Where Fanny Price would have felt at home

GREAT ES­TATES The Vyne has in­spired guests from Henry VIII to Jane Austen and Horace Walpole. Ros­alind Pow­ell meets Robin Chute, whose fam­ily sold it to the Na­tional Trust

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

It has been vis­ited by King Henry VIII with two of his wives. Jane Austen at­tended house par­ties there, and she is thought to have based Fanny Price, her hero­ine from Mans­field Park, on one of the its res­i­dents. And Horace Walpole is also be­lieved to have been in­spired by the idea of build­ing his 18th-cen­tury gothic cas­tle in Twick­en­ham dur­ing one of his reg­u­lar vis­its.

The Vyne, set on the edge of a tree­lined lake dot­ted with geese, has played a large but hid­den role in Bri­tish life. Built in 1520, it is an im­pres­sive but wel­com­ing 16th-cen­tury Tu­dor manor that is a mish­mash of ar­chi­tec­tural styles from Tu­dor to Pal­la­dian.

The house, out­side Sher­borne St John, near Bas­ingstoke in Hamp­shire, was owned for many generations by the Chute fam­ily be­fore they sold it to the Na­tional Trust in 1956. This is much to the re­lief of Robin Chute, 71, who would have even­tu­ally taken on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the es­tate if it hadn’t been sold. In­stead, he worked along­side the Na­tional Trust as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the donor fam­ily, and en­joys the house’s beauty with­out the worry of its an­nual £1 mil­lion up­keep. An eye-wa­ter­ing £5.4 mil­lion was re­cently spent to re­pair the roof.

“I feel a dis­tant, but strong, at­trac­tion to it,” says Chute of the house. His late fa­ther, Anthony, was next in line to in­herit the prop­erty. “My grand­fa­ther had al­ways warned my fa­ther not to take it on as it would be a mill­stone round his neck, and I’m jolly glad he didn’t.

“He once told me that he had a choice of ei­ther taking on The Vyne or giv­ing me and my two broth­ers a pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion,” adds Chute, who at­tended Winch­ester Col­lege, where he now works as the es­tate bur­sar. “He couldn’t af­ford to do both.”

His fa­ther was con­vinced it was haunted, and it’s easy to imag­ine past lives walk­ing through the mag­nif­i­cent Tu­dor oak-pan­elled gallery, or at­tend­ing a ser­vice at the beau­ti­fully pre­served 16th-cen­tury chapel with its ex­quis­ite stained glass, con­sid­ered as among the finest in Europe.

Once a great Tu­dor pow­er­house, com­pa­ra­ble in size to Hamp­ton Court, The Vyne was built by King Henry VIII’S lord chamberlain, Sir Wil­liam Sandys, to re­flect his sta­tus at court. The king vis­ited sev­eral times, with both his first wife, Cather­ine of Aragon (her sym­bol of the pome­gran­ate is carved into the pews in the chapel), and then with his sec­ond, Anne Bo­leyn, while on a Royal progress in Oc­to­ber 1535. It was the same tour of the coun­try that bought Jane Sey­mour to the king’s at­ten­tion when he and Anne stopped off at Jane’s fam­ily home, Wolf Hall.

“We know that Sandys was a huge supporter of Cather­ine of Aragon so when Henry said, ‘By the way, I’m pop­ping by with my new wife,’ he couldn’t have said, ‘Sorry, busy that week­end’,” ex­plains Stu­art Maughan, The Vyne’s gen­eral man­ager.

“Henry came for four days and brought about 800 peo­ple with him, so Sandys would have had to re­move his staff, along with his fur­ni­ture and ta­pes­tries, as the king brought his own. He liked to dress the rooms to make things more grand.” Just seven months later, Anne suf­fered a mis­car­riage and Lord Sandys, a shrewd courtier who kept on the right side of Henry through­out his tur­bu­lent reign, es­corted her to the Tower of Lon­don.

In 1653 the house came into the Chute fam­ily when it was bought by Chaloner Chute, the Speaker of the House of Com­mons un­der Oliver Cromwell, who built the rather grand por­tico at the back of the house. Over the next three cen­turies, it re­mained with the Chutes as parts were added and restored, in­clud­ing the mag­nif­i­cent Pal­la­dian stair­case and hall in 1769 in the cen­tre of the house, which had been in­spired and en­cour­aged by fam­ily friend Horace Walpole.

Jane Austen, whose fa­ther was a rec­tor in a nearby church, mixed in the same so­cial cir­cles as the Chutes and at­tended par­ties thrown there. It’s thought that she may have based her Mans­field Park hero­ine Fanny Price on Caroline Wiggett, who came to live at The Vyne in 1803 aged three, hav­ing been plucked from a pool of poor dis­tant re­la­tions and adopted by the child­less cou­ple who lived there, Wil­liam John Chute and his wife Eliza.

They passed the house on to Caroline’s brother, Wil­liam Wiggett (who later added Chute to his name) in 1842, by which time it had fallen into be­nign ne­glect. The fa­ther of 11 chil­dren, Wil­liam ef­fec­tively saved The Vyne from dere­lic­tion by in­vest­ing all his wealth into its re­pair. As a re­sult, his four daugh­ters never mar­ried.

“Be­cause he had to spend money on the house he couldn’t af­ford to in­tro­duce them to so­ci­ety, so they couldn’t find hus­bands,” ex­plains Maughan. “They were un­able to ac­cept in­vi­ta­tions as they weren’t in the po­si­tion to host dances at the house in re­turn. His daugh­ters never had suit­ors, or started fam­i­lies, or moved away. Their life was this prop­erty.”

Chute has been work­ing closely with The Vyne to bring the story of Wiggett and his fam­ily to life in an ex­hi­bi­tion that has re­cently been un­veiled in the man­sion this au­tumn af­ter a two-year project to re­pair the roof. “Wil­liam Wiggett is the only rea­son we’re all stand­ing in this room to­day,” he says. Chute was only nine years old when the house was sold, and re­mem­bers as a child mak­ing the six-hour jour­ney from Suf­folk with his fam­ily to visit the prop­erty, of­ten at Christ­mas.

“I have frag­mented mem­o­ries, but it was al­ways very cold, and be­cause there hadn’t been a child in the house since the 1880s there weren’t any toys,” he says. “We played hide-and-seek, but were never al­lowed beyond the green baize door into the kitchen area, as that’s where all the ser­vants were. I would have got into trou­ble if I had.”

They weren’t al­ways well be­haved. “Once my brother Chaloner and I had a sword fight with the Com­mon­wealth swords that still hang on the wall here in the Oak Gallery, and I got a bit too close to a Wat­teau leather screen,” he says. “I was caught just be­fore I slashed it in half.”

Does he ever look at the house and think, ‘All this could be mine?’ “I might have tried to turn it around and give it a go,” he ad­mits. “But it would have been dif­fi­cult.

“My brother was mar­ried here, and I re­mem­ber my fa­ther say­ing, ‘Thank God it’s not mine – they’re go­ing to have to re-roof that sooner or later.’ So I think he made the right de­ci­sion.” Now lov­ingly pre­served by the Na­tional Trust, the 200,000odd vis­i­tors who en­joy the new­lyre­stored gar­dens and house each year would no doubt agree.

‘Be­cause there hadn’t been a child in the house since the 1880s there weren’t any toys’

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