In his last Curious House Guest blog for Country Life, Jeremy bids us farewell and pays a visit to Stanway House
As I am about to leave the magazine in early September and must begin to metaphorically pack my Country Life staffer bags, this will be the last of my weekly blogs. I take great pride in having contributed the first official blog for the Country Life website and it has been a privilege and a pleasure working and experimenting with the young and lively team who put this site together, Arabella and Holly both having a brilliant sense of humour, without which life here would have been much duller.
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Following my new obsession with the great Vanbrugh, I went down to Bristol this week to see Kings Weston House. It was a trip first discussed about 2 years ago but pushed down the list by other things.
It is a rather amazing house, rather hemmed in by urban sprawl, but still stately, built for Robert Southwell, a cultivated MP, who later became Lord De Clifford.
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We had a jolly drinks to celebrate 110 years of Country life in all its glory; it was a very good party and in the way of best parties, I wanted to talk to everyone there and found myself only able to talk for a few minutes to people I had longed to see for months (and as I am to leave Country Life in September to pursue a freelance career it was a good chance to say some thank-yous too). I did enjoy introducing people however and having a round of applause to Marcus Binney, celebrating 40 years of writing for Country Life, and a brilliant writer and support to us all, he is too.
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Last week, I went down to the Cotswolds to prepare for a feature on a delectable early-18th-century house, in a delightful setting not far from Painswick. This is a gem of the smaller English baroque house, conditioned as much by the Cotswolds mason tradition as by the most significant architectural theorising of the day (ie its a bit old fashioned for its date, but I love it). It looks over a valley but at the same time is made to feel rather remote by the tall trees which surround it. Our hosts have lived here for many decades, and treated it most lovingly, furnished with good English antiques and paintings, it is the epitome of English country life.
On our tour round the house we trace the alterations made in the early 1800s- a library, some Gothic detailing – and in the early 20th century, where we have an amusing time picking over photographs of fancy dress balls of the 1920s to see how the panelling looked like then. David Verey, the author of the Cotswolds Pevsner, lived there for some time as a child.
The author of the forthcoming piece is Christopher Woodward, the lively new director of the Museum of Garden History, formerly of the Holborne Museum in Bath and author of In Ruins, who has been a freelance contributor for Country Life for the past decade.
He is hosting a talk and exhibition from the Garnetts of Cannwood who I visited for the Genius of the Place competition, and will have buckets of wild flowers bought up from their farm on the day of their talk, to bring a breath of the country to Lambeth. Details of the talk can be found in Town and Country soon.
I gave a lecture at Christies Educational this week on the hiatus in the English country house in the 20th century, and revisited the fascinating and triumphal recoveries of Holkham and Chatsworth. But in many ways it is the new owners of smaller country houses who have done so much to recpature the pleasure of the country house way of life, spending fortunes on resuscitating older houses, giving them back their dignity and making them family homes again. I must have visited hundreds of examples of these in my years at Country Life.
For instance, I went on Monday to visit a handsome queen anne house in Kent which I was privileged enough to see shortly after the present owners had embarked on its restoration and redecoration. It has those handsome tall panelled rooms with tall windows that give the flavour of a French chateau, and every room has been carefully repaired and painted in tactful colours, warm and dark on one side of the house, light and reflective on the south side.
A whole new banqueting house in red brick rather in the manner of those at Wrest Park has risen in the garden since I was last here, a testimony to the vision of the new owners and the pride they take in breathing new life back into this fine house, and an elegant canal garden that happily doubles as a swimming pool.
I have in the past week spent two days looking at new country houses with the architects who have designed them (which was worth all the increasingly grim train travel). They are all in the Classical tradition; those I saw near Wadhurst (East Sussex) are in the early to mid Georgian style, while the one on the Welsh borders was inspired by Nash. It is extraordinary how persistent the Classical style is for smaller country houses, I think largely because they are restful; this is the effect of order and symmetry in the chaos of the modern world. But it should always be remembered how they depend on the gentleness of the British landscape, the woodedness, and small field pattern of an ancient nation to achieve their full effect.
I had lunch with a friend in Brooks’s, that most charming of St James’s clubs, and recalled that the first time I met him was after lunching with another friend at Boodles. This friend said I promised to take you to have coffee at Brooks’s to meet so and so. As we crossed St James’s I was very nearly knocked down by a fast moving taxi. After stumbling shocked on to the pavement we decided in that daft moment, it would have looked good on the obituary of an Architectural Editor of Country life to have been knocked down between courses in different clubs.
Thankfully, I survived this lunch to make a viewing after work to watch a viewing of John Betjeman’s Passion for Churches, with a very amusing introduction by the director who worked on it, Eddie Mirzoeff, who I had first met in 1995 filming on Orford Ness. The film is a masterpiece, but would the BBC have made it today? I wonder.
A week of rain to dampen the spirits, but it does encourage the green in every corner. Miraculously Paul Barker the photographer who was sent to take up to date photographs of our finalists for the Genuis of the Place Award (an award sponsored by Savills for the best revived landscape setting of a country house), managed to find openings in the weather to record the glories of Gresgarth, Daneway, Rycote and others, to capture slices of blue sky and sunlight at key moments, often very early in the morning.
Our desks have moved again within the new offices, but I am satisfied that if I look left I can see Southwark Cathedral, with that spectacular curve of the railway, and glimpse the turrets of the Tower of London. Our new cafe is wonderful, with a view directly over Tate Modern and St Pauls’ effectively making a surreal montage, the food is very good too, and I have probably been the first to buy lunch there for a Gloucestershire-based baronet, a rather good lasagne. Pity no Chianti can be bought, but having Decanter in a next door office could be promising…
I visited three more of the short-listed houses and their landscape short-listed for our genius of the place awards. I know it sounds like a dreary headmaster to say “the standard was extremely high” but each has been mind-blowing in their own way; Cannwood Farm is the subject of a new book by the owners A Year in an English Meadow written by the owners, Andy and Polly Garnett, detailing the flowers and grasses that emerge in the meadow near their house which they rescued from modern farming and inspired a gradual acquisition of land right around their house. The judging is next week and discussions will be heated.
It is to be published by Frances Lincoln in July; but every story of each house on the short-list impresses and delights in different ways, for new woodlands, new lakes, for bold acquisitions of ugly bungalows and pulling them down, for cherishing the simple truths of cherishing the landscape. I hope that whichever is the winner the examples of all those short-listed will be a national inspiration.
I took my family for a walk in the park-like gardens of Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, of which I was once the curator. The dense avenues of trees here, planted from the 1920s onwards are exactly what I enjoy about all these amazing revived parklands we are looking at. They transform a dullish landscape into a cultivated wonderland. Our children ran off towards the classical sculptures that provide vistas here and there and as we watched them run, time seemed to stand still. We also went to touch the ancient Roman porphyry vase that sits in a temple.
The 1st Lord Fairhaven must have a great feeling for trees and the impression that avenues create and, most of all, an imagination that stretched out into the future able to see what an impression they would create when mature. I wonder if he thought of the people who would be walking down these avenues in 100 years time.
On Friday to Moggerhanger, where the long postponed official opening was taking place. I meet the shadow minister for the arts Hugo Swire and others from trusts who have supported the project including the Heritage Lottery Fund. Many of the craftsmen were present, and the Countess of Erroll, one of the trustees, who asked if Country Life could help solicit donations of appropriate furniture and paintings. The house certainly looked stunning, and the interiors have an architectural force that hardly needs furnishings but the odd portrait and Regency chair does help bring the right elegant tone to bear. Lady Erroll is particularly keen to find people to donate good quality Turkey carpets. The next great challenge, but highly important, is to wrestle with the much degraded Repton landscape: without which the pristine house will seem to many passers by (on what is gamely called the scenic route) strangely as if it has landed from outer space. The landscape setting is so important and as I am learning on trips being made for the Genius of the Place award, there is so much that can be done.
This weekend, my stepsister was married at a humanist ceremony at my father’s house. It was all very charming and personal with a ceremony in a marquee before dinner. The sloping lawns of their house make for a rather ship-board like experience when dining and even more so when dancing. Which is perhaps rather appropriate for my new brother-in-law is from Gibraltar. This also brought a Mediterranean atmosphere to an English country wedding party, even though his family all tended to have rather old fashioned first names, such as Ronald and Albert. My wife kept on going to saying hello to tall, dark Spanish-looking young men, only to find they are now working in places like Worthing.
I always enjoy weddings for the way they bring you across the paths of people you have some connection with but never see, distant cousins from all over England, and Scotland (my stepmother’s family all present in kilt or trews) or friends of the bride and groom, and you find yourself taking about such surprising things: from dogs to dinosaurs.
We have just been down to our annual bucket and spade at Ringstead Bay in Dorset; we had the best weather we have had there in a decade and swam in the sea. We always have an annual craft theme with the children and this year was creating fine looking battleships out of drift wood, only wood glue used and only driftwood found on the beach; they are then ceremoniously put out to sea and bombarded with stones until they fall to bits or sink; it keeps some of us busy in the evenings anyway.
Actually, this year was uncommonly social as well, with a kind friend inviting us to a lunch and drinks, where we talked about Iran, Tuscany, Thomas Hardy and the brilliant bookshop in Sherborne (the lunch as held at a house where smugglers used to store contraband behind the genteel Georgian front, a story referred to by Hardy himself) . I called in for a quick drink in one nearby manor house which I had long promised to see on account of their new works, only to have my leg rubbed by the chatelaine: “just so the dog knows we are friends!”, it seemed to work the dog stopped barking and looking fearsome.
I visited quite a number of Thomas Hardy connected sites, including the ruins of Bindon Abbey, in a private garden, which provided the fictional setting for the burial of the Tess of the Durbevilles, and Max gate the rather modest neo Queen Anne he built for himself, in the manner of a modest rectory.
Back from Dorset and straight into the glamorous new offices on Southwark Street which certainly has “presence” to the street and an amazing roof terrace (pity I get vertigo or I would be up there every day spotting church towers). The Genius of the Place award for the best restored landscape is in full swing and I have started on the judging visits, including one moated manor houses of unbelievable loveliness, surrounded by new woodlands, handsome gardens and parkland with wildflower meadows; every window in the house showed something that had been lovingly planted and cultivated over the past two decades, it must be so satisfying to look out on your own creation in this way. It is also the perfect time to inspect landscape with everything just bursting into green.