Diary of a Curious House Guest

This week the relationship of houses and gardens has been much on my mind, indeed the influence of country houses on the formation of landscape. Among other things I have been reading a proof of Nicholas Cooper’s Jacobean Country Houses, the next in our series from the Country Life Picture Library, which opens with an incredible picture of the approach to Bramshill, Hampshire, which shows how these houses dominated their domains.

I also visited Shrubland Park in Suffolk, now on the market, a handsome 18th century villa, by James Paine, compact and elegant, transformed in two stages into an Italianate palace (Italianate in the sense of inspired by Italian renaissance architecture), the second stage was by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s, who added a glorious belvedere tower to the house, from which you can see for miles all around.

I have always enjoyed the often slightly terse biographical information given in Howard Colvin’s Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, (a bible to any architectural historian) where Barry is described as “the son of a prosperous stationer”. From that we know that first, he knew the value of the paper he scribbled on and secondly, he was not born a toff but regardless he learnt how to make the houses that made the aristocracy feel very comfortable indeed.

As part of his education Barry did make an elaborate and lengthy tour of Europe, especially Italy and Greece, in 1817-18. His greatest Italianate work, is probably the Travellers’ Club on Pall Mall, but his best garden terraces and temples are probably those at Shrubland Park.


A very great treat followed in the form of attending a lunch given bySymms, the Oxford building specialists, at Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons, Great Milton, Oxfordshire. This is a mellow manor house, extended sympathetically in the early 20th century, and now run by Raymond Blanc as one of the most famous restaurant-with-rooms in England. It was an interesting gathering of architects and designers, and they, and Mr Blanc at Le Manoir, had all been clients of Symm and Co specialist services, indeed they had been involved for 20 years with the project at Le Manoir, on repairs and discreet extensions.

The garden there, featured in Country Life last year, is a lush and serene enclosure, all the planting in blue and white colours, lavender and white roses for instance, and very much in the Edwardian spirit, where houses were often encircled by dense gardens, creating a mini-paradise around the house. Even more fascinating is the 1-acre organic vegetable garden, with over 420 vegetables for the table. The conversation ranged over many subjects, but I was particularly interested to hear, as we toured the well-stocked cellar of Le Manoir, from some of the architects present, about the new fashion for smart new wine cellars in private country houses, some of which apparently arrive fully fitted and are then sunk into the ground. How clever.

Jeremy Musson is architectural editor of Country Life and presenter of the Curious House Gueston BBC 2. To listen to Jeremy talking about his visit to Holkham Hall download the file here