Britain’s ancient houses
For some, their home really is their castle. So what is it like to live in a family seat passed down over centuries?
When that well-known, leftwing polemicist – and my occasional long-lunching companion – Christopher Hitchens was at death’s door in New York, he was persuaded to travel and speak at the Hay Literary Festival. Was he there, a callow reporter asked him, to articulate climate change, the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles or the nuclear threat? “No,” replied ‘The Hitch’. “I just wanted to see Tintern Abbey one last time.”
Britain’s ancient houses, churches and monuments continue to captivate even hardened socialists – witness the incongruous popularity of Tony Robinson’s breathless Britain’s Ancient Tracks television series. But seldom, if ever, is credit given by them to those remarkable families who have kept them going.
When Hugh Massingberd wrote his unsurpassed series on ancient houses and their families for The Field in the 1980s, he concluded that many of these families, often without title or remarkable political or military importance, would be around in 100 years’ time, still tending their gardens and their acres. His book, however, reads today like a lament for lost England. Many of the houses of which he wrote have now been separated from their owners. In several cases, war losses and punitive inheritance tax finally caught up with them.
“The heritage of country houses was created by families who through their foresight and good stewardship have preserved the very fabric of the countryside,” Massingberd wrote, 30 years ago. But he estimated that of 10,000 family seats in 1880, there are fewer than 2,000 a century later.
This should make us all the more aware and regarding of those families who have held on to their houses, often in circumstances of ingenuity or privation. Nor have the families in earlier generations always welcomed the intrusion of the paying public. I well recall staying in a house in Sussex, normally open to the public but closed on this particular bank holiday, where the owner spent the day at the gates splenetically telling the public to, “Go away”.
So how have the Hims (and Hers) ancient and modern adapted to keeping their homes and a sustainable economic model while at the same time being able to live and bring up families in a semblance of privacy?
At Traquair House, that shimmering former royal hunting lodge by the Tweed in
the Scottish Borders, what began as simple beginnings, with garden openings and rediscovering the 300-year-old brewhouse in 1965, now attracts more than 40,000 visitors a year. Its chatelaine and driving force is Catherine Maxwell Stuart, 53, a former Labour parliamentary candidate who once graced the ‘Girls in Pearls’ section of Country Life sporting Dr Martens and a bluebird tattoo on her instep.
Stuart is the 21st Lady of Traquair, a descendent of the Stuart kings of Scotland and the fortified manor has a claim to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland. “I was born and brought up here and Traquair is an extension of who I am,” she says. “It is a labour of love rather than a chain around my neck.” Having studied at the London School of Economics, she came back in 1990 following the death of her father, Peter, who had set up Traquair Ales from the ancient brewhouse by the main house. It now produces 700 barrels of craft ale a year.
As befits someone with strong local roots, Stuart’s three children have all been educated locally and the house and estate, which is now a charitable trust, involve indirectly the employment of more than 100 people. A highlight of community involvement has been performances of Shakespeare plays at the house for a number of years.
With her husband, human rights QC Mark Muller Stuart – the inspiration for Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary – there is now also the Beyond Borders Festival, held over the bank holiday in August and attracting such names as William Dalrymple and Tina Brown, as well as Scottish politicians First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Tory leader Ruth Davidson, plus art entrepreneurs Andrew Brown and Richard Demarco, and biographer Roddy Martine.
“It is a platform for dialogue among small nations and Scotland’s place in the world,” continues Stuart. It is also an opportunity to meet and speak to these opinion-formers in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, to walk in the gardens or get lost in the maze.
“It’s a bit out of the normal world,” she concedes, and her love of Traquair and sense of place add to its uniqueness but also to its sense of openness. “I have even been called upon to be a last-minute witness at a wedding in the chapel.”
cornish time capsule
Ancient families they may be but there are also plenty of mundane maintenance jobs required to keep the show on the road. No-one knows this better than Iona, Lady Molesworth-st Aubyn of Pencarrow, near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. As we sit in the kitchen of this time capsule of welcome, she explains: “This was three rooms and I had to knock them all together, which I did after 25 years of living here.” As the
Traquair House is a labour of love rather than a chain around my neck
wife of a military man, Sir Arscott Molesworth-st Aubyn, Lady Molesworth, now a sprightly 80-something, lived in 14 houses before coming home to roost at Pencarrow, where she is ably assisted in the running of the house and grounds by her marvellously goodnatured, second son, James.
It is possible her early years have informed her fortitude, as she was evacuated during the war as a child to Canada and her returning convoy ship narrowly avoided destruction. “Then there was a wild childhood on the Isle of Wight,” recalls Lady Molesworth, the daughter of Admiral Sir Francis Tottenham. She rode her pony Tinkerbell with the actor David Niven.
The Molesworths originally went on the Crusades to the Holy Land with Edward I in 1270 and have been in Cornwall and Devon ever since. In the late-18th century, the baronet of the day formed a banking house that eventually became Lloyds Bank. Today, eldest son William lives at Tetcott Manor, another ancient landholding once belonging to the Arscott family of North Devon.
“We love people coming to look at the house and gardens,” says Lady Molesworth. Ever since sequences from Rosamunde Pilcher’s 1987 novel The Shell Seekers was filmed here, there have also been coachloads of Germans as the book is still serialised there on television.
Sir Arscott was much involved with the Historic Houses Association (now Historic Houses), of which Pencarrow is a member. “It is a huge help to have them at the end of the phone,” says James.
Rows of camellias and rhododendrons are a feature of the 50 acres of superb Pencarrow gardens, matted with wild garlic, snowdrops and bluebells approached by an impressive, mile-long carriage drive and, for the past 28 years, under the watchful eye of head gardener Gavin Vague. The monkey puzzle tree got its name here when, in 1834, barrister Charles Austen saw an early Chilean Araucaria araucana growing at Pencarrow and pronounced: “It would puzzle a monkey to climb that.”
The chronicles, history and travails of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire have been authored by an altogether more famous hand. In 1587, Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II, was put before the theatre-going public and, in it, the king’s gruesome death by a red-hot poker that burned out his internal organs at Berkeley in 1327, on account of his affair with Piers Gaveston.
“There are still some theories that he escaped, but we also have evidence of money being spent on new locks to keep him imprisoned,” says Charles Berkeley, heir to the castle today. If proven that he escaped to Italy and a young man was murdered in his place (another theory), it would come as a disappointment to schoolchildren and students of the macabre because, according to Marlowe, Edward’s screams could be heard miles away.
Berkeley and his wife, the Olympic threeday eventer Daisy (née Dick), and their young daughter, Mary, live in the Berkeley dower house, well within earshot of Edward’s cries. All three are popular figures in the community as had been John Berkeley, ‘JB’, who was a long-term Master of the Berkeley hounds, kennelled here since the 12th century. “It was my fatherin-law’s dying wish that I should become a Joint Master of his hounds,” says Daisy Berkeley, which she became on 1 May 2018. Her husband has started hunting again after a break of 23 seasons and also become High Sheriff of the county.
“I did a lot of the normal things, London and travel, before coming home,” says Berkeley, now 42. “I met my wife on a blind date because friends thought we would get on, which we have. It is wonderful to go on this journey with her. We have similar values and the journey is shared.”
Of Berkeley Castle, with its historic battlements and baronial halls, in which he
played as a child, he says: “It is not the realisation of a dream but a platform to dream. The importance of the castle was always to project power, not to enforce it. It was built to have a relationship with the landscape and the community.”
Berkeley Castle opened its doors to the public on Easter Day 1956, and became a charitable trust in 1997. “I never knew it as a wholly private house, unlike my father,” continues Berkeley. “It was always a centre for hospitality and so it continues to be with weddings, concerts, medieval jousting and the all-important Berkeley Agricultural Show.”
There are more than 70 people working on the Berkeley estate, 34 guides and more than 35,000 annual visitors. A recent addition has been a private Bridal House for wedding couples, and the fact that Wolf Hall and Poldark have been filmed in part at Berkeley Castle has certainly helped increase visitor numbers.
Of the same generation, the Earl of Devon and his American-born film actress wife, formerly AJ Langer, have taken over the running of their family’s Powderham estate near Exeter.
“AJ has become much involved in the house and gardens and I am looking after the estate,” says Charles Devon, 42, an international lawyer who still commutes to London three days a week.
Powderham has been the seat of the Courtenay family, from which the Devons take their title, since the 14th century, with an Archbishop of Canterbury in the family tree. It was also, for many years, the home of Timothy the Tortoise, who lived in the Rose Garden and whose 164 years I chronicled in 2004 in a book, Timothy the Tortoise: the remarkable story of the nation’s oldest pet. Another book, yet to be written, concerns the 9th Earl, William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, a beautiful youth who attracted infamy for his affair in the late-19th century with the profligate William Beckford of Fonthill Splendens in Wiltshire, and of which there is unpublished correspondence in the family archive.
There are 50 people employed immediately at Powderham, the same number as in estate records for 1742, and 40,000 annual visitors. “We are a local, sustainable family business and our trade is history,” says Charles Devon. “AJ has taken charge of the castle and replanned the visitor tours and we want Powderham to be ‘the Home of Devon’,” he continues. “She is also a keen surfer and our two young children go to the local school.”
Historic Houses, of which all the above homes are members, have 500 residences on their books that are open to the public in some form and a further 1,000 that they advise. Advice can be anything from mending broken glass to grants and installing boiler systems, and provides a knowledge network to stately and less-stately home owners.
Leaving each of the families, I was struck by the historical pride they show in their homes but also the innovative and energetic ways they have come up with to share their castles and grounds.
Outside Traquair, I met a local couple and asked them if they come to the house. “We always come for Shakespeare and chips,” they told me, meaning that they attend the play and then go to the local chip shop afterwards. I think both Hugh Massingberd and Christopher Hitchens would have approved of that.
Charles Berkeley with his wife, Daisy, and daughter, Mary, at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire
Left: the Earl and Countess of Devon and family at Powderham estate. Above: Catherine Maxwell Stuart, husband Mark and family at Traquair House. Below: Charles Berkeley with wife, Daisy, daughter Mary and hounds
Below: Iona, Lady Molesworth-st Aubyn of Pencarrow, Cornwall. Above: her second son, James, who helps to run the house and grounds