THE BIG WEEKEND
Stanley Stewart plays squire and mine host at a grand English pile
MY country house parties have always suffered from one slight problem. I don’t have a country house. The solution is to rent one: a place with long drawing rooms for pre-dinner drinks, fourposter beds, croquet lawns and a set of back stairs for creeping adulterers. I settle on Bradley House in Wiltshire, which sleeps 26 in gracious en suite style without anyone having to resort to the sofa. Then I begin roping in friends.
When we turn up it’s as if we’ve died and gone to Gosford Park .A fine Georgian manor set in rolling parklands, Bradley House comes equipped with all the paraphernalia of privilege: grand entrance halls, sweeping staircases, baronial fireplaces, windows so tall you could ride a horse through them, and bathtubs in which you could do lengths.
Bradley House is the kind of place to make you wonder how you’ve survived all these years without 10,000ha, a peerage and a family motto.
The drawing room is larger than most city apartments. A fire crackles in the library where deep sofas await guests inclined to curl up with a good book, or one another. The music room is a children’s domain of games and pianos and DVDs. Beneath Flemish tapestries and silver candelabra, the dining room table is a polished runway laid for 25. Across the hall, the kitchen is the size of a small barn. Beyond lies a reassuring hinterland of butler’s pantries, laundry rooms, gun rooms, cloakrooms and back stairs.
The family seat of the dukes of Somerset, Bradley House was built in 1720. Originally it rivalled Longleat, its neighbour, but some family crisis in the early 19th century necessitated pulling down two wings, reducing the house from palatial to merely very large. The family are the Seymours, who were granted their title by Henry VIII when he took a fancy to the young Jane Seymour. He invited her to become lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. Eleven days after Anne’s execution, Henry married Jane. Their marital bed, with its dense oak carvings, is upstairs in the Bow Bedroom.
Family portraits abound. The gloomiest line the central staircase. There is John Seymour, Jane’s father, a lugubrious fellow in charge of an intimidating beard. Clearly a man with more facial hair than sense, it was he who offered the hand of his daughter to the uxoricidal king. Then again, perhaps it was the old wheeze of sacrificing the girls so the boys could get on. Opposite is the painting of the male heir who Jane had produced, the young Edward VI. He is watched over by Jane’s brothers: Edward, who became Lord Protector to the boy king, and Thomas, who became High Admiral.
Cars begin purring up the curving gravel drive, and the guests make their entrances like characters in an Agatha Christie novel. I dole out bedrooms with giddy abandon. The bachelor barrister is assigned the Garden Room at the end of the west wing. The bisexual novelist is given the bed in which Henry VIII bedded Jane Seymour. The historian is offered the Italian bedroom with its fine orientalist prints on the grounds that she grew up in Istanbul (sadly they turn out to be prints of Cairo). The journalist with the frisky young wife is given the Park Bedroom with the chandelier poised above the fourposter bed.
The glamorous divorcee is installed within corridor-creeping distance of the bachelor barrister. Children are dispatched to nursery bedrooms on the second floor where they embark upon a game of hide and seek that runs longer than The Sopranos.
We spend three blissful days in Bradley’s elegant bubble. The house manages the neat trick of being grand without being in the least formal. I realise this is how a manor house would be if I owned one myself, full of books and comfy sofas and log fires. There are piano duets in the music room, chess games half finished in the library, a great gaggle of muddy wellies inside the back door and a kitchen that is the warm heart of the house.
Every evening we have drinks in the drawing room in front of a roaring fire before we repair to boisterous candlelit meals at the long dining table. No one can remember such a wonderful house or such a fine house party. And no one wants to leave.
Prices for big properties can be eyewatering so your guests should be paying partners. Divided among the number of occupants, many British houses are surprisingly good value, often considerably less than a comparable hotel. Bradley House is a member of the the Country Castle Company. More: www.thecountrycastlecompany.co.uk. Staying at Landmark Trust heritage properties in Britain ( FabulousFollies, Travel&Indulgence, May 10-11): www.theaustralian.com.au/travel.
Mind your manor: Lavish interiors and the grand exterior of Bradley House in Wiltshire, which accommodates 26 guests; a scene from the film