Next week’s Country Life will see the launch onto the market of one of the Cotswolds’ most intriguing manor houses, Grade II*-listed Bourton House at Bourton-on-the-Hill, Gloucestershire, at ‘offers over £4.5 million’ through Smiths Gore in Stow-on-the-Wold (01451 832832). Built in the early 1700s on the foundations of a late-16th century Tudor house-probably by Alexander Popham, fifth son of Sir Francis Popham, a Cromwellian general-Bourton House and its gardens have been transformed in recent years by its delightful owners Richard and Monique Paice, who bought the much-treasured house in 1983, but are now selling due to Mrs Paice’s recent ill health.
Bourton is the largest house in the picturesque stone village of Bourton-on-the-Hill, which hugs the eastern slopes of the Cotswolds, two miles from Moreton-in-Marsh. Historically, Bourton had two manors, one at either end of the village-the first held after the Conquest by Westminster Abbey, the other by Tewkesbury Abbey, which included the site of Bourton House. After years of confusion and ecclesiastical squabbling, both manors eventually passed into lay hands following the Dissolution. The Westminster manor became part of the Batsford estate, now owned by the Wills family, and the lands around Bourton House were sold to the neighbouring Sezincote estate when Sir James Buller East bought the manor for £2,100 in 1851. Today, the house stands in three acres of spectacular formal gardens, with a further seven acres adjoining the Batsford estate on the opposite side of the village street, given over to specimen trees and sculpture.
According to Country Life (March 23, 1940), the original manor house and stables were probably built by Richard Palmer, who bought the estate in 1556, and certainly built the vast sevenbay tithe barn, listed Grade I, whose dedication stone carries the initials R. P. and the date of 1570. But others, including the present owners, suggest that the original house was rebuilt as a four-square Jacobean house by the eminent lawyer Sir Nicholas Overbury, who bought the estate from the Palmer family in 1598. In one of the causes célèbres of the day, Sir Nicholas’s son Thomas, a gentleman at the court of James I, was poisoned by Lady Essex and her lover, then the Earl of Somerset, while being held in the Tower on spurious charges of ‘high contempt’.
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The Bourton estate was sold in about 1680 by Sir Nicholas’s grandson, also Thomas, to the socially ambitious Alexander Popham. In or around 1708, he or his son Edward took the unfashionable Jacobean house down to the ground floor, and rebuilt the present Queen Anne house on the earlier basement, retaining the whimsical square towers and replacing the fortress- like wall slits with generous sash windows. Since then, Bourton House and its setting have remained virtually unchanged for more than 300 years. The manor remained in the hands of the East/d’Este family until 1953, when the house and its contents were auctioned off.
Thereafter, a succession of owners came and went, and the property was in a state of some neglect when Mr and Mrs Paice arrived on the scene in 1983.
With meticulous taste and execution, they have renovated Bourton House, refurbished the magnificent cruciform tithe barn, converted the stables into two holiday cottages and the former monastic brewhouse into a charming small house. Bourton House itself is a triumph, a wonderfully quirky house full of secret corners where Mrs Paice has created a luxurious bathroom here, an elegant reading room there.
No space goes to waste in this house, and a farmhouse kitchen, a breakfast room and a conservatory complete the ground-floor layout, with a small commercial kitchen and a vaulted refrigeration room housed in the 16th century cellars below. The bedrooms, seven in all, include a master suite plus six further bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms, several of which have enchanting views over Sezincote.
The gardening fraternity needs no introduction to Bourton House’s famous gardens, which, in 2007, won their creators the accolade of HHA/Christie’s Garden of the Year. Ten years of hard graft had already formed a barren landscape into ‘a Cotswold garden de luxe’ when Tony Venison, Country Life’s revered gardening correspondent, visited in 1993. He was, I suspect, somewhat overwhelmed by Mrs Paice’s ferocious energy, describing her as ‘a garden fanatic, a French-Canadian-born dynamo, over whose schemes her husband exercises judgment and restraint’.
Yet the only restraints evident in this plantsman’s paradise-which follows the contours of the landscape, incorporating knot-gardens, topiary and exotic borders-are recent labour-saving ones that have seen the number of gardeners cut from four to 2½. But the overall result remains the same, with inspired planting producing variety and colour at Bourton House long after rival gardens have fizzled out.