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Hartwell House + Garden Aylesbury Buckinghamshire

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”.

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Garthwaite Family + Matfield House Kent

The House Where Time Doesn’t Stand Still

Matfield House Kent Meadow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Kent is pleasant in spring. Well, yes it is, but it’s jolly pleasant in summer too. Especially past the commuter belt, heading for the Weald. Even more especially when it’s one of the prettiest places in the county. Pevsner states, “Matfield grew as a main road hamlet in Brenckley parish. Matfield Green is its heart. Elongated triangle of grass surrounded by pleasant cottages. On the north side, beyond the duck pool, stands a perfect early Georgian group.” Matfield House takes prime position.

Matfield House Kent View © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Local historian Andrew Wells identifies Matfield House as one in a series of brick baroque houses in early 18th century west Kent. The others are Milgate Park, Bearsted, 1707 | Bradbourne House, East Malling, 1715 | Smiths Hall, West Farleigh, 1719 | Finchcocks, Goudhurst, 1725. The latter is like Matfield House – it’s also seven bays wide – but with an additional floor and three bay wings. Andrew thinks the architect of Finchcocks might be Thomas Archer. If so, it would make sense that Matfield House is also by him.

Matfield House Kent Pool © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Pevsner’s description of Finchcocks says the house “represents the moment when the country house style of Vanbrugh and Archer was slipping down the scale into the hands of local master builders”. So the houses could equally be judicious applications of pattern books.

Matfield House Kent Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Back to Pevsner: “Matfield House, the centrepiece of the group, was built for Thomas Marchant in 1728 (initials and date on the rainwater heads). Seven bays by two. Two storeyed, over a basement. The basement sandstone, the red brick, reddish brown on the front, blue headers at the sides. The façade must have been designed by the same man as Finchcocks. The giant Tuscan pilasters, set in from the angles and carrying pieces of white entablature with triglyphs, and the round headed centre windows played off against segmental ones at the sides, are enough to establish that. It is a compact, well calculated design, especially in the quick rhythm of close set windows in the three centre, slightly projecting, bays. Plain parapet, breaking forward between the windows. Three pedimented dormers peep over it, stressing the centre once more. Plain square chimneystacks at the ends. Elaborate lead downpipes. Doorcase, up five steps, on fluted Doric pilasters.”

Matfield House Kent Temple © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Matfield House Kent Urn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Indoors, Pevsner notes, “The hall reaches through the depth of the house, and out of it rises an ample staircase, richly endowed with fluted Corinthian colonnettes fluted and one loosely twisted, and all with Ionic capitals tilted to the angle of the handrail. Carved tread ends. Large but self effacing wing of 1884 at the back. Contemporary garden walls and clairvoie. Stables towards the rear. They are plainly of the same date as the house, in spite of 1779 on the weathervane. Charming clock turret, very much too large. ‘Mind the Time’, it says under the clock. The clock face in a surround curving up to a point in the middle, a typical shape of the 1720s. Further east a lower barn to match.”

Matfield House Kent Border © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The current owners John and Sarah are the third generation of the Garthwaite family to live in the house. They’ve worked hard to make a building coming up to its tricentenary fit for modern day use. Most radically a copper clad extension designed by Nicholas Kidwell was added to the Victorian wing, replacing 1930s service quarters. “This cube extension has been added to the western side,” explains Sarah, “and greatly extends the daily living accommodation. It gives a more open and inclusive aspect to the garden, demonstrating what may be accomplished when refurbishing historic structures for modern living.”

Matfield House Kent © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

While discreetly designed, the copper cladding blending in well with the brick, the extension allows for dramatically semi-alfresco living when the glazed doors are pulled back. “For the first time in its history,” she adds, “the kitchen wing of the house now relates to the garden. Vestiges of the former separation of family and staff can still be seen in the retained internal architectural features and frosted glass of the windows approaching the kitchen, along with the restored call bells.”

Matfield House Kent Facade © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Most of the rooms of the 1728 house have been combined in pairs to make them more usable,” Sarah notes. “We firmly believe in contemporary comfort when it comes to bathrooms!” she suggests. The master bedroom en suite preserves the panelling by having freestanding bathroom pieces. Water for the bath surprisingly spurts out from the ceiling.

Matfield House Kent Side © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Of the original 30 odd acres, there are still 13 attached to the house. It’s like an estate in miniature, gardens in the garden of Kent. Surrounding the “perfect early Georgian group” is a walled garden, decorative pool, swimming pool, croquet lawn and neoclassical seating. Around the corner from Matfield House is The Poet, the best gastropub in Kent. Yep, Kent is pleasant all year round.

Matfield House Kent Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley