One of the many reasons I’m enjoying Downton Abbey and all the enthusiasm for British History it has engendered here in the States is the interest it’s stirred in the great country houses. Now, many of us are familiar with the famous estates, like Chatsworth and Blenheim. But there are so many lesser-known places with unique and fascinating histories, as Nicola often points out in her wonderful posts.
For those of us who don’t live in the UK, and only occasionally get a chance to travel to the Sceptered Isle, these stately houses are incredibly alluring. The grand gardens, the ornate rooms, the opulent furnishings, the memorabilia decorating the niches and walls—it all resonates with wonderful stories and gives us a glimpse into the richly textured past. Last summer I had a chance to visit one of these marvelous estates, so in homage to the recent start of Season Two of Downton Abbey here in America, I thought I’d share a little about Stoke Park, which is located near London, just a few miles from Heathrow Airport.
The lands of Stoke Park and the village of Stoke Poges, where it is located, are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and through the ensuing centuries the estate passed to various nobles of the realm. Queen Elizabeth graced two of her favorites with use of enclave, first allowing Sir Christopher Hatton to reside there, and then giving the honors to Sir Edward Coke. Coke became one of the most prominent lawyers in England, and was involved in sending the Earl of Essex to the gallows, as well as prosecuting members of the Gunpowder Plot. Two years before the Queen’s death, he entertained her at Stoke Park.
Royalty made another visit, albeit a less pleasant one, to the estate when King Charles I was imprisoned for a short time there before his execution. And in 1688, the newly crowned King William III was traveling in the area and wished to see the manor house. However, he was refused entrance by the owner, who said “He has got possession of another man’s house and shall not enter mine.”
Stoke Park eventually passed to the Cobham family, who also owned Stowe, a well-known estate in Buckinghamshire. In 1749, the dowager Viscountess came from Stowe to live at Stoke park—and brough with her another fascinating figure in English history—the legendary landscape designer, Capability Brown.
Lancelot Brown—who earned the moniker “Capability” for often telling clients that their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement—was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland in 1716. He started his career as a gardener’s boy at Kirkharle Hall, and then moved on to Stowe, where he studied under the famous landscape designer, William Kent.
Brown made a name for himself by breaking with tradition and creating a new “natural” approach to designing gardens and grounds, as opposed to the formal layouts of the past. He called them “grammatical” landscapes—in explaining himself to Hannah More in an encounter at Hampton Court, he said, “I make a comma, and there . . . where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis . . .” Now as a writer, I of course love this name for his style. And oh, can Brown punctuate!
His style is marked by long stretches of rolling grasslands, with bushes, trees and lakes—manmade if necessary— artfully placed to create visual texture and interest. Many of the most famous estates in Britain feature his garden designs, including Croome Court, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, and small traces at Kew Gardens. Stoke Park’s grounds—which today include a wonderful 18-hole golf course by the distinguished Harry Colt—showcase Brown’s genius for subtlely shaping the earth and creating pleasing vistas from every angle of the estate.
I was lucky enough to play golf through some of the grounds that he designed at Stoke Park, Now, Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled” but nothing could diminish the pleasure of winding my way through the vistas of rolling grasslands, strategically placed clumps of bushes, and graceful stone bridges crossing scenic waters. It’s not often that I can combine my love of history with my love of sport, so this was truly a special experience.
Other notables who owned Stoke Park include Edward Gray, one of England’s premier poets. His most famous poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” was written about St. Giles’s church in Stoke Poges. The Penn family, familiar to all us Yanks, was also a steward of the lands. In the early 1800’s John Penn, grandson of William, brought in the acclaimed architect James Wyatt to help design a manor house.
Now this brings us back to the Downton Abbey era, which also figures prominently in the history of Stoke Park. In 1908, sport-mad Nick Lane Jackson had the grand idea to “establish a country club somewhat along the lines of those which had proved so phenomenally successful in the United States.” He and a group of investors arranged to lease part of Stoke Park with an option to buy. The Stoke Park Club came into being, and today it still offers its members and hotel guests world-class golf and grass court tennis. (The famous golf match in the James Bond movie Goldfinger was filmed at the club.) The public can book a stay, which offers the opportunity to enjoy tea and meals in the fabulous period rooms, or enjoy a quiet read in the library or various sitting rooms. It’s well worth a visit for it’s truly a special place, for everywhere you look, both inside and out, you get a breathtaking look at history.
What about you? Are you enjoying Downton Abbey? Would you like to have a stay at a grand English country house. Which one would you choose?