At home on The Grange

A newly re­stored 18th-cen­tury land­scape pro­vides the ideal set­ting for The Grange Fes­ti­val’s in­au­gu­ral year, says Alan Titch­marsh, who has been in­volved in its evo­lu­tion

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Alan Titch­marsh

DIS­CUSSING the mer­its of Pem­ber­ley with its fu­ture chate­laine, Elizabeth Ben­net’s Aunt Gardiner de­clared ‘“If it were merely a fine house richly fur­nished” said she, “I should not care about it my­self; but the grounds are de­light­ful”’, con­firm­ing that a grand house alone is not nearly so en­tranc­ing as one sur­rounded by a beau­ti­ful land­scape.

Al­though Austen’s hero­ine might not have ad­mit­ted her love for Mr Darcy at the time, she later con­fesses to her sis­ter Jane: ‘I be­lieve I must date it from my first see­ing his beau­ti­ful grounds at Pem­ber­ley.’

It is fit­ting, then, that the sur­round­ing land­scape of The Grange at Nor­thing­ton, in Austen’s part of Hamp­shire, is be­ing re­stored to its Ge­or­gian splen­dour and trans­formed into the kind of Ar­ca­dian par­adise that both Mrs Gardiner and her niece would have found en­tranc­ing.

Since 1998, The Grange has been host to an opera fes­ti­val and, al­though Grange Park Opera has re­cently upped sticks to Sur­rey, The Grange Fes­ti­val, as it is now known, will spring to life from June 7 this year with a var­ied and ex­cit­ing reper­toire com­pris­ing Bizet’s Car­men, Brit­ten’s Al­bert Her­ring, Mon­teverdi’s Re­turn of Ulysses and a con­cert by the ever pop­u­lar John Wil­son and his orches­tra.

Coun­try-house opera is now a firm fix­ture across the coun­try, but I doubt any other venue has quite the same en­chant­ing at­mos­phere as The Grange. Far from be­ing ‘richly fur­nished’, it’s a ro­man­tic ruin. Ar­guably its great­est as­set is that it sits atop a knoll with views over the gen­tly rolling Hamp­shire Downs.

The house’s im­pres­sive Doric por­tico looks out over a me­an­der­ing val­ley through which flows the Can­dover Brook and be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the per­for­mance in the theatre cre­ated in what was the or­angery of the house, pa­trons pic­nic in the grounds or in the house it­self. The ex­pe­ri­ence is mag­i­cal.

From this com­ing sea­son, the ex­pe­ri­ence should be more de­light­ful still, as Kim Wilkie has been brought in to re­store the land­scape to its 18th-cen­tury glory. Mr Wilkie’s rep­u­ta­tion is stel­lar. His work in­cludes the spec­tac­u­lar an­gu­lar land­scape known as Or­pheus at Boughton House in Northamp­ton­shire for the Duke of Buc­cleuch and other projects in lo­ca­tions as var­ied as the V&A and Holker Hall in Cum­bria.

Tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the wa­ter­colours of Lady Caroline Walde­grave dat­ing from 1826, Mr Wilkie has su­per­vised the re­moval of scrub from the mar­gins of the ser­pen­tine lake, which snakes through the val­ley be­low, re­veal­ing a view that now sparkles in the sun­light. Arable land is be­ing re­turned to mead­ows in which sheep and cattle will safely graze and ar­eas of ne­glect that had, in Vic­to­rian times, been oc­cu­pied by over-elab­o­rate for­mal gar­dens that are be­ing in­cor­po­rated into the new Ar­ca­dian idyll.

The whole idea is not only to re­store The Grange’s 18th­cen­tury land­scape, but also to en­hance the ex­pe­ri­ence of 21stcen­tury fes­ti­val­go­ers, who will be able to wan­der down to the lake­side or, if high-heeled shoes and floaty evening dresses pre­clude even gen­tle ex­er­cise, simply stand un­der the por­tico of the house and mar­vel at the views be­fore them; views that will take them straight back to the time of Austen and her hero­ine.

Owned by the Bar­ing fam­ily since 1817 (Alexan­der Bar­ing was cre­ated Lord Ash­bur­ton in 1835 by Wil­liam IV), the es­tate has been through many vi­cis­si­tudes, cul­mi­nat­ing in the sale of The Grange and 600 acres of park­land to an Amer­i­can, Charles Wal­lach, in 1934. The cur­rent Lord Ash­bur­ton bought back the then ru­ined house and its 600 acres in 1964 and, al­though still owned by the Bar­ing fam­ily, they have sub­se­quently been un­der the care of English Her­itage (now His­toric Eng­land), which re­stored the house as a roofed ruin in the early 1980s.

Many con­ser­va­tion awards later, the house and grounds now have a vi­brancy and prom­ise that, 50 years ago, would have seemed an un­re­al­is­tic dream. This year, that prom­ise is given even more im­pe­tus with the re­in­state­ment of the north­ern drive, which passes through a lime av­enue to the front door of the house, and the restora­tion of the park­land to its 18th-cen­tury glory.

Fes­ti­val­go­ers will be able to watch the scheme ma­ture over the years to come and, should they be of a ro­man­tic turn of mind, imag­ine they have trav­elled back in time to Ge­or­gian Eng­land, when Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown dic­tated the bu­colic tastes of the no­bil­ity and gen­try and caused them to fall in love with the land­scape—and with each other. The Grange Fes­ti­val opens on June 7 (01962 791020; www. the­grange­fes­ti­val.co.uk)

Next week: The eco­nom­ics of gar­den­ing

Ro­man­tic ruin: The Grange makes the per­fect set­ting for opera

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