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?

The Field - - Opening Shots - writ­ten BY RORY knight Bruce ♦ Photography BY an­drew Sy­den­ham

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.

shake­speare plays

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.

pow­der­ham es­tate

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.”

his­tor­i­cal pride

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

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