Although I know that many of the best experiences in life are completely unplanned, I always seek to make the most of my time in Britain, guided by my copious lists. Charlecote Park failed to make any of my copious lists of National Trust houses to visit, and yet the afternoon I spent there was enchanting.
Located on the banks of the River Avon near Wellesbourne, Charlecote Park is about 50 miles northwest of Oxford. (For fans of the Bard, it is about five miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon. Young William supposedly helped himself to a deer or some rabbits from the Park. Whatever the beast, he was indulging in some poaching, a serious offense in those days.)
The estate has belonged to the Lucy family since 1247, and the family still lives there, so not all of the rooms are open. I don’t know what percentage of National Trust properties retain some family control or the donor family in residence, but I am always glad when the houses are lived in, even if only part-time.
House museums can be a fabulous way to convey history, but at the same time, the energy of a space is due in part to the people living there. I’ve encountered too many lovely house museums that felt dull and left me feeling sad and rather empty.
Although we had just stumbled across Charlecote, noting the sign from the road, it was apparent from the car park that this would be a worthwhile visit. Not that the car park teemed with wonders, rather; the car parks were some distance removed from the house, meaning that as you walk toward the house and gardens, you do so removed from any tangible intrusions of modernity.
St. Leonard’s Church can be seen on the walk toward the house – a lovely stone church dating from the mid-19th century. Built on the site of a much earlier (12th century) church, the building was paid for by the Lucy family – the main force at that time was Mary Elizabeth Lucy, who laid the foundation stone in 1850.
The building was designed by the same architect who oversaw the renovations and extensions of Charlecote, John Gibson. Though I failed to go inside, the woodwork apparently was sourced from wood from the Charlecote estate.
Though the main house, constructed of red brick with stone dressings, was built in 1558, it was modernized in the 18th century. A subsequent generation decided to undertake a substantial expansion, restoration and renovation in the 19th century. The Lucy family at the time (this is where Mary Elizabeth Lucy comes into play) decided to play up the house’s Elizabethan roots, and where necessary “recreate” them.
Queen Elizabeth I visited the house in 1572, and any association with her, the family seems to have decided, should be emphasized. What visitors see today then is a blending of original segments with a 19th-century idea of what an Elizabethan Tudor house should look like. (Mary Elizabeth, who married into the Lucy family, really transformed Charlecote. Though I haven’t read it, her memoirs are said to be compelling: Mistress of Charlecote: The Memoirs of Mary Elizabeth Lucy.)
But even if you don’t know – and don’t care – about any of that, the image the house presents is pure delight. The sunny day meant that the red brick glowed softly against a wonderfully blue sky, and the multitude of gables, two turrets and innumerable chimneys jostling for space on the roofline draw the eye in a million places at once.
The basic plan is that of a “U” facing east, with later wings extending to the west and south. The east range of the house dates from 1829-34 (architect CS Smith) while the north-east wing was rebuilt and south wing extended 1847-67 by John Gibson. The house has been described as “one of the best examples of the early C19 Elizabethan Revival style.”
The grounds received attention from the deft hands of Lancelot “Capability” Brown in 1760. His naturalizing tendencies linger on the lawns north of the house. Pre-Capability, this area had formal gardens and ponds, which were removed in favor of grass.
He also apparently enlarged portions of the River Avon to accommodate his view of a “natural and easy” flow. The grounds are beautiful – of course, a sunny June day in England will make just about anything look stunning.
While it may seem that I only focused on the exterior of the house and the grounds, the interior should not be ignored. It is, however, heavily Victorian, as Mary Elizabeth and family (with the advice of designer Thomas Willement) set about spending vast amounts of money to create their romanticized version of a Tudor house.
The Great Hall, for instance, filled with a dizzying array of 400 years of Lucys on all the walls, dates to the 1830s. Other rooms display the family’s collection of ebony furniture (in the Victorian period, ebony meant Tudor period) and early editions of Shakespeare’s works.
The stable block (on your way out of the house tour) should definitely not be missed. When I was there, they were only selling local ale, but they should now be selling Charlecote beer. The brewhouse contains 18th-centyury brewing equipment – but modern facilities are utilized for the 21st century beer. (The local ale, by the way, was delicious!)
I loved Charlecote – never has an impromptu visit been more fulfilling. The grounds, the house – the story of how 19th-century owners remodeled in the Tudor style – all combine for a fascinating story and enthralling summer afternoon.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Janie-Rice is currently plotting her next trip to England and looking for a patron to sponsor it (landed gentry preferred.) Visit her at www.fhandfag.blogspot.com.