by Sophia Moseley
There was quite a lot going on in England around the time Montacute House was built: great unrest amongst the Roman Catholics brought about by King Henry VIII’s shenanigans; his daughter, Elizabeth I’s continuing campaign of religious reform, then of course there was the Spanish Armada. So, it a time of great religious and political angst (funny how some things never change!).
But a leisurely walk in the grounds of Montacute House conjures up a slightly less Rambo-esque image; one of Elizabethan and Stuart elegance: bejewelled royalty with their courtiers in tow, perhaps a servant or two with a royal bird of prey balancing on their arm and a huge hunting dog at their heel.
The house was built for Sir Edward Phelips towards the end of the 16th century; the warm golden glow of the Ham Hill stone that was chiselled to perfection almost certainly by local stone mason William Arnold, exudes the opulence of the age and the extravagance of Montacute’s highly successful owner.
The house is an exquisite gallimaufry of French styled Gothic, an architectural trend popular since the 12th century and the newly fashionable Roman styled Renaissance that made its way over to England during the reign of Elizabeth I. The house is also thought to be amongst the best preserved example of an Elizabethan mansion.
Fortunately, other than a few minor interior changes, very little of the house has been structurally altered, with its one and only major refurbishment in1780, when there was an addition of a new façade spliced onto the West Front of the house to create a corridor. The stonework and statues were salvaged from another local stately pile, the 16th century Clifton Maybank House near Yeovil, Somerset.
As you stand looking up at the imposing magnificence of the outer walls, you can imagine how flabbergasted the local population would have been as the enormity of the project became apparent.
With an unhindered view of this dramatic building, the wide and open entrance from the road gave everyone the ideal vista.
Ostentatious? Maybe. Extravagant? Definitely.
Having soaked up the grandiose exterior, you need to step inside and begin to immerse yourself in the history of the house. As with so much of our heritage, it tells a fascinating and gripping story, from its links with the demise of Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, through the English Civil War and even as far as Hollywood.
The house thankfully survived the ravages of ill-fated marriages, misbegotten gambling habits and the agricultural depression, and was amongst the first properties given to the National Trust in 1932. It has been preserved and maintained for everyone to enjoy and marvel as they walk along the flagstone corridors that still echo the sounds of poets, diplomats and soldiers that would have been entertaining or informing the great Elizabethan and Stuart hierarchy.
Whilst there are a number of rooms to visit, probably the most incredible feature of the property is the nationally unique Long Gallery. Stretching the entire 172 foot (52 metres) length of the house, the Gallery is the only surviving example in the country. There is a story that one of the young Phelips’ descendants used to bring in her pony for exercising in the Gallery!
But the Gallery along with 5 side rooms is now home to a slightly less equestrian display with a selection of portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London. Imagined Lives is a collection of impressive and captivating portraits of men, women and children, many of whose identity is unknown. To help this identity crisis, the National Trust called upon the talents of a host of writers including Julian Fellowes and Joanna Trollope, who created a fictional character and life story of the various sitters, helping us to imagine a life that existed 500 years ago.
There is also a rather unusual portrait of Henry, brother of King Charles II, and I use the word ‘unusual’ because it is not so much the eyes that follow you, but the right foot. If you stand to the left of the portrait and look at Henry’s right foot, keep watching it as you walk in a semi circle around the front of the portrait. You will see the foot ‘move’ as it appears to continue to point towards you! An Elizabethan optical illusion?
The other noteworthy room is the Crimson Room with its impressive 17th century solid oak four poster bed, made famous by Johnny Depp’s death scene in The Libertine. A member of staff had the dubious honour of lying underneath the bed to monitor the effects of Mr Depp’s occupation!
In the Clifton Maybank corridor, you will see an unrivalled collection of samplers spanning the 17th to 20th centuries. The display, donated by Dr Douglas Goodhart, is one third of the collection and is rotated during the season. Bringing us into the early 20th century and one of the House’s last occupants, Lord Cuzon, you will find a compact en-suite bath of his own design in his bedroom, cleverly disguised by a Jacobean style panelled cupboard.
There are plans to open more of the rooms used by Lord Curzon as well as those used by his mistress, Hollywood novelist Elinor Glyn. This is the final chapter of the incredible story behind Montacute House. Having indulged yourself in Elizabethan domesticity, make your way outside once more to explore the mixture of formal and less formal gardens and grounds.
There is an ideal blend of manicured lawns and borders, topiary and woodland and should you wonder who is responsible for the rather unusually shaped Irish Yew, the bulbous malformed hedge is due to heavy snowfall during 1947. With very little in the way of cosmetic maintenance being carried out during the austere post war years, the weight of the snow destroyed the more formal shape and they were left with the choice of cutting it back to its roots, or sticking with the new rather curious shape. They went with the latter and it forms another interesting aspect of the history of the property.
You will also find two pavilions or Pudding Houses at each corner of the garden; rather unusually, guests were invited to continue their meals and enjoy their dessert away from the main house.
The Orangery whose roof collapsed under the weight of the early 2010 snowfall, is slowly being restored and they plan to run the project as an ‘open restoration’, giving visitors the opportunity to climb the scaffold and have a bird’s eye view of the damage and repairs.
Montacute House have also wisely constructed a family picnic and play area, so for those with younger children in need of some exercise, there are structures to climb on, over and through.
So with local supporters donning their costumes for the themed Tudor and Elizabethan days, the regular farmers’ market, beautiful gardens and parkland to enjoy and family entertainment throughout the season, Montacute House and Gardens is well worth a return visit.