109. Plas Newydd – 25/4/2017

Plas Newydd (plass no-with) is the only National Trust property on Anglesey so we had a day off from crossing the Britannia Bridge back to the mainland. We couldn’t get away from the bridge completely, though, as it is very much part of Plas Newydd’s impressive portfolio of views. Perched high up on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, the imposing house looks out on the bridge to the north east, on Y Felinheli village and harbour to the south and to the mountains of Snowdonia directly opposite. The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as well, giving the mountains a nice dusting of snow overnight, which resulted in an even more beautiful view across the Strait.

The views alone make Plas Newydd a must-see property, but for me, it is the Whistler mural in the dining room that turned this into a must-must-must-must-see and in fact single-handedly justified my eight and a half hour journey to Wales. I think we were planted in the mural room for about half an hour, discussing aspects of the painting with the volunteer and constantly finding new things to look at. The mural shows a harbour scene with a town to one side and mountains in the background and it is packed with detail and interest. Whistler was a clever and fairly cheeky painter and he included various members of the family in his picture, including some in a little rowing boat in the foreground, plus others in the town scene on the left-hand side. Here, you can also see a man with one leg leaning against the wall and this is a shout-out to Henry ‘One Leg’ Paget, the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (more of him later). The wet footprints leading out of the water next to an abandoned crown and trident suggest that Neptune has walked from the sea and into the dining room to have a meal with the family. There is much more to spot in the picture, though, so I would advise giving yourself half an hour with the volunteer so you can get the most out of it.








Thankfully, Plas Newydd doesn’t run scared of the light and allows the blinds to hang at half mast so visitors can truly appreciate Whistler’s work in a way that they can’t at Mottisfont. The mural also made me wonder what might have been at Mottisfont if Whistler had been allowed to follow his heart rather than being constrained by the owner’s demands for plain work. We do have Mottisfont to thank for some bonus material, though, as their exhibition of Whistler’s work includes many items that are usually displayed in Plas Newydd’s own exhibition room so a number of new items have been taken out of the archive as replacements for the time being.

Rex painted himself into one of the side wall ‘arcades’

As far as the rest of the house is concerned, I couldn’t really make my mind up about it. It’s very long, which gives the impression of vast size from the east front overlooking the Strait, but it is only two rooms deep (albeit rather large rooms!) and is a real mix of eras, with neo-Gothic from the 18th century blended with some Georgianised exteriors and more modern interiors added to make the house more comfortable for family life. There are some eye-catching rooms, including the grand Music Room and more intimate Octagon Room, but without the Whistler mural or the views, it wouldn’t really have the wow factor that you find at some properties… but then again it does have the Whistler mural and the views and that was enough ‘wow’ for me.

But that wasn’t all. I was actually extremely interested in the story of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey (the aforementioned ‘One Leg’), who made his mark on the battlefield during the Napoleonic Wars, before finally – and famously – losing a leg at the Battle of Waterloo. It was said that he had eight or nine horses shot from under him during the battle but his luck finally ran out late in the day when his right knee was smashed by grapeshot. He is rumoured to have turned to the Duke of Wellington and said ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ to which the reply came, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’. This story and that of his military career are the subjects of a special cavalry exhibition in the house where you can also see one of the Marquess’ wooden legs, several of which were apparently found forgotten in the attics by the 6th Marquess.

While a series of Bagenals, Baylys and Pagets have owned Plas Newydd over the years since the 16th century, it is from the time of the 1st Marquess that things get most interesting. As well as his glittering military career, the 1st Marquess also had a colourful personal life, having 18 children – 8 by his first wife and 10 by the second. There was no straightforward transition from wife one to wife two, however, as the Marquess was embroiled in a scandalous divorce in 1810 and eloped to marry Charlotte Wellesley, who was the Duke of Wellington’s former sister-in-law. He fought a duel with Charlotte’s husband (both survived) and the decision also damaged his relationship with Wellington, which took some time to repair. Through his 18 children and 73 grandchildren, the Marquess also ensured that there was a steady stream of Pagets in Victorian court life and Prince Albert – presumably not keen on some of them – once described the family as ‘a plague of locusts’.

Jumping ahead through a few Marquesses, we reach the 5th Marquess who was another flamboyant character. It was rumoured that he was actually the son of a French actor, Benoit Coqeulin, and was brought up by the actor’s sister in France after his mother died, which certainly suggests that there may have been some truth to the rumours. His genes may also have encouraged an obsession with the theatre and he loved dressing up in lavish costumes, particularly those dripping with jewels. Unfortunately, jewels are expensive and his spending didn’t seem to have an off switch, so he quickly worked his way through his finances… and beyond.

The 6th Marquess was instrumental in rescuing the house after these excesses and it was he who commissioned Whistler to paint the mural, thus adding those extra ‘musts’ to Plas Newydd’s must-see status. He also created the rhododendron garden, which is only open at this time of year and was well worth the 1km walk to reach it.

The Trust has been in charge of Plas Newydd since 1976 and continues to make improvements, adding a new Mansion tearoom in 2016. Something I was particularly hoping to learn about was the ground-breaking change to the heating system made in 2014, with the previous oil-fired boilers being replaced by a new green technology that sucks heat from sea water from the Menai Strait. I was intrigued to know how this is done but there was no information on display anywhere. Perhaps the Trust feels that it’s just a lot of hot air, but I for one would have found it interesting.

Highlights: Whistler’s mural; the cavalry exhibition; the views; the rhododendron garden

Refreshments: Pot of tea and a shortbread; chicken and mixed vegetable salad with new potatoes, egg and a spring dressing

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Mottisfont, which also has a notable Rex Whistler mural

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108. Plas yn Rhiw – 24/4/2017

Plas yn Rhiw is pronounced ‘plass-in-rheeoo’ with the ‘h’ also pronounced in the last word if you can master that kind of Welsh tongue twister!). It was built in 1634 and remodelled in 1820 and while it is certainly not what you could call a ‘stately’ home, it is a pretty house with its stone façade and verandah and also benefits from a lovely terraced garden and spectacular views across Hell’s Mouth Bay. But it is perhaps most important to the Trust in that it is a clear example of how even fairly ordinary people have been instrumental in preserving property for future generations.

By 1938 when it was put up for sale for £600, the house had fallen into neglect and it was the Keating family, originally from Nottingham yet familiar with the area from family holidays, who managed to scrape together the funds and step in to save it. The three sisters – Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating – along with their mother Constance, moved into the property in 1939 and invested time, love and money in restoring the building. They opened parts of the house to the public very quickly and then donated surrounding land to the National Trust in 1946 before handing over the house itself and further land in 1952. They continued to live at the property until the last of the sisters died in 1981 and were actually strong advocates for the Trust, helping to recruit new members when they came to visit. In fact, in one of the early years, it is reported that Plas yn Rhiw recruited more new Trust members than any other property in the country, no mean feat for a small house located an hour’s drive down a peninsula.

The house is today presented as a lived-in family home, standing as a monument to the Keatings and filled with many of their belongings,including a lot of Honora’s watercolour paintings of the area. There may not be any significantly valuable artefacts in the house but it is something of a time capsule across different ages, with an old spinning wheel sharing house space with an antique typewriter and even a Teasmade that reminded my Mum of how my Grandma sometimes forgot to put the teapot under the water spout of her own Teasmade with damp consequences and a lack of morning tea!

The gardens at Plas yn Rhiw were ideal for a gentle stroll at the end of our visit. They are not huge in size but are cleverly stepped down the slope in front of the house and have a real cottage garden feel, with a current splash of colour from camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas. At the same time, when you reach the bottom of the garden, you can soak up the views of the bay below.

There is a small tearoom at Plas yn Rhiw that has outside ‘seats with a view’ for better days. We decided to go indoors, as did an adventurous robin who ended up exploring the cake stand, the kitchen, and a nearby window ledge before leaving a small ‘deposit’ on the floor and making his way back out again. He may not have mastered tearoom etiquette, but we can’t blame him for loving a National Trust scone as much as the rest of us!

I apologise for including a photo of the car park but the weather was better in this shot than in the others I took earlier and you can see the mountains of Snowdonia in the distance

Highlights: The azaleas (as I said to my Mum – only around three hundred times! – I do love an azalea); the views

Refreshments: Pot of tea and (half of) a chocolate caramel shortbread

Purchase(s): Short guide

Companion(s): Mum

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107. Porth y Swnt – 24/4/2017

Porth y Swnt (porth-ee-sunt, which translates as ‘gateway to the sound’) is very different from any other property I have visited so far and I wasn’t even sure whether to include it on my list as it is simply an interpretation centre for the Llŷn Peninsula. I was travelling to the end of the Peninsula to visit another nearby property, though, so I thought I’d stop by to have a look.

The centre opened its doors for the first time in 2014 and it seems fairly experimental in its presentation of the life of the peninsula through the use of poetry and art installations. Visitors are given an audio guide so they can listen in to information about different aspects of the Llŷn, which are classified as follows: The Deep, which tells of the importance of the sea to farmers and fishermen as well as the pilgrims who travelled off shore to Bardsey Island and its monastery (later demolished during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries); The Way, which focuses on the landscape, human activity on the land and the wildlife; The Light, which talks about the beauty and colours of the landscape and also exhibits the optic that was removed from Bardsey Island lighthouse in 2014; and The Sound, which describes the tidal forces in the Sound and includes an atmospheric installation in which you can create currents and whirlpools by moving your hands (or your head, as one fellow visitor tried!) over the bowl.

This is certainly something a little different and may not be to everyone’s taste but for those considering a trip to Bardsey Island or spending some time walking in the area it is a good starting point.

Highlights: The Sound interactive exhibit

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): None

Companion(s): Mum

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106. Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant – 23/4/2017

I promised pronunciation guides for some of the Welsh language names this week and I imagine this one might stump a lot of folks east of the border. I can’t really do it justice with a basic explanation as it will never sound as lyrical as when spoken by a native Welsh speaker but the best I can come up with is Tea Mour (to rhyme with ‘hour’ but with a beautifully rolled ‘r’) and Wibbernant to denote that it is in the Wybrnant river valley.

The meaning of the name is almost as befuddling as it translates as big or great house… as you can see from my pictures, this is more than a little misleading when considered with a modern eye. At the same time, the cottage was once located on a drovers’ road that was one of the main routes through Snowdonia and I can confidently attest that it is not on any main route today; in fact, I would go so far as to say that if you want a definition of ‘middle of nowhere’, look no further than the location of Tŷ Mawr. We must have travelled several miles on an extremely narrow road with very few passing places and a lot of changes in direction and altitude, so perhaps it’s not one for the faint hearted, but besides a few other intrepid NT visitors, you’re not that likely to meet much on the road (except perhaps the occasional chicken or goose from the nearby farm).

Those who persevere with the drive into deepest darkest Snowdonia will find a traditional Welsh farmhouse displayed as it would have looked in the 16th century when it was the birth place of William Morgan. Morgan may not be that well known to many but to Welsh speakers he is something of a hero as he was the first man to fully translate the Bible into Welsh, a move that greatly improved literacy in the region and was largely instrumental in preserving the Welsh language.

An example of the original printed Bible can be viewed in a display case in the farmhouse, while the full story of William Morgan is laid out in a small exhibition in a neighbouring building. I would say, though, that this is one of those properties that you will only get the best of if you are happy to engage with the volunteers on duty. There is not a huge amount to see but there are plenty of interesting facts and snippets to learn from those in the know. When we arrived, the greeter was giving a brief talk to a group of NT volunteers on a working holiday in Snowdonia so we listened in on that and got some extra insights into what Morgan’s early years may have been like… including being hung from the wall in swaddling clothes to avoid the danger of rats on the ground!

There is certainly a dichotomy in the stories that Tŷ Mawr has to tell: on the one hand, the everyday life of rural farmers in Snowdonia, and on the other, the importance of language and learning. As a lover of linguistics, the most fascinating aspect of the property for me was its collection of Bibles in many different international languages. Most of these have been donated over the years by visitors who failed to find their own language in the collection and they range from familiar languages to more unusual tongues, such as Aboriginal, Maori, and Cornish. I picked one up that looked unusual and found a written message in the front where the German who donated it had explained that it was in Sorbian, a language spoken by a Slavic minority in a small part of East Germany. Who knew that you could read a Sorbian Bible in a tiny Welsh homestead in the heart of Snowdonia?

Highlights: The globe-trotting bibles

Refreshments: None (we brought our own picnic to eat in the cottage garden)

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Penrhyn Castle, whose owners bought Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant in 1854 and held it until both properties were taken on by the Trust in the 1950s

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105. Penrhyn Castle – 22/4/2017

Here begins a week of Trusting around North Wales. I am staying – with mother in attendance once again – in a lovely converted farm building a few miles over the bridge on Anglesey. It took us eight and a half hours to get here on Friday (including one hour literally parked on our beloved M25 before we’d gone more than about ten miles!) so I decided to pick one of the nearer properties to visit on Saturday and we headed off to Penrhyn Castle near Bangor.

I may have to include pronunciation clues for some of the properties this week but Penrhyn is pretty straightforward (Pen-rin). Although I should maybe point out that local Welsh speakers would call it Castell Penrhyn.

Stunning views from the castle parapets

Whichever way you say your ‘castle’, it should be noted that Penrhyn isn’t really a castle in the traditional sense at all. Prominent families have owned the Penrhyn estate since the 14th century so there have been a number of important buildings on the site over the years, but the current ‘castle’ was only built between 1820 and 1832 so is essentially a Victorian vanity project. It was built primarily to impress and, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, I think most would admit that it’s impressive. Perched on top of a hill, the striking Keep and turreted towers can be seen from miles around and this also means that the views from the castle are also fairly stunning. Meanwhile, inside the castle, the vast rooms with their carved stone, carved plaster and carved woodwork are certainly the kinds of rooms that have the ‘wow’ factor. I am sure you noticed the repetition of the word ‘carved’ in that previous sentence and this was fully intentional. After a few rooms, I did comment that it was an effort to find something in the castle that wasn’t carved.

Penrhyn Castle was the work of architect Thomas Hopper, who created the interiors very much in the Norman style, with the cathedral-like Grand Hall and geometrically carved stonework certainly in keeping with this period. The project was funded by George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and the Pennant wealth in 1816. The Pennants’ money came initially from sugar plantations in Jamaica (so was controversially earned on the back of the slave trade) and later from the Penrhyn slate quarry, which my guidebook claims is still the largest ‘hand-made’ hole in the surface of the earth. The quarry is also notorious for a strike that lasted from 1900 to 1903.

My very detailed guidebook explains generations of high ranking Griffiths, Williamses and Pennants before we get to George Hay Dawkins, and while it is interesting that the estate has had such an eminent line of ownership, I am going to rudely ignore them all as today’s Penrhyn is all about the latter day Pennants – first Dawkins-Pennant and then a few generations of Douglas-Pennants, starting with Edward Douglas-Pennant who married into the family and made full use of his conjugal wealth, building up a notable collection of paintings, becoming the first Lord Penrhyn and nurturing friendships with the likes of Prime Minister, William Gladstone. He also welcomed Queen Victoria to Penrhyn Castle as a guest in 1859. (NB: Penrhyn almost made my list of regal visits twice but when Edward VII visited in 1894 he was still only the Prince of Wales and yet to become King.)

The Queen actually had first-hand experience of the source of Douglas-Pennant’s wealth as she was said to have slept on the slate bed that is still on show in the house (although the Keep bedrooms were unfortunately closed during our visit). Another notable slate item in the house is the billiard table whose legs and pockets are made from slate as well as the table base.

Another visitor attraction at Penrhyn that owes its existence to the slate quarry is the Railway Museum, home to a collection of steam engines from around the country, including some that used to ferry the slate to and from the quarry and Penrhyn port after a branch line was built specifically for this purpose. I am not a railway enthusiast but I had a quick look at the engines, including one of a type that inspired Thomas the Tank Engine!

The carved ceiling of the Grand Staircase

Other notable things to see inside the house include the stained glass windows in the Grand Hall, which were created by Thomas Willement (who also worked on the Houses of Parliament), the Grand Staircase, and the collection of art, which includes paintings by Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Teniers, etc. There were also works by Vermeer and Rembrandt until recently when the current members of the Penrhyn family, who still own much of the art, decided they were short of a few bob (by which I mean millions) and decided to sell them.

I will mention one other member of the Pennant family who seems to have had an impact on the castle and this is Sybil the Destroyer (my description not the National Trust’s!). A couple of times on our tour of the castle, we read that things had been removed because Lady Sybil – wife of the 4th Baron – didn’t like them, and it seems she was also largely responsible for installing the central heating that has wreaked some havoc on the wooden furnishings. However, although I dubbed her the Destroyer, she did create the lovely walled garden, with its water features, parterre and loggia, which was a tranquil resting spot on our walk around the grounds, so she wasn’t all bad. An entirely contrary view of some purists might be that she didn’t go far enough and should perhaps have torn down the entire pseudo castle but I for one think this would have been a tragedy. The Carved Castle surprised and impressed me and I doubt I will see anything like it on my future travels.

Highlights: Grand Hall; Library; walled garden; views!

Refreshments: Leek and cheese frittata with salad and home-made coleslaw; flapjack and pot of tea

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Rose of Tibet’ by Lionel Davidson (from secondhand bookshop)

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, which was bought by the owners of Penrhyn in 1854 and held by the estate until both properties were passed to the Trust in the 1950s

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104. Mottisfont – 31/3/2017

Whatever it is you look for from a National Trust property, Mottisfont will probably oblige as it can best be described as a smorgasbord. For architecture buffs, it serves up Medieval, Tudor and Georgian period features, while art lovers can delight in the Whistler Room’s murals, the Derek Hill collection and the art gallery with its frequently changing exhibitions, and garden enthusiasts can feast on riverside walks, a winter garden, ancient trees, a highly renowned rose garden, and at this time of year a pretty splash of spring colour. And on top of all that, there are a few genuine oddities to put a smile on your face, including a mini water wheel and a crocodile (I’ll come back to those later!)

Magnolias in bloom

Significant changes at Mottisfont over the years have left only fragments of the Medieval and Tudor features to be seen, and in fact there appear to be slightly more of the former than there are of the latter. We started our tour of the house on the ground floor, with its displays about the Augustinian priory, which was established at Mottisfont in 1201 by William Briwere, a local businessman and royal adviser. The Cellarium is the most complete part of the priory that still remains, although other evidence can be seen in the pulpitum that divided the choir from the nave (now found in the Old Kitchen restaurant) and in the Medieval tiles that line the floor of the Gothic summer house in the garden. Meanwhile, the walls of the White Bedroom feature a couple of hinged panels behind which can be seen some more of the old priory’s stonework.

Spring comes to the Winter Garden

The Black Death did much to damage the prosperity of the Mottisfont priory and then Henry VIII finished the job with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The priory passed into the hands of William Sandys, a diplomat at the court of King Henry who has already popped up in this blog as the builder of The Vyne near Basingstoke. Amusingly, we are told that he gave Henry the villages of Paddington and Chelsea in return for Mottisfont, which at today’s property prices would have been a pretty poor deal financially speaking. Sandys used the old priory church as the spine of his new Tudor home at Mottisfont and it must have been a striking property, having later welcomed not one but two visits by Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 and 1574.

The Sandys family held on to Mottisfont until the 1680s when it passed to a nephew, Sir John Mill, and it was his son Richard who built the three-storey Georgian property that dominates today. Future owners added the Mottisfont family name to their own, so we had the Reverend Sir John Barker-Mill and then, after a period rented to a family called Meinertzhagen, came Mrs Marianne Vaudrey-Barker-Mill. Fortunately, in 1934, before we wound up with quadruple-barrelled names the estate was sold and was acquired by merchant banker Gilbert Russell and his wife Maud, who used the house as a weekend party home. In a charming stroke of serendipity, it appears that Gilbert was actually a descendant of William Briwere who founded the original priory, so the two relatives book-ended Mottisfont’s history perfectly before it was passed to the National Trust in 1957.

The ancient plane trees with a carpet of daffodils

It is the Russells’ story that is the main focus of Mottisfont’s presentation to the public and this is hardly surprising as one of its main attractions is the Whistler Room, which Maud Russell commissioned from artist Rex Whistler and which was the last major work he painted before the Second World War in which he lost his life aged just 39. Whistler was actually the reason I visited Mottisfont at this time rather than waiting for the famous roses to be blooming in the summer. I am booked to go to North Wales in a few weeks’ time and will be visiting Plas Newydd, where Whistler painted another famous mural and where some of his more important portraits belong. I timed this extremely badly, however, as Whistler is the focus of the current exhibition in Mottisfont’s art gallery and some of the Plas Newydd paintings are on loan in Hampshire, hence my trip to see them there instead.

The exhibition is actually very good. I wasn’t very familiar with Whistler’s work but he is actually right up my street as an artist, with accurate drawing and real intricacy. He was also involved in theatre set design and drew many book illustrations so he was capable of turning his hand to pretty much anything; for example, the exhibition included some extremely clever and amusing pictures of faces that remain faces when viewed upside-down. In the Whistler Room itself, you can see evidence of his skill with perspectives: the frieze ledges all around the ceiling appear 3D but are actually flat, and one even appears to be holding a pot of Whistler’s paint and a box of matches as if he had forgotten them when he left.

Having seen the Whistler Room on the television a few weeks ago, I was really keen to experience it for real, but I will issue (an all too familiar) warning here – don’t expect to be able to see it all that clearly as it is likely the curtains will be drawn and you will have to view it in a protective gloom. Fortunately, the filming crew appeared to have had greater access to lighting, so while I would advocate that everything is worth seeing first-hand, you may want to supplement your visit to the Whistler Room with some television footage if you want to experience its full impact in the light in which it was designed and created. The effect just isn’t the same in dim, artificial light. And I can’t even include a picture of the room here as it was simply too dark to get a decent exposure.

Boris Anrep’s depiction of Maud as an angel

Maud Russell’s love of the arts wasn’t limited to Whistler, however, and there are a couple of mosaics on view at Mottisfont that were created by her Russian friend and lover Boris Anrep, while the house is also home to the paintings and art collection of Derek Hill, who had fond memories of visiting Maud at Mottisfont and wanted his art displayed there. Maud also sat for Henri Matisse in 1937, although she was said to be disappointed with the result.

Maud Russell’s war diaries have recently been published and Mottisfont has found clever ways to display some of her words, including printing lines onto the dining table’s napkins. Maud entertained Ian Fleming at Mottisfont and he encouraged her to take on some kind of secret work during WWII. She certainly worked for the Admiralty and was most likely involved in translating enemy communications, but secret means secret so no one really knows.

I’ll finish up by taking you back to those oddities I mentioned earlier. On first entering the house by the East Entrance, we passed an amusing sign that said ‘no paws beyond this point’ but only seconds later I could hear a very large dog lapping at a water bowl inside the house. I was quite surprised that someone had so blatantly ignored the instruction but, rounding the corner, we found that the lapping dog was actually a very small water wheel chugging around in a cabinet. This was actually designed to turn the spit on the kitchen range and is an ingenious twist on an old engineering favourite.


And last but not least, the crocodile! It seems that Maud Russell’s two boys once had a live crocodile that they kept in an upstairs bathroom… until it got too big and was sensibly transferred to more suitable accommodations at London Zoo. If you get a chance to go up to the Maid’s Room on the top floor of the house, don’t miss the closed door along the corridor that has three holes drilled in it – this is where the crocodile once lived and if you peek through you can still see him wallowing in his bathtub!

Highlights: Spring flowers; Whistler exhibition; Whistler Room (if only you could see it properly)

Refreshments: Tea and a flapjack; broccoli, caramelised onion and Stilton tart with rocket salad and new potatoes

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Rex Whistler: Inspirations – Family, Friendships, Landscapes and Love & War’ by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil

Companion(s): Mum and Dad, plus Jackie, Melissa, Alice and Peter in spirit if not in body! (NB: They were supposed to be meeting us for the day but were stymied by an accident on the M27 that blocked their route and they ended up diverting to Hinton Ampner instead – but as Melissa was keen to be given a mention in the blog I have duly obliged!)

NT Connections: The Vyne, also built by William Sandys; Plas Newydd, another place adorned with one of Whistler’s murals

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103. Hanbury Hall – 13/3/2017

As I have done for the past few years, I used my annual trip to the Cheltenham horse racing festival to get my NT visits underway and headed off to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire the day before the horses took over my every waking thought for four days (hence the delay in writing this up!)

Hanbury Hall is one of those houses that may not have survived until today were it not for one particular jewel in its crown. In this instance, the National Trust’s interest in the house was stirred not by its pretty exterior or its cast of interesting characters but purely and simply by the dramatic staircase with its murals painted by Sir James Thornhill (best known for his later work on the cupola of St Paul’s Cathedral and on the walls of the Painted Hall at Greenwich). The artwork is certainly dramatic, with characters appearing to ‘fall’ from the ceiling to the wall, while every inch of space is covered in either full colour or more muted two-shade trompe l’oeil effects. The Trust clearly has great pride in the staircase and has recently restored the paintings. There is even a series of display boards on the upper landing to explain what each of the paintings shows and how it fits in to the classical story of Achilles.

James Thornhill was noted for the use of political statement and satire in his works and I have already visited the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which features various monarchs, including King William with his foot on a figure that is thought to be depicted as Louis XIV. Hanbury’s staircase also makes a few political points, with the pictures including a representation of Henry Sacheverell being thrown to the Furies. This Tory preacher had been put on trial for sedition by the Whig government so his fate in the painting would have amused Hanbury’s Whig owner, Thomas Vernon.

Like so many of the families I have ‘met’ at the National Trust’s stately homes, the Vernons of Hanbury Hall are certainly worth looking into. During our visit, we managed to secure the last two places on the second of two morning tours, so we got a good introduction to key members of the family during a walk around the downstairs rooms. However, it was a little confusing trying to keep up with who was who and which portrait was which, so I think it would perhaps be helpful to have a handout that gives some of the key facts about the most interesting Vernons and points out where they can be found looking down from the walls.

The most important of all the Vernons – in as much as he made most of the family’s money and built the current house at Hanbury in the early 1700s – was Thomas Vernon, a successful lawyer who made his fortune in the Chancery court. He also commissioned the Thornhill paintings and paid for garden designer George London to lay out the gardens and grounds. Fortunately, London’s designs have survived so the gardens have been recreated to his original ideas, including the Sunken Parterre (above), the Fruit Garden (below), the Wilderness and the Grove. The Orangery is a slightly later addition but no less welcome because of it, while I was also fascinated by the mushroom house, which was something I’d not come across before and which was home to forced rhubarb growing away in the pitch dark. Although the Sunken Parterre is likely to be much more dramatic in a few weeks when the spring flowers burst into life, its symmetry and clipped hedges still make it a sight to be seen even with relatively empty beds. And spring has sprung in other parts of the gardens, with primroses, daffodils and anemones cheering the scene here and there.

Returning to the Vernon timeline, Thomas died childless so Hanbury Hall was left to his cousin’s son Bowater Vernon who proceeded to spend as much of his inherited fortune as he could. It was perhaps a fortunate fortune, in that Bowater died within a couple of years of inheriting, thus limiting the damage. His granddaughter Emma was the next Vernon of note. Having married Henry Cecil, later the Earl of Exeter, she then took a shine to a local curate and eventually ran off with him to Portugal. He died shortly after and she returned to England, married again and eventually moved back to Hanbury after Henry Cecil died. Cecil himself had had an interesting time since losing Emma, moving to the countryside and living a simple life under an assumed name before marrying a local farmer’s daughter, initially bigamously before getting his divorce and marrying her again! His wife was later dubbed the ‘Cottage Countess’ and it seems she never really fit in to her new role when the Earl took over the family’s estates at opulent Burghley House.

Later, Hanbury came into the hands of Sir Harry Foley and Lady Georgina, who took on the estate in 1859 and were worthy and charitable folks with strong ties to the local community. Sir Harry also became the first of the family to gain a title when receiving a baronetcy in 1885. After these, we come finally to Sir Bowater George Hamilton Vernon who spent much of his life raising horses on an Argentinean farm and who committed suicide at Hanbury in 1940, leaving the contents of the house and of nearby Shrawley Wood (another Vernon home) to his parlour maid!

This decision actually placed Hanbury’s future at great risk as Ruth, the aforementioned parlour maid, sold a lot of Hanbury’s contents, which took away some of its attraction to those who might have been interested in preserving it. Over the years, the house’s interiors had also been altered, with walls being knocked through, fireplaces moved and windows blocked up, so it had become something of a hotchpotch of design. All in all, if it weren’t for the painted staircase, the National Trust may never have been interested in taking on the property, and as it was, an anonymous donor was still required to deliver the required endowment so the Trust could take over at Hanbury in 1953.

It would seem that in more recent years, the Trust has been investing heavily in the property, with a new roof being put on in 2008/09 (complete with hidden solar panels), while work on the gardens continues, with new avenues of trees planted between 2007 and 2010 (the same year in which the restoration of the Great Staircase was completed). A new tearoom has also opened upstairs in the house, which could be very important as the restaurant is more than a little cramped and seems to be catering to rather more visitors than it was originally designed for – even on a Monday in March.

One final note brings me back to the Vernons and their family motto: ‘Vernon Semper Viret’, which means ‘Vernon always flourishes’ or is ‘always green’. On the fireplace in the Main Hall and the porcelain in the Dining Room, this motto is written with a space in the middle of Vernon, i.e. Ver Non Semper Viret. This suggests a whole different meaning – ‘spring is not always green’ – and it is appropriate that this seems to sum up the Vernon family to a tee: for every flourishing Thomas or Sir Harry, there was a spendthrift Bowater or a scandalous Emma. I am not entirely sure what it says about me, but I know that I would enjoy my historical families far less if they were all ‘jolly good eggs’ with no hint of profligacy or disgrace. Thankfully, the Vernons didn’t let me down in that regard, so even if painted staircases and William & Mary design are not your thing, you could always seek out the portraits of Hanbury’s more colourful characters and ask the room guides for the gossip.

Spring has sprung

Highlights: The sunken parterre, the John Thornhill painted staircase

Refreshments: Servant’s lunch (i.e. a ploughman’s by another name!), half a slice of salted caramel chocolate cake

Purchase(s): Guidebook; jelly beans

Companion(s): Mum

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