Overlooked Britain: Lodge Park, Sherborne, Gloucestershire Lucinda Lambton
Lodge Park, Sherborne, is unique, sublime and built for a bloodthirsty purpose – to watch deer-coursing
In the midst of the Gloucestershire countryside, a suddenly dead-straight road – a mile long and seemingly visible from start to finish – is the first clue that there is some excitement in store.
The second clue makes you shout out loud with delight, surprise and sheer joy. Standing alone in the fields, a tiny and brilliant little building sparkles with an architectural brio that still sings with the rapture that created it.
With a rich assembly of the latest and grandest architectural details of the 1630s jostled harmoniously together on its little façade, Lodge Park was built as a beautiful – in spite of its brutal purpose – deer-coursing grandstand on the Sherborne Estate.
Three cheers, though, for its singularity as the only surviving such grandstand in the country. Furthermore, it leaves you quite baffled by its beauty.
It has richly rusticated quoins and five bays of curved broken pediments, crammed together above its three-bay portico. As distinguished architectural commentator Clive Aslet pleasingly described it, Lodge Park is ‘bursting with architecture’.
Inside, on the first floor, a Great Room, complete with an elaborate chimneypiece, along with chairs designed by William Kent, was at the ready for entertaining.
It had been admired from the start. The National Trust guidebook records that, in 1634, a Lieutenant Hammond was full of praise for ‘the neat, rare Building, the richly furnish’d Roomes, the handsome contriv’d Pens and Places, where the deere are kept and turn’d out for the course’.
Standing there, sparkling and alone in the park, with crowds of splendidly attired spectators lining the balustrades, on both roof and balcony, it must have been a quite sensational sight: a surreal stage set for a Jacobean masque, set down in the Gloucestershire countryside.
The land was bought in 1551, along with the manor of Sherborne, by John Dutton of Dutton in Cheshire. His grandson Thomas John ‘Crump’ Dutton – so called, poor fellow, because of his hunchback – created this elegant little deer-killing kingdom.
According to Anthony à Wood in Athenae Oxonienses (1691-92), he was chaste and wise, ‘a learned and prudent man … one of the meekest in England’.
Dutton was also ‘one of the richest’ and surely one of the most civilised,
having commissioned this dazzling little building. Originally credited to Inigo Jones, it is now thought to have been built by local stonemason Valentine Strong of Taynton, whose son Thomas was to lay the foundation stone of St Paul’s Cathedral!
It had grandeur aplenty as the culmination of a mile-long walled enclosure designed for the chase – hence that suddenly straight road – that streaked though the parkland of 115 hectares.
That chase ended, cruelly triumphant, in front of the delicate building. Two storeys high, it had a flat roof behind its fanciful balustrade for extra-bloodthirsty spectators.
The deer was coursed after the release of a stag from the (still surviving) beech spinney. The ‘teaser’ – a mongrel greyhound – would get the deer going (known as ‘breathing’) and the ‘slipper’ would then release two staghounds – a now extinct French breed – to race after their prey. Halfway along the course was the ‘pinching post’ – if a dog reached the deer before it, the race was invalid. There was originally a ditch in front of the grandstand. This was of prime interest to the spectators, as the first dog to jump it was the winner. The rules were all laid down in ‘The Articles and Orders of the Paddock course of Shireborn in Gloucestershire’.
My distinguished old pal Mark Girouard, in his 1963 Country Life article ‘Arcadian Retreats for the Chase’, tells us there have been palatial buildings honouring the chase since the earliest Tudor times. This was the golden age, when sport and art were in happiest harmony; when, as Girouard put it, ‘Civilisation was still rural rather than industrial; and society was dominated by the concept of “the complete gentleman” who went hunting with Virgil in his pocket, and was able to draw the Five Orders as well as a covert.
‘The average gentleman of the day was able to give – or get others to give – convincing artistic expression to his sporting pleasures. Hence the Tudor and Stuart hunting lodges. A peculiar poetry exudes from these buildings.’
Girouard ignores the associated horrors. It was common practice to shoot the terrified creatures, once corralled, at close range. This was done with a longbow (capable of 10-12 arrows a minute), a crossbow (two bolts a minute) or a bow and arrow. This was known as ‘bow and stable’ hunting, denounced by James 1 as a ‘theevish’ form of sport.
In John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth of 1823, there is an account of ‘Fortune’s Empresse’ indulging in such monstrous practices – laced through with finery – at Cowdray, Sussex, in 1591:
‘On Munday, at eight of the clocke in the morning, her Highness took horse, with all her traine, and rode into the parke: where was a delicate bower prepared, under which were her Highness’ musicians placed, and a crossbow by a Nymph, with a sweet song, delivered to her hands, to shoote at the deer, about some thirtie in number, put into a paddock, of which number she killed three or four, and the Countess of Kildare one.
‘Then rode her grace to Cowdrey to dinner, and about sixe of the clocke in the evening, from a turret, sawe sixteen buckes … pulled downe with greyhounds.’
Some vestiges still remain of these tormenting practices. As well as Sherborne, the deer park at Ravensdale, Derbyshire, has traces of its deercoursing arrangement dating from the 12th century. Another was at Windsor Home Park.
In 1726, the renowned landscape designer Charles Bridgeman was put in charge of the Sherborne parkscape. Today, despite being far from intact, it is the only survivor of such grand parkland not to have been overlaid by the designs of William Kent and Capability Brown.
Lodge Park has undergone an exemplary restoration by the National Trust and has been given the new and distinguished role of showing off the wealth of 16th- and 17th-century paintings and furniture that belonged to the Duttons, given the barony of Sherborne in 1784. A fountain has now been designed in front of the building.
I could go on until the cows come home, or rather the deer – which, thankfully, will never again be chased by hounds at Lodge Park.