less attention than usual paid to the various owners of Beningbrough  and to who did what and when. I had to turn to my guide book to fill in the gaps but it appears from this background reading that there are still many mysteries about the Hall. For example, there are no images of the Tudor manor that stood on this spot before the current house was built, plus some uncertainty about how the surroundings of the current Baroque house may once have looked: a painting of the property in the Great Staircase Hall shows flanking buildings and a turning circle that may never have existed… or did they? No one knows.

As far as the people are concerned, there is a little more clarity: Ralph Bourchier built the original Tudor house then several generations later John Bourchier inherited the estate at the age of 16 and after four years on the Grand Tour returned with major plans for an Italian-style home. Thankfully, he married a wealthy heiress (so many of these house builders did!) and Beningbrough Hall was created. The Bourchier line ended with Margaret Earle, née Bourchier, who owned the house for 65 years in total, although it was left abandoned for a long period during that time as she and her husband travelled the Continent. The Earles spent so much time abroad that commentators of the day reported Margaret to ‘dress very French’ and speak only ‘broken English’ on her return.

Margaret’s two sons were both killed fighting Napoleon so the property then passed to a close friend of the family, the Reverend William Dawnay and the Dawnay family presided at Beningbrough between 1827 and 1916 when the estate was sold. Lord and Lady Chesterfield acquired the house in 1917 but they vacated in 1941 to make way for servicemen from nearby RAF Linton-on-Ouse, with Canadian Air Force personnel also billeted there from 1943. A poignant exhibition in one of the display galleries tells the story of this time and presents the memories of airmen who saw comrades arrive, go out on ops and never return to their empty beds. There are also copies of letters that parents received to report their sons missing in action. This is only a single exhibition room but certainly leaves its mark.

Me in portrait form.. apparently!

What will make Beningbrough most memorable for some though is its role as a portrait gallery and education centre. The alliance with the National Portrait Gallery (something that I had already considered a success at Montacute House in Somerset) means that visitors to this Yorkshire house can not only see some fairly special 17th and 18th century portraits – including examples by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough – but also learn about portraiture as an art form. You can even get a ‘virtual’ portrait of yourself created. Mine is pictured here: although I can’t really see a clear resemblance, I like that she appears artistic and looks poised to create something memorable (or blog about her day!) The exhibition even includes a display about portrait sculpture where you can create a new nose for Captain Cook out of clay (note to self: this is probably for kids, but hey ho!)

The Trust’s over-arching theme for 2018 is Women and Power so the rolling temporary exhibition space at Beningbrough is currently dedicated to ‘Celebrating Creative Women’, with portraits of actresses, writers, dancers and singers on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. These include JK Rowling, Dame Judi Dench and Darcy Bussell, among others.

The portrait theme is carried throughout the house, so even in the formal rooms, the wall space is crammed with art. One room focuses specifically on members of the Kit-Cat Club, a Whig club formed in the late 1600s and named after Christopher Cat, the owner of the tavern where the members met and ate mutton pies. As someone who spends her working life writing about the food industry, I was actually surprised to learn that the club’s name inspired Kit-Cat boxed chocolates, a name that Rowntree’s later adopted instead for its crunchy chocolate wafers. The number one selling chocolate bar in the UK is named after a man who made mutton pies… that’s the kind of fun fact that makes me love history.

The other thing about Beningbrough that surprised me was its gardens. Described as ‘in much need of attention’ when the restoration of Beningbrough began, the gardens have clearly come a long way and continue to evolve and expand, with a current project to create a wisteria pergola being handled by RHS Chelsea winner Andy Sturgeon. There was plenty of colour and impact around the gardens, with my particular favourite sights being the magnolia in the American garden, the bright splash of warm coloured tulips in the West Formal Garden, and the flowering cherry overlooking the south lawn, under which we sat for a rest and a read.

I do like to find a novelty during my visits and Beningbrough’s is probably the lever to the left of the front door, which servants could use to open the iron entry gates as visitors approached up the driveway. Today’s cars take the same approach, gifting the visitor with an impressive view of the house on their way in, but there were no servants on hand today so we had to spin off into the car park.

Highlights: Portraiture; spring blossoms

Refreshments: Sicilian lemonade with half a fruit scone; chicken and leek pie with new potatoes and cabbage; half a slice of treacle tart

Purchase(s): Guidebook; Rucksack in a pack; plus bread and cakes from the Home Farm farm shop (which you can visit on your way out of the estate)

Companion(s): Mum

Posted in Yorkshire & North East | Leave a comment

124. Baddesley Clinton – 12/3/2018

It is becoming a habit to kick off my NT year the day before the Cheltenham horse racing festival and this year I took a trip from my racing base in Chipping Campden up to Baddesley Clinton on the outskirts of Birmingham. I had visited this moated manor house a couple of times in the past but these were purely tea-and-cake visits with a friend so I had never ventured across the bridge to look inside.

Unfortunately, the usual spring sunshine that I have come to expect during Cheltenham week was nowhere to be seen so it was a very soggy drive up the A429 and umbrellas were needed for a quick wander around the walled garden before we joined a tour of the house. There was a shortage of volunteers (I can’t blame them for staying away in the prevailing conditions) so all visitors had to join a group tour, but I wasn’t complaining as I always appreciate the insights of the local expert and our guide was a member of the Baddesley Clinton Archive Group who clearly knew her stuff.

Part of the welcoming party

It was appropriate that the welcoming party at the house was a group of ducks – great weather for them! – but after waddling back and forth across the bridge they soon got bored when they realised that the visitors had brought umbrellas with them but no snacks. Huddled in the porch with our fellow intrepid tourists, we were soon welcomed through the massive wooden door (and I mean truly huge) and through the inner courtyard into the house.

Architectural enthusiasts will be fascinated by the hotch-potch of periods on display at Baddesley Clinton. There has been a manor on this site since before the Norman conquest, but much of what is present today dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, with further additions along the way as the property has been modernised and altered. As usual though I was most inspired by the stories of the people who occupied rather than built the walls. While the property’s name comes from the de Clinton family who lived at Baddesley for several generations, it is the Ferrers family that dominates the house’s story, from the time when Sir Edward Ferrers married his way to ownership of the house at the end of the 15th century until it was sold to Thomas Walker, a distant relative, in 1940. Even then though the Walkers took on the Ferrers-Walker name in respect of the family that was so integral to the history of the house.

It is also notable that no Protestant ever owned Baddesley in the 400+ years of Ferrers control and the family remained staunch Catholics throughout even the most turbulent of times. It is therefore no surprise to find a Priest’s Hole hidden in the walls of the house, rather ingeniously – if unpleasantly! – positioned beneath the shaft of the privy. Baddesley Clinton’s history featured in the recent BBC drama about the Gunpowder Plot as it was briefly the home of Anne Vaux, a supporter of the Catholic plotters, but the house itself was not used for filming. The religious ties of the house are also in evidence in the private chapel located near the entrance to the Priest’s Hole; this was re-consecrated in the 1870s by the so-called ‘Quartet’, four colourful occupants in the latter half of the 19th century.

The story of the Quartet was a fascinating part of the tour, which was told to us in the Drawing Room where portraits of the four look down on the visitor. Marmion Ferrers, his wife Rebecca (née Orpen), her aunt Georgiana, Lady Chatterton, and her second husband Edward Dering (later also Rebecca’s second husband!) lived at Baddesley together for many years, with Dering pouring money into the house, while Rebecca poured her artistic talent into a multitude of paintings, including many that can be seen on display today, plus the panels and triptych in the Chapel, which sadly cannot be seen today because the Chapel is kept so dark (sorry if you’ve read this before in these pages but ‘forever, for everyone’ is a totally misleading motto for the Trust as in many cases it should read ‘forever, for no one… except those lucky enough to get a glimpse when the blinds are up’).

The Quartet were a genuinely artistic bunch – seemingly the Bloomsbury Set of their day. They knew many artistic people and both Lady Chatterton and her husband wrote novels, copies of which are held in the house’s large Library. It also appears that Marmion often dressed rather eccentrically, donning the kind of old-fashioned garb that his Ferrers ancestors might have worn. He was unique in other ways too as his name very much broke the Ferrers mould, with the string of Edwards and Henrys perhaps turning in their graves at the christening of a Marmion.

An earlier occupant of the house who is particularly noteworthy is Henry Ferrers, aka Henry the Antiquary (to differentiate him from the many other Henrys). Henry the Antiquary made a lot of changes to the house, including the introduction of many heraldic window glasses, plus panelling and fireplaces. It is perhaps surprising that Henry survived the Catholic persecutions of his era as it was he who rented the house to Anne Vaux and her posse of priests, while he also sold the lease on a London house to Thomas Percy who proceeded to store the plotters’ gunpowder there.

Going further back to the pre-Ferrers residents, the Bromes were also interesting occupants, with the older John Brome having been murdered and then avenged by his son Nicholas who killed not only his father’s murderer but later also a priest who he thought was flirting with his wife. Blood on the library floorboards is said to date back to this killing, but it seems there is more pig than human DNA in the grisly marks! Nicholas later ordered that on his death he be buried under the entrance to Baddesley Church, hoping that he would be forgiven his sins if he were walked on for the rest of eternity.

Jumping forward several centuries, we come back to the Ferrers-Walkers who eventually gave the house to the Trust in 1980, benefiting from an endowment that was donated by the then owners of Packwood House (just up the road from Baddesley). The Walkers had their own fun stories in the archives, including the tale of the younger Thomas coming home from the army one day and setting off thunderflash grenades to rouse his parents before finding himself face to face with the business end of his father’s shotgun. Thomas the elder was said to be a very grumpy man, who preferred cats to people, so his son was perhaps lucky to survive this incident.

As usual, I have gone on too long, so I will finish up with a couple of other things that stood out on my tour of the house. As with many houses of its period, the panelling and relatively low ceilings give a fairly dark feel to the place (even when the blinds are raised!), but I was impressed by some of the carved stone fireplaces and the heraldic glass in the windows is also an effective period touch. As ever, I like an oddity so make sure you don’t miss the narwhal tusk in the Great Hall, the fox-headed stirrup cup on the Dining Room table and the enormous toasting fork in the Dining Room hearth. Our guide couldn’t say what the fork’s real use was so I’m sticking with the giant toast theory, although I also can’t help imagining a pillow-sized marshmallow gently browning away!

Highlights: The story of the Quartet; the Catholic history

Refreshments: Roasted vegetable tart with roast potatoes, coleslaw and salad leaves; pot of tea and ginger cake (made to a 1900s Baddesley Clinton recipe)

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Living Waters: 600 Years of Family Life in a Moated Manor’ by the Baddesley Clinton Archive Group; ‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave from the secondhand bookshop

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Packwood House, whose owner Graham, Baron Ash was friends with the Ferrers family and helped them out financially by buying a lot of artefacts from them, while his sister and niece later donated much of the endowment when Baddesley Clinton was given to the Trust; Basildon Park, whose owners acquired a piano from Baddesley and also looked at it as a possible house to buy before opting for Basildon

Posted in Midlands | Leave a comment

2017: In Summary

I was hoping to get to halfway by the end of 2017 but fell a little short with my 21 visits taking my total to 123, with 143 remaining on the list. I think it’s time to up my rate of travel and perhaps take two longer holidays a year.

There was perhaps even more variety in my experiences this past year than in any other, with castles, gardens and stately homes joined by a couple of mills, some smaller municipal buildings, a visitor centre for a peninsula and even a bridge. My week away took me to North Wales, staying in a lovely self-catering cottage on Anglesey and heading back across the bridge to mainland Wales most days. The trip involved much research into pronunciations(!) and covered some vastly different locations. One of the highlights of this trip – and of the year in fact – was Rex Whistler’s amazing mural at Plas Newydd, my one visit on the island of Anglesey itself. I started and ended the year with other traditional stately homes, including Hanbury Hall and Mottisfont (itself home to a Whistler mural) early in the year and West Wycombe, Coughton Court and Blickling Hall towards the end of the season. There have been no visits since mid-October as I like to steer clear of the Christmas festivities, which can involve room closures and decorations that – while lovely – can sometimes hide the things I want to see.

North Wales was as far north as I ventured during the year, with Aberconwy House just coming in as the northernmost visit (by a couple of hundred yards from the Conwy Suspension Bridge!). Furthest south was Mottistone Gardens on the Isle of Wight, again challenged closely by the Needles Batteries a few miles away. The Blickling Estate in Norfolk was my most easterly visit during the year, while the Porth y Swnt visitor’s centre on the Llyn Peninsula was the most westerly.

County coverage in 2017 was complicated by what actually defines a county or unitary authority. But for my own sense of achievement, I’m going to count seven completed counties this year, including Gwynedd (4), Anglesey (1), Conwy (3) and Isle of Wight (4), all of which were both started and finished during 2017, plus Surrey, West Sussex and Essex, in all of which I ticked off the single outstanding property. Other counties covered – all by a single visit – include Worcestershire, Hampshire, Shropshire, Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire and Norfolk.

It was perhaps less of an educational year as I didn’t buy any biographies or associated books to build on my visits. Mind you, I did follow up on my interest in Rex Whistler by visiting Mottisfont during its special exhibition of his work and by my trip to see the mural in Wales, while my trip to Coughton Court came just before the Gunpowder Plot was dramatised on the TV so that was a timely coincidence. And of course I had previously read the National Trust book about Ferguson’s Gang; in 2017, I visited two of their most important acquisitions: Shalford Mill and Newtown Old Town Hall.

And so into 2018. I am lining up a possible trip to Yorkshire this year so will be venturing a little further north again, while I have also found a friend who is willing to head down for a weekend break to Kent so I can get the South Foreland Lighthouse off the list – it’s very remote from any other properties so requires a special trip all to itself. I could also be breaking into the Northern Irish list, so that will be exciting, although it wouldn’t technically be my first trip overseas as both Anglesey and the Isle of Wight must count in the most literal sense!

Housekeeping 2017-2018

There are no major changes to the list between 2017 and 2018, but it does appear that there will be one in and one out.

Sadly, George Stephenson’s Birthplace in the North East has been closed for the time being as the Trust reassesses how best to use the property so that comes off the list. Meanwhile, though, Edward Elgar’s Birthplace – The Firs – in Worcestershire is now open for visitors so I have added that on.

I had a momentary sinking feeling after seeing a new property popping up on the map of North Wales in the handbook. Having just ticked off the entire region during 2017, I had visions of a long drive back to Snowdonia for just one visit. Thankfully, though, it appears that the new addition is simply a shop that has been opened in an old Grade II listed cottage in Beddgelert so it doesn’t justify inclusion on the list. Another new addition to the Handbook is Wentworth Woodhouse, a magnificent stately home in South Yorkshire. I have not added this to the official list as the Trust does not own the site but is simply working with the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust over the next five years to help them establish the property as a viable visitor attraction in the long term. That is not to say that I won’t visit if the opportunity arises, it just doesn’t qualify as part of my challenge.

And so, into 2018 with the same number of properties left to visit – 143 out of 266.

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123. Blickling Estate – 14/10/2017

The National Trust is a big supporter of walking so well-marked trails are part and parcel of many properties and during this challenge I have felt that I have sometimes missed out on these either through time pressures or the lack of a willing walking partner. This time though, I arrived at Blickling with someone who I knew was a good walking companion and who had also thought to bring their walking boots along for the ride. As a result, we decided to start our visit in the park and go to have a look at the mausoleum, which houses the remains of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire (owner of Blickling from 1756 to 1793) and his two wives. In the end, we actually combined two of Blickling’s recommended trails as we missed out the last section of the Mausoleum Walk and tagged on about two-thirds of the Lake Walk for an estimated total of about 5km.

Although the leaves on the trees are yet to turn completely, it is still a good time of year for a walk and my companion collected a few sweet chestnuts and acorns on the route. However, she wasn’t quite so thrilled about being hit on the head by a falling sweet chestnut seed pod and we nearly missed the mausoleum completely while I was busy inspecting her head for bleeding puncture wounds! Fortunately, though, we did eventually spot the giant and very obvious pyramid to our left. Modelled on a Roman pyramidal tomb, it is certainly a fairly bizarre structure to find nestled amid the trees in the Norfolk countryside.

By this point in our walk, we were yet to even catch a glimpse of Blickling Hall and were starting to wonder if it actually existed, but finally as we came to the shores of the lake, we spotted it in the distance.  There are lovely views of the house as you follow the lakeside path but you do have to walk a lot further before you can get at it as a ha-ha prevents visitors from entering the formal gardens from that side. There were a few grumbles as two tired walkers had to circumnavigate three sides of the gardens before reaching the stable block and main drive. But we did get a look at the backs of the Temple and Orangery on the way.

After a brief break for lunch, it was time to head inside and find out more about Blickling and its occupants. I did a little preliminary research by reading the timeline in the guidebook and the contrast to my previous visit struck me immediately: I had gone from Coughton Court where Throckmorton children seemed to appear with alarming regularity to Blickling Hall where there were often no traditional heirs and the house passed from father to daughter or uncle to nephew on several occasions.

One thing I did know about Blickling before I arrived was its connection to the Boleyn family and the belief that Anne Boleyn was probably born there. However, this was before the current house was built so the real story of Blickling begins in 1619 when Sir Henry Hobart (1st Baronet) bought the estate and started building. The construction took quite some time and poor Sir Henry died before it was completed. The property was passed down the Hobart line, which included another colourful Henry – the 4th Baronet – who was killed fighting a duel.  This Sir Henry was also an important figure in the court of King Charles II and I noticed on one of the information sheets in the house that Charles had visited in 1671 so that’s one for my list of regal visits. Interestingly, in the 11th century, King Harold had a manor house on this site but I can’t really count him as a visitor to the existing property, unless he appears in phantom form of course. There are actually many ghost stories attached to Blickling, but most are related to poor old headless Anne Boleyn and not the more ancient king with an arrow in his eye.

Moving on from the quarrelsome 4th Baronet, we come to his son, Sir John, who inherited at the age of five and later upped the family’s titled status to earldom when he became the 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire. It was this John Hobart who also inherited the large library of books that is now housed in the Long Gallery and is one of the Trust’s most important collections. His unhappily married sister Henrietta is another interesting personage in the story as she was the long-time mistress of King George II and her portrait can be seen in one of the drawing rooms.

The 2nd Earl (whose mausoleum we had visited earlier) was responsible for the more ‘modern’ state rooms in the house, including the striking Peter the Great Room just off the Long Gallery. After serving as ambassador at Catherine the Great’s court in St Petersburg for some time, John received a huge tapestry of Peter as a leaving gift from Catherine and not having the right space for it at Blickling he simply built one. Sir John’s commission as ambassador came from George II so it’s possible that Aunt Henrietta’s pillow talk may have included some familial recommendations.

The book-lined Long Gallery

The transition from the Long Gallery to the Peter the Great Room is a clear demonstration of the variety on offer at Blickling. The two rooms could not be more different and come from completely separate eras so moving from one to the other definitely feels like walking through time.

Jumping through the 19th Century – during which time the property came into the hands of the Marquesses of Lothian (via an uncle to nephew shift) – we come to the man who gave the Blickling Estate to the nation. Much of the information currently presented in the house is focused on its life under the ownership of Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess. Although he didn’t spend a huge amount of time at Blickling, he did use it to entertain many social and political greats, including the likes of Prime Minister Nehru of India, the British PM Stanley Baldwin, Queen Mary and Lord and Lady Astor. Lord Lothian is described in the guidebook as ‘one of the most influential British politicians you’ve never heard of’ and after learning more about him at Blickling I can only agree. First of all, while ambassador in Washington, he was instrumental in encouraging America’s support of our war efforts during WWII as well as laying the groundwork for the USA’s eventual entry into the fight. He also helped the National Trust to start up the Country Houses Scheme that allowed the transfer of mansion houses to the Trust in lieu of death duties before leading the way by example through his bequest of Blickling.

Once I had finished in the house, I only had time for a very quick walk around the formal gardens, including the parterre and double borders – certainly not at their best in October but still with a surprising amount of colour on display. With time running out, I then had to choose between the RAF Oulton exhibition in the restaurant wing (which commemorates the 1939-1949 period when the RAF requisitioned the property) and the secondhand bookshop. I say I had to choose but it wasn’t really a choice as I can never pass up the chance of looking in a bookshop – I find it almost physically impossible to walk past the door!

When I walked through this door though, I noticed the map on the wall directing the shopper to the different sections and realised I had seriously underestimated the time needed to do justice to this particular shop. It was described as ‘large’ in the NT handbook but this is a definite understatement: ‘enormous’, ‘titanic’ or even perhaps ‘gargantuan’ would be a better description. In the limited time available though I still scooped up three books so perhaps it was a good thing I didn’t have more time – the bank balance is grateful!

Highlights: Long Gallery, Peter the Great Room, Mausoleum

Refreshments: Smoked cheese, ham and tomato panini

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Belinda’ by Maria Edgeworth; ‘Rogue Herries’ by Hugh Walpole; ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters, all from the simply enormous secondhand bookshop

Companion(s): The Silver Girls

Posted in East of England | Leave a comment

122. Coughton Court – 1/9/2017

From the second you walk into Coughton Court (pronounced Coaton), you will be assailed by Throckmortons, with virtually every inch of wall covered with family portraits. Twenty generations of the family have lived there since 1409 when Sir John Throckmorton married Coughton heiress Eleanor de Spiney and their distant descendants still occupy parts of the house today. They also seem to have been a highly fertile family so there were consequently a lot of potential subjects for said portraits. The family tree in the back of the guidebook is a double-page spread but even that is heavily edited to include only the more important family members. Hardly surprising considering that just one specific Throckmorton pair – Sir George, the third owner of the house, and his wife Katherine Vaux – had 19 children and 112 grandchildren!

One can’t help but associate this prolific level of procreation with the fact that the Throckmortons were a staunch Catholic family, but I imagine it probably had more to do with the attitudes of the time (when extending a family’s numbers and influence was very much the thing) and with the obviously fertile genes in the Throckmorton line. Luck must also have played a major part as it is surprising that such large numbers of mothers and their children survived during a time when childbirth and childhood could be fairly risky enterprises.

A Catesby and Throckmorton marriage in 1578

Whatever the background to the explosion of Throckmortons during the 16th and 17th centuries, it has left them with a family tree that is also chock full of interest: in one generation alone, two Throckmorton daughters married into the Catesby and Tresham families – both names that are familiar to many through their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot – and another married Sir Walter Raleigh. (Thomas Tresham, who married Muriel Throckmorton, has already appeared in this blog as the builder of Lyveden New Bield, something of a shrine to his Catholicism.) Much further down the family line in the 1900s, a sister of Clare McLaren-Throckmorton (the current resident of the ancestral home) married Roald Dahl.

The story of the Gunpowder Plot is currently being exhibited in the Yellow Drawing Room and if you can manoeuvre around the other visitors in the fairly cramped space, you can learn a lot of interesting facts about the plot and the plotters, their backgrounds and their various fates, which ranged from not very nice to pretty grisly… all except for one wily priest who managed to escape to the Continent with life and limbs intact.

Although no Throckmorton was directly involved in the plot, both Robert Catesby, the primary conspirator, and Francis Tresham – as mentioned above – were cousins. Coughton Court itself, though, was very much embroiled in the story as it was intended to serve as a safe house for the plotters. At the time, Thomas Throckmorton was absent from the house, which was being rented to one of the conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, who was supposedly there to ‘hunt’ but who was actually planning to kidnap the King’s 9-year-old daughter as a later part of the enterprise.

There is very much a Tudor feel to Coughton Court: the timbered wings on either side as you walk towards the rather grander Gatehouse (itself also built in the 1500s) are very much Tudor in appearance, while wooden panelling inside the house and the spiral stone staircases up to the top of the tower also date the property. The hidden priest’s hole (built over two storeys so that if the top hole were to be discovered, the one below may be overlooked) is also clear evidence of the house’s history and its religious leanings during Elizabeth I’s reign. The house has gone through some tough times since then, having been badly damaged by Cromwell’s soldiers during the Civil War and being set alight by a Protestant mob about 20 years later. It was sympathetically restored each time though, while later modernisation was also conducted with great respect for its history.

Although Catholicism coursed through the veins of the Throckmortons, there is always a black sheep of the family and in this instance it would be Sir Nicholas Throckmorton (the uncle of the more faithful Throckmortons who married into the Tresham and Catesby families). He chose to convert to the new Protestant religion after serving in the household of his cousin, Catherine Parr, and he prospered at court, first under Henry VIII and then the short-lived King Edward VI. Amazingly, he survived a trial for treason during Bloody Mary’s reign, but although serving as English ambassador in France, he could never convince Elizabeth to bring him back to court when she later succeeded her sister, despite shamelessly showering her with gifts. I am not at all sure I would have liked Sir Nicholas.

In terms of what to see at Coughton, there are few particularly outstanding rooms in the house, although the wood-panelled Dining Room is quite impressive, as is the Saloon with its grand entrance down a wooden staircase, while the Priest’s Hole is worth a shivery look as you imagine a poor priest hiding away down there as the hunters seek him out. The views from the Tower are also worth taking in on a clear day.

I was also very impressed by the gardens. I took a stroll along the Riverside Walk, through the Bog Garden and orchards and back through the sizeable kitchen garden to the more formal Walled Gardens with the various ‘rooms’ housing fountains, herbaceous borders, strongly scented lavenders and wisteria ‘trees’. I tried to get into the two churches that are on site but one seemed to be locked and I couldn’t find the way to the other one. There are two because one is Protestant and the other – added in 1851 – is Catholic. It was only in 1829 that the Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to worship openly again and opened the doors of Parliament to Catholics, something of which Sir Robert Throckmorton, the 8th baronet, quickly took advantage. (There are a lot of Roberts in the Throckmortons’ line; they may have been keen to procreate but clearly couldn’t be bothered to think up new names… since 1450 no fewer than eight Roberts have owned Coughton.)

Another couple of things that really caught my eye at Coughton were the velvet cope on display in the Tribune room and the Steward’s Cup in the Dining Room. The former is an ornate 16th century purple velvet garment embroidered with gold thread, which is said to have been the work of Katherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting and which has been restored by the National Trust’s specialist textile workshop at Blickling Hall. It is a stunning item, particularly if you get a volunteer to shed a little more light on it with his/her torch. The other item – the Steward’s Cup – is a horse racing trophy won by the 9th Baronet’s horse Herald at Goodwood in 1877; this is of personal interest to me as I once knew the owner of a horse called Hard To Figure, who failed narrowly to win the Steward’s Cup in the 1990s. Seeing the stunning silver trophy on the sideboard brought back fond memories of the old grey sprinter and happy days at the racecourse.

Highlights: The Throckmortons’ Catholic history; the Gunpowder Plot exhibition; the Walled Garden

Refreshments: Pepper, tomato and cheese tart with salad and roast potatoes; Jammie Dodger ice cream cone (one of my readers likes to see what I ate on my visits so this one is for her – I could have had a plain old vanilla cone but I decided she’d appreciate it more if I plumped for one of the specials instead!)

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton’ by Elizabeth Speller from the excellent secondhand bookshop

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Lyveden New Bield whose builder Thomas Tresham was related to the Throckmortons by marriage and was father of the Gunpowder plotter Francis Tresham

Posted in Midlands | Leave a comment

121. West Wycombe Park, Village & Hill – 31/8/2017

There are some properties that seem to scream ‘Grand Tour’ at you and West Wycombe is bellowing it from the rooftops. The east and west porticos would fool any approaching visitor into thinking they had been dropped into ancient Greece or Rome, while the interior of the house has Rome written all over it, from its ceiling paintings – many copied from existing artwork in the Villa Farnesina and Palazzo Farnese in Rome and painted by Italian father and son Giuseppe and Giovanni Borgnis – to its columns and stone floors. The house is also filled with art and artefacts collected by Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet, on his own Grand Tour.

Temple of the Winds

The property first came into the Dashwood family in 1698 when it was taken on as part of a family settlement by brothers Francis and Samuel. The former was knighted a few years later to become Sir Francis Dashwood, the 1st Baronet, and he boosted the family coffers by marrying well and on multiple occasions. In fact, he seemed quite careless with his wives, losing three Marys before settling for an Elizabeth who outlived him. It was his son, the next Francis, who was responsible for the Palladian villa that stands here today and for the many changes to the landscape around the house, including the erection of numerous temples and follies in the park.

The 2nd Baronet actually managed the very clever trick of being both a pillar of the community and a brazen libertine. The tales of his private club – more properly called the Monks of Medmenham or the Society of Saint Francis of Wycombe but perhaps best known as the Hell-Fire Club – are believed to be over-exaggerated but almost certainly involved drinking, mock-religious ceremonies, dressing up and close interaction with the fairer sex. Perhaps disappointingly, most of their activities took place at Medmenham Abbey and not in West Wycombe’s Hell-Fire Caves, which can be visited on the hill overlooking the village (not National Trust).

There are several portraits of the 2nd Baronet in the Dining Room, including one of him wearing a turban and holding a rather large glass of wine and another of him dressed as a Pope. The counterpoint is the more serious portrait nearby and this montage of paintings seems to sum up his character: the fun-loving libertine and the more serious politician (briefly Chancellor of the Exchequer) and philanthropist.

I have passed the village of West Wycombe on the M40 many many times since I started this challenge and have even stopped there once to visit the Hell-Fire Caves. However, the opening arrangements mean that West Wycombe Park itself has not been the most convenient of visits. When the house was handed over to the National Trust by the 10th Baronet in 1943, an agreement was reached that it would only open to the public for three months a year on five afternoons a week. This arrangement has never altered so it is only open in June, July and August and is closed on Fridays and Saturdays. I nearly missed out again this year but just scraped in under the wire, visiting on the property’s very last open day of 2017. Phew!

The current 12th Baronet and his family still live at West Wycombe Park and retain ownership of all its contents, a situation that the Trust has to juggle at a number of its properties. I imagine some relationships with incumbent families are easier than others and I have no idea how well this particular one works but, for all of the strict limits on opening, there was at least little evidence of the family moving things around willy-nilly or randomly selling works of art as I have encountered at a few other properties to date. It must also be said that Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th Baronet (who died in 2000), dedicated himself to restoring much that had suffered over the years so some of the rooms we see today would have looked very different before his intervention. You could say that the house’s history is book-ended by two Francises: the 2nd Baronet who created the original house and parkland and the 11th Baronet who restored it to its 18th century glory.

During the week entry to the house is by timed ticket and guided tour only (with free flow on Sundays), but I always appreciate a guided tour and enjoyed the 40-minute trip around the eight state rooms. There was perhaps less information about the family than I might have hoped but the guide certainly drew attention to all the notable features and contents of the property.

The highlights for me inside the house were the Borgnis ceilings, the Music Room and the Entrance Hall. As I mentioned above, many of the ceilings were copied from examples in Rome and the Music Room ceiling is particularly fascinating as the Roman ceiling was slightly smaller than the space available at West Wycombe. As a result, Giuseppe Borgnis cleverly added some extra clouds at one end and two extra handmaidens at the other so as to fill the space. The size of the Music Room (which is largely empty of prominent furniture) is perhaps the first thing you notice when you walk in, just before you inevitably look up to the ceiling. Lower down, though, I was also particularly impressed by the panelled dado with inlaid woods that runs all around the room and is not something I have seen (or noticed) elsewhere. The Music Room is also home to not one, not two, but three paintings of Venus and Cupid, with the 2nd Baronet apparently rather fond of the Goddess of Love, perhaps unsurprising considering what else we know about him.

The Music Temple (with Mausoleum and St Lawrence’s Church spire on the far hill)

After my tour of the house, I decided to take a walk around the lake to see as many of park’s temples and follies as possible. The lake was looking a little sorry for itself during my visit and is clearly crying out for some rain to top up the underground aquifers. As a result, the Cascade was less of a cascade and more of a dry stone slope, while anyone falling into the lake from the banks is more likely to get dirty rather than wet right now. It also made it hard to imagine the 60-ton frigate that was once anchored here in the 2nd Baronet’s day. I still enjoyed the walk, though, and took in the Round Temple, Temple of Apollo, Temple of the Winds, Music Temple and Temple of Venus as I made my way from the south front of the house all the way back to the car park. I also saw a couple of soaring red kites, which are prolific in this part of the country. I didn’t have time to visit the Mausoleum and St Lawrence’s Church on the opposite hillside but they are clearly visible from below and even made it into a few of my photos.

West Wycombe suffers a little from a lack of visitor facilities, perhaps due to a wish on the family’s part that it remains more of a home and less of a tourist attraction. There is no tearoom on site and the toilet block in the car park is a temporary structure that is perhaps brought in each season (although there are other toilets available at the house). However, the car park is just steps away from the village where there are three pubs to choose from or you can head up the hill to the Hell-Fire Caves for refreshments.

I nearly had to dig out my black mark once again as West Wycombe became the third property I have visited this year to have run out of guidebooks. In this case there was at least the excuse that I had arrived on the last day of opening but I still had a little moan to the man who greeted me on reception and he defended his property’s reputation with great success, telling me to pop in on my way out and he’d see if he could dig one up in the meantime. I took that with a pinch of salt at the time but should never have doubted as there it was waiting for me and I was even given a discount as it was the old guidebook that will be replaced next season. So thanks very much to that gentleman for making a blogger’s life a little easier.

Highlights: The Music Room, the Borgnis ceilings, the Entrance Hall, the temples

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): None

NT Connections: Thomas Stapleton of Greys Court was a cousin of West Wycombe’s Francis Dashwood and a member of his Hell-Fire Club

Posted in South East | Leave a comment

120. Bourne Mill – 18/8/2017

Another day, another mill! But if this challenge has taught me anything, it is that every single property has its merits and this is no exception: not only is it a simply lovely spot just a stone’s throw from the heart of Colchester, but it also took me in a totally new milling direction, with its early focus on textiles rather than grain.

Following a satnav to Bourne Mill from the A12 takes you right through the heart of Colchester with its busy roads and roundabouts, but shortly after you turn off the Mersea Road out of town, the view of the old Mill overlooking its tranquil pond opens up on the right-hand side. It is certainly a strange situation: a haven for wildlife and history nestled right in the middle of a modern residential area. (There isn’t a great deal of parking available at the mill itself – enough for just two or three cars – but finding nearby street parking shouldn’t be too difficult.)

Built in 1591 by local dignitary Sir Thomas Lucas, the mill has served various purposes over the years, but perhaps the most interesting was its initial use as a fishing lodge and fulling mill. I understood the fishing part, but I had to ask the helpful volunteer about fulling, which is a process through which wool is turned into a more useful felt-like material. This seems to involve cleaning or scouring the wool to remove the oils and grease and then thickening it. The first part of the process originally involved such delightful substances as urine, but as time went on fuller’s earth (now I know where that name comes from) emerged as a more popular substitute… I wonder why! Meanwhile, the thickening process seemed to involve simply hammering the wool into submission. It seems that beating it causes barbs in the wool to stick together like Velcro, which tightens the weave. The finished cloth was then hung out to dry on the land around the mill so I stood at the window and lost myself for a moment, imagining the fields and the lines of cloth flapping in the breeze. But then I imagined the smell of urine wafting in off those fields, which well and truly burst that imaginative bubble!

Bourne Mill certainly provides a brief education in textile milling and there is also a useful map outside in the garden, which shows the various routes taken by the cloth before and after its Essex milling. In addition, though, there were a few interesting sideshows that I thought could have been presented to visitors in more detail. Sir Thomas Lucas and his descendants sounded like they had a fairly colourful history and I would like to have known a little more about them, while brief mention was also made of damage to the mill caused by the Colchester Earthquake of 1896. I have just read Sarah Perry’s book ‘The Essex Serpent’, which also mentions the quake, something I knew nothing about before. It is likely that you can learn more about this in a town museum but it is a surprising part of Essex history that obviously affected the mill and would make for another interesting display. This may be a small property, but with an important family and an earthquake in its past in addition to its milling history, I think it would be possible to pull together an interesting little guidebook.

In later life, Bourne Mill turned to grain milling, which was less interesting to me, so I wasn’t all that disappointed that the upstairs part of the mill – where the grain and flour would have been hoisted up and down – is closed to visitors at the moment and the wheel is not operating at all. This is due to the discovery of deathwatch beetle in the building so hopefully these unwelcome visitors haven’t done too much damage. Where some critters are decidedly unwanted, others are greeted with more enthusiasm and the coots and herons (including a juvenile) on the pond were an added bonus.

Coot club

I certainly wasn’t expecting such a pretty spot just minutes away from Colchester town centre so even if the fulling and milling doesn’t appeal to you, do stop by for a cup of tea overlooking the pond. And if you add a crumbly scone to your order, I am sure the coots will welcome you with open wings.

Highlights: A pretty spot; an education in ‘fulling’

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Fruit jellies (don’t judge me, I like to make at least a little contribution and there was no guidebook to buy!)

Companion(s): Mum

Posted in East of England | Leave a comment