Writing in Country Life (May 14, 2008) about the spectacular gardens at Spencers, Great Yeldham, on the Essex/Suffolk border, Amicia de Moubray describes her arrival at the grand Georgian house, with its colonnaded front door, long drive and mature parkland setting, as ‘akin to stepping into a Merchant Ivory film set’.
For Spencers’ owner, the writer and film-producer Caroline Courtauld, who created the gardens with help from designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Henrietta Courtauld, much has changed since then. In 2009, she lost her mother-in-law and Spencers’ previous owner, the remarkable Lady Butler, who died there at the age of 101. A year later, her husband, William, died. In other ways, however, little has changed at Spencers, for the genius of the place remains.
For sale as one or two lots through Savills (020-7409 8885) at a guide price of £4.25 million for the whole, the house was originally built in about 1760 by Viscountess Bateman with funds provided by her grandfather, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. In 1783, Spencers was bought for £1,400 by Gregory Way, in whose family it remained for the next 130 years. The Ways were a cultivated family with
a wide circle of literary friends, including the poet William Wordsworth, who is known to have visited the house.
In 1937, explorer Augustine (August) Courtauld and his wife, Mollie, bought Spencers. August became a national celebrity when, in the early 1930s, he survived an Arctic winter alone, spending six weeks trapped in his igloo, having been buried beneath the ice cap by an ice storm. During the Second World War, while August was away serving in the navy, his wife, their children and Spencers
survived doodlebugs in the park, a large bomb on the lawn and plane crashes in the woods.
In 1959, August died. Shortly afterwards, Mollie married an old friend, the statesman ‘Rab’ Butler, who was living at nearby Stanstead Hall following the death of his wife, Sydney, the Courtauld heiress and August’s cousin, in 1953. The couple left Essex for a time, returning in 1978 after The Queen bought their Gloucestershire home, Gatcombe Park, as a wedding present for The Princess Royal. Rab, by then Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, bought Spencers, and lived there until his death in 1982.
Mr and Mrs Courtauld moved to Spencers when William bought his mother’s estate in 1995. During their tenure, the Courtaulds greatly enhanced the house, its parkland and gardens, which, despite their recent inspirational makeover by Tom Stuart-Smith, still follow their original 18th-century layout.
The 1½ acre walled garden close to the house is a feast of floral beauty in spring and summer, with striking features such as an 18th-century greenhouse (thought to be the oldest in Essex), richly planted herbaceous borders and an ‘explosion’ of roses and sweet peas. There is also a sheltered, heated pool and, just outside the walled garden, a hard tennis court. Elsewhere in the estate’s 100 acres of grounds and parkland are mature woodland gardens, and a rich variety of wild flora. Out in the woods, an intriguing, red-painted oriental bridge over the fledgling River Colne was a 60th-birthday present from Mr Courtauld to his wife.
The elegant, 9,662sq ft main house, listed Grade II, has living accommodation on two principal floors with an attic storey above, and a service wing to one side. Of particular note are the impressive drawing room, the well-proportioned dining room, the stone-flagged hall and the panelled library; the present owners have added a family kitchen. Bedroom accommodation includes master and guest suites, eight further bedrooms and four further bathrooms.
Trailing clouds of Georgian glory comes another classic 18th-century estate, Brightwell Park at Brightwell Baldwin, near Watlington, Oxfordshire, which launches on the market in next week’s Country Life at a guide price of ‘excess £5m’ through Strutt & Parker (020-7629 7282) and Adkin (01235 862888). The original estate mansion, Brightwell House, was built (probably by James Wyatt) in about 1789, and set in a park redolent of the work of Humphry Repton, although no Red Book appears to exist.
The main part of the rambling mansion, which was used as two prep schools during the Second World War, was eventually pulled down in 1947; the remaining part, known as the dower house, has since been converted into three flats. Some of the original oak flooring and mahogany doors were transferred to the former coach house, which then became the main estate residence, known as Brightwell Park.
Set in 135 acres of grazed parkland, woods and arable land, Brightwell Park, listed Grade II, stands on the edge of the village of Brightwell Baldwin, 12 miles from both Henley-on-Thames and Oxford, with views across the lawns to the lakes in the park and the Chiltern Hills beyond. Approached through an imposing stone gateway, the U-shaped house, built of Headington and local stone, encloses the former stable court-yard on three sides. It currently has four reception rooms, a traditional kitchen, five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
At present, the west wing is not part of the house, but could easily be incorporated to provide
additional accommodation. Out in the park, a 200-year-old cedar avenue winds east-wards across the historic landscape, crossing the Grade II-listed Waterloo bridge on its way to Cedar Lodge, one of Brightwell’s two Georgian lodges. Elsewhere in the park, a 17th-century dovecote with 800 dove-holes stands on the site of an earlier Elizabethan mansion, which burned down in 1787.
There is also an 18th-century ice house with a vaulted ceiling and brick-lined ice pit, and on the eastern boundary, a series of lakes covers an area of some 2½ acres in all. Traces remain of a tennis court and pool (now a covered terrace), and there is also a magnificent Grade II-listed walled garden, which, at one time, fed not only the Brightwell household, but the entire village. This is all the stuff of dreams, but it would be a dream well worth investing in-for someone with the wherewithal to make it happen.