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
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