History, hell-fire and high-speed rail.
From the mid 1800s, when the Rothschild family began acquiring landed estates in picturesque corners of Buckinghamshire, super-rich international businessmen have impressed their peers by buying grand country houses in the Chilterns or weekend retreats on the Thames. Given the recent shortage of notable houses for sale, the launch onto the market, in last week’s Country Life, of one of Buckinghamshire’s most extraordinary riverside properties will surely tickle the tastebuds of some of the ‘unsatisfied rich’ that leading agents say are waiting in the wings.
Nick Brown of Knight Frank’s Henley office (01491 844900) quotes a guide price of £10 million for the freehold of historic, Grade II*-listed Medmenham Abbey on the banks of the Thames, four miles from Marlow and five miles from Henley-on-Thames. Impressively renovated by its reclusive German owner, whose late father bought the property in two parts— the first in the 1970s and the rest in the mid 1990s—today’s Abbey boasts many of the attributes demanded by the über-rich.
They include an idyllic, private position with 11⁄2 miles of river frontage, a private wet dock, an outdoor pool and 42 acres of gardens, grounds and water meadows. Its 12,000sq ft of state-of-the-art living space includes nine bedroom suites, six reception rooms—enhanced by ornate plasterwork, grand stone fireplaces, intricate wood panelling and detailed cornicing —a spa bathroom and steam room, a gymnasium, a bar, a housekeeper’s cottage and staff offices. No fine detail has been overlooked and the threat posed by a possible recurrence of last year’s floods has effectively been neutralised by the installation of some serious flood defences.
Given the building’s striking monastic style, it would be natural to assume their goings-on
that the present Medmenham Abbey of the Cistercian monastery founded there in the late 12th century. However, according to local history, ‘it was never very much of a place… and nothing remains of whatever church there may have been, and the only ancient portions are some fragments of the Abbot’s lodgings. The picturesque “ruined” tower, the cloisters, and much else are the work of those blasphemous “Franciscans” of the Hell-Fire Club who, under the presidency of Francis Dashwood, Lord le Despencer, established themselves here in about 1758’.
Sir Francis was 15 when he inherited the Dashwood family’s West Wycombe Park estate on his father’s death in 1724. Despite his youthful propensity for wild living, he was, of course, too young to have been a member of the first Hell-Fire Club founded by the Duke of Wharton in 1719 and disbanded in 1721. Instead, he spent his youth and early adulthood gaining a reputation for drunkenness and debauchery during his Grand Tour of the fleshpots of Europe.
Sir Francis was, in fact, nearing 50 when he founded his Hell-Fire Club, also known as the Monks of Medmenham, at Medmenham Abbey, six miles from West Wycombe, in buildings he and some of his fellow members rented from the Duffield family. Dashwood had the building rebuilt in the 18th- century Gothic Revival style by the architect Nicholas Revett, who also worked for him at West Wycombe House. Living up to the Club motto of ‘Fay ce que voudras’ (‘Do what you will’), borrowed from Rabelais, they scandalised local society with their supposed goings-on.
Dashwood’s career as a politician appears to have been little affected by his notoriety and he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1762– 63, becoming Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire in the same year. Thereafter, he apparently ‘sank into comparative respectability and insignificance’, dying at West Wycombe after a long illness in 1781.
Medmenham Abbey also sank into respectability, although not insignificance, passing through the hands of several well-known families, who updated the property as they went along while maintaining its essential monastic style. The last major restoration took place in 1898, when, according to its listing, the west wing was added and the rest of the house ‘very much restored’ by Romaine-Walker for Robert Hudson of neigh- bouring Danesfield.
Another historic Buckinghamshire house with a rich and diverse history is Grade II-listed The Manor House at Little Missenden, four miles from Amersham, for which Hamptons International (01494 863134) and Knight Frank (01494 675368) quote a guide price of £3.75m. History and Hell-Fire go hand-in-hand here also, as the manor was home in the 18th-century to Dr Benjamin Bates, Sir Francis Dashwood’s personal physician, who was also a member of the Hell-Fire Club, although he maintained that ‘its reputation was not as bad as it was painted’.
Bates was an active patron of the Arts and his friends included Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy. Reynolds was a regular visitor with his Swiss girlfriend, Angelica Kauffman, who designed the splendid terrace and gardens. The manor’s nine acres of glorious English gardens, grounds and woodland have also been a passion for the current owners during their almost 60-year tenure.
The core of the house is a timber-framed, late-medieval hall house, refaced in the 18th century. Its listing describes the early-17th-century staircase tower and the fine 17th-century oak staircase (described by Pevsner in detail in The Monuments of Buckinghamshire) as being particularly noteworthy.
The house makes no apology for its antiquity—nor should it—and the dramatic oak staircase rising to the first and second floors immediately sets the tone. The grand proportions of the three main reception rooms reflect its importance, the drawing/ music room, with its painted wall panels by John Flaxman, fine cornicing and plasterwork, being especially memorable. The accommodation includes a study, four bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor and five bedrooms and a bathroom on the second. There are also two cottages, a stable block, a tennis court, a walled kitchen garden, a former orangery, a summer house and outbuildings.
‘Despite being caught in something of “a perfect storm” with HS2 on one side and the main road on the other, this is a gem of a house, which is beginning to look like good value for money and a genuine opportunity for someone who appreciates the quality and authenticity of its architecture,’ comments Nick Mead of The Buying Solution, who knows the house well.
Despite the spectre of HS2 still looming over the market for country houses priced between £2 million and £5 million-plus, he maintains that people are finally coming to terms with the fact that the project is going to happen and are ready to move on. ‘And although HS2 represents “the bad and the ugly” for country-house owners in the north Chilterns, the “good” aspects of high-speed rail are being seen in the south, where the arrival of Crossrail in Maidenhead and Reading from 2019, is already attracting interest from City-based bankers and businessmen, who need to be at their desks daily from eight until late,’ adds Mr Mead.