Monday, 24 March 2014

Gentleman Provider-of-Ruins


My third monthly trip out of London for 2014 took place three long weeks ago, on the very first weekend of March, but I'm just getting around to writing about it now. I spent the weekend with a friend in Cambridge - the first day was spent in Cambridge itself and the immediate surrounds, while the second day entailed a trip out to Wimpole Hall.


This is the same friend who accompanied me to Sutton Hoo and we both took out National Trust membership there so we figured we'd make the most of it with another property. This one, however, entailed a short train trip from Cambridge and then a cycle ride. Fortunately Cambridgeshire is a flat county as we'd also done a lot of cycling the day before and I'm only an occasional weekend cyclist...

We were delighted to find our bikes matched the train

Upon arriving at Wimpole we got our energy back up with a cup of tea and a scone and then went exploring. We started out at the house but were both slightly underwhelmed by that experience. Yes, the grand country pile just wasn't right for us, darling.


But, in all seriousness, the period and style isn't the favourite of either of us and we found the experience a bit stuffy compared with our recent Sutton Hoo adventure. There were some wonderful spaces but it was a classic National Trust house with roped off rooms and a sense of moving rigidly through the set route. In fairness, this is somewhat fitting for a house of its type, as the eighteenth century saw the rise of country house tourism, where one would travel around to different manors, being met at each with a grand house designed with a definite sequence of rooms, through which one would move, admiring the collection of art and objects. And there was undoubtedly some fine architecture, art and objects at Wimpole:

The ceiling and lantern in the Soane room

I have a peculiar fondness for pineapples appearing in historic house settings

A stunning clock in the Soane room


Okay, it all looks wonderfully charming when I select out a few key photographs, and it was undeniably splendid in parts, but it just somewhat lacked atmosphere. (There was even a lady playing piano, like at Sutton Hoo, but it had a completely different vibe.) So, if that style of operating doesn't really do it for you then you want to at least learn something about the people who lived there, where their wealth came from, the trajectory of their fortune, and all that jazz. That's what gives these places a unique quality when they all have a similar look. Unfortunately, there wasn't much written interpretation, and sometimes you don't necessarily feel like having to ask the volunteers (as lovely as they are). So, I learnt a bit about the last inhabitants of the house but not much more about the generations before that, which was a shame.

Who is this lady? I'll never know...

Once out of the house, we went for a wander around the immediate grounds and the walled gardens. I do so love a walled garden, even when it isn't in bloom. It appeals to my longing to have a secret garden of my own one day.

The walled kitchen garden


The parterre

We then broke out from the genteel surrounds of the house and out into the wider estate to march our way up through the mud and the wintery landscape on a particular mission...




... The Gothick folly! For those who don't know, a folly is basically an architectural feature put in the landscape to look fabulous, but with no actual use. The quintessential folly is the ruinous folly - not actually the traces of a medieval building, as the wealthy estate owner would have us believe, but a structure deliberately built as a ready-made ruin. Unfortunately this fake ruin must now be in actual fact a true ruin, as it was fenced off with 'danger: do not enter' signs.


One of the things that I actually did learn when I was in the manor house was that the folly was built by Sanderson Miller, who was a 'gentleman architect' (that is, he wasn't formally trained as an architect, didn't need to work for money but he just kind of fancied giving it a go). It took something ridiculous like 25 years to complete due to stops and starts. By the time it was complete, fashions had moved on - not from follies entirely but from landmark follies such as this. Instead of being set up as a prominent feature in the landscape, the trend had changed to secret follies that one would stumble upon in one's exploration of the extensive estate. Oh well, it's still good, despite being unfashionable.


Upon later looking up Wimpole Hall in the relevant Pevsner guide (otherwise known as the architectural historian's bible), I came across the description of Sanderson Miller as 'the celebrated gentleman provider-of-ruins'. Don't you just love that? I can totally see him as this charming dandy who not only designs follies for the gentry but also ruins the virtue of the young daughters of his clients when he comes to visit... And just let me clarify that is my concept for a bodice-ripper and if I come across anyone using my idea, I will sue.

12 comments:

  1. What a grand and deeply beautiful setting. From the pineapple on the table (I too adore seeing them in classic/historic table settings like this) to the expertly manicured grounds, this is the kind of place which relative infant country Canada lacks and I so deeply year to visit, at least once in a while, but really can't (especially out west, which is the newest side of the country). We do have a few grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings and homes, and some marvelous (separate entity) gardens, but nothing like this. All the more reason I simply must hightail it to the UK for a proper visit (aka, not just stopping through at Heathrow en route elsewhere) one day. Doing so is on my proverbial bucket list.

    ♥ Jessica

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    1. We are indeed very blessed to have these places in the UK. Although the 'newer' countries have some wonderful historic houses and buildings and are wonderful to explore, sometimes I yearn for something truly ancient. I know that I would miss being able to visit medieval churches if I left England. BUT the wonderful thing of countries without this ancient built history is the landscapes, which are utterly moving and touch your spirit - the Australian bush is tangibly ancient and spiritual, I found.

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  2. Miss Marie, these are wonderful photos! I find your critique very interesting and, strangely, almost a kind of relief. Relief that it's okay not to like a grand house with lovely objects and works of art. Atmosphere is sooo important and can't be bought. Your photos of the folly are fabulous, especially the ones with the birds on it and in a gathering in the sky above! Also, your black and white one of the dead tree is incredibly haunting. It needs to be entered into a photo competition. The Soane room is gorgeous. Please tell me it has something to do with Sir John Soane...

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    1. I officially give you permission not to like grand houses! I think you should give things a go and be open to enjoying them and trying them but if they don't speak to you then life is too short and there are too many other marvellous things to fret about liking things that you're supposed to like. Yes, I was very pleased at catching the birds flying around the folly and I couldn't not photograph that amazing tree. And you'll be pleased to know that the Soane room is directly related to Sir John Soane as he was responsible for its creation.

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  3. I just found out that Wimpole Hall was left to the National Trust by Rudyard Kipling's daughter, Elsie, on her death in 1976. Having just read, and enjoyed Kipling's "Just So" stories, I find that interesting. I do love your Pevsner's description of Miller! And your photo of matching bicycles and train interior! : )

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    1. Yes, Kipling keeps coming up for me too! Have just finished reading a biography of Edward Burne-Jones who happens to have been his uncle, and in an active, involved way rather than a disconnected way. It's making me interested in reading about Kipling...

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  4. Gorgeous pictures - such a beautiful place to visit! :)
    theemeralddove21.blogspot.co.uk

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    1. Thanks very much - glad you enjoyed.

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  5. I visited Wimpole Hall last year as a backdrop for my Sew for Victory outfit, and as lovely as it was (it was also flipping cold) felt the same way about it, I hardly took any photos, which is unlike me. The great thing about National Trust property's is that most of them don't have barriers and ropes across everything which makes the whole trip feel more personal and tactile, I have no objections to preserving things from us grubby tourists but it can be done in a way that isn't so rigid! Oh I wishing now that I had braved to cold to see the folly, I love the extravagance of such a thing, oh and I look forward to reading your book hehe :-) x

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    1. Oh, that sounds vaguely familiar, now you mention it! I'm glad you feel mutually about Wimpole Hall - although I must say there is some advantage in coming back from an excursion with fewer, rather than more photos! Far too easy to snap, snap, snap away with digital... and then wonder what to do with them all. (And perhaps I should start writing my book and serialise it here on this very blog...)

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