Downy Grass with Tufts of Alpine Flowers | Catch the Slow Train to Dawn
Bignor Park is quite simply the most romantic place in the South Downs. Not just the dream of a house, all shell pink walls and shuttered sashes. Nor the parkland like a leaf out of a Humphry Repton Red Book. Nor that it was the home of a seminal Romantic poet. Nor that it is the home of a successful composer. The golden dusk settles it. Romance belongs here in the most literal fashion, for Bignor Park is the setting of 12 weddings a year. Kisses on the wind and then some. “We love hosting them. Such very happy occasions. At the end of the proceedings people get pretty sloshed!” smiles the 14th Lord Nairne, 5th Viscount Mersey of Toxteth, descendent of the Lords of Kerry. Also known as Ned Bigham, the music producer and composer.
That explains the pile of CDs on the drum table in the entrance hall. And the drum kit in the library. He’s an eclectic musician; his CV ranges from producing songs for Amy Winehouse to writing ballads for the Scottish Ensemble. Ned was once drummer for Neneh Cherry. His new album, Staffa, was the highest entry by a living composer in the Classical Charts. “Half my working life is taken up composing; the other half, I’m an estate manager.” Bignor Park is the home of Ned, his elegant wife Clare and their two daughters, Flora and Polly. “In 2006, two momentous events happened in my life. The first was a happy one: the birth of my second daughter Polly. The second was sad: the death of my father one month later.” That meant a change of title (form of address) and a change of title (address).
“We have undertaken major conservation work on the estate with funding from Natural England,” he relates, “restoring acres of heathland, planting new hedges and encouraging the rare Field Cricket. We now have one quarter of the UK population of the European Field Cricket. We’ve also created a wildflower wetland. I remember as a child the lovely cry of the lapwing. We are trying to encourage it back again.” There are 120 hectares of forestry and 320 hectares of organic farmland. And fortunately a few hectares left over for ornamental gardens. A million miles from anywhere. Although a surprising 90 minute drive from London.
Somewhere between the house and the stables and the dovecot and the swimming pool and the orchard and the Quadrangle and the Ceremony Garden and the South Lawn and the Dutch Garden is the Walled Garden. Clare is justifiably pleased with recent improvements: “In January 2011, Louise Elliott and Lisa Rawley of Fleur de Lys, the gold medal winner at the previous year’s Chelsea Flower Show, began an ambitious programme of new planting. Louise now manages the garden with help from Andrea Lock, Kirsten Walker and Peter Sherratt. In the centre of the Walled Garden over the pond is Geoffrey Stinton’s Aeolian harp. It hums quietly when the wind blows. Beyond the low wall is a line of pleached limes. They’re pruned to preserve views of the South Downs.”
“Bignor Park is a medieval development originally attached to the Arundel Castle Estate,” according to Ned. “The current house was designed by the Belgravia architect Henry Harrison in the 1820s. It cost £30,000. The architect complained he didn’t make any money out of it! His client John Hawkins brought back some rather wonderful Grecian marble reliefs from his Grand Tour. They hang in the loggia. My great grandfather, the 2nd Viscount Mersey, bought Bignor in 1926. His father was a divorce and maritime judge – quite a combination! – and presided over the Titanic and Lusitania inquiries.” Beyond the entrance hall lies an enfilade of reception rooms: the library | the drawing room | the dining room. They’re incredibly smart. Chic not shabby. “My grandmother came from Bowood –she booted out the old furniture! The Robert Adam drawing room doors are from Lansdowne House.”
As for the poet: “Charlotte Turner Smith lived at Bignor as a child,” explains Ned. “Being a female writer was exceptional for that time. She is considered to be the first ever properly confessional writer of poems and novels.” Married off at 15, after giving birth to 12 children she separated from her feckless husband. Not before she joined him for a sojourn at His Majesty’s Displeasure in a debtor’s prison. Leaving behind the halcyon days of Bignor Park, Charlotte gained plenty of material, no words remain unsaid, for her Sonnet XXXII To Melancholy:
‘When latest autumn spreads her evening veil,
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro’ the half-leafless wood that breathes the gale:
For at such hours the shadowy phantom pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet’s eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night-wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity’s own Otway I methinks could meet.
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden’d wind!
O Melancholy! – such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And sooth the pensive visionary mind!’
From late 18th century Romance to early 21st century romance. “We aren’t in the business of conveyor belt weddings,” Clare confirms. “What we want people to do is come and have Bignor as their home for the day, whether it’s a marquee on the croquet lawn or a party in the restored stables. Our marvellous Events Promoter Louise Hartley is on hand for bookings.” A breezeless Indian summer’s evening may, just may, add to the colonial air of this most romantic of Regency houses. Such grace, such calm, the smoothest of recesses and gentlest of projections offering fullness of form and precision of proportion. Then there’s Bignor village at the end of the driveway, so chocolate boxy (of the Godiva variety) it’s good enough to eat. Togetherness and nowness, living in the past, present and future. Bignor Park is quite simply the most romantic place in the South Downs.