Christina here. Have you ever fallen completely and utterly in love … with a house? I have to admit I do this quite frequently. I love old houses, and usually the ones that appeal to me the most are grand aristocratic mansions, but more modest buildings that are quirky in some way also fascinate me. Whatever the type of building, me falling in love with it often leads to inspiration for a story, which is great and just what an author needs. My current “crush” is Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic Revival mansion near Bristol here in the UK. It’s a truly spectacular place and absolutely perfect as the setting for a timeslip novel!
I’ve had a thing about Gothic architecture ever since the first time I saw a building in that style, and although I have no idea why, it appeals to me like nothing else. Maybe it’s the over-the-top decorations, carvings and gargoyles, or the pointy window and door arches? Or just the sheer extravagance and exuberance that seems to have gone into creating these buildings. Whatever it is, I want one! And I don’t just want a tiny cottage in the Gothic style, I dream of a huge stately home like Tyntesfield, complete with landscaped grounds and a walled garden. Obviously I can’t have one, as I’m not a billionaire, so I make do with the next best thing – using it as the basis for an imaginary house in one of my stories. And since my heroine will be living there, so will I, vicariously.
I first became aware of Tyntesfield back in 2002, when the owner Lord Wraxall had died and the house came up for sale. No one had heard of it before, but the press talked about a hidden Victorian gem, a sort of time-capsule where time had stood still. Nothing in the house had been touched for decades and everything survived intact. Lord Wraxall had lived there virtually alone, but kept it all in good order. It sounded absolutely magical and, of course, everyone wanted to see it! There was a slight problem though – his lordship hadn’t left it to the nation as some owners do. Instead the estate was to be sold and the proceeds divided between 19 heirs, so of course they wanted as much money for it as possible, and there was some doubt that the National Trust could come up with such a sum. Bidding against them, it was rumoured, was the Australian singer Kylie Minogue who could well afford it!
Luckily, after appeals for help from various quarters, the Trust managed to scrape together the sum needed and bought it in the end. And then began the huge task of going through everything in the house and making it ready to be opened to the public. This was apparently a massive job as the contents hadn’t been touched for years, and I believe the work is still ongoing behind the scenes.
Years went by and I never forgot about this house, but I didn’t manage to visit until recently when I knew I’d be passing by on my way home from somewhere else and decided to stop. And oh, was I glad I did! That spark of inspiration which every author hopes for struck me immediately and that’s a great feeling.
The main house is situated in a Somerset valley and there used to be five different gates to the estate, all with lodges for the gatekeepers. These days, when you arrive, you first come to what used to be the Home Farm. From there, you can either take a shuttle bus up to the main entrance of the house or you can walk up to it through the grounds – I chose the latter. There was hardly anyone there and as I walked through the parkland, I could imagine myself slipping back in time to the house’s heyday. It takes a while before you reach it, but then you suddenly turn a corner and there it is, in all its glory. It quite took my breath away and I felt a bit like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, coming upon a slumbering mansion!
I was approaching it from behind and had to go round to the front to enter, but both sides are stunning and I fell even more love, the closer I got. Built out of two different types of golden Bath stone, there is no particular symmetry to the building – it has odd little turrets, bays and spires wherever the architect felt like adding them – but that’s part of the charm. The front entrance is built to resemble a monastic cloister and you go through it into a spacious inner hall lit by a roof light. Here’s how I imagine my heroine feels as she arrives at the house:-
The first time I walked into my gilded cage I was actually pleasantly surprised. A long, tiled hallway in the Gothic style, almost like a cloister in a particularly rich monastery, led into a large hallway topped by a glass dome. Pale sunshine was pouring down onto a magnificent staircase, making the eyes in the portraits that lined the walls gleam as though they were watching me. And perhaps they were. No doubt they were also laughing at me – I had just been stupid enough to save their home by sacrificing myself …
The hall is an enormous space, with windows all around the top which give lots of light. A graceful staircase rises to the first floor, with intricate ironwork balustrading that edges the stairs and upper balcony. It is exquisite, but as nothing compared to the fireplace which is a work of art in itself. I think we can safely say it is a bit OTT!
Of the rooms leading off the hall, the Library is exactly as a proper one should be – with shelf after shelf of leather-bound tomes, a vaulted ceiling that gives it an airy and medieval feel, and a deep sofa just made for sinking into with a book on a rainy day.
A most amazing carved stone doorway leads into the elegant Dining Room and I imagined myself at a formal dinner there, with candle light illuminating the gilded wallpaper. There are smaller rooms – the Oak Room, the Morning Room and the Ante Room – the mere names of which give you a feeling of times gone by, and then there is the Drawing Room. Enormous and quite stunning, with windows overlooking the garden, this was clearly the most formal of all the reception rooms. Originally it had a vast Gothic fireplace with an overmantel mirror, but this was replaced by a slightly smaller one in the early 20th century. (In my story, I will of course retain the Gothic one).
At the back of the house is a large billiard room with the heads of moose and deer all around the walls. Standing in there, I could almost hear the balls clicking against the table on a dark winter’s evening when there was nothing else to do. I doubt they would have let me play though as the one and only time I tried my hand at pool I made a tear in the green baize cover … oops!
There are apparently 43 bedrooms, although of course visitors only get to see a fraction of those, but the ones I saw were lovely. Interestingly, the National Trust had left one of them exactly as they’d found them all – completely crammed with furniture and other items to the point where you could barely get in – and you could really see what an incredibly hard job they must have had sorting it all out. I itched to start sifting through it to see what treasures might be unearthed but that’s a privilege I’ll leave for the present-day heroine in my story.
The house was originally smaller and quite different, but remodelling work was completed in 1865. Despite its glorious looks, the building is actually based on something much more mundane – guano, or bird droppings. The first owner (or rather the man who bought the building and had it completely redone) was William Gibbs, who made his fortune importing guano into the country to be used as fertiliser. It must have been a very lucrative business as according to the guide book he was the “richest commoner in England” in the mid-19th century. Tyntesfield even has its own chapel, which was fit for a king with magnificent stained-glass windows and a vaulted roof high above. My heroine will be married there, and I imagine she’ll be impressed even though she doesn’t really want to be there at all …
I have to say, I was extremely pleased Ms Minogue didn’t manage to buy this house because then I would never have seen it! How about you – have you ever fallen in love with a house? Please tell me about your favourites – I might have to visit them next!