Highclere Castle, Charleston, Clandon Park

As summer approaches with a distinctly spring chill behind it, a trio of visits brought a refreshing wave of new visual material. After the enormous global interest in Highclere Castle, the location of ‘Downton Abbey‘ and with tickets limited, finally I managed to secure my day out. I had had for some years been curious to see this home, as it is rather more private than the usual mansions.

The first thing that struck me, was it was actually a good deal smaller than it was designed to appear. It has been very cleverly conceived, as it was once a boxy Georgian block, but this was all changed in the 19th century, when it was re-clad to resemble the Houses of Parliament. The result makes a moderately sizeable Georgian mansion look deceptively impressive.

I was right not to expect permission to photograph, but it was nevertheless enjoyable if frustratingly crowded. We were virtually queuing in every room. Many had large placards with photographs of the scenes from ‘Downton Abbey‘ to place each room in context. The library was my personal favourite with an elaborate mid-dark wooden design with an ‘egg and dart’ style decoration with a great deal of gilding, and with all the leather bindings from pre 1900, it made a truly sumptuous effect. Whether or not one might read such books is another matter. So I took time to study what was on offer. I spotted a set of gilded Jane Austen, in three volumes, one for each of the more famous novels, it was probably the 1833 or 1890 edition illustrated by Hugh Thomson. In one corner, a subject rather close to my heart with my local deer problem, there was a whole corner devoted to country pursuits and deer hunting!

The ‘smoking room’ was surprisingly informal, with rather unattractive ancient black leather sofas that needed a thorough repair, but were made less annoying by the most beautiful Dutch still life paintings by Van Weenix. These were really worth seeing, as the Wallace Collection has an equally impressive set. A very pretty French style room, for the ladies drawing room was also memorable. The room I disliked the most was the dark dining room dominated by a large black painting, of King Charles I from memory, a thoroughly gloomy start to the morning breakfast! Upstairs we could have a good old snoop to see the bedrooms, which all had spectacular views if you fortunate enough to wake up in such a place. A good cafe, if rather cramped, offering hot food and somewhere to sit with my picnic, made a satisfactory finish to the day.

Another day to escape, brought to mind Charleston and Monks House, with the church, St. Michael’s and All Angels at nearby Berwick, where I knew I could photograph freely. Charleston was as attractive as ever on a bright breezy day, so after a brief look and a snack, I headed off to the church. It was a charming location sitting quietly up a nearby lane with few visitors. In 1941 Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant created murals for the font and other areas which would make any church service a cheery place and completed in their usual early free 20th century style. No limits on photography here, so I had a fun trying to perfect my technique with colour settings, not easy that day for some reason. Well worth the visit. Images below.


Then onto Monks House at Rodmell, home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, the spring garden there is always a joy and now was tulip season. The garden was awash with bright orange tulips, the apple blossom was out and the beds were packed with all the usual geraniums and euphorbia in full glory. I always feel a bit sorry for the gardener who has to tend the vegetable plot it looks quite large for such a modest home. Inside was unchanged as expected, although photographs are permitted now I hesitate to publish them here, being National Trust. I always feel a sense of warmth and security here, and the domestic scale of the place is thoroughly inclusive and inspiring.

It was only last month I noticed that Clandon Park were advertising a more extended tour of the ground floor, after the fire which gutted the 1720s house, once belonging to the Onslow family. Specifically only the marble hall and the state bedroom. Last year, one could only lean over a rail, so having checked this, I was set to make a return visit.

The building was rattling with the noise of the wind howling through the roof and the staff commented on the fact that they had to cover the marble floor to protect it from the bird droppings! Crows, amongst others, had created nests in the fireplaces which are now hung high up in the wreck. Wildlife are quick to take advantage of any convenience and were swooping around happily. A closer look into the rooms, that were only glimpses last year, did not disappoint and the images came out nicely.

The state bed hangings were out for repair and the curtains were boxed up when the fire hit, so at least some remarkable artefacts were saved. Fire is a ruthless enemy and the black scorched walls were really a sad sight, if beautiful in their own way. It has also given a similar opportunity to discover more about the older sections of the house which were unseen and reverse some less than perfect ‘improvements’. Now the plan is to study the proposals by selected architects to decide exactly what is going to be done for the long term future. I repeated my suggested board of a half and half restoration, leaving one fireplace untouched.

Clandon is progressing onwards and it is in a unique position just now, as it is only a matter of time until restoration begins. Next time you might see a damask clad wall, or a fireplace covered in plaster and paint, so nip in quick. Open until end of October.



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