Upstairs, Downstairs and round the Gardens of Petworth House, Sussex, UK (July 8 – 11, 2013)

5 Aug

Clearly this is written well after the event. I try to blog on the go, or if the chance arises subcontract (for love) postings by my able travel companions. This experience, our stay in The Stables, West Marden, near Chichester, Sussex, straight after Wimbledon, is an exception. Nearly a month later I’m recollecting with the aid of a few scribbles and photos four halcyon English summer days. Perhaps that explains my reluctance to write at the time. The slow pace of country life, walks in surrounding hills, swimming and lazing by a shared pool, afternoon naps and local pubs were just too damn good. I didn’t want to break the spell.

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Snapped on our street, couple heading home from the pub.

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Stuart taking the road less travelled.

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Today I’m running away from the chaos of our new house. Half unpacked boxes and untidy piles of ‘stuff’ clutter almost every room. We have a ‘to do’ list as long as my arm. I’ve granted myself a morning of quiet writing and researching at the Queensland State Library cafe where the coffee is strong and the wifi free.

Our landlord for the Sussex sojourn, Martin, is second generation arable farmer. Wife Carole and daughter Gaynor recently renovated the farm stables to five star, luxe self-contained accommodation and are extremely hospitable. We would happily have stayed a couple of weeks. By next year they’ll be able to host 24 people comfortably. Sounds like a great group summer holiday to me!

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A highlight of our stay was a visit to Petworth House, a prestigious National Trust property with a rich collection of art and 224 hectares of grounds with gardens by Capability Brown. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house/

Author Max Wyndham, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyndham_(name) a descendant by marriage of the original Percy family, rhttp://percyfamilyhistory.com/petworth_files/petworth.htm did a deal with the British Government that relieved him of onerous death duties and allowed him to retain a fair chunk of Petworth House along with seven acres, plus the use of the whole house on Thursdays and Fridays. The rest of the week is given over to the public. Seems an ideal arrangement for all concerned.

I had no prior knowledge of the estate’s family history but when I heard the original construction, a small medieval fortified manor house with a freestanding thatched chapel, was built by the Percy family of Northumberland in 1100, my ears pricked up. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petworth_House

Handsome Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland, was sent as a callow youth to be page to Cardinal Wolsey at Hampton Court. In 1523, aged 21 and still Wolsey’s aid and secretary, Percy became betrothed to Anne Boleyn without his family’s, Wolsey’s or King Henry VIII’s permission. Scandal! This was around the time Anne was becoming of interest to the King and explains Anne’s lifelong dislike of Wolsey.

Anne becomes the obsessive object of Henry’s affection and lust while Percy is married off to the dull Mary Talbot. The Percy marriage is marred by mutual loathing and they have no surviving children to leave the estate to. An ill 35-year-old Percy bequeaths Petworth and its properties to the state, to that same Henry VIII, who loves to visit it for the fine hunting.

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Portraits of Henry VIII and his Queen Anne are prominent in Petworth’s grand salon.

Fast forward to 1557 and Henry Percy’s nephew, Thomas Percy, is reinstated in the property by Tudor Queen Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon and Henry VIII). The family fortunes seemed to be looking up, but sadly this was just the beginning of yet more political intrigue and violence for the Percy dynasty.

When the 11th Earl died in 1670 his daughter, three-year-old Lady Elizabeth, became the wealthiest woman in England. Raised by her Howard grandmother Elizabeth was married off by granny for the first time aged twelve. The husband died soon after and Elizabeth was wed again to husband number two. She disliked number two so much she absconded to the continent to be with her lover. Her lover plotted to have her husband assassinated but she was still fetched home. At age 15 Elizabeth married husband number three, Charles Seymour, the sixth Duke of Somerset, who seems to have been more than a match for the headstrong young heiress At age 21 she finally inherited her fortune which the Duke used to improve Petworth House. Following major enlargements and improvements Petworth became known as the best English interpretation of the Baroque style.

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In the sunshine the stone facing of the house glows a creamy, yellow and the long, grassy view down to the pleasure lake and up to the softly rounded woods is picture perfect. We picnic where the family used to, on the knoll overlooking the house and grounds.

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The house is a treasure trove of paintings by Turner, Van Dyck, and others, magnificent marble sculptures and intricate wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons.

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Genuine fifth century BC Grecian urn, one of a pair.

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Upstairs are several opulent bedrooms.

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If the above stairs life of privilege was a gilded cage for women and a brutal competitive world for men, below stairs life for the staff proved equally interesting to us. Our volunteer guide, Jenny Clayton, spun a fascinating tale of footmen hired for the comeliness, height and the shapeliness of their calves (many took to stuffing them to deceive future employers), secret doors and an under courtyard tunnel between the great house and the servants’ quarters and kitchen. The tunnel was originally lit by candles and ensured servants were seldom seen. The house also had the first hydraulic lift built outside of London in 1870. It was used to haul guests’ suitcases, and fuel for fires to the upstairs bedrooms.

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Successful candidates.

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Jenny descends into the tunnel.

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That same tunnel housed evacuated Chelsea nursery children during the Blitz. They slept there on nights the sirens went off.

My favourite rooms were the kitchens, preserved in their 1920s fitout with one of the first electric ovens in the country.

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The ice storage house built under the dairy in the 1700s is in almost original condition. Imagine importing great blocks of ice annually from Canada and Newfoundland by sailing ship and storing them covered with straw deep in the ice house, chipping off blocks as needed and carrying them to the kitchen fridge!

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Section of brick ice house with flooring intact.

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Second of three sections with floor missing.

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I’ll wrap up with a couple of photos inside the house and gardens that escaped my notice earlier. Full credit to the head gardener for this luscious coloured ‘wild’ border.

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Enough procrastinating Sharon! Time to begin again the struggle against entropy inside my house.

Next instalment will include photographic evidence of my success or failure in that regard.

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