Oxfordshire is rife with early stone houses- being part of the Cotswolds. There is a wealth of styles of architecture from all eras, each with its own unique features and history. Also, several of England’s best architects made Oxfordshire their home or made themselves at home. It’s time to take a fresh glimpse and another perspective on rural England’s most naturally lovely area. –The Castle Lady
Four miles southeast of Moreton-in-Marsh and northeast of Stow-on-the-Wold, Chastleton House is seated right on the border touching Gloucestershire. Some of its surprises are secret and available only to the most adventurous of visitors including its location which is rather hidden within the hills. If you find it and manage to make it up the hill you will be rewarded with a chance to see the Bible of King Charles in the library which was in his possession as he mounted the scaffold. As a genuine Jacobean mansion it is virtually intact and complete, dating from 1612 since it was continuously occupied for over four hundred years by the same family line. No alterations or changes were ever made in all that time which makes for a marvelous true study in late medieval architecture!
Above the nearby village, an iron age hillfort is still evident and may be the origin of the name of the house. It was built of sandstone for a wealthy wool merchant turned lawyer by the name of Walter Jones in 1609 after he purchased the property from Robert Catesby who was a co-conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot. Because the porch has a similar plan to that of Burton Agnes in East Riding of Yorkshire it has been suggested that Smythson was involved in the architectural plan of the house. This resulted in a small rather than grand entrance but the vertically symmetrical exterior, which shows off gables with pediments, is quite striking and imparts an interesting façade to the house. Remaining true to its era with medieval touches, you find stair towers instead of grand wings, tall mullioned windows and a fabulous great hall with an ornately carved wooden screen passage.
Chastleton’s greatest glory is the interior with an incredible amount of rooms. What it lacks in actual antiquity and lineage it makes up for in unique architecture and original furnishings with no barriers up to spoil the authentic experience. Everything in the house is connected to a central well which incorporates three floors. The Cavalier room claims a priest’s hole and is probably where Arthur Jones hid when he was pursued by Parliamentary forces in 1651 after the battle of Worcester. A Long Gallery occupies most of the back end of the second floor which shows off a barrel vault ceiling with Jacobean scrollwork. The Sheldon room has a classical fireplace, the great hall is medieval with a long oak table which was constructed where it stands. Two formal reception rooms, the White Parlour and Great Parlour show off magnificent plasterwork with heavy styled Jacobean friezes. The tapestries are more interesting than the usual fare depicted and the largest in the Great Parlour fits in well with the dcor. The east staircase with obelisk finials reaches the Great Chamber and several other bedrooms of note, the most elaborate being the Fettiplace Room, which was named for the family in which Henry Jones married and contains the most rich dcor in its carpets, curtains, bed covers and tapestries. Flame stich wall covering in the closet is original from the 1600s like most of the rooms you will view. The Sheldon tapestries were discovered here in 1919. From the Great Chamber you can just make out the topiary garden at the windows which was reinstated by the National Trust some twenty odd years ago.
Croquet, as the rules are played today in England, were established by Walter Whitmore-Jones in the 1860s on the north lawn. His written version was published by Field Magazine in 1865 and became accepted well enough to ascertain that the birthplace of croquet as a competitive sport started on the Chastleton lawns. I don’t know if those would have held out on the Wallace front lawn in the 1960s in Denver. That’s a story for another time. You’ll want to stroll around the grounds to see all the marvelous work National Trust has done with the gardens, topiary and even the adjacent meadow. Twelfth century St Mary’s Church, behind the house, is also worth a visit and a charming dovecote completes the estate.
T- +44 (0)1608 674355
Six miles northwest of Woodstock, Ditchley House at Enstone has played two major roles in modern history. One such was to be a safe haven for Sir Winston Churchill during WWII and the second was not nearly as dangerous. This Gibbs House with Kent interiors finally became a movie star when the house was used as an alternative to Buckingham Palace in the 2009 film The Young Victoria. Prior to that, the site was once a royal hunting ground known as Wychwood Forest and in proximity to a former Roman villa that occupied 1,000 acres of arable land for grain. When excavated, (circa 500 A.D.) the area received notoriety for a discovery of 1,176 bronze coins which are on display in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
Third in size of the great 18th century houses of Oxfordshire, Ditchley is renowned for its beautiful interiors designed by a plethora of interior designers. Those were Francis Smith of Warwick, and later, James Gibbs, William Kent and Henry Flitcroft. As the home of the Lee family for three and a half centuries, today, its new manifestation as a conference center has been treated to a complete restoration. As a venue for Anglo-American relations and mutual concerns, Ditchley’s new lease on existence was solidified after being placed in trust by the current owner David Wills back in 1958. It’s certainly a lovely place to have meetings of any kind!
The history of the house is a bit shocking by the standards of the period. When George Lee, the Earl of Litchfield, commissioned Francis Smith of Warwick to plan his small palace in 1722 he was riding on the coattails of one of Charles II’s dalliances! His father married Charlotte Fitzroy (the illegitimate daughter of Charles II by Barbara Villiers) at the tender age of eleven. The plan apparently was dropped by Francis Smith and taken on and changed by James Gibbs, William Kent and Henry Flitcroft. The effect is marvelous inside and out. Who says too many cooks spoil the broth?
The classical colonnaded Georgian exterior does not belie the richness of the interior- as is often the case with many English stately homes- but nowhere is it more diverted to extremes than at Ditchley! Two stone apotropaic figures adorn the main part of the roofline while the wings only sport finials which stand as the unusual adornment. The owners spared no expense on the interior with the Vassalli and Artari brothers employed in force. Simon Jenkins referred to their work as ‘one of the finest double acts in early Georgian design.’ The White drawing room and saloon show off their finest and most elaborate work but a thorough job is to be seen elsewhere in the Velvet Room and most of the reception rooms on the ground floor. On a visit you will see Ditchley at its most pleasant from garden side with the wonderful landscaping complete with a beautiful lake, temples and an astonishing bust of Churchill placed in June of 1994 by the State.
The estate was sold by the Lee family in 1933 to an American couple, Ronald and Nancy Tree, who also owned Kelmarsh in Northamptonshire. It was during this phase that Churchill was invited to be a frequent guest by the Trees on the outbreak of WWII along with his family because his own home of Chartwell in Kent and even his special retreat, Chequers, were too well known. Ditchley provided secrecy and more security after 1940. In 1947 the Trees divorced and moved away from each other- Ronald back to America with his new wife and Nancy with the new owner of Kelmarsh. They sold to Wills in 1953 and five years later the house was placed in an historical trust.
www.ditchley.co.uk T- 01608 677346
Only a little further southwest at Steeple Aston, on the road from Chipping Norton to Bicester, Rousham House is a splendid palace seated just above the Cherwell River. Built rather early in the 17th century, a one word description by Sir Horace Walpole says it all. Kentissimo ! Indeed, Rousham may be the most extreme work of William Kent’s exteriors in England and the interior, all the more so. This marvel of architecture was built for the Dormer family and it is still the property of this family’s descendants- all of whom have been and remain Royalists. Sir Robert’s successors presided over Ceremonies at Royal Court for eight separate reigns and, as a result, were able to employ many artists and architects associated with the court to decorate and fill Rousham at will.
Architecturally, the exterior is very interesting considering that instead of being altered it was updated in the 18th century in a neo-impressionistic type of Gothic revival which looks elegant rather than overdone. Kent’s small Jacobean wings brought more symmetry and grace and the crenellations along the roofline finished the look. It is still occupied by the family which originally built the house in 1635 and is supposed by some to be a rural replica of Chiswick (a showcase London Palladian villa). Rousham actually is a palace in its own right with most of the features associated with such a grand domicile. My own thoughts go back to Astley Hall in Lancashire because the central exteriors are so reminiscent of each other. Evidently, the main reason for the comparison to Chiswick is about the landscaping of the parkland which is adorned similarly with classic buildings, cascades, statues, urns and gothic arched bridges. This is Kent’s only surviving landscape designs which have been allowed to overgrow to wildness at times. You won’t want to miss the chance to view the thirty acres of hanging woods which still exist along the slope to the Cherwell. Further afield you’ll discover herbaceous borders which are expertly kept along with a picturesque pigeon house and parterres. The ruin which is seated in the gardens is called The Eyecatcher and although it appears to be part of antiquity it is a mere folly which was wrought by William Kent as well.
You’ll receive a surprise upon entering Rousham the first time because lead-lined holes can still be seen in the great oak door. This is an alteration which was executed by Parliamentary troops which put a temporary halt to building, initially! Like Chiswick, you’ll find a vast art exhibition inside which displays one hundred and fifty Dormer portraits by Lely, Johnson and Kneller along with more artists. Here again, William Kent executed his most magnificent work alongside Thomas Roberts of Oxford later in the century. This was commissioned by General James Dormer-Cottrell in 1737. A tour will reveal the classical but ostentatious Painted Parlour which was formerly the kitchens, the Great Parlour which was added to by Roberts in riveting Rococo and containing a magnificent full-length portrait of Elizabeth I and a music room which houses many family artifacts. You can set up tours by prior arrangement with the present heir, Charles Cottrell-Dormer.
www.rousham.org/contact T-01869 347110
Further west, outside Witney near the River Windrush you’ll find Cogges Manorial Farmhouse which was restored in the 20th century. It may be accessed by a long footbridge connected to the center of Witney. Presented as a family venue with pigs and cows to please small fry and Victoriana for adults its primary interest is for medieval times enthusiasts, in that a portion of the 12th century medieval manor remains. The museum, itself, is meant to be a dream field trip for a depiction of farming during the previously mentioned era. Because it went through several other incarnations through the centuries you’ll find that it’s a bit confusing with its Victoriana but it may be worth the tour to see what remains of the medieval wing which was built upon in the 16th and 17th centuries. Further afield in the town there was once an 11th century fortified manor house and it can be found in the form of the survival of two moats south of the parish church. One is referred to as Castle Yard but excavations around the other moat has revealed massive 12th century foundations of a possible castle!
Directly west of Woodstock you’ll find an 18th century Palladian house known as Kirtlington Park a little east of the quaint but pretty village of the same name. It is used as a wedding and events venue so tours are only possible through this use. Set in 3,000 acres of parkland which was landscaped by Capability Brown, it was built by Sir James Dashwood who became a second baronet in the 18th century after he wed the heiress Elizabeth Spencer. It was not finished in their time but the house remained in the Dashwood family until 1909, when the 6th Baronet, Sir George John Egerton Dashwood sold Kirtlington to the Earl of Leven and Melville. It has passed through different families since 1922 but a portion of the parkland has the distinction of being used as a Victory garden during WWII.
Early records show Kirtlington dating from AD 945 and further records show visitations from King Edward the Martyr in the year 977 to attend a witenagemot accompanied by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, before the Norman invasion, in the 11th century Edward the Confessor held an L-shaped manor which can be found in the village and features a polygonal turret with a staircase and a corbelled chimney on the west side of the house. In Domesday, the records show that by 1086 Cherielintone had become the property of the Norman monarchy. It remained so until 1604 when it was sold by the Crown to two wealthy Londoners.Once recorded to have had a date-stone of 1563, it is either missing or was removed. The house has medieval features such as a polygonal stair-turret on the south side and a corbelled chimney-stack on the west side.
The village of old stone cottages centers around a village green complete with a pub called the Dashwood Arms. It was named after the Dashwood family, originally of West Wycombe, who were owners of the village at one time and of the same family who owned Kirtlington Park. There is a post office which doubles as a shop, village hall with views over the rolling hills and parkland which contains ancient specimen trees. A public footpath runs through the parkland and a quarry, managed by KWAC, has interesting geological features. This is where the first dinosaur was discovered and it is now exhibited at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Alongside the quarry is the Oxford Canal and the River Cherwell running beside it.
A stately home situated directly north of Oxford, Bletchingdon Park, near Kirtlington, is one of the latest of authentically restored houses which has gone up for sale despite the best intentions of holding out for better uses. It was used as a college for a number of years in the mid-20th century after Lord Valentia sold the house to William Astor. Historically, a medieval manor house existed on the site circa 1630 which was rebuilt by Sir Thomas Coghill. It became fortified and garrisoned by two hundred of the King’s men during the Civil War after which it was overrun by Cromwellian troops by 1644. The Coghills sold the manor to Lord Valentia in 1716 but the Palladian country house which stands in the park in the present day was probably built in 1782 around the same time that a nearby church was planned and built by James Lewis for Arthur Annesley, the 5th Earl of Anglesey.
Originally, Bletchingdon village was built around a large green but all the homes along the north side of it were taken out when the park was extended beyond its original boundaries. In 1993 the entire estate was purchased by Dr. Michael Peagram, an industrialist and philanthropist, and he took it upon himself to have the nine-bedroom mansion historically restored. Currently it is listed for sale at a price of 20 million pounds. Not knowing if substantial changes have been made, it may be safe to say that it is still classical architecture built in mid-Georgian style- two storeys- with a central half-turn staircase with landings on all floors, a hall with marble fireplace, fine plasterwork throughout and the cellar has a kitchen fireplace which is marked as dating from 1786.
See more at http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-27073344.html
Six miles southwest of Witney, Stanton Harcourt Manor has a history that stretches back to the Norman invasion. A Domesday record, dating from 1086, states that the manor was owned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux. In 1176 Henry II seized the property when Richard de Camville died and was placed in the care of Richard Rufus until 1190. Richard I tried to restore the property back to Camville’s son- also Richard- but he died, as well, during a crusade in 1191. After marrying Richard’s sister Isabel, Robert de Harcourt of Bosworth inherited the properties of his father-in-law in 1191 and Stanton Harcourt was included with them. The unfortified manor still belongs to the Harcourt family, being passed down generation after generation but are, seemingly, never in residence and the manor has not been their principal seat since the early 18th century. (More details on this subject involving Nuneham Courtenay will be on my forthcoming south Oxfordshire entry.)
The very impressive Pope’s Tower (pictured above) was named for Alexander Pope who resided in an upper room there during the summers of 1717 and 1718. During this period he was writing the fifth book of his translation of Homer’s Iliad and, incidentally, the epitaph of a young couple (John Hewett and Sarah Drew) who had been struck by lightning and killed in the same parish. You will find a stone monument on the outside of the south wall nave carved with the words of his poem dedicated to them. Pope developed a sense of humor about Stanton Harcourt which extended to the kitchen and remains as the only medieval part intact with the minor change of a conical roof in 1485. He wrote:
“The horror of it has made such an impression upon the country people, that they believe the witches keep their Sabbath here and that once a year the devil treats them with infernal venison , viz. a toasted tiger stuffed with ten penny nails.”
The early 18th century buildings of Stanton Harcourt were situated around an inner courtyard and the north part included stables and the gatehouse which was extended in the 19th and 20th centuries by the mason, William Orchard. Along the north range of this court you’ll find the building contains a great hall which was originally open to the roof with an arched bay window displaying stained glass. Along the west end was a cross passage with a series of rooms and porch. The east hall featured the great parlor which lead into a smaller split-level parlor. Pope’s Tower and the chapel are supposed to have been added by 1470 with the chapel’s surviving west wall (which was once the east wall of the parlor) and retains an earlier angle buttress along the north and in the lower portion a short flat roofed nave and stone vaulted chancel adorned with the coat of arms of Sir Robert Harcourt. Much of the original was lost to the rebuilding of Nuneham Courtenay at the behest of the 1st Earl Harcourt in 1755 but the ranges were so extensive at one time that it contained no less than twenty four hearths ! Three fireplaces had outlets through shutters under the eaves which were replaced, eventually with windows. The gatehouse was actually built in the first half of the 16th century by Sir Simon Harcourt and his arms appear next to the main arch but the flanking lodges were also removed for Nuneham Courtenay. A proposal for a new house to be built south of Stanton in 1720 never materialized and by 1760 the decaying hall, east range and most of the west range of the courtyard had been demolished, removed and sent to Nuneham Courtenay by way of the Thames! By 1871 Pope’s Tower was being used as a brew house but restorations of the chapel were begun in 1876 and around the same time the stable block was incorporated with a new house for Col. Edward William Harcourt with the carriageway transformed into a new entrance hall, more windows placed on the north and an extension along the south. Only the 14th century kitchen remains to this day as the oldest part and never fails to impress visitors.
In 1948 Stanton Harcourt’s gatehouse range was reoccupied by Lord Harcourt Gascoigne after he sold Nuneham Courtenay and it again became his residence, if not his seat. Today you will find these buildings seated in twelve acres of gardens with a large fish pond and others which lend a very unique and peaceful atmosphere. An addition of a picture gallery was added along the east in 1953 and you’ll find family portraits by Lely and Reynolds in the Victorian dining room. The library is hung with works by Ruysdael, van der Welde and an astonishing Larkin of a well-endowed lady. Landscaping with sculptures were placed which were removed from Nuneham Courtenay. Two hundred year old elms were sacrificed for the outside restoration but new life was brought back to the old seat which had been given to Richard de Harcourt so many years ago by Queen Adela, the wife of Henry I.
T- 01865 881928 Visits by prior arrangement with Lady Gascoigne
A wonderful Cotswold blog: