A number of mansions and manors south of Oxford feature even more unique attributes than their northern counterparts. Ashdown House is certainly one, giving the impression that it belongs in the pages of a fairy tale book. It is a very popular historical tourist site. Stonor House is another which can look quite different from several angles and the aerial photos are almost stunning. My first subject, today, is the remainder of the story of the Harcourts even though they eventually returned to Stanton Harcourt, restoring it as their seat. It was at Nuneham Courtenay they were able to display their wealth and lead the way to Palladian elegance in England. -The Castle Lady
Before you get a good view of Nuneham Courtenay you will notice Capability Brown’s wonderful landscaping, especially if you’ve seen enough of his work by now to recognize the particular style. Seated a short distance southwest of the displaced town of Nuneham Courtenay and a few miles south of Oxford, this grand Palladian villa has been changed and extended, quite a bit, over a period of time but always in tune with the spirit of the age with quite a prestigious list of architects, at that. More than a decade has passed since it was taken over by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University and Global Retreat Center but considering how it came to exist, there is no surprise that it would eventually serve the purpose of new age enlightenment. It was always in a state of flux so it will probably continue in that manner for at least another century.
Originally, a manor stood in the vicinity of Nuneham Courtenay which was listed in Domesday by 1086 with the property designated to Richard de Courcy. It was awarded to Hugh de Courtenay, the Earl of Devon in 1310 by Edward III so the property most likely reverted to the crown through the course of history. It has been visited by quite a few Kings and Queens of England. From the beginning of the 15th century clear up to 1710 it was tenanted or owned by many families until it was sold to Sir Simon Harcourt in 1712 for 17,000 from Sir John Robinson. He became Viscount Harcourt within a decade and set on a course to make a very fashionable expansive mansion. It is built on a landed platform as a simple block with projecting wings on either side. A circular courtyard greets as you approach the entrance and you’ll find, upon touring the exterior, that many wings have been built upon one side giving the mansion an appearance of a sprawling chateau rather than an English stately home. Its simplicity of design is absolutely beautiful, nevertheless. ‘Stiff’ Leadbetter was the original mastermind behind this splendorous mansion and his part became the nasty business of taking stone from Stanton Harcourt and sending it all, by way of the Thames, on barges to the new destination. It left the original home in ruins, eventually.
After he became the 1st Earl, Simon Harcourt passed on when he rescued the family pet from a well on the property. His son, Simon II, found the title he assumed (which was 2nd Earl) and all the accoutrements to be burdensome and he became a rebel, of sorts, for awhile as a follower of J.J. Rousseau. During the reign of George III (1760s) he found favor with the crown, anyway, and Sir Simon II and his wife became loyal courtiers. He hired Henry Holland and later Sir Robert Smirke to do additional work on the house making it much grander than a simple Palladian villa as it started. Smirke created the additional wings circa 1832.
So many interior alterations and additions were made that only a few features are original. It isn’t mentioned often enough but Brown’s interiors were ahead of their time, in many cases. He is not well known as a interior designer because of his prolific landscaping. The magnificent stairwell was actually the work of Capability Brown and even retains the iron balusters he installed. The oval skylight overhead is added brilliance. William Mason was responsible for the flower gardens ! Fireplaces and ceilings of the drawing rooms and dining room retain their beginnings but you’ll find additional Rococo plasterwork by Holland in the Octagon Room and a floral roundel which is absolutely remarkable. Athenian Stuart was the original interior decorator of the house.
Since after WWII this mansion has been a college of education (when Lord William Harcourt sold the mansion to the University of Oxford), then transformed into a conference center as Rothman’s International and eventually the Brahma Kumaris. As a type of Arcadian paradise for the family, which wanted to expand, the site really fulfilled their intentions and purpose for nearly two centuries. Early on, the medieval church on the estate was completely removed and a new one built close to the original site. Grounds for the house extend all the way to the Thames but the spires of Oxford in the distance, mere miles away, can no longer be seen as in former times. Sir Horace Walpole said a mouthful when he quoted that he thought ‘the grounds at Nuneham are the most beautiful in England’. Most interesting of all is how well the Hindu decor fits the interiors so well.
www.brahmakumaris.org for info
A short distance south of Nuneham Courtenay at the town of Abingdon you’ll find a very interesting medieval townhouse on East St Helens Street called the Merchant’s House and there are equally interesting Almshouses in the town as well, many still occupied as they often are but brought up to code and preserved by the Oxfordshire Preservation Trust. These are grouped around St Helen’s Church and are every bit as attractive as those at Ewelme Almhouses, east of Wallingford. The Merchant’s House is older than most- circa 1430. 26 E. Helen Street is a part of the house but is private; however 26A is available to view by appointment and features many interesting 16th century alterations, medieval interiors with wall murals, an oak ceiling, traceried windows and very interesting fireplaces. These were most likely brought in from nearby monasteries and are unique- one with medieval quatrefoils in the downstairs parlor and upstairs is another with a magnificent Gothic frieze of trefoils. Admission is still free.
T- 01865 242918
Not far away, northwest of Didcot (approximately two miles), you’ll find Milton Manor, right off the bustling A34, a little oasis amidst the pressing environs. This Restoration mansion (18th century) with Gothic interiors is a delight to visit and has a basically happy history at that, regardless of fortune or misfortune of the family who purchased the estate in 1764. Originally built circa 1663, Milton’s architect is supposed to be none other than Inigo Jones with nearly identical facades, front and back. It has also been attributed to John Jackson, a London builder, who moved to Oxford in the early 17th century. The wings and further outbuildings on the property were added in 1772 by Bryant Barrett who was a lace maker for King George III. His ancestors occupy the house to this day.
The exterior is typical Inigo albeit with chateau-esque roofs and large overhanging eaves with lacy dentils. Ionic capitals crowned with fleur-de-lys garters displace ordinary pilasters and the stone color is quietly beautiful. Many interiors, including the hall, are elaborate with vivid colors, as is to be expected but the library is gothic magnificence with Strawberry Hill ogival arches atop windows, fireplace decoration and bookcases alike and immaculately executed plasterwork and chandeliers with period furnishings. Windows and bookcases were carved by Richard Lawrence of London. A painting of Bryant Barrett, with his wife and brother-in-law, hangs above the fireplace and is an original by Joseph Highmore. The library was the work of Stephen Wright in the 1760s. Tearooms on the property display teapot collections of the family through the generations, much of it gifted by visitors and a Pinxton display, which was customized for Milton, bears a likeness of the house on every item. A cup and saucer from Milton was sent with an exhibition of the Treasure Houses of England to Washington in 1985!
An oak staircase of the 17th century runs from ground floor to attic with massive handrails and newel posts and each landing is graced with delicate arches to the passages. On a private tour, you’ll take one passage to the Barrett’s chapel, also gothic, with plasterwork ceiling pendants, blind arcading along the walls and more ogee window arches with reputed 16th century glass. Simon Jenkins likened the effect to ‘wedding cake’ similar to Shobdon Church in Herefordshire. The bedrooms nearby are lined with hand painted chinoiserie wallpaper and marquetry furniture from more than two centuries past!
The grounds are equally delightful and there are many activities available for entire families. The ancient stables are worth touring and you’ll find walled gardens, woodland walks with two lakes, playground and adventure playground areas with pony rides and a llama. It is run, at present, by Bryant Barrett’s great-great-great grandson, Anthony Mockler-Barrett, Esquire.
Kingston Bagpuize can be found six miles west of Abingdon right off the main road between Southmoor and Longworth behind wrought iron gates. This Georgian-era house is well-announced by two Wellingtonias- a uniquely English phenomenon- and seated in mature parkland featuring rare trees, shrubs and perennials. It was built in the 1660s, originally the seat of the Fettiplaces, the family which Walter Jones of Chastleton was pleased to have his son marry into and they kept it as their seat for nearly 250 years. The house was rebuilt from 1720 on and it is supposed that the Townsend family of Oxford were the actual builders and the work was extensive- commissioned by Sir Francis Grant, 1st Baronet whose portrait hangs in the entrance hall.
Today the Baroque staircase may be one of the finest in England and it is certainly an enigmatic piece of work. The main entrance will give you a good idea of the exterior all around because its foursquare configuration is identical on every side. It will not prepare you for the absolutely elegant interiors and it is no wonder that Virginia Grant, the current owner, has taken full advantage to use the Drawing Room and Entrance Hall for weddings and formal events, filming and private functions.
Part of the changes of the early 18th century was a reversal of the entrance to back so what appears to be the actual front from the exterior is now the drawing room and vice-versa. The new entrance gives immediate access to the famed staircase, which is constructed of Scots pine and oak with most magnificent crescent-carved banisters which appear to practically dance up to the landing. The staircase must have set the tone for the actual decoration and furnishings which could only be thought of as Rococo at its finest. You will find the family paintings absolutely enchanting and be sure not to miss a tour of the sitting room or the library with its beautifully carved fireplace if you are given the opportunity.
T- 01865 820217 email@example.com
Directly south and five miles west of Wantage, near the Vale of the White Horse, Kingston Lisle Park and its Palladian house are set in view of the Lambourn Downs with three lakes close to the house in a very beautiful landscape taking in 140 acres- twelve of which are devoted to gardens. It can be approached from the south end of the village of Kingston Lisle and the entrance to the parkland is narrow and easy to miss so keep your eyes open. The mansion appears to be more of a grand Italian palazzo from the exterior with the main block topped by a pediment and wings, each appearing to have grand entrances of their own. These were added in 1812. Inside you will find ornate plaster ceilings, columns and figurines along with an extensive collection of art, period furniture, 17th century glass, fine needlework, Pontremolli carpets from original designs by William Morris and clocks throughout the centuries past. It has been said that the interiors reflect the style of Sir John Soane most likely because the house once had a large cupola (coupled with a hipped roof) imparting a lot of light to all levels. These were removed early in the 20th century. Once again, the most impressive feature is the staircase located in the inner hall which appears more of the classical English country house. It is referred to as the Flying Staircase which winds all the way up without visible means of support.
Preceding the late 17th century mansion was an old manor house which was once referred to as Kingston Castle. It is possible that its origins go all the way back to loyalties of the Conquest because the manor was granted to the De L’Isle family circa 1250, whose name implicates that they originally came from the Isle of Wight. Gerard De Lisle II was summoned to parliament in 1357 and was given a title which passed to the Berkeleys, Beauchamps, Talbots and Greys. The seat became an official residence when Sir Humphrey Talbot, the Marshal of Calais, took possession in the 15th century, however, he leased the property from his niece Elizabeth Grey and her husband Edward. Their given title was Viscount and Viscountess Lisle. Their son, John Grey died there on September 9, 1505 and was laid to rest at Abingdon Abbey.
Today’s mansion started as a Jacobean dwelling built by Sir George Hyde and most likely rebuilt by his grandson, Sir Humphrey Hyde. The two large wings along each side were added by the Atkins family when they took it over in the early part of the 19th century. The billiard room houses a collection of letters from Field Marshall Lord Raglan who, at the time of writing, was commander-in-chief of the Crimea. His progeny remain the present owners and give permission to walk the extensive grounds and gardens.
Strictly by appointment. T-01367 820599
Across the River Thames and the A417 from Kelmscott Manor along the border of Gloucestershire, Buscot Park is four miles southeast of Lechlade, between Lechlade and Faringdon. It can be found off the Faringdon road through a sparse wooded area of well-trimmed lime trees. This entrance road will pass a lake, then stables and to the formal gardens. As an 18th century neo-classical house which features a private art gallery displaying, amidst a plethora of fine classic art, the Burne-Jones’ legend of the Briar Rose series (which created a legend of their own back in 1890’s London) it stands out from the rest. To feature the Briar Rose series, Lord Faringdon requested a special gilded setting making the Saloon along the bowed north side ‘one of the finest Pre-Raphaelite rooms in England’ according to Simon Jenkins.
It is recommended that you make visits during the summer months when the gardens are in full bloom because they are as much a part of the house as the house itself with its fine landscaping, summerhouses and swimming pools with beautiful painted frescoes, statuaries and well tended gardens laid down by the firm of Sir Ernest George and Harold Peto. The work which paved the way was commissioned by Robert Tertius Campbell, an Australian tycoon who owned Buscot for 28 years, mid 19th century. You will find many wonderful surprises on this estate originally built for Edward Loveden Townsend! The architecture is Georgian classical built from 1780, by James Darley, but did not really come into its full purpose until it was purchased by financier Alexander Henderson in 1889 and set out to alter the house quite a bit. Eventually after he became Lord Faringdon, a Baron, he filled the house with his collection of Old Masters paintings- starting a tradition which would be carried on by his grandson, Gavin Henderson after 1934 at the time of the Baron’s passing. Gavin showed a predilection for more contemporary art and added quite a bit to the collection and selling many of the Baron’s 19th collection to do so. Gavin hired Geddes Hyslop to alter the house and strip some of the baroque features to be more in form to its 18th century beginnings. The two flanking pavilions on either side of the south front change the landscape considerably. Buscot was among the houses which Ernest Cook purchased for the National Trust after WWII providing a way to lease the properties back to the original owners or heirs. Buscot was bequeathed in 1956 along with the the art collection which are part of the Faringdon Collection Trust. This set a precedent in England, paving the way for many to save their stately homes from destruction.
Whether or not this home was really built to be a personal art gallery for its owners, it cannot escape that equation because of the size of the collection. It’s an advantage for visitors, adding to the charming interiors which also display a wealth of beautiful furniture ranging from French Empire to Regency in neo-Egyptian style with classical fixtures and trompe l’oeil collections. A good part of the interior decoration was done with the art in mind and to co-exist in harmony. The saloon, which displays the Burne-Jones series, was done in exquisite plasterwork by Robert Adam’s favorite, Joseph Rose and the adjoining yellow drawing room features Italian Renaissance at its finest with a Palama Vecchio and a pair of tondos done under the influence of Leonardo and Botticelli. The sitting room is filled with some princely works by Reynolds and you’ll even find Rembrandts. Currently occupied and managed by the present Lord Faringdon, the mansion and gardens are open to the public each spring to the end of summer. The Four Seasons Walled Garden is a new feature which was built and laid down by the present Lord Faringdon.
Not far away a William and Mary house, Buscot Old Parsonage is seated about two miles southeast of Lechlade on the banks of the Thames. By looking on the exterior, surrounded by a low wall, one would not guess that the interior is filled to capacity with a blend of Anglo-American furniture and art. The last owner, who bequeathed his charge to the National Trust in hopes of excising his family by stipulating that his inheritance pass only to an American (with a spouse as artist, no less!) was trying to disinherit the aforementioned. He most likely never thought of what kind of legacy this would leave behind for others.
Built in 1701, completely of stone with a three bay facade, this small house is a simple beauty showing off a steep hipped roof, larg-ish windows and finished with Cotswold tiles. It has not been altered in any way so the integrity of the architecture is absolutely genuine. It came into the possession of an English woman, anyway, upon the passing of the owner in 1960 even though he left it to the National Trust. Diana Phipps became a wonderful caretaker who made sure the legacy was carried out to the letter and the house was last in possession of an American with an artist wife.
With a mostly basic facade exterior, save the lively set of steps in Baroque, the back entrance leads to landscaping of walled gardens, lawns and walks leading down to the water meadows of the nearby Thames. As can be expected, the interior is a mélange of decorated wood paneling, Diana Phipps’s batik wall hangings and an upstairs dining room shows off a Chinese canopy suspended above its table! Interestingly, 18th century paint samples obtained from the Colonial Williamsburg collection were used for the wall colors so the New World of the Americas is well represented here. For many Americans it will still be a study in their own history since these textiles have long been stripped away in many New England homes.
T- 01793 762209
Only just north of Buscot Old Parsonage, Kelmscott Manor was once the country home of William Morris- the Arts and Crafts artist, poet, and socialist, that is. Kelmscott was his second home from 1871 until his death in 1896 and is one of the most evocative of his houses. The rustic aspect of this manor continues to delight with the charm of its architecture, the fascination of its contents and the beauty of its garden, which has recently undergone extensive restoration and now contains many fine examples of plants and flowers which were considered an inspiration to Morris. This Elizabethan house retains the traditional wooden gutters, mullioned windows and north towers and even the original dovecote along the south front.
Possession of the house came about as the result of what would have been a disastrous episode for most people. Morris’s beautiful wife, Janey, was embroiled in a love affair with his friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He decided to move her, with their two daughters (and Rossetti) away from certain scandal in London. This secluded farmhouse in Oxfordshire kept the whole affair from exposure and he considered the move healthier for everyone concerned. He left a note that read ‘Please, dear Janey, be happy,’ and took off for Iceland to get away from it all. A rather ironic vacation but perhaps it was appropriate, all considering.
The manor was built circa 1570, in rusticated Cotswold stone, with later additions in the late 17th century which shows off big gables and small pediments over the top windows. Attributed to the farmer Thomas Turner as the actual builder, his house remained in the Turner family for quite a few generations until George Turner died in 1734. Thereafter, it was leased to other families. However, more than fifty acres of the surrounding land was purchased, along with lordship in 1864, by a James Turner in the 19th century and the house continued to be let rather than occupied by the Turner family. When William Morris died his widow finally purchased the house in 1913 from farmer Robert Hobbs. In turn, their daughters retained the house and when May Morris passed away she bequeathed the house to Oxford University. It is maintained by the Society of Antiquaries of London to the present day.
The house is a wonderful showcase and memorial of William Morris’s life because everything has been kept and maintained the way the Morris family lived. Many of his furnishings from his Hammersmith home were brought here and his work can be seen throughout the home in tapestries, textiles and wallpaper. You’ll also see paintings of Jane Morris all over the house, as well and the exhibit of fabrics in the attic is required viewing. You’ll see the bedrooms as they were left, books and all, and the effect is inspiring.
On the grounds you’ll see the Memorial Cottages which were designed by Philip Webb with a stone relief of Morris carved by George Jack. The manor cottages next door were commissioned by May Morris in memory of her mother and were designed by Ernest Gimson, a turn-of-the-century architect. In the town of Kelmscott you’ll find the gravestone of William Morris in the churchyard of St. George’s church and the village hall, which was renamed the Morris Memorial Hall was completed by Norman Jewson and opened by George Bernard Shaw in 1934.
www.kelmscottmanor.org.uk/visiting T-01367 252486
Much further south and close to the Berkshire border on the Berkshire Downs, Ashdown House is a very extraordinary house for its unique aspect alone. Its situation is a very short distance from the Vale of the White Horse and looks down on Lambourn in a southeasterly direction. Termed as Dutch-style, this 17th century giant dollhouse was built for Elizabeth of Bohemia, Charles I’s sister, who was doted upon by the 1st Earl of Craven. She was married to another- the Elector Palatine- but this did not stop his devotion to her or rescuing her out of debt during the Civil War. This house is a fitting tribute to his infatuation even though she died of the plague before construction began in 1662.
The architect has not been ascertained but it is believed that Craven commissioned a Captain William Winde to build Ashdown as a hunting lodge and a refuge from the plague for Elizabeth. The truth is that she never entered it but it is quite a tribute to her, nonetheless. The main building is a perfect square with steep roofs punctuated with three dormers on each of the four sides and a belvedere platform surrounded with a white balustrade. Two low, detached pavilions on either side of the main block are seated in front of the house and have double story dormers looking very much like a part of the house and giving the complex a very interesting appearance.
The house occupies 8,000 square feet and contains a large central staircase, receptions rooms, interlinking drawing and sitting rooms, a kitchen, a dining room and eight bedrooms. At present it is owned by the National Trust but remained in the possession of the Craven family for centuries until Cornelia, Countess of Craven donated the house in 1956. The estate encompasses two lodges, three cottages and a hundred acres of land.
Ashdown had become nearly derelict and stripped after occupation by the English army during WWII. The exterior has been prodigiously restored and some interior features such as the staircase are memorable as well as impressive along with a collection of paintings. Tours of the house are limited to the stairs, hall and roof because the house is tenanted and interior renovations continue from work started in 2011. You will enjoy views from the roof over the formal parterre, lawns and surrounding countryside, and the walks in neighboring Ashdown Woods are readily available.
Admission is by guided tour daily from April to October.
more photos of Ashdown’s renovation:
T- 01488 72584
Further east and east of the A338,along the ridgeway, the Georgian Ardington House is three miles east of Wantage and has always been owned by the Baring family. Described as gracefully symmetrical, you’ll find a few interior surprises, such as the staircase, which might make you wonder if you’ll ever understand English Baroque. At Ardington you won’t care if you do because a visit there is sheer delight. You find it enveloped by sweeping lawns and terraced gardens, parkland and a lake.
It is still a private home, built by banker Francis Baring but the house has been made available for certain functions and has served the public quite well. This gem was built by the Strong Brothers in 1720 in the style that was very popular at the time. The exterior is every bit as beautiful as the interiors once you get a close look at the details. I haven’t seen finer brickwork or more beautiful carvings on pediments above the center bays- front and back. The rooms along the south side overlook the gardens and the river beyond.
When you enter the hall you will be greeted by the Imperial Staircase which is a double twin ascent fusing to one grand ascent to the next floor. The dining room is available to view with finely paneled fluted pilasters and Rococo plasterwork on the ceilings and a wonderful gallery of paintings of the long line of Barings. They played host in more recent times to Sir John Betjamen, a modern poet and once to King Edward VII.
www.ardingtonhouse.com T- 01235 821566
With royal ardor,