Inside the Vale in Stone with Bishopstone and Hartwell Parish
National Trust country house tours are all jolly good but nothing beats the fun of actually lounging, dining, partying and hopping into bed in an historic property. Le grand expérience. We once lunched at Florence Court in County Fermanagh to celebrate the 7th Earl and Countess of Enniskillen returning some rather grand trinkets to their former home but that was a one off despite dining out on it ever since. In a marriage made in heaven, or at least a pairing in Britain at its finest, the dream comes true in the triumphant triumvirate of Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno; Middlethorpe Hall, York; and Hartwell House in the Vale of Aylesbury. National Trust houses where the four posters are for using. Well if Hartwell was good enough for Louis XVIII (he rented it for five years from 1809) it’ll suit us Francophiles thank you very much. Although His Majesty probably didn’t have to catch the train from London Marylebone. And so, we wave goodbye to the golden tinged terraces of NW1 on a blisteringly hot morn.
We’re tasked with capturing the spirit of the place, its current glory, its essence no less. The present is not a foreign country; they do things better here and now. Although Paris France is our next stop. As Gertrude Stein amusingly muses in Paris France, “You do not mention the relation of French men to French men of French men to French women of French women to French women to French children of French men to French children of French children to French children.” It’s worth mentioning the Frenchman who would become exiled sovereign as his plump features fill a bust and a statue and a painting at Hartwell. The Frenchman who looks down on the dining table of Apsley House on Piccadilly, London, in a portrait by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard. “But all art is erotic,” prescribes Adolf Loos in his 1908 lecture Ornament and Crime. Erm, not so sure, but we really do agree with his statement “Luxury is a very necessary thing.” And “An English club armchair is an absolutely perfect thing.” His words “Fulfilment awaits us” have a prophetic ring to them. Unerotic art, luxury and English club armchairs await us.
It’s also worth mentioning a certain French woman. A French woman who was Queen of France for 20 minutes. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte Duchess of Angoulême was the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Dauphine joined her uncle to hold court at Hartwell. Her much maligned and misrepresented mother tried to set her daughter on the straight and narrow. On New Year’s Day 1784 the Queen, forgetting cake and remembering the poor, told Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, “The winter is very hard. There is a crowd of unhappy people who have no bread to eat, no clothes to wear, no wood to make a fire. I have given them all my money. I have none left to buy you presents, so there will be none this year.”
First impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand. And very Jacobean. A feast of late 17th century transomed and mullioned oriels greets us as we swoop down the driveway round the turning circle with its life size statue of Frederick Prince of Wales on horseback and screech the breaks outside the entrance archway. But peeping past the very manicured bush (straight out of a David Inshaw painting) round to the garden front, there’s a perpendicular juxtaposition that would give County Down’s Castle Ward a run for its money. It’s Arcadian Palladian! The wealthy Hampden family built the original house before selling it to the even wealthier Lee family a couple of centuries later. In 1938 the house and 730 hectare estate was bought by conservationist Ernest Cook, grandson of the Victorian pioneer of package holidays Thomas Cook. Not that there’s anything package about bespoke Hartwell House. Ernest Cook saved the ensemble from certain ruin. Historic Hotels owner Richard Broyd would later acquire the leasehold which would in turn would be assigned to the National Trust in 2008 while allowing the house to still be run as a hotel. Lasting impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand.
The dining room with its pendentive domes and matching Greek key cornice and carpet is more Soaneian than Pitzhanger Manor. The walls are painted lemon sorbet colour and the ceiling lemon ice cream. Contrary to appearances the dining room is 1980s not 1780s. It’s the creation of the architect Eric Throssell who converted Hartwell House from a finishing school to a hotel. A very clever creation at that. The architect amalgamated a closet, secretary’s room, south portico hallway and study to form a coherent space. The closet was reshaped to form an apse balancing that of the former study. French doors are wide open to the terrace. Dinner is served. The menu is elegantly labelled “Hartwell Bill of Fare”. Sourdough and fried tomato bread are followed by a starter of pan seared scallops, apple ketchup, compressed apple and oat crisp. The main course is pan fried turbot, leek spaghetti, sun blush tomatoes, British new potatoes and mussel cream sauce. Pudding is raspberry and elderflower tart, elderflower and mint sorbet. Taste good dining in a good taste dining room. Jacqueline Duncan, Founder of Inchbald School of Design, always reminds us, “I’m interested in taste.” A gentle breeze rustles through the dining room. Such peace and tranquillity. Yet under the fading light outside, tragedy is marked on the lawn. A tiny gravestone reads: “In loving memory of Charmian Patricia baby daughter of Captain and Mrs Conyers Lang died March 30 1924.” Beyond this gravestone, a walled cemetery abuts the estate.
Close to the cemetery a rusted blue sign on the perimeter brick wall reads, “Hartwell, The Church of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The present church (replacing a medieval structure) and modelled on the Chapter House at York Minister, was erected by Henry Keene between 1754 and 1756 for Sir William Lee of Hartwell House. It was an early example of Gothic Revival consisting of an octagon with symmetrical towers at the east and west ends. The interior was remarkable for the beauty of its fan tracery vaulting and the lozenged black and white marble pavement. Photographs taken before the church fell into ruin are in the National Monuments Record collection. Shortly after the 1939 to 1945 war the lead was stolen from the roof. This quickly led to the collapse of the vaulting and, after years of disuse, the remains of the building were declared redundant in 1973 and came into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund in July 1975. The elegance of the building’s design was not matched by the soundness of the construction and in order to preserve what was left, the Fund has carried out extensive works over many years under the direction of Mr Roiser of Cheltenham. May 1982.”
The interior of Hartwell House swaggers and sways between styles and centuries, from the baroque great hall and Henry Keene’s rococo morning room to the Georgian drawing room and library and Jacobean staircase hall. The newels and posts of the staircase are formed of historic carved figures. We return to the dining room a few hours later just as dawn is breaking. There may be no E in Hart but there’s eggs-to-see for breakfast. Sunny side up thank you on the sphinx guarded terrace. Poached eggs and crushed avocado on sourdough toast. It’s oh so quiet. Such peace and tranquillity. A sign in the staff courtyard next to the hotel reads “Beware People”. Thankfully the house and estate are so large there are few bodies about except for the discreet staff.
In 1728 James Gibbs published his bestseller A Book of Architecture Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments. “What heaps of stone, and even marble,” he complains, “are daily seen in monuments, chimneys, and other ornamental pieces of architecture, without the least symmetry or order?” The architect and author sets out to remedy this dire situation. “In order to prevent the abuses and absurdities hinted at, I have taken the utmost that these designs should be done in the best taste I could form upon the instructions of the greatest masters in Italy, as well as my own observations upon the ancient buildings there, during many years application onto these studies; for a cursory view of those august remains can no more qualify the spectator, or admirer, than the air of the country can inspire him with the knowledge of architecture.”
The chimneypiece in the great hall looks like it could be taken from the central image of Plate 91 except for a carved plaque replacing the overmantel mirror in the drawing. The mélange of urns and finials over the triumphal Rusticated Arch could come from Plates 146 and 147. And the Gibbs Pavilion looks like Plate 77 minus a dome. The Illustrated Atlas of the World’s Great Buildings by Philip Bagenal and Jonathan Meades, 1990, confirms James Gibbs’ status, “English Georgian was evolved from the designs of the Italian architect Palladio by Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor and James Gibbs.”
The Ionic Temple, an eyecatcher viewed from the dining room, is one of several James Gibbs designed parkland features. The rubblestone and ashlar stable block and attached coach house, rebranded Hartwell Court, incorporates parts of a Gibbsian menagerie. Hartwell Court now houses a swimming pool and 16 guest bedrooms in addition to the 32 bedrooms in the main house. It overlooks a private garden guarded by statues of Juno and Zeus. A statue of Hercules remains half hidden in the woodland beyond the church. The Rusticated Arch tunnels under the public road into another walled area known as Hothouse Piece which includes the kitchen garden, orchard and tennis court. A brick plinth marks the location of the Victorian glasshouses.
Restored beyond their former glory under Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape renewal scheme in 1979, the mid to late 18th century gardens, offer up a smorgasbord of visual and historic and horticultural and architectural pleasures, some hidden, some unhidden. The prominently placed statue of Frederick Prince of Wales was rescued from obscurity in a shrubbery. In an early case of reclamation, the two narrow informal lakes lie on either side of the middle span of James Paine’s old Kew Bridge in London of 1782, dismantled in 1898 and auctioned in lots.
In The Age of Bronze, 1822, Lord Byron writes, “Why wouldst thou leave Hartwell’s green abode?” Why, indeed, for it’s both peaceful and fun. Hartwell House is the type of place where anything can happen. And it does. The bellboy hands us a poem printed on hotel headed paper titled The Long Driveway to Hartwell. Bonkers has a new. We nod at the line “seize every moment” and chortle at “chaise longue fizz is swell” and when it comes to “it’s a short life on our Lord’s planet” we pray “thank goodness a decent chunk of it was spent at Hartwell House”.