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Barrington Court: Hundreds of years of stories behind four walls

PUBLISHED: 12:19 16 August 2018

The White Garden

The White Garden

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Stephen Roberts explores a Somerset manor house packed with centuries of history

Barrington Court is a fine Tudor moated manor house begun in around 1538 and completed some 20 years later of yellow hamstone, with a particularly splendid 17th century stable court and later formal garden. What we see today is a picturesque country park matched by the spiral-chimneyed grandeur of the house. The manor house can be found in Barrington, three miles north-east of Ilminster. The village and church are of the same hamstone, creating a pleasingly homogenous whole.

Facing this marvellous house, first impressions are that the building is not truly symmetrical, although close, and the numbers of those quaint spiralling chimneys and rooftop columns are mind-boggling. Some people have compared the gabled roof’s chimney-stacks to chess pieces, arranged as though in mid-game, one’s eye drawn to them by the house’s vertical lines and mullion windows.

The site had probably been inhabited since the 11th century and by the 14th there was a significantly-sized house to the north-east of the current manor. The 15th century owners were the Daubeney family, with Giles Daubeney proving adept at flitting between Yorkist and Lancastrian during the Wars of the Roses, being in the employ of both Edward IV and Henry Tudor.

In 1514 Henry Daubeney inherited the estate. He was initially in favour with the then-monarch Henry VIII, but suffered both bankruptcy and disgrace, resulting in the estate being forfeit to the crown. The manor eventually passed to the Clifton family and they were responsible for most of the building taking place in the mid-16th century. It was around this time that William Clifton, a prosperous London merchant, was determinedly trying to bag local poachers, who were active in his prized deer park.

Barrington Court in its classic Elizabethan ‘E’ shapeBarrington Court in its classic Elizabethan ‘E’ shape

Like many Elizabethan manor houses Barrington Court was built in the classic ‘E’ style (‘E’ for Elizabeth), with large projecting wings. A long gallery, 40 paces long, stretches the length of the house’s upper floor. The Long Gallery, however, was not always a scene of relaxation. During the English Civil War 500 Parliamentary soldiers were billeted here. One of the house’s claims to fame is that the Duke of Monmouth was a dinner guest in 1680. Five years later he was executed for his leadership of the Monmouth Rebellion, against the anointed King, James II.

The house passed through various owners before falling into disrepair from around the mid-18th century, being used as a tenant farm for a while (Court Farm). There was also a fire in the early-19th century, which was responsible for much internal damage. The Long Gallery was full of holes, providing great homes for owls, if not for humans. Whilst the farming family inhabited the kitchen, the rest of the house became cobwebbed and denuded of furniture.

After repairs by eminent Arts and Crafts architect Alfred Hoare Powell, the house entered the custody of the National Trust in 1907, the first of its many sizeable country houses to be acquired. The partially-derelict grand house needed a white-knight though and it came in the unlikely form of a man from the ‘grubby’ world of commerce.

From the 1920s, the house was leased to Colonel A.A. Lyle (whose family sugar-refining firm became part of Tate & Lyle), and renovation followed, as Lyle had been collecting wooden fittings and panelling from other ‘dying’ houses (Lyle was an avid collector of so-called ‘architectural salvage’). He installed new panelling, for example, the length of the ladies’ exercise gallery. The Wren Room (now the shop) contains panelling from the London home of Sir Christopher Wren. Lyle also installed a sprung dance floor, the winding mechanism for which can be seen under the sweeping main staircase, which itself is another Lyle introduction.

The old stable blockThe old stable block

Lyle didn’t spend all his time engaged in restoration. He also enjoyed hunting, particularly with beagles. There was also a squash court at Barrington. A chestnut avenue was also introduced, which provided a ready supply of ‘conkers’ to Barrington’s visitors, back in those glorious days before Health and Safety deemed a conker unsafe.

The original gardens had largely disappeared by this time, so architect J.E. Forbes, who had been helping Lyle transform the house, was also employed to lay out a new compartmentalised garden in Arts and Crafts style in the first half of the 20th century, with that prolific garden creator, Gertrude Jekyll, advising on planting. This was just one of some 400 gardens she had a hand in across the UK, Europe and the US. Today there are walled kitchen gardens, fruit orchards, an arboretum and ornamental gardens to enjoy and the garden appears on the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

The gardens are laid out in a series of walled ‘rooms’, including a breathtaking ‘white’ garden, with complimentary white flowering and silver leaf plants. I hadn’t appreciated there were so many varieties of white, but Jekyll certainly did, and this is presumably part of her bestowal. The centre-point, is a ‘dancing faun’ (half human-half goat). It seems the white-knight gave us a white garden.

The kitchen garden, which has been cultivated since Lyle’s intervention in 1921, provides some of the produce for the estate’s restaurant, including all types of fruit and vegetable. The stable court is another treasure, its apertures closed with five-bar-gates and a profusion of green foliage and white and red flowers. It’s worth saying that visiting at different seasons is advisable: it will be a refreshingly different experience each time.

The White GardenThe White Garden

Lyle did a good job. The ‘medieval’ estate he wanted to re-create is still here today, with apple orchards dotted about and the whole thing surrounded by parkland. Its continuing vitality is both his legacy and that of the craftsmen he employed. The house may be empty today, enabling visitors the rare privilege of seeing a restored Tudor manor house minus ‘clutter’, but Lyle’s legacy lives on. Visit Barrington Court and enjoy the Jekyll-inspired gardens and the house with its wooden interior, just as A.A. Lyle and his family would have done in times past.

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