Thomas Gainsborough’s brother Humphrey, who was a well-known local engineer, the cupola makes acoustics in this
Thomas Gainsborough’s brother Humphrey, who was a well-known local engineer, the cupola makes acoustics in this room particularly special. (We also have engineer Humphrey to thank for the raised, straight road, when you leave Henley Bridge and drive up White Hill, as well as the lock, weir and footbridge at Marsh Lock).
When visiting, Standard Property was also very taken with the 18th century kitchen, complete with iron range stove, scrubbed wooden dresser and all kinds of interesting cubbies that only a museum curator would recognise.
Being a fan of National Trust properties such as local stately homes Basildon Park and Greys Court, Standard Property couldn’t help but enjoy the comparison.
However, what is unique about Harpsden Court is its location. Along with Friar Park and Fawley Court, this is probably the last of Henley’s original gentrified estates in private hands — and is the first of these to come up for sale for many decades.
Much like Friar Park, with Harpsden Court you really are in walking distance of the town centre and all that it has to offer. It’s one of the reasons the house has hosted a number of crews for Henley Royal Regatta over the years. To walk from the house to Henley Bridge takes a leisurely 25 minutes.
What is also special about the structure of Harpsden Court is its stages of construction. Particularly apparent when viewing the property from the outside, you get to see its various historical phases distinctly.
Thus, there is an enticing medieval/Elizabethan part, a mysterious-looking Gothic revival section, a refined Regency wing, and a charming ensemble which began life under Queen Victoria.
This last comes complete with multiple larders, a wine cellar, sewing room, a butler’s mini-pantry, a scullery (utility room) with original stoneware, amongst others, along with staff quarters of six bedrooms and three bath/shower rooms.
And on the wall outside the sewing room, an addition from the Twenties — a pristine servants’ bell box, so the parlour maid would know when it was time for tea to be served in the “Egyptian Room” or when the governess needed help in the “Day Nursery”. How very Downton Abbey.
It’s no wonder Harpsden Court plays a major role in forthcoming British film Molly Moon. Based on the books by Georgia Byng, this children’s fantasy-action film stars Emily Watson, Dominic Monaghan and Celia Imrie, among others, and will be released in the UK just before Christmas.
The property’s role as an orphanage meant three weeks of filming. As owner Mrs Barbara Gerrard said, it was exciting. However, this was “a particularly long period of filming, and also one of the property’s last”.
The property’s filming legacy began completely by chance. One of Mrs Gerrard’s daughters said: “One winter in the early Eighties, a location manager driving past stopped to ask if he could shoot a period drama here.”
The Agatha Christie story in question was The Manhood of Edward Robinson, featuring a young Rupert Everett.
Needless to say, Harpsden Court has seen a lot of film and television action in its time. Productions include Quantum of Solace (with Daniel Craig), although these scenes were later cut out; The Invisible Woman (with Ralph Fiennes); Jude (with Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston); The Woman in Black (with Daniel Radcliffe); Parade’s End (with Benedict Cumberbatch) and, naturally, a whole host of Agatha Christie- and Midsomer Murders-related shows.
“My husband Laurie and I met so many actors during our time here and all of them were extremely pleasant,” said Mrs Gerrard. “We’ve also had many television series and productions starring well-known English actors such as George Cole, Albert Finney, Griff Rhys Jones, and Martin Clunes, as well as The Two Ronnies. Recently we had the ITV production of The Great Fire (of London) with Charles Dance and Rose Leslie.”
The reception hall, in particular, has seen a lot of filmic action. This started life as a medieval long hall in 1204 and ripened into a Tudor hunting lodge. The beech and oak woods here are still known for their wild deer and pheasant. Along with a one-acre walled garden (now somewhat overgrown), a large expanse of lawn, and a boating lake (also needing some TLC), this forms the majority of the 22-acre property.
Ruth Gibson of the Henley Archaeological and Historical Society revealed that the boating lake was an original fishing lake, which is naturally spring-fed and was a valuable source of food in the 1200s. The walled garden, too, has earlier roots (pun intended) as part of an ancient orchard — another important food source.
Today’s Harpsden Court manor comes in at a massive 16,000 sq ft, with a total of 13 bedrooms and five bath/shower rooms (including the aforementioned Victorian part).
The most impressive bedroom is located above the 1722 kitchen; known as Queen Mary’s Room in honour of Mary of Teck (married to George V), who once stayed here, this has lustrous floorboards and glorious waxed oak panelling, with cupboards that open to reveal the original medieval stonework behind.
It is rooms like this which make Harpsden Court such a beautiful and magical place. However, the house’s features don’t have to be 1,000 years old to qualify as beautiful and magical. Take the wallpaper at the top of the main staircase, for instance. Mrs Gerrard told Standard Property that this is well-known Zuber & Cie wallpaper from the Thirties.
Adjacent to the wallpaper is the George and the Dragon stained glass window.
Mrs Gerrard said: “One day in 1990 we had a visitor from Denmark who was tracing the work of her great uncle.” This happened to be one Baron Arild Rosenkrantz — a renowned craftsman of the late 19th century and early 20th century, responsible for the dining room ceiling at London’s Claridge’s Hotel as well as stained glass windows at Berkeley Castle and Welbeck Abbey.
Mrs Gerrard added: “Our Danish visitor said her great uncle had made 18 stained glass windows in England — one being our George and the Dragon window, for which he had been paid the sum of £50 by the previous owner of Harpsden Court, Mr Noble, in 1905. She later sent us a copy of the original sketch.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking Harpsden Court is one big collection of majesty. It is also a family home, and along with magnificent window features like this, and more quirky nooks and crannies, there are also some more ordinary-looking rooms. The second kitchen — the one used, one should say — is a case in point. This is south-facing and, because it’s in the newer part of the house, planning permission to extend/enlarge to create a 2016-size kitchen/family room is unlikely be an issue. Some of the ‘younger’ reception rooms should also be pretty easy to bring up to date for modern living.
“As a family we have some wonderful memories of our time at Harpsden Court — Laurie was so happy to live here,” said Mrs Gerrard, who moved in 40 years ago with her late husband Laurie and three young children.
The, previous owners, the Noble family, had left Park Place to move to Harpsden Court in the late 1800s and after many years decided to sell.
“Luckily, we came upon it,” said Mrs Gerrard. “It was the glorious summer of 1976 and the house needed lots of attention. We were lucky enough to be able to give it just that. I still remember that long, hot summer so clearly. The lake had dried up so we could walk straight across it. Twenty years later, I remember it was so cold that we could walk across the lake again — this time it was frozen.”
The Gerrard daughters said they grew up finding living here “one big adventure”.
“It was so much fun when friends came,” they said. “We spent days tapping oak panelling and looking for reported secret passages.”
Mrs Gerrard also remembers that her daughters and friends would rollerskate around the panelled reception hall and the rest of the house.
“They created a circuit and would time themselves going round. Later they even played hockey on rollerskates. To stop themselves, when they were going too fast, they would slam into the old panelled walls. The marks are still visible at the bottom of the panelling!”
And so, on to the next chapter in the story of Harpsden Court. Whoever buys it will be adding to its history with whatever they decide to do with it.
“It’s well looked after and perfectly liveable but needs to be brought into the 21st century,” says Stephen Christie-Miller at Savills in Bell Street, Henley.
“However, I can’t state enough the importance of this property — it is one of the most outstanding and important properties to come to the local market for some time, and it will appeal greatly to those who want a discreet country retreat, without being too far removed from the convenience of modern-day amenities and transportation links.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to bring this landmark property into 2016, while respecting its antiquity.”
Harpsden Court, Harpsden, near Henley, is offered for sale at a guide price of £10,000,000. For more information, call the Henley office of Savills on (01491) 843000.
• Thanks to Ruth Gibson of the Henley Archaeological and and Historical Society for her help with this article.