Like a lady revealing her petticoats . . .

Standing proudly since the mid-16th century on the edge of the Cotswolds escarpment (map), with a magnificent vista southeast and west as far as the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire and the Mendips in north Somerset, Newark Park began life as a Tudor hunting lodge. In the intervening centuries it has undergone many transformations, but it was not until the last years of the 20th century that this building began to yield up some of its hidden secrets. It has been in the hands of the National Trust since 1949.

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The south face of Newark Park, from the lower terrace [9 on the map below].

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The view from the south terrace, towards the Mendips and the Marlborough Downs.

Built by Sir John Poyntz, Newark Park (originally the ‘New Worke’) has changed ownership several times over the centuries, and each generation has left its mark. It was constructed over four floors: ground, first and second, and a basement. The original Tudor building was aligned north-south, with the main entrance on the east face.

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Newark Park as it might have looked in 1550. Note that there are no windows on the south wall (nearest). All the windows are on the east face.

In the seventeenth century another wing was added, parallel to the Tudor one, and connected centrally, so that the overall shape of the building was like the letter ‘H’. This is what I remembered from the explanation using a model by one of the volunteers. I wish I’d taken photos of that model, which could be taken apart to show how the various building projects came together in the building we see today. Here’s my plan (not to scale).

Newark plan

Further changes were made in the 18th century, and the building was squared to the shape we see today. But in doing so, and to retain the symmetry there are several false windows on the west face, or windows placed over internal chimneys on the south side of the Tudor wing. Other windows, on what would have been the west face of the original Tudor wing, were bricked in during the 18th century and became internal walls. A side wing was added in the late 19th century, and an entrance porch added after 1971.

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Coat of Arms of the Clutterbuck family, part of a large stained glass window on the first floor over the main door leading to the walled garden on the east side of Newark Park.

In the 1700s, Newark Park became the property of the Clutterbuck family and remained so until given to the National Trust, although they had not lived there since the late 1800s. A number of tenants took over Newark Park, but by 1970 it was in a considerable state of disrepair, the gardens were overgrown, and no-one remembered the buildings illustrious Tudor past. In fact, at one stage, the National Trust had contemplated letting the building become completely derelict.

But the savior of Newark Park came along in 1971, and under the terms of a ‘repairing lease’ began to discover much of Newark’s past, uncovering many of its Tudor features that visitors can now see for themselves. Access to the Tudor basement is permitted only with a tour guide, but it’s worth it. The rest of the house is open almost everywhere.

And what a delight it is. Not only is there eclectic collection of ornaments, paintings, furniture, glassware and the like, but the renovations made after 1971 opened much of the top floor.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

So who was this ‘Newark savior’? American architect Robert ‘Bob’ Parsons was born in Texas in 1920, and served as a soldier in the Second World War getting to know the Cotswolds at that time. After the war he settled in London, and apparently was looking for a ‘country house project’ to take on. He resided at Newark Park with his partner Michael Claydon until his death in 2000. And it was due to all the repair work that Parsons undertook—far in excess of the lease commitment he had agreed with the National Trust—that Newark Park is what we see today. And that’s also why it now has Grade 1 listed building status.

The gardens were completely overgrown, and when Parsons cleared those he uncovered several interesting features like the summer house [14] and a folly (11] in the process. Today the walled garden [7] on the east side of the hall looks like it has been there forever. But it was one of Parsons’ additions, and is completely in tune with the rest of the property. The whole estate extends to some 750 acres. Just click on any of the galleries below to view larger images.

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So many features of the gardens were uncovered by Bob Parsons. Strange that their existence had been completely forgotten.

The oldest Tudor part of the house, from 1550, can be seen in the basement, accessed by 18th century stairs in the company of one of the NT volunteers. Health & Safety regulations don’t permit free access downstairs!

On the ground floor, there is a plain but elegant entrance hall through curved, wooden double doors. There is a wonderful view south over the terrace through yet another door. There are two rooms in the west (17th century wing): a dining room, and a sitting room with the most wonderful collection of Staffordshire pottery figurines, perhaps too many in the glass-fronted cabinet to do them justice. Wonderful nevertheless!

Up the stairs to the first floor, you get a wonderful view of a 17th century glass window (the bow window on the east face), and a green bedroom off to the left. It apparently still displays the bed that was brought in during filming of the BBC1 2008 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles; two other scenes were filmed in the Tudor cellars.

Then up another floor, you emerge on to the most wonderful long gallery, with bedrooms, a study and other rooms leading off on both sides. The south end of the gallery has a large window offering, once again, incredible views over the Cotswolds escarpment and south. On one side there’s a cabinet with a collection of Bristol blue glass (and ruby and turquoise; envy once again!). In one of the bedrooms at least Parsons uncovered a Tudor fireplace during his renovations. The rooms certainly had that ‘lived-in’ feel about them. At the north end of the gallery a rope hangs down from the small bell tower on the roof, which is itself surmounted by a 16th century dragon weather vane in the form of a golden dragon.

Reflecting on our visit to Newark Park during the drive home, Steph and I agreed that it had definitely been one of our best National Trust days out. Not only was the property itself interesting, and its location stunning, but from the moment we passed through the ticket office and shop, the catering pavilion (for a welcome cup of coffee), and around the house itself, all the NT staff and volunteers were exceptional in their friendliness. It was almost as if they were welcoming visitors into their own home.

Well done, Newark Park staff and volunteers! We’ll be back in the Spring to see the display snowdrops and other flowering bulbs.


‘More glass than wall’ – a palace or prison?

It’s unusual to find properties managed or owned by English Heritage and the National Trust side-by-side. But that’s precisely the situation at Hardwick Old Hall and Hardwick ‘New’ Hall in Derbyshire.

With the weather set fair last Wednesday, we made the 177 mile round trip from our north Worcestershire home to visit ‘Hardwick Hall’, which we regularly pass on the M1 motorway when traveling to visit our younger daughter and her family in Newcastle upon Tyne. I had visited Hardwick once before, at least 50 years ago when my father organized an outing for the Leek Camera Club.

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Hardwick Hall from the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall.

Standing on a ridge looking west over the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall was the later home of one of the most influential persons in Tudor times. Friend and confidante of Queen Elizabeth, Bess, Countess of Shrewsbury was originally from quite lowly stock, but through four and prestigious marriages (at least two of them in any case), she gained status and accumulated incredible wealth.

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Hardwick Hall proclaims the status of the owner to all and sundry. Not for nothing is her monogram ‘ES’ displayed proudly on at least three sides of each of the six ‘towers’ of the hall.

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The descendants of her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish (d. 1557) are the Dukes of Devonshire, and Bess spent much of her married life to twice-widowed Sir William, at Chatsworth, still the ancestral seat of the Devonshires since 1549. She had eight children, two of whom died in infancy.

In 1568, Bess married George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (d. 1590), her fourth marriage, and one that brought her close to the royal court. For a number of years The Earl and Countess were given custody of Mary, Queen of Scots until she was removed from their care (essentially house arrest) and ultimately executed.

Hardwick Old Hall is now essentially a shell. After Bess moved to the ‘new hall’, and for centuries after, the house fell into disrepair, and during the 18th centuries, the building was reduced on purpose by the Dukes of Devonshire. One whole quarter of the hall, which housed the great hall I believe has disappeared altogether. But there is still a great deal to see, and English Heritage have made the greatest efforts to allow visitors to see the ruin in its entirety. The original stone staircase leads up to the top floor where there is now a wooden platform that enables everyone to view the wonderful plaster friezes on the walls, and the fireplaces at all levels. Of course the plaster friezes were never intended to be exposed to the elements. It’s a conservation conundrum—put an expensive new roof on the building or leave them possibly to deteriorate further. The views from the top of the building are stunning—these aristocrats knew where to build.

One can only imagine what sumptuous furnishings must have adorned Hardwick Old Hall. But just cross the lawn to the new hall, and you these in all their glory. What a feast for the eyes.

Climbing a broad stone staircase to the second floor ( ground, first and second), you enter the High Great Chamber with its ‘throne’, and unbelievable painted frieze high up on the wall.

Passing through an adjoining door, you are in the Long Gallery, one of the longest (but the highest) in any stately home in this country. Everywhere the walls are adorned with original tapestries, although I did overhear one of the guides saying that in Bess’ time the walls would have been plain. But in one corner of the Long Gallery are the Gideon Tapestries, hung by Bess 400 years ago and still hanging there today!

There is some fine furniture in the Withdrawing Chamber.

Several bedrooms on this floor house spectacular four-poster beds. The hall was still occupied by a Dowager Duchess of Devonshire until the 1960s.

Tall glass windows—in fact, glass everywhere—proclaim Bess’ status as a very wealthy lady. The hall has a very pleasing symmetry to it, and as I mentioned earlier, there’s no doubt whose house this was. Formal gardens lie to the south (since the house was built on a north-south axis) with the expanses of glass windows on the west and east sides.

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Arbella Stuart, granddaughter of Bess of Hardwick.

Through her marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury, Bess became linked to royalty. In 1574, her sixth child, Elizabeth Cavendish married Henry Stuart, 1st Earl of Lennox, younger brother of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their daughter, Arbella, was thus of royal blood (since Lennox was also descended from Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, through her second marriage). Arbella was a cousin to Elizabeth I and James VI of Scotland (who would become James I of England in 1603 on Elizabeth’s death). Arbella, Bess’ granddaughter, was effectively kept under house arrest at Hardwick for years and not permitted to marry. Neither Elizabeth (and subsequently James) need or want any more possible aspirants to the English throne. Arbella had an unhappy life. I doubt Arbella appreciated the grandeur of Hardwick. For her it was a prison. She eventually did secretly marry the Earl of Somerset, but was captured before she could escape to Holland. She spent her final years imprisoned in the Tower of London, and died there aged 40, supposedly having starved herself to death. 2015 is the 400th anniversary of her death and Hardwick is housing a special exhibition now to commemorate her death.

Without doubt, Hardwick is one of the most impressive National Trust properties I visited since we became members in 2011. And it’s popular, if the full car park was anything to go by. Now, as we speed along the motorway and see ‘ES’ peeping over the trees we will remember our interesting and enjoyable visit and a glimpse into Tudor life 400 years ago.

‘When a family lives in the same place for 400 years they end up with a diverse collection of art, furniture and curiosities.’

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Chirk Castle. It’s a somewhat odd legacy of a early more violent and later, opulent past.

And seemingly incomplete, its central keep standing alone on a hillside without any visible signs of the curtain walls that surely must have surrounded it many centuries ago when it was first built in 1295. Because the first castle was constructed on this site overlooking the valley of the River Ceiriog, just north of the England-Wales border, and today about eleven miles south of Wrexham and seven miles east of Llangollen (map).

It was one of several castles built by or for Edward I along the Welsh Marches. It came into the Myddleton family in the late 16th century, and remained a family home until 2004. In the 1930s however, it was home to Thomas Scott-Ellis, 8th Baron Howard de Walden, and apartments on the ground floor of the east wing redecorated in the 19th century in a Gothic style, including the library and chapel that was converted to a music room (and also acceseed from the Long Gallery on the first floor).

Some evidence of an earlier medieval period can still be seen in the 14th century Adam’s Tower on the south side, with its exposed stonework, narrow spiral stone stairways, and even a dank dungeon nine meters underground.

Chirk probably saw its last conflicts during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, but after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 it became a family home, luxuriously and exquisitely decorated inside over the next three centuries. From the splendid entrance hall, the elegant staircase, to the refined dining room, and the colorful ceilings in the reception rooms, designed by Victorian architect and designer Augustus Pugin, and through the seventeenth century Long Gallery, Chirk has a lot to offer.

The formal garden of yew-lined gravel paths and topiary were first laid out in the seventeenth century, and the garden stretches to the east through landscapes beds and woodland. From a ha-ha at the furthest point in the garden it’s possible (on a clear day, which it wasn’t when we visited) to see over North Wales, the Pennines to the north, and the Shropshire Hills to the southeast).

All in all, Chirk Castle has something to offer every visitor.


Tredegar House – home of the Morgans

Tredegar House in Newport, Gwent in South Wales is an impressive building, a testament to the wealth of the Morgan family who built it in the 17th century, adding to an earlier Tudor building on the site, parts of which can still be seen in the west wing.

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The north entrance to Tredegar House, through the stable yard.

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The remains of the Tudor west wing of Tredegar House.

Just a stone’s throw from Junction 28 on the M4 (hopefully better road signs to Tredegar House will be installed after the proposed re-modelling of the complex Junction 28 are completed), Tredgar is adjacent to a 90 acre public park, the remnant of what was once a huge estate attached to the house. While the principal entrance was originally on the north wing, you enter the house today through an impressive north approach.

Tredegar House has had a chequered history. Completed in late 17th century, it remained in the Morgan family for several centuries until sold off, with all its contents by the 5th Lord Tredegar, in 1951 when it became St Joseph’s Convent School. Eventually Newport Council took over the property until 2012 when the National Trust signed a lease for 50 years to manage the property and restore as much as feasible to its former glory. Several rooms on the upper ground floor are open to the public, as is a suite of rooms decorated in a 1920s-30s style on the first floor, and the extensive kitchens and courtyard at ground level, but are accessed as though descending into a basement. Some normally accessible rooms were closed last week due to health and safety considerations, because of mould in a couple and damage to a chimney in another.

The Entrance Hall

The Brown Dining Room
This is a most impressive room with carvings on the wall. Charles I stayed at Tredegar, and his face was incorporated into the carving as a caricature when the room was designed in about 1675 or so.

To the left of the fireplace is a portrait of Captain Henry Morgan, a distant relative of the Tredegar Morgans. Yes, the Henry Morgan of rum fame. He was a buccaneer, but eventually became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in the late 17th century. This portrait was painted around 1650.

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) 'The Buccaneer'

Captain Henry Morgan (1635-1688) ‘The Buccaneer’

The Gilt Room
Beyond the Brown Dining Room lies the Gilt Room, and would have looked magnificent with the gold shimmering in candlelight. But all is not what it seems. The paneling is actually pine painted to look like walnut. And the ‘marble’ columns either side of the fireplace are also painted pine! The ceiling painting is a late 17th century copy of one in the Palazzo Barberrini in Rome, and depicts Pope Urban overcoming lust.

The King’s Room and the Red Room (1930s)
The second floor has bedrooms occupied by the family up until the death of Evan Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, son of the 1st Viscount, Courtenay Morgan.

The Blue Room

Below stairs

The gardens and outbuildings

Tredegar planOn the west side is a lovely walled garden with magnificent yew trees. There are also some impressive outbuildings to the northwest, including a couple of barns, stables, and what we assumed must have been the coach house.

As you can see from the photos, we had a glorious day weather-wise, and for us, traveling down from north Worcestershire, the 80+ mile journey was not a problem, on motorways and dual carriageways (divided highways) the whole way. We had seen Tredegar House featured a few times on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt as well as the venue for another programme, Antiques Roadshow. So we were pleased that our plans to visit came to fruition. All in all, it is certainly an interesting property to visit.

Pigeons and peers – a des-res for doves and aristocrats

For my non-British readers, ‘des-res’ is an informal term for ‘desirable residence’.

And last Thursday we got to visit three in the Worcestershire countryside, only a handful of miles from our home in Bromsgrove.

The Hawford and Wichenford dovecotes
Built in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, Hawford and Wichenford dovecotes are today owned by the National Trust, and open for anyone to explore. Probably associated with a former abbey in the case of the Hawford dovecote, and the nearby Wichenford Court for the Wichenford dovecote, both are half-timbered structures, in a remarkable state of repair, notwithstanding their age. Although access to both dovecotes appears, on first glance, to be restricted, the doors are open and inside you can see all the nesting boxes, several hundred in each dovecote, where young pigeons or squabs and eggs would be collected for food.

The Hawford dovecote (map)

The Wichenford dovecote (map)

Next to the dovecote is a complex of semi-derelict farm buildings, dominated by a huge medieval barn that has obviously seen better days. We did wonder if some group was intending to ‘rescue’ this beautiful building and restore it to something like its former glory.

Witley Court (map)
Then we headed off to Witley Court near the village of Great Witley, which we have visited many times over the past three decades. Even though it’s now just a shell of a building, having been gutted by fire in the 1930s, Witley Court still has an awsome presence in the countryside, and in its heyday it must have been a magnificent residence, truly a ‘des-res’. Now managed by English Heritage, much has been done to refurbish the grounds in recent years, the parterres have been replanted, and the impressive Perseus and Andromeda fountain is now in full working order. It fires up every hour on the hour.


The Perseus and Andromeda Fountain in the foreground, and the south face of Witley Court behind. On the left, behind the ruins of the orangery is the parish church of St Michael (with the gold domed roof), one of the finest examples of baroque architecture.


View from the south parterre and the Perseus and Andromeda Fountain. The orangery is on the right.


The refurbished parterre on the west side of Witley Court.

Here’s a short video I made in 2008.

English Heritage have placed on its website a floor plan of how the mansion developed over the centuries. A house was first built on the site in the mid-17th century, and was added to extensively during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Beside the ruined house is Great Witley parish church of St Michael, untouched, fortunately by the 1937 fire, and one of the country’s outstanding examples of baroque architecture, and a feast for the eyes inside. The organ is said to have been played by Handel.



Peace and tranquility . . . just west of the M6 in Lancashire

Last Monday was the last day of our holiday in Scotland. We’d reached Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway on Sunday night, and just had the journey down the A74(M) and M6 to reach home.

Two hours is about as much as I can take driving on the motorway before I need to take a break. And we had discovered that there was a National Trust property, Rufford Old Hall, in Lancashire just south of Preston, about equidistant between Lockerbie and home. The ideal place to stretch our legs, have a bite to eat, and enjoy another of the Trust’s delights. In fact, it seems that many holidaymakers have exactly the same idea. One of the volunteers told me that Monday is usually a busy day, with many visitors breaking their journey north or south at the hall. Rufford Old Hall is very convenient to the M6, just a handful of miles west of Junction 27.

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20150608 057 Rufford Old Hall

Formerly the home of the Hesketh family, Rufford Old Hall (is there a new one?) has two main wings: an original timber-framed Tudor one built in 1530 for Sir Robert Hesketh, oriented east-west, that may have once also had another wing on the west side (there are two ‘external’ doors on the west wall) but this no longer exists; and a later seventeenth century brick wing, north-south. The main entrance opens into what was once the kitchen, but that was moved to another location in the same wing at a later date.

The crowning glory of course is the Tudor wing, which consists primarily of the Great Hall with its magnificent bow window and small section of original Tudor stained glass. The roof of the Great Hall is a wonder to behold in timber architecture and construction. There is also a moveable screen just inside the hall. Photography is permitted only inside the Great Hall as the National Trust does not own all the items on display elsewhere throughout the property.

There is a small formal garden, with renowned squirrel topiaries, and walks through orchards, woodland and meadows alongside the Rufford Branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (built in 1781) on the east side of the property.

Three, five or seven? On the Tresham Trail.

Spring had really sprung a couple of days ago. With hardly a cloud in the sky, and a warm day promising, Steph and I headed east some 80 odd miles from our home in north Worcestershire, to visit two properties in Northamptonshire constructed in the late 16th century by Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham, a celebrated recusant who was imprisoned on several occasions for his faith.

First stop, in Rushton, was one of the most peculiar buildings I’ve ever visited but I’d wanted to see for quite some time – I’d seen it on TV in the past year.

eh-logoThe Triangular Lodge – a folly – was completed by 1597, is owned and managed today by English Heritage. This was our first visit to an English Heritage property since we became members at the beginning of the year.

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Full of religious symbolism, the Lodge is a perfect triangular building, and there are threes everywhere you look. The sides of the building are exactly 33 feet long, the windows are triangular. There are three floors from basement to upper floor. Each floor has a hexagonal room, with a small room in two of the corners and the stairwell in the third. The roof is a triangular maze.

Constructed of alternate bands of light and dark limestone, the Triangular Lodge is odd – and yet ethereally beautiful – in so many ways. A testament to Tresham’s devotion to the Holy Trinity, it continues to stand in a corner of rural Northamptonshire.

Just 12 miles from Rushton is another Tresham treasure – Lyveden New Bield. At first glance, it appears a desolate ruin, and one imagines what calamity has befallen this impressive building. But it’s not a ruin. Tresham died before it was completed, and there has never been a roof. It is now owned and managed by the National Trust.

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Designed as a garden lodge or secret retreat to which he could retire, or even worship as a Catholic in privacy, Lyveden New Bield has all the religious symbolism – and more – that we encountered at the Rushton Triangular Lodge. It is shaped like a perfectly symmetrical Greek cross, each of the four wings of the building mirroring the others. Each of the bow windows has five sections, each five feet wide.

There are no floors but they must have been in place at some time or another since there are wood remnants in the walls where joists would have spanned the building. You enter the building through a very low servants’ entrance (on the south side), into what would have been the basement; there’s a large fireplace and behind, a series of ovens in what must have been the kitchen.

The main entrance, on the north side, is almost six feet or so above ground level. The arches above the entrance and to other internal doors are fully finished and sculpted.

CCI11042015_00001The lodge stands on an open lawn, surrounded by a ditch on all sides, not far from the moat that once surrounded (but on three sides only) a 14th century manor house, now totally demolished and erased from the landscape. But nearby, there are the outlines of what would have been a parterre, and more intriguingly, a Tudor labyrinth. Its existence only came to light in recent years after someone discovered a wartime aerial photograph from the Luftwaffe – presumably on their way to raid Coventry or Birmingham. An old orchard has been replanted with varieties of apple, pear, plum, damson, quince and medlar among others from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent. Nearby is the old hall, Lyveden Old Bield, which was Tresham’s home after he moved from the original family home of Rushton Hall.

As a young boy, Tresham went to live with the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court near Alcester in Warwickshire (and only 12 miles from our home) and eventually married one of the daughters. One of their sons was implicated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, as were the Throckmorton family.