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Pix & notes: Hall Place

Hall Place is a manor house in Bexley, southeast of London, neatly divided between the Tudor portion and the seventeenth century addition. The photograph here, showing the division, comesHallPlace1 from Wikipedia. It drizzled all day when I visited in November 2011. In fact, it was so dismal a day, that everyone else stayed home and the house-minders clung to their teacups in the office. I love the English drizzle myself, it being a rare phenomenon in Texas.

You can reach Bexley on the train with your Oyster card (I think.) It’s a pretty village in which I spent no time at all, heading directly off on the route described in Andrew Duncan’s Favourite London Walks. I’ve done several of Duncan’s walks now, though I prefer to copy the pages I want and leave the heavy glossy-paper book at home. (Must’ve gotten this book there, because they don’t have it at Amazon. They do have a similar one.)

The history of the house

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From St. Mary’s churchyard. If I were Sir John, this is where I’d want to spend eternity.

Sir John Champneys, a wealthy merchant, built this fine house in 1537. He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, who traded in skins and furs. I wonder if he traded furs from Russia and Scandinavia. He was active in City affairs, serving as Sheriff in 1522 and Lord Mayor in 1534. As I suspected, that’s when he was knighted.

That seems to be all we know: he was mayor, he built a house which still stands. But those were turbulent times. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536, but Sir John was evidently unaffected by those political coils and tumults. He died of plague, they say, and was buried at St. Mary Virgin, through whose churchyard I walked on Duncan’s route.

Another wealthy merchant, Sir Robert Austen, bought the house in 1649 and added that strikingly unmatched second wing of red bricks. What was he thinking? He was created the 1st Baronet Austen on 10 July¬†1649, on the eve of the English Civil War. Charles I was beheaded in January… so how was this creation accomplished? Cromwell didn’t make baronets. Sir Robert must have been a cavalier or, more likely, a supplier of money to the king in exile. Handy to have a house not far from the mouth of the Thames.

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Denise Orme and Robert Evett in The Merveilleuses, 1906

I didn’t know these things when I visited. Even the booklet from the Heritage House merely noted that the family prospered. I choose to believe they prospered through those tumultuous years by giving money to both sides. Well, if you don’t want to be slandered by novelists in four hundred years, leave a decent biography!

In the late eighteenth century, Francis Dashwood inherited the estate. The Dashwoods came in through the last Sir Robert Austen’s wife. Francis Dashwood leased the place to Reverend Richard Jeffreys, who turned it into a school for young gentlemen. 80 boys lived there in its hey-day, judging by the number of beds sold when the school moved out.

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US Army Signal Corps at work

 

After some remodeling, the house went through a period of short-term rentals to “the aristocratic and the fashionable,” including musical hall actress Denise Orme and her husband, Lord Churston. Aha! That means this house is suitable for a Professor & Mrs. Moriarty story. Somewhere down the line, I’ll do a good old-fashioned country house murder.

Lady Limerick’s son-in-law bought the house in 1926, on her behalf, it would seem, because on her death in 1943 the Bexley Council took possession. In January, 1944, the US Army Signal Corps took over the house for an intercept station code-named Santa Fe. Cryptographers and Morse code operators lived there, passing messages on to the more famous Bletchley Park.

The interior

They left me entirely alone in here. Apparently, I do not look like a vandal. The rooms were mostly empty, except for very bright halogen lights. The great hall had an assortment of ordinary folding tables and chairs. They must use this nice big room for meetings. I always imagine meetings along the lines of those in The Vicar of Dibley.

The best part was the children’s area, near the old chapel. No kids and no minders, so I got to play with everything. They have little drawers you can open to smell lavender and rosemary, boxes with holes you can put your hands in to feel lambswool, displays of toys and a typical meal on a ship (not appealing) and pictures to give you the flavor of life in Tudor times. Great fun, if a little elementary. They should make such displays for novelists, with real pistols and recipes for contraceptives and political conundrums; you know, grown up stuff.

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The parlor. This is where all the oak paneling I use in headers and backgrounds comes from.

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The great hall. Minstrels can play in the gallery upstairs.
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Great hall windows.

 

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The exterior

Oh, it was a dark and drizzly day! Not too cold with a wool sweater and a rain coat. Thank Photoshop for brightening these up enough to show a bit of color. 

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Brick side

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The dark squares are flint, the light ones clunch, a sort of fine limestone. Stones were salvaged from Dissolved churches.

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The Great Green Teddy-Bear Garden

These are supposed to be heraldic animals, like dragons. Ha! They are fat, grinning teddy bears made of shrubbery. I love topiaries, the more fanciful, the better. Further proof that creativity knows no limits. Enjoy!

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Pix & notes: Coughton Court

I visited Coughton Court in 2009, on the first trip I made purely for book research. It was June Coughton Courtand every rose in England was blooming. I was staying in Stratford-upon-Avon and eccentrically insisted on using public transportation to get around. The bus driver on the A435 seemed surprised and disgruntled at having to stop at this unusual place to let me off and rigorously refused to understand my English. Luckily, some of the passengers — old folks with shopping baskets — leapt to my assistance. You don’t get that kind of fun when you drive!

The Throckmortons

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Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, from the National Portrait Gallery

Members of this illustrious family have been living in this spectacular house since the mid-sixteenth century, which makes them ancient in our day, but newly feathered in Francis Bacon’s. The gatehouse was built by Sir George Throckmorton, who found time between sessions of Parliament and opposing King Henry VIII’s break with Rome to father 8 sons and 9 daughters. A busy man!

And a long-suffering wife, Katherine Vaux, daughter of the first Baron Vaux of Harrowden and Elizabeth FitzHugh, descendant of Edward III. Sir George spent some harrowing months in the Tower for his pro-Catholic words and deeds, but he managed to escape hanging, probably thanks to his wife’s excellent connections.

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The irresistible Sir Walter. Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, from the National Portrait Gallery.

 

His successor at Coughton Court, eldest son Robert, was equally committed to the Catholic cause. His Wikipedia page has obviously been edited by a Catholic — the word ‘persecution’ appears repeatedly. Watch out for those loaded words, boys and girls! ‘Prosecute’ is a neutral term describing a legal action. ‘Persecute’ is a drama word, identifying a villain and a martyr. Since two of Sir Robert’s grandchildren and one of his sons-in-law were actually convicted of conspiring to assassinate the queen, I would suggest the phrase “justifiably suspicious of” to describe the attitude of the government toward the Throckmortons of¬†Coughton Court.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton was the fourth of Sir George’s sons. He was brought up in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife and a committed Protestant. (This was undoubtedly one of those child-rearing exchange programs the upper class engaged in back then.) He thus had the advantage of being on board with the new religion from the get-go. He became one of Queen Elizabeth’s most trusted diplomats. His daughter Elizabeth married Sir Walter Raleigh in 1591, getting both her and Sir Walter in hot water with the queen.

The National Trust has owned the house since 1946, although Throckmortons continue to live there today and manage the nursery.

The gatehouse

dining room Coughton CourtI scanned these photos from the National Trust souvenir book. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house ourselves. The exterior pix are all mine. That’s the gatehouse from the front at the top of this post.

The house has a priest hole, but those things are deuced difficult to take pictures of. There is also a winding stone staircase leading up to the roof, whence you’ll find a magnificent view. Apparently this was a popular destination for dinner guests in the eighteenth century. I can imagine women in Regency dresses climbing that stair, or women wearing bum rolls to bell their skirts, but I don’t see how Georgian panniers could possibly fit.

The dining room, like most of the gatehouse, was extensively repaired and remodeled in 1956, bedroom coughton_courtpresumably by the National Trust. The lovely oak paneling and the marble chimney-piece date from the time of Charles I, who was James I’s second son. Bacon must have known him.

This room, called the Tapestry Bedroom, is a composition of Victorian elements. In earlier centuries, that tester would have been the real thing, covering the whole bed to keep rats and other things from falling on you while you sleep. It would support full curtains too, to keep out those dangerous drafts.

The gardens

The house is interesting, but it’s far from the main draw. Coughton Court has extensive grounds and several connected walled gardens, all of which are breathtakingly beautiful, especially in late June, when I was there. The grounds are 25 acres and every inch is beautifully landscaped. There isn’t a view on the property, any way you might turn, that isn’t stunning. I’d love to visit again in a different season.

References

National Trust. 2002. Coughton Court Warwickshire: House and Gardens. Norwich: Jarrold Publishing.