Maunsel House: Home of the Heirless Slades. Sir Benjamin Slade and the family behind Maunsel House
12:08 26 January 2010
Malcolm Rigby meets Sir Benjamin Slade and the extraordinary family behind Maunsel House near Taunton, where it is said that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales and guests can party in elegance
Almost anyone other than a Feng Shui therapist would love Maunsel House. Far from minimalist, the place is awash with clutter, albeit interesting clutter. On the walls and ceilings are stuffed animals, hunting pictures, rifles, riding whips, swords, machine guns and in the corner even a stray canon. Looking out into the courtyard, doves and peacocks strut in front of a background of broken windows and disconnected gutters of the outbuildings - it is a timeless and romantic image.
Carved in stone above the fireplace in the bar is a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon: 'It is a reverend thing to see an ancient castle not in decay or to see a fair timber tree sound and perfect, how much more to behold an ancient noble family which hath stood against the waves and weathers of time, for new nobility is but the act of power but ancient nobility is the act of time.' If read with a certain postmodern irony it captures the spirit of the house.
There's a natural human instinct to want to put both a name and an age to an object, but when I ask Sir Benjamin Slade to specify a date on the property, he replies simply: "It's very old." Then adds, "To be totally honest with you, it's like a very old axe: it's had several new blades and six new handles."
Because of the quality of the soil, he believes, there has probably been a settlement here for a couple of thousand years. Domesday (1086) registers the manor as Maunsel, derived from the French, meaning 'sleeve of land', and owned by Count Eustace of Boulogne, a kinsman of William the Conqueror. The Slade family acquired the property at an auction for 3,000 in 1771 ("We're new here," Sir Benjamin quips.)
The first Slade to inhabit Maunsel House was General Sir John who received his baronetcy for his war efforts, although his descendant now proudly proclaims that he was the worst general in British military history. However, he does concede that General Sir John was a remarkable man: in his youth he danced with Marie Antoinette, he had 11 children, two wives and lived to the age of 97. During the first century of ownership the Slades added two new wings.
When I ask Sir Ben if there are any skeletons in the family cupboard, he smiles. "So many ... skeletons, a whole graveyard." There was the Slade who speculated on railway shares using government money. The twin who bribed the old nanny to say that he was first out of the womb - for inheritance purposes. Madeleine Slade, who went to India and became Gandhi's mistress. Then, more recently, there was Aunt Freda who lived on Mars Bars and Milky Ways whilst hunting twice a week and "drinking for Somerset".
Born in 1946, Sir Benjamin went to school at Millfield and inherited the baronetcy at the age of 15. "It was bad, there was no money, no brain cells, my family weren't academic they'd just been into hunting, fighting and drinking - killing French people, that was the family business." Packed off to Australia because of his wildness, he returned in 1971 to work as a stockbroker in London before making his fortune in the container trade. When that business was sold his interests diversified into technology, food retail, property investment, agriculture, insurance, as well as, of course, restoring and refurbishing the now magnificent Maunsel House from a positively ruinous state.
Wandering from the elegant dining room to the large Regency ballroom to the panelled but bookless library, you'll find portraits of Slade ancestors looking down upon you. Upstairs each of the 13 bedrooms is unique and each is sumptuously decorated, many have four posters and the master of them all is the Elizabethan eight-foot-six-inch-wide bed (where do they get the sheets?) complete with the family coat of arms hand-embroidered on its damask eiderdown in the King's Room. But perhaps the prize for originality should go to the en-suite bathrooms; from the bath in the box, to the shower that sprays from the side, to the copper 'bateau' tub, they're great.
A house as old as this must surely have ghosts. "There are a few," Sir Benjamin says, "we keep them all downstairs, they're not allowed upstairs. We play down the ghosts because modern people don't like ghosts, they're frightened by ghosts. In one of the cottages we did have a very bad poltergeist, the builders and the painters didn't like it so we ended up paying about 300 quid for a medium who rounded up all the spare ghosts that were going to be any trouble and sent them all down the road."
Currently Sir Benjamin is quite literally scouring the globe for a suitable Slade with the right genes to become his heir and is even hoping to make a television programme about his quest. Since there are three-and-a-half thousand Slades claiming kinship in the States alone, the task is not going to be easy. He admits the search is not entirely altruistic as he wants the successor to take over the running of the estate so that he can go skiing, take in Goodwood and participate in general partying.
These days the self-confessed eccentric, seventh Slade Baronet lives across the way in a farmhouse, while Maunsel House is let out for weddings, conferences or perhaps an out-of-London house party.
www.maunselhouse.co.uk; 01278 661076