What Lies Beneath

Nicola clandonNicola here. The sort of stately home visits I tend to make usually involve a gorgeously-furnished and decorated historic house, beautiful gardens, a gift shop and afternoon tea (or morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea to be more specific.) Those are usually the National Trust places or the Historic House Association. Alternatively I might go to a ruined castle or a site in the care of English Heritage and it’s always amazing and I learn a lot about the place and the people who lived there.

I’ve never “done” a stately home visit like the one I went on last week at Clandon Park in Surrey. Marble hall Originally built, or re-built in the early 18th century, Clandon is a Palladian-style mansion built for Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow. The interior of the house was completed in the 1740s and it was glorious, with a two storey, forty foot Marble Hall and stunning plasterwork ceilings. Described by the National Trust as “a gleaming white forty foot cube”, the hall must truly have been a jaw-dropping space and hugely impressive. It was the centrepiece of entertainment at the house, surrounded by other grand rooms and with two huge staircases and was designed to emphasise the status of the Onslow family.

 Other rooms, including the State Bedroom, were equally grand. The state bed was made in about 1710, with exquisite silk embroidered hangings, a reminder of the visits of King George I and George II. Although the bed was already 50 years old in 1778 it was described as “a noble and costly bedstead with hangings beautifully worked in a great variety of colours lined with sattin and superbly finished.” The bed was not used frequently; the last person to stay in it was the Princesse de Lamballe, a friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was a guest in 1791 and was subsequently guillotined in the French revolution.

Clandon exteriorOn April 29th 2015 everything changed at Clandon Park when fire gutted the entire mansion. Everyone was evacuated safely but the house was left a shell. A complex salvage operation followed and plans have been made to rebuild Clandon in a way that pays tribute to its history but also creates different opportunities for the future. In the meantime, it’s possible to enter the house via a walkway to see both what has been lost and what survives. I found this a very poignant and moving experience. It’s so seldom one gets to see what lies beneath a grand house – I’ve only had the experience once before when we were undertaking conservation work at Ashdown House – and in the case of Clandon, of course, the reason for the opportunity a tragic one. And yet it’s also a way to see and learn new things – about how the house was built and decorated, about what is usually hidden underneath all that gorgeous decoration.

Standing in the Saloon the first thing that struck me was the noise. The house is completely covered to protect it from the weather Clandon 2
and the false roof and the scaffolding vibrate in the wind like an instrument. It adds a rather eerie quality to what is already a strange experience. This room has had many different roles in the history of the house. It has variously been used for dining, as a parlour, and as a billiards room. An inventory from 1778 noted that it was painted dark green and hung with oil paintings; it was used as an entrance from the gardens and as an extension to the Marble Hall. After the fire the room was full of debris from the floors above which collapsed into it and a huge amount of salvage work has been done here. One of the fine fireplaces survives which gives a flavour of the intricate decoration that was once in the room.

The Marble Hall still retains its floor, which is damaged and covered over, and if you take the walkway to the left you can see down into the basement of the building and up to the sky. All the beams and flooring have gone but the fireplaces and some of the statues remain. It was an extraordinary feeling to stand in that space, feel the emptiness and try to imagine the original grandeur.

State bedIn the state bedroom some of the wallpaper, panelling and even the plasterwork was saved so the traces of what was here before can still be seen. Our guide told us that the bed hangings had been saved because by a miracle they had been taken down for renovation and were still parcelled up when the fire started. Even more miraculously, the dining room next door, known as the Speaker’s Parlour, remained largely unscathed. It is hoped that this will be open to view again soon. Little by little the house comes back to life.

 In addition, other parts of the house have been revealing secrets that would otherwise not have been known. Down in the basement is a room that in the Victorian period was called “The Butler’s Room.” Once the fire debris had been cleared it became apparent that the floor there was different from the rest of the house and that it contained brick and tile. Drains have been found that date prior to the time the house was built and are the remains of a previous house on the site, a Jacobean mansion whose footprint lay hidden beneath and would never have been found but for the fire. Whilst in no way underplaying the devastating effects of the fire, our guide emphasised the positive opportunities they now have at Clandon to learn about its history and construction and to make exciting progress going forward into the future.

After the emotion of touring the house we went out into the gardens, a beautiful landscape created by Capability Brown which Clandon Dutch garden subsequent owners and generations added to with a parterre, grotto and Dutch garden. The Dutch garden is gorgeous and felt exactly the right place to sit and think about all we had seen at Clandon, both the terrible destruction but also the secrets revealed and the hope for the future.

You can find out more about Clandon Park and the restoration project here.

When we restored Ashdown House we found lots of hidden things, from old newspapers to a secret passageway beneath the building. Have you ever seen "behind the scenes" at a place that usually looks quite different, and did you find anything that would normally be hidden? Do you think it's important to restore old houses or other properties that have been damaged by natural disasters or should we move on and put the money to other uses?

Out in the Georgian Country Garden

PheasantNicola here. The recent hot weather in the UK (3 hot days and a thunder storm, as the old adage suggests) has given us lots of lovely opportunities for being outside, whether sitting reading a book, eating, or doing some much needed gardening. Two hundred years ago if I had been sitting in this spot it would probably have been a vegetable garden and pen for the pig. The cottage would have been newly built, two rooms up, two down. It looked out across a rough track rather than a paved road, and there was a stream that ran down the side of the road and into a pond at the bottom of the garden. The villagers dumped their waste there; lots of pottery has been found in the dried out pond bed.

In those days people living in this sort of worker’s cottage had precious little time for leisure or for growing flowers for pleasure. Garden They grew food and kept animals to live on, and their existence in the village was a communal one with one well (now in the garden of Spring Cottage.) You would need to go further up the social scale to find a cottage or “villa” where there was a garden designed for relaxing in. The doctor and the vicar would have that sort of house in this sort of village; their wives and daughters did not need to work and the garden was a social space. Those houses look pretty big to us today and cost a fortune to buy but in the Georgian era they were the homes of the lesser gentry and though there might be time to sit around drawing or growing flowers, the lady of the house would still learn all about seed planting and making herbal medicines alongside her other house hold duties.

Read more

Shaping The Ideal English Landscape

Overview 3
“With large sweeping expanses of lush green fields, groupings of trees, winding paths, and serpentine-shaped rivers and lakes, the English landscape appears as an ideal form of nature; it is, however, an expertly crafted construct.” 
—from the exhibit, "Moving Earth"

Overview 1Andrea/Cara here
, Spring is bursting into bloom where I am, the colors and textures transforming the stark planes of winter into a whole new landscape. It got me to thinking about how trees and shrubs and flowers shape our perception of our surroundings. Modern life, with all its crowded cities and endless strip malls, has tended to dull that bond to the natural world. It got me to thinking about the English countryside, which has always seemed to me to be the quintessential example of a wonderful balance between the wildness of Nature and the careful cultivation of Man.

Read more

Of Shells and other Garden Decorations

Forest 1A few months ago we visited Hatfield Forest, which is a rare survival of a medieval royal hunting forest. I love woods and forests because they so often have a real sense of history; the ancient trees like living sculptures, the sense of timelessness that you get when you walk between them.

Hatfield Forest was in existence at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086. It belonged to King Harold and passed to William of Normandy at the time of the Conquest. A forest in those days was a mixture of woodland and open spaces for grazing. Fallow deer were introduced in 1100 from Sicily and their descendants still roam the woods today. Rabbits were another “foreign” introduction and a warren was set up in the woods to provide meat and fur. In keeping with may other medieval hunting grounds, including Ashdown Park, Hatfield had a lodge that was the residence of the Head Keeper. The current lodge, dating from 1570, is still standing and originally had a tower at one end from which spectators could watch the progress of the hunt.

Read more

A House In The Country . . .

AP-avatarCara/Andrea here,

SP-1One 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.

SP-mapFor 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.

Elizabeth-1The 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.

King-CharlesRoyalty 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.

Cap-BrownLancelot 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!

Stoke-Park-2His 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.

Stoke-Park-1I 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.

Thomas-GreyOther 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.

Sp-tennisNow 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 Goldfingercourt tennis. (The famous golf match in the James Bond movie Goldfinger was filmed at the club.) The public can book a stay, Stoke-interiorwhich 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?