Aug 272021

The Capability Brown lake

It is a strange experience – moving to a new area (Sherborne in Dorset) and not being able to look around local places of interest because of lock-down, and realizing that after twelve months I had never even seen inside the local castle. Perhaps we get blasé – there are, after all, two structures called ‘castle’ in Sherborne. The first is a proper ruin, having been built in the 12th Century. Mind you, I do a feel a tad responsible for the fact that it is a ruin – in the English Civil War it was a royalist stronghold and troops loyal to Cromwell  twice laid siege.  It was my ancestor Thomas Fairfax who then ordered it to be pulled down. He did a fairly good job of the demolition and what remains has largely been preserved as a sort of folly, to be looked at from the new castle, built on raised ground on the other side of what was then the River Yeo, and which is now a rather splendid lake laid out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

The ruined old castle, viewed from the lawns of the ‘new’ castle

It was one of Brown’s first commissions, and is a reminder that first and foremost Brown was a superb water engineer. Other ‘ye olde features’ were added to improve the vista of the ruins – crenellated boundary walls, suitably distressed, and a ruined tower were eighteenth century additions. What is so effective is that very little has been doctored since Brown’s visit – the design has not been significantly changed in 250 years. Some of his ‘signature’ cedar trees have not survived but the whole estate is beautifully maintained. Watching the seasons change while walking round the lake has been a joy – but up until now Covid restrictions meant that the new castle, site of Walter Raleigh’s hunting lodge, has been out of bounds.

View of the ‘new’ castle from the far side of Brown’s lake

Poor Walt: he bought the old castle off the Crown in 1592 and tried to modernise the 400 year-old structure in order to make it homely. It was an impossible task and after a while he gave up and in 1594 turned his attentions to the hunting lodge built in the deer park by the local bishops, and who liked to  spend their recreation time there observing the deer in the episcopal park. Walt put up a slightly austere hunting lodge – rectangular and four storeys high, with large square-headed windows filled with diamond pane glass. When he got carted off to the Tower, the Crown took back the property, and in 1617 gave it to a diplomat called Sir John Digby. Good Sir John  added four wings to Raleigh’s building, giving the house its present H-shape. It means that there are towers and turrets in four corners, linked by corridors at the sides, and providing for two courtyards, front and back, within the ‘H’.

When later members of the Digby family inherited the stately pile they wisely decided not to go overboard with ‘Georgianising’ the structure. Not for them porticos and temple facades and other bits of Palladian nick-knackery. They contented themselves with  putting in sash windows, panelled doors and white marble fireplaces. Other than that they filled the house with fine furniture. The family even invited King George III to come and visit, with three of his daughters in tow. That meant that 1789 was spent with even more shopping for fine furniture, even more decorating with sumptuous fabrics. By then Capability Brown had finished tinkering with his lake – started in 1753, but with the accompanying landscaping not finished until Brown returned, twenty years later.

The Blue Drawing Room (© Sherborne Castle).

I am sure that in the intervening centuries the Digby family – they are now the Wingfield Digby’s – have been assiduous in  tweaking and improving, but the delightful thing about  the castle is that there is very little evidence of any such tinkering. It is still a home. It is still filled with paintings and fine furniture. The park still has deer in it – including at least a couple of white harts if my eyesight serves me correctly, and there are still swans serenely patrolling the lake with their cygnets in tow. Near to the house you can still see the game larder on stilts, where meat would  be hung until suitably ‘gamey’. Next to it, the ice-house serves as a reminder of the  show which the wealthy Georgians loved to put on, impressing their summer visitors with sorbets and other treats, preserved by keeping ice and packed snow in underground vaults throughout the Spring and early summer. The eighteenth century glass house has given way to an orangery, toilet facilities and a Tea Room have been created, but by and large it is all very much as it has been for the past couple of centuries.

The room described as the solarium  © Sherborne Castle

The actual castle opened to the public this summer and is well worth a visit – the website is here. You are asked not to take photographs inside the castle so all interior images shown here are copyright of Sherborne Castle. The exterior shots are my own.

The Library © Sherborne Castle

One of the bedrooms. © Sherborne Castle


Mar 122019

At first sight you would not expect to find much in New York which would resonate with a Georgian fanatic – but I am delighted to say that if you look, it is amazing how much you can find!

I started off by taking a taxi to the heart of the financial centre – Wall Street. When writing Pirates and Privateers I came across a reference to the fact that William Kidd had settled in New York after marrying the wealthy widow Susan Bradley Cox Oort. Their home off Pearl Street was one of the most prestigious in the area, with fine views (untrammelled by today’s sky scrapers!). It has of course long since disappeared.

Captain William Kidd’s house and gardens on Pearl Street, c. 1691

As a wealthy philanthropist Kidd helped with the building of Trinity Church, finished in 1698. In particular he lent the builders a pulley system for raising the stones to build the church tower, with the Vestry Minutes of 20 July 1696, recording that “Capt. Kidd has lent a Runner & Tackle for the hoiseing [ie hoisting] up Stones as long as he stays here.”

Poor William Kidd – he was left high and dry by the authorities back in London when he sailed off to the Indian Ocean, armed with a Letter of Marque. OK, he dabbled a bit in piracy and robbery on the High Seas. Yes, he struck a mutinous crew member across the forehead with an iron-banded bucket, from which the man later died. But he was never given a fair trial and was hanged in 1701, a victim of political shenanigans.It meant that he never actually got to worship at Trinity Church, although he appears to have paid for the use of a pew for the family to use for at least 17 years after his death. The Trinity Church website here shows the original minute, with Pew 4 shared between the Rector and the heirs of Captain Kidd.

The records of who-sat-where – item 4, the Kidd’s pew

The church was destroyed in the ‘Great Fire ’which swept through New York on 20 September 1776 when almost a third of the city was consumed in the flames, but rebuilding soon got underway and astonishingly the spire remained the highest building in the city until the 1890s.

The Great Fire

Nowadays it is totally dwarfed and in permanent shade from the ‘cathedrals to Mammon’ which tower above it.

St Trinity Church, and below, one of the gravestones.

At present Trinity Church is undergoing renovation works, but the graveyard contains many reminders of the 17th and 18th centuries.

                                                                                                St Pauls

Next up, this Georgian Gent wandered up to the chapel of St Pauls, one of the few buildings in Lower Manhattan to escape the ravages of the Great Fire. It had been completed in 1766 and is fascinating because it contains the pew occupied by George Washington during the two  years while New York was the nation’s capital. Here, on Inauguration Day, April 30 1789, George Washington and other members of the U S Congress worshipped. Nowadays the wall above the pew exhibits an early form of the Great Seal of the United States. You know the bird is a turkey – I can only confirm that it looks more like a goose…

St Pauls pulpit









But it is a splendid church, well worth the visit. But that is not all that remains – how about more secular buildings? How about this fascinating building in Upper Manhattan, owned by The Colonial Dames of America.

The CDA is an organization made up of women who are descended from an ancestor who lived in Colonial America between 1607 and 1775, and who was of service to the colonies either as a result of holding public office, or of being in the military, or in some other “eligible” way.

The logo of the Colonial Dames of America

The hotel sign










The Colonial Dames have their headquarters in the period Mount Vernon Hotel Museum. Next to it, they have premises used as a meeting hall – ideal for lectures. I was thrilled to be able to speak there to the American Friends of the Georgian Group. It made for a fascinating experience – usually you give your talk at a set time, and have refreshments afterwards. Not here – there is a much better arrangement: everyone meets up, has a good gossip, and everyone knocks back a few glasses of wine. All very convivial. Half an hour after the appointed start time I wandered over to the lectern, only to find that my lap-top had jammed – no notes, and no lap-top display showing what image was being displayed on screen. No bother. It’s the sort of thing which might have phased me when I started, but by now I am immune to the curve-balls which technology throws at you. I gave the talk and it seemed well received, and it is always fun to meet up with fellow Georgian enthusiasts.

That wasn’t the end of the city’s Georgian connection. The next day we visited the fabulous Metropolitan Museum, adjoining Central Park. Some of the exhibitions are stunning – for instance the restored interiors of Georgian buildings, re-assembled inside the Museum. These are just two:

The interior, Baltimore House, from 1810

Room from the Powel House, Philadelphia, remodelled 1769-71

But somehow the Met is a bit intimidating – it is so huge. It would take days to see everything, and fortunately the entrance ticket gives you a right of admission for three consecutive days – if your poor feet can stand it! Instead we wandered across to the Frick Museum – a truly astounding private collection with delights around every corner. Somehow the idea of one man collecting the whole lot makes it all the more personal – there was a reason why he acquired paintings – to make a pair, to illustrate a point, to show an unusual juxtaposition. And suddenly you are surrounded by old favourites – Gainsborough’s portrait of  Grace Dalrymple Elliott ‘(Dally the Tall’, featured in my book In Bed with the Georgians) and a Reynolds portrait of Selina, Lady Skipwith. I blogged about her here because my ancestor Richard Hall lent the good lady £1100 at a rattling 4½%.

Dally the Tall

Selina, Lady Skipwith, 1787












There are dozens of other period paintings – by Romney, Turner, Constable and so on and a fascinating pair of portraits by Hans Holbein hung either side of the fireplace – one of Thomas More, and one of his arch-rival Thomas Cromwell. Each ended up with his head on the block, courtesy of Henry VIII, and here they are destined never to be rid of each other, glowering into Eternity.

New York was a great experience. I had been before and therefore did not feel the need to ‘do’ the Empire State Building, or take a heli-tour, or go round the harbour on an up-market booze-cruise. Been there, done that. Instead it was great fun to look out the vestiges  of a glorious and fascinating past, hidden but never totally obscured by a plethora of modern buildings.

Sep 162016

sudbury-1In my recent blog on Croome Park I mentioned the talks I will be giving on board the Boudicca as she sails serenely (I hope!) towards the Cape Verde Islands in November. One of the other talks I have prepared has a Jane Austen link (“Pride and Prejudice – from printed age to silver screen”) looking at the phenomenal success of the book and its various TV and film adaptations. It is a chance to show the various locations used in the numerous adaptations.

So, I was particularly pleased when a recent visit to stay with friends in Nottingham enabled us to go round the splendid Restoration home of the Vernon family at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire – because that was where the interior scenes of “Pemberley” were filmed in the 1995 BBC TV adaptation.  The house is suitably magnificent – even in the pouring rain when I visited, and features a superb Great Staircase, and a most impressive Long Gallery. Here you can see portraits of some of the mistresses of Charles II – but not the specially commissioned portrait of Colin Firth displayed in the TV adaptation. That apparently was given to Colin when filming ended, and he passed it to his mother who promptly sold it to raise money for charity.  


Detail of Grinling Gibbons carving

Detail of Grinling Gibbons carving

The house displays a mixture of architectural styles with incredible carvings by Grinling Gibbons and Edward Pearce, murals by Louis Laguerre and some splendid and elaborate plasterwork. I gather that the house was designed by the owner in 1660 – acting as his own architect – which perhaps accounts for its slightly idiosyncratic features. Too much was never enough…

Lyme Park

Lyme Park

Everyone remembers that Lyme Park near Stockport was Pemberley – but that was only used for the exterior scenes. The intention had apparently been to film the interiors there also – but a change in management (it is a National Trust property) meant a last minute change of plans. Apparently Sudbury Hall (also National Trust) were willing to be used as a late substitute and filming of the interiors took place in July 1994. Given that the BBC version is by far and away my favourite of the various screen versions of Pride and Prejudice, I found it interesting to see which shots were filmed in which rooms, and how the production team had to ‘dress’ the rooms e.g. with curtains, or install furniture or generally move things around.


The Saloon

The Saloon



The saloon as a film set

The saloon as a film set









colin-firthAnd no, neither Sudbury Hall nor Lyme Park were used for the famous wet-shirted Colin Firth scenes – they were filmed in a water tank in Twickenham, in part using a stunt double for Our Hero so that he didn’t catch Weil’s Disease!

Sudbury Hall has helpful printed guides, room by room, explaining the exhibits as well as a separate guide specifically showing the rooms featured in the TV adaptation. All in all, an interesting property – not Georgian, it has to be said, but a fine country house with Georgian connections! I gather that it also houses the National Trust Museum of Childhood but in my enthusiasm to get to the Tea Rooms I am afraid to say that I gave the museum, situated in the servants wing, a miss!

More about the property can be found on the National Trust website here. Needless to say the film stills are shown courtesy of the BBC.


The grand staircase

The grand staircase


The foot of the stircase, as filmed by the BBC

The foot of the staircase, as filmed by the BBC


and the Long Gallery in use as a film set

… and the Long Gallery in use as a film set

The Long Gallery when I visited it ...

The Long Gallery when I visited it …