By Ellen O'Brien - “PhD student, book lover and tea addict, I spend my days researching and writing, with help from my bunny George. History is not quite so visible in Australia as in England… but it's there if you know where to look!”
Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while. (1-6)
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;
The blushing apricot and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan… (39-47)
(Lines from Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ 1616)
Earlier in 2016, as autumn started to settle in, I was lucky enough to visit FOUR country houses in a WEEK. Two in particular struck me, not because of their grandness or beauty, but because of their difference to one another.
The first was Penshurst Place, just outside Tunbridge Wells in Sussex, immortalised in Ben Jonson’s country house poem, To Penshurst. The second was Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, home to the Dukes of Marlborough.
It can be easy to lump all “English Country Houses” in together, with their ubiquitous elderly room wardens, cafeteria-style National Trust tea rooms, their inevitable printed tea towels and competitive boasts of famous visitors or occupants. The same thing happens when you go on any holiday, and experience a glut of the national monument… Buddhist temples, European cathedrals, and Scottish castles: they can blur into one and get a bit “same-y.”
However, Penshurst and Blenheim were so vastly different: they were born of different historical circumstances, and projected such different personalities, that you would hardly mention them in the same breath. The key difference was the sense of professional commercialism that ruled Blenheim, and the slightly amateurish, casual welcome offered by Penshurst.
Penshurst, (without reverting to poetic analysis) is an older house that supposedly grew naturally from the English soil, and its glory is derived from its organic, ancient presence, an inseparable part of the landscape. However, by the time Jonson was writing his tribute to the recently landed and titled Sidney family in 1616, the house has already undergone the renovations that made it distinctly larger than ‘an ancient pile.’
(The Great Hall)
An Elizabethan and Jacobean mansion, it is surrounded by a maze of 10 foot walls, heavily espaliered and laden with fruit. In his poem, Jonson claims that any child could wander in and pluck a woolly peach off the branch, but the forbidding walls suggest otherwise.
(The Walled Garden)
Nevertheless, the house seems more a part of the landscape and the village than something like Blenheim ever could. The arched tourist entrance, made of old red bricks, opens directly into the village of Penshurst, which is built right up against the walls of the estate, perhaps a throwback to the protection once offered by the manor house, and the local cricket green can be seen from the grounds.
(The Visitors Entrance)
We wandered through the formal, square gardens, full of secret avenues and hidden bathing ponds, marvelling at the fruit that was thick on the ground and overly ripe in the branches. The carefully laid out flower beds, now withering, contained only a faded hint of their former colour. Summer was over-blown, turning to brown, the way it had in the garden for over five hundred years. Our picnic, invaded by the occasional bumblebee, and complete with union jack paper cups, felt appropriately rustic.
(A Country Picnic)
The house, recently used as a filming location for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, was sparsely decorated and photography was forbidden. Inside, it retained an Elizabethan flavour: all was dark wood and flagstone, crumbling red brick and embroidered furnishings.
(Wolf Hall, from the books by Hilary Mantel)
Penshurst, proud of its age, wears it like a badge, and appears to have held out against the highly commercial, professional business of the country house industry. The final room contained photographs of the family and servants, taken by family members and pasted into books, or plastic sheet protectors. There was something very touching about these carefully collated but amateurish family albums.
The only commercially produced information board was tucked away in the garden, and explained the various stages of the garden’s planting and landscaping, emphasising that this was a place which grew over time, and had witnessed six hundred years of English history.
In terms of visitor experience, the prices were very reasonable, made more so by my student card and Nell’s train ticket discount. As with many country houses, access is only by car. We were almost alone in the house and grounds, despite it being Sunday, and the few people we did encounter were local families who had brought their children to picnic and play in the garden.
… Blenheim Palace…
As we pulled into the grey expanse of car park at Blenheim, the drizzle was beginning to set in, along with a touch of the ol’ ‘castle fatigue’, and I was perhaps, unfairly, steeling myself to be unimpressed. Gone was the grassy, county-fair style parking of Penshurst: this place was set up to accommodate the maximum number of tourists, and charged accordingly. We were a little taken aback by the extortionate entry fee, and thought it a bit rich that any additional service (like the electric cart for elderly visitors) cost extra.
(The courtyard at Blenheim)
Built to celebrate the military successes of the first Duke of Marlborough, under James II, William and Mary, and finally Queen Anne, Blenheim more resembles a French chateau or Italian palace, than an English country home. Its purpose is clear: to impress.
Fighting against a tide of French college students, we were swept through the rooms on a rather crowded, ‘official’ tour of the house and its most famous occupants. I say ‘official,’ because great care had been taken to project a blemish-free, whitewashed version of events. The first Duchess, Sarah, was up for slating, but Winston Churchill and his immediate family were sacrosanct.
The floor length information boards, commercially produced (yet littered with spelling mistakes) told the story of Winston, the most celebrated son of the estate, but very little else. What a missed opportunity to locate the house in England’s long and dramatic history!
Mary S Lovell wrote a deeply researched and candid biography of the Churchill family (The Churchills: In Love and War), and having recently read this, it struck me that the ‘Blenheim version’ of events sacrificed human drama in favour of respectable posterity. There was no mention of Winston’s father’s philandering, and likely death of syphilis, or his mother’s irrepressible character and remarriage to a much younger man, his brother’s forced marriage and marked preference for ballet dancers and actresses.
Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress he married, was a beautiful and tragic figure. It was rumoured she sobbed through her wedding veil, and many years later, she managed to obtain a divorce. But, apart from the Singer Sargent family portrait, she is largely absent. It was she who noticed that their elaborate dinner left-overs were scooped into buckets and sent out to the poorer tenants. By the time they arrived, they were little more than slops. She organised tin containers, like lunch boxes, to separate and preserve the food for the estate workers.
(Consuelo’s family portrait)
Where the garden at Penshurst retained some medieval aspects, and had an English ‘country garden’ atmosphere, Blenheim was utterly devoid of sweet peas or marigolds. Acres of Capability Brown landscaping had carved out long, sweeping views, but walking the length of them was impossible.
(The formal gardens at Blenheim)
Despite the extensive grounds, there was a strong sense of enclosure, of ownership, of exclusivity. The flocks of pheasants so clearly belonged to someone, although there were no fences. There was no pretence of communal gardens and farming, like at Penshurst. Blenheim proudly proclaims its dominion, surveyed by the column of victory.
(Column of Victory)