Second Time Lucky – Montacute House
Setting off in the car for a relatively short 20 mile journey to another Country House, we had our coffees, our fully charged phones and a sense of bon ami. Pleasant conversation, turned to a few ill placed words, which descended into a full blown newly wed argument. Over coffee. Seriously! coffee. Although we all know it wasn’t really about coffee, however it descended into an ad hominem, followed by a u-turn, a broody drive home in silence and the rest of Saturday sulking in our respective wings of the house (joking) him downstairs, me upstairs. The next day, following a kiss and make-up, and we were experiencing de ja vu as we meandered back down the roads on our way to pre-planned, aforementioned, Country House. Giggling at the stupidity of the argument and apologising to each other with a more considered verbal tone and volume.
Montacute House is, strictly speaking, in Somerset, and from where we live you have to navigate the horror that is Yeovil to get there. For those of you who have never driven through Yeovil, let me tell you, it is not a nice experience, a bottleneck on most days, they currently have a long standing road alteration under way and the stationary traffic can extend over a mile. Not helped by a crappy three way temporary traffic light system. It soon becomes a comical scene, where, whilst sat in your car you are merrily passed by the old gentleman on his walker. Sitting and drumming your fingers whilst he sashays off into the distance. There are of course secret back roads to avoid this turmoil, but I’m not going to tell as they’re my secret, and I don’t know you well enough to divulge that level of information. So, having negotiated the back roads around the traffic, we arrived at …you guessed it, Montacute village.
Another National Trust property, it is a rather imposing three storey Manor House set in formal gardens. On such a beautiful day, it was obviously busy, and, as we did not set off really early, we actually arrived much later in the day than usual. I know, not really like us, but we had taken advantage of a rare Sunday lie-in and languid breakfast. The car park was full and we had to park in the adjoining grassed area, however, despite the number of visitors, due to the sheer size of the house and the surrounding grounds it didn’t feel crowded.
The house itself was built by Sir Edward Phelips who was an English politician and lawyer. The house was built for him and his family to escape the heat of London in the summer months. A painting of him can be see inside the building with his white ruff and neatly trimmed beard. Interestingly he was the opening prosecutor in the trial of the gunpowder plots and he also took part in the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Built in the English Renaissance style, the architecture has a very similar motif to Dunster Castle, it is for this reason that it has been attributed to the mason William Arnold, although no-one is certain who was the architect. Externally, and this is personal opinion, I think the house is a lot more interesting than internally. The honey coloured stone, the clambering stone animals and statues, the mullioned windows giving all façades grand and abundant fenestration. I would go so far to say that the grandeur of the external is a falsification, as internally the building was quite plain.
We started our tour in the gardens. The first and most wonderful sight to greet you are the clouds of purple Wisteria covering an entire wall at the front of the building. The formal gardens themselves are a delight of topiary, deep planted borders and intricate stone columns, walls and corner houses. In particular the orangery was bursting with flowers and ferns and all manner of delightful plants, together with a little water grotto which made it a most pleasant place to spend some time. If you’ve been to Sherborne Castle, then the gardens here are nowhere near as impressive, don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful, but for a such a large house, rather limited and not as well designed. The literature provided by National Trust eludes to a couple of walks with interesting finds along the way, however, when we set out the signposting was very poor and we didn’t find anything of interest. Outside of the formal gardens the surrounding land is laid to pasture and filled with ewes and their little lambs. That said there are a plethora of walks of this nature throughout the county and I for one, hadn’t come here to wander across grassland. So we retraced our steps and went back to view the house.
The biggest boast of the house itself is the long gallery, housing a number of Tudor and Jacobean paintings from the National Portrait Gallery in London, it is the longest gallery in England. If you are a history buff or you have been studying the characters which I talk about in this blog, most of them are depicted in oils in this room. Always interesting to put a face to a name. Es and I laughed that some of the men were so effeminate as to be mistaken for women, and some of the women depicted so ghostly pale (as was the fashion) as to look almost dead! my how artistic trends and techniques have changed.
The rest of the house is the usual display of stained glass windows, suits of armour and huge fireplaces. The ceilings were quite plain in most rooms and the cornice details none existent. The staircases were very plain, simple stone steps and iron handrails, no carved grand stairs in this house. Personally, it was one of our lesser loved visited properties. There was no jewel in the crown as far as we were concerned. Even the long gallery is plain, a vast space filled with reed carpet and dark paintings with no effort to light them to their best advantage. Not somewhere we would perhaps go back to in a hurry. If I had to choose a room, I would say the library was my favourite, the smell of books and the dark oak panelling to the walls with intricately detailed window casings, it was almost incongruous with the rest of the house.
After a few hours of wandering, we spent half an hour lying in the buttercup filled grass and playing on the tree swings, like the children we are. We then reverted to adulthood and went around the corner into Montacute Village, to an excellent pub with a beer garden and drank Amstel shandy in the sunshine.
I hope I haven’t put you off? as far as visits go, it is a lovely house and gardens, but, there are so many others which put this one in the shade, and I’m sure Sir Phelips is turning in his grave as I write.