Fortune favours the brave, and the decision of 19-year-old Edwin Lutyens to leave his mentor, Ernest George, and set up his own architectural practice in 1888, reaped instant rewards when, the following year, he met the celebrated gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who in turn introduced him to Country Life’s founder, Edward Hudson. Any remaining barriers to career and social advancement were overcome in 1897, when Lutyens married Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton and swiftly consolidated his reputation as the country house architect of choice of not only the gentry, but, more lucratively, the newly rich.
Lutyens had already lined up an impressive portfolio of country houses -among them Deanery Garden at Sonning, Berkshire, Goddards at Abinger Common, Surrey, and Marshcourt at Stockbridge, Hampshire-when, in 1902, he was commissioned by Ernest Blackburn, a successful wineimporter and a passionate gardener, to build Little Thakeham, near the village of Thakeham, West Sussex. Of all the houses built by the architect in a career spanning 50 years, Little Thakeham, listed Grade I, was for him ‘the best of the bunch’: it’s now for sale through Knight Frank (020-7861 1552) at a guide price of £5.5 million.
Little Thakeham, £5.5m, Knight Frank
An article in Country Life (August 28, 1909) ranks Little Thakeham ‘among its architect’s real successes’, where the simplicity and lack of ostentation in the design and layout of the interior, and the inspirational use of local stone and ironwork reminds the author of ‘a Quaker lady of two generations ago. She must be in grey. Her dress must have neither flounce nor furbelow… but the silk shall be of the best, the tone choice, the cut and the sewing skilled. She therefore has distinction… Thakeham bears the same impress and is exceedingly agreeable’.
The original house and gardens were quite austere, but time has mellowed the outline of the local Pulborough stone-more malleable than the Cotswold variety-and Lutyens’s Jekyllesque layout of terraces, lawns and borders linked by flights of steps and a long stone pergola, has evolved over the years into more than three magical acres of delightful formal gardens.
Lutyens learned about woodworking long before he knew anything about building and he even designed a seat for the garden, known then as the Thakeham seat, but better known today as simply ‘the Lutyens’. However, the real genius of Little Thakeham is the architect’s use of its 12,500sq ft of internal living space, centered around the original hall, staircase, landings and galleried double-height drawing room with its Juliet balcony and signature Oriel window, making a vast, open entertaining space with a dining room and sitting room on either side.
In typical Lutyens style, a long reception hall runs the width of the house, linking all the main rooms. The present owners have skilfully adapted and modernised the interior for practical living, creating an independent family wing around the kitchen/breakfast room, sitting room and utility room, which lead out onto the sheltered east terrace.
Upstairs, Lutyens’s original nursery area has been converted into a splendid south-facing master suite, with three more bedroom suites taking up the former master’s and mistress’s bedrooms in the west wing, and a further two suites occupying the eastern end of the house, above the kitchen.
There are three more bedrooms and two bathrooms on the second floor. An extensive lower-ground-floor suite of rooms includes a reception room, a gym and a wine cellar. For Lutyens, Ernest Blackburn, and subsequent owners of Little Thakeham -including the present incumbents, Nicholas and Ashleigh Wigley, whose much-loved family home it has been for the past 13 years-this remarkable house is the embodiment of a Country Life dream, an enchanting neo-Tudor manor nestling on the edge of the South Downs, surrounded by wonderful landscaped gardens and glorious unspoilt views.
The present owners’ attachment to the property goes back to the mid 1990s, when they held their wedding reception there during its previous incarnation as a small country-house hotel. When it came on the market five years later, they couldn’t wait to snap it up. Now, they wish to downsize, but the whole family will miss their Lutyens stone masterpiece with the unexpectedly warm heart.
Ware House, £2.5m-£3m, Savills
Iconic is a word much used and abused these days, but down on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, the market for special coastal houses is hotting up after more than five years in the doldrums, judging from the response received by Savills (01392 455755) to their recent advertisement in Country Life for the ‘iconic’ Regency Ware House at Lyme Regis, which is being sold on the open market for the first time in 40 years, at a guide price of £2.5m-£3m. ‘Ware House seems to have what everyone wants,’ comments selling agent Martin Lamb, who, 14 years ago, arranged the private sale of the house to Minnie Churchill, the former wife of the late Winston Churchill MP, the custodian of his grandfather’s famous painting archive and a hardworking deputy-lieutenant of Dorset.
With its generous 7,680sq ft of living space, including four elegant reception rooms, a stylish kitchen/ breakfast room, six bedrooms, six bathrooms and a two-bedroom nursery wing, set against the backdrop of 17 acres of beech woods, camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, in a secluded valley overlooking the sea, ‘magical’ Ware House has been everything the Churchill family has ever wanted for the past 14 years. Originally built for the mayor of Lyme Regis between 1811 and 1820, this is a substantial property, which comes with two cottages, a stable courtyard, a walled kitchen garden and a croquet lawn, and now demands more of Mrs Churchill’s time than she can fit into her busy schedule.
The connection between the port of Lyme Regis and the Churchill family was already established long before Mrs Churchill moved there from Westerham, Kent. It dates back to the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in search of local support for a bid to overthrow the Catholic James II of England. But Monmouth’s untrained soldiers were no match for the regular army forces led by John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, who defeated the rebels a month later at the Battle of Sedgemoor. More recently, Ware House-which stands some 300ft above sea level, with glorious views across Lyme Bay towards Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast-has become widely known as the main house featured in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons, a film that has done wonders for the local tourist trade.
In fact, a recent French visitor to Ware House was so spellbound by the view that he thought to pay the owners the ultimate compliment by comparing the setting to the Côte d’Azur. ‘What nonsense,’ the owner replied, ‘look along the Côte d’Azur and all you can see is hillsides covered in wall-to-wall villas. Here, you can look out over 26 miles of one of the most famous coastlines in the world and not see a single house.’ Now, that’s iconic.