Saturday, 19 June 2021

Henley Archaeological and Historical Group

FOR the January lecture, the group was entertained by Alistair Lack with an amazing talk about the country

FOR the January lecture, the group was entertained by Alistair Lack with an amazing talk about the country houses of Oxfordshire.

He began by explaining how many of these great houses had disappeared in the 20th century, particularly after the wars, due to the lack of funds, high inheritance tax and their use during the wars by government departments as hospitals etc.

Oxfordshire alone lost 13 after 1930 but because of the involvement of the National Trust there is now better survival and wealthy people are building and restoring properties.

Mr Lack chose four houses to tell us about and to show lovely and interesting slides. They were a family house, a palace, a Jacobean gem and a “Doll’s House”.

The first was Rousham House, owned by the Cotteral Dormer family since 1620 when the land was bought by the Dormers, who built the house in 1635.

In 1735 they asked William Kent to redesign the house. He added two wings and a stable block.

The interior of the house, which is not open to the public, retains the 17th century panelling, original staircases, furniture, paintings and bronzes.

Rousham House remains as Kent designed it and the garden, with its rills, cascades and statues, represents the first phase of English landscape design. Again, it is exactly as Kent left it.

Rousham is said to be Prince Charles’s favourite country house.

The palace was Blenheim, built by Sir John Vanbrugh for John Churchill as a reward from a grateful nation for his victory at Blenheim over the French and Bavarians during the War of the Spanish Succession.

It is the only non-royal, non-episcopal building to hold the title of “palace”.

Soon after construction began, the building was the subject of political infighting and Vanbrugh was eventually sacked and Sir Nicholas Hawksmoor completed the work.

In 1764, the 4th Duke of Marlborough employed Capability Brown to design the beautiful landscaped gardens with the famous bridge we know today.

The then King was heard to exclaim: “We have nothing like this at Windsor.”

The Jacobean gem, built from 1607 to 1612, was Chastleton House.

The Chaucer family originally owned the land but in 1604 the house was sold by Sir Robert Catesby of Gunpowder Plot fame to Walter Jones, a lawyer and wool  merchant.

As the house was owned by the same family for 400 years until acquired by the National Trust in 1991, much of the interior furnishings have remained the same.

The house is built of Cotswold stone around a courtyard and its outstanding feature is the Long Gallery, which is 22 metres in length. Here the family would play cricket on winter afternoons.

This was obviously a family fond of sport because the rules of croquet were formed here and a beautiful croquet lawn lies in front of the house.

The rare Juxon Bible is an important treasure kept at the house. It was said to have been used by Bishop Juxon at the execution of Charles I, so this was the last thing on earth to be touched by the King. Finally, the “Doll’s House”, or Ashdown House, which lies on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border a few miles from White Horse Hill.

The Earl of Craven built the house for the “Winter Queen” Elizabeth of Bohemia, a sister of Charles I, but, sadly, she never came to live there.

One of the most amazing slides we saw was of the  staircase, which winds up and up through several floors to the cupola on top of the tower where one can view the  countryside.

The time ran out too quickly on such an interesting and entertaining lecture but it certainly made us eager to visit these fabulous buildings.

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