VISITING ONE OF Britain’s ‘stately homes’ can be a depressing experience. There are great houses that have lost their spirit, museums in effect, with no flavour of the domestic or the agricultural. It is really no one’s fault; but a snatched five minutes with the visitors’ book is often the greatest revelation a tour has to offer. You can see what a miserable, uncomprehending time the public is having, nothing quite as old or quaint or grand as it wants, and the ‘facilities’ perhaps not up to scratch. I read some of the visitors’ book at Blenheim once. ‘We are Italians,’ an entry said, ‘and we are very hungry.’
Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, in this selection of his articles from The Field, has set out to make the English country house comprehensible, to set it in its context. The book is very handsome, with splendid photographs, about half of them coloured, on every page; and the houses are nor particularly familiar. They the ‘illustrious obscure,’ still in private hands, the centre of working estates. And since bricks and mortar, however distinguished, are only half the story, the author has introduced us to their owners, and their owner’s ancestors; his text is a sprightly and idiosyncratic mixture of profile, anecdote, and observation . He does not actually take us line by line through the owners’ bank statements; but he is wise enough to temper his readers’ natural covetousness by reminding us how much the splendour costs in cash.
A hundred years ago there were 10,000 family seats in the British Isles; now there are about 2,000. Montgomery-Massingberd will not have them referred to as ‘the national heritage,’ because, he says robustly, ‘the national had nothing to do with it.’ He will have no truck with Heath Walker counties; he goes, with pride, to Huntingdonshire, and to other pleasant places that have disappeared from the maps. And there he finds, behind a pedimented facade, beneath a ‘notable ceiling’, by the light of his sash windows, a man worrying about the bills: and about the bypass, and the power station, and the dry rot. How easy it would be, you imagine, to put up the For Sale sign. But the responsibility the landowner feels extends not only to his own children, but to the locality, and often to people he will never set eyes upon in his life. Foulis Castle, in Rossshire, is not simply his family seat, the present Chief says, but ‘the home of all Munros, Munroes, Monros or Monroes ‘though this does not, says the author, include Marilyn.
The figure of the public-spirited squire strides through these pages; more often than not, judging by the photographs, an aged black labrador is at his heels. T he public- spirited squire is a dedicated conservationist, and a patron, when he can a it, of the right sort of architect. He is a manager of deer parks, a protector of water-meadows, a reclaimer of woodland, a layer-out of cricket pitches. He is a friend to the lesser-spotted woodpecker, the tree-creeper, and the sandmartin; the tenderhearted Hanhams of Deans Court even provide a sanctuary for ‘threatened vegetables’. On these estates, soil is not common muck, but is ‘vouched for by the Soil Association’. Nor is the spiritual life neglected. Hainton Hall, in Lincolnshire, has two churches in the grounds, one Anglican and one Roman Catholic. And the Eystons of Hendred House keep a priest, though in these liberal days he is no longer confined to a hole.
These families are not admirers of change for its own sake. The vulgar may throng to Do-lt- All, but among their betters ‘the drawing room has been stylishly redecorated for the first time in more than a century’. Over the years, judicious matings with heiresses have kept family fortunes intact; so, very often, has a sedulous avoidance of civil excitements. In 1655 Henry Cruwys of Cruwys Morchard was requested by the mayor of Tiverton to turn out his ‘trayned bands’ in the Parliamentary cause, but Henry, no doubt recalling his house’s indifferent fortunes in the Wars of the Roses, replied ‘that he would not doe itt neither would he stir a foote out of house for the matter.’
When it comes to ancestors and eccentrics, Montgomery-Massingberd has supplied as many as a reader could wish. A Dymoke of Scrivelsby lived alone on the first floor, and let down a basket when he wanted anything. Sir William Drummond Stewart of Murthly Castle had Red Indian servants and a herd of buffalo. Disdaining the more usual bell, a Laird of lnveray summoned his staff by discharging a pistol. It is disappointing to learn that ‘Mad Robert’ Duff of Drummuir did nothing worse than play a lot of chess. But there arc Curious Fates, to make up for it; think of the infant heir of Welford Park, in Berkshire, who was thrown out of a top floor window by a pet monkey.
In the interval between the book’s completion and its publication, two of these family seats – including the author’s personal favourite – were sold. They are a threatened species, these gentlepersons who for centuries, in the face of cold and mould, would ‘shift from parlour to parlour … to prevent the Heir Looms from rotting.’ If circumstances drive them out, the future looks bleak. Their houses will be turned into torture centres for the obese, or repositories for ancient persons. They will be sold for conference centres, or executive housing; England will become one vast jacuzzi. At best, or perhaps at worst, they will become ‘country house hotels,’ where, by melancholy candlelight, domestics in Victorian garb make out blood-freezing bills – all major cards accepted.
What can we do? Join the Historic Houses Association, says the author; membership will allow one to go in free to 300 private houses opened to the public, and into some that are not normally shown. Then, if we do not ourselves have the privilege and pain of owning one of these treasures, we can at least indulge our curiosity, piqued by the information and entertainment offered in this excellent book.