Barrington Court: A private restoration project

Barrington Court: A private restoration project

Originally built in 1514 as a sign of power, Barrington Court, set in the heart of the Somerset countryside, fell into disrepair but it was saved from oblivion by Arthur Lyle, the famous sugar baron, who restored it to its former glory.

Driving into the Barrington Court car park you are somewhat deflated by the slightly industrial surroundings. Every turn seems blocked by high walls or bland farm buildings. You search for an escape exit and spot a gap in the red brick wall, hurrying towards the light you break through into the kitchen garden… and a whole new world opens before your eyes. From here on in, Barrington Court, near Ilminster, Somerset, is a series of gardens, some designed by that famous outdoor designer, Gertrude Jekyll, who was renowned for her stunning drifts of colour, that lead, like a maze to Strode House, built in 1674 out of brick to house the horses, with the main house a little further on.

Tracing through history and guidebooks we learn that the main house was to be the dream home of Henry Daubeney, who followed his father into royal service, later inheriting the estate in 1514. Some 24 years later he was created Earl of Bridgewater, and it is thought he had Barrington Court built to reflect his new powerful status. He may have had ideas of grandeur but certainly not enough coins in the bank to support the expensive adventure. He died a pauper in 1548 – the house apparently ruining his finances to such an extent there wasn’t enough money to pay for his funeral expenses. It appears his sister had to pay to put him in the ground.

Four years later the house was purchased by London merchant, William Clifton, who completed the building by 1559. For the next three generations everything was well at Barrington Court; then it passed to Sir Thomas Phelips in 1605, being sold again in 1625 to William Strode, a Shepton Mallet clothier. His fortunes blossomed when he married local well-to-do Joan Barnard, and with the influx of new money he restored the house. His son, another William, stamped his mark on the estate by building an impressive, if somewhat out of character stable block, next to the Elizabethan house, which is built from local Ham stone.

Over the next 100 years the estate had many owners, the main house eventually being no more than a tenanted farmhouse. During the agricultural depression Barrington Court became a sorry sight, its expensive fittings torn out and sold, eventually the windows were boarded up and it became home to cattle and chickens. Strangely it became a bit of a tourist attraction, people walking round the bare rooms trying to imagine what it might have looked like when it was a noble home. One visitor was Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founder members of the National Trust, who thought it worth saving because of its grace and elegant Elizabethan E-shaped design.

The Trust, which had only been in existence 12 years, bought the house in 1907 but repairs cost £11,500, and then they spent the next 30 years trying to maintain it. You could say it was a millstone round the Trust’s neck, and it made them very wary of buying any further big houses.

The fortunes of Barrington Court took a sudden change for the better, and improved the Trust’s finances, when Colonel Arthur Lyle, a director at what was to become Tate and Lyle, the famous East London sugar refining company, signed a 99-year lease on the property in 1920. You could almost hear the Trust sigh with relief? Colonel Lyle, wounded at the Battle of the Somme, wanted a new home tucked away in the country, and somewhere where he could develop his passion for collecting historic woodwork. Barrington Court didn’t have any, so Arthur could see an opportunity! Working with friend and architect J.Forbes, new plans were drawn up for the house, the large stables, and surrounding land, which would include cottages built in the sympathetic arts and crafts style.

It is here we turn our attention back to those imposing walls that first greeted us, which screen a complex series of walled gardens so much admired by the original Elizabethan owners. It is here that garden-designer Gertrude Jekyll joins the story, Forbes asking her for advice on how to plant out the expansive gardens. Sadly only the area to the west of Strode House was completed but when you walk and admire the gardens you will see how things might have been had the project been completed.

Inside Barrington Court work carried on apace, Arthur Lyle scouring the country for unique woodwork that would become lost as old stately homes and manor houses became derelict. Visitors cannot help but be impressed by the main staircase, which although grand, doesn’t quite ‘fit’ the main halls dimensions. This is because it originally came from a Scottish grand house that was being demolished. Arthur purchased it, got local carpenters to dismantle it, and then transported the same carpenters and stairs, now in many pieces, to Barrington Court, and had it re-assembled.

The eagle-eyed will note that as the staircase turns to the right it sits roughly midway between the original floors, with the garderobe (the loo to you and me) suspended halfway between in the wall! Other anomalies are the loft spaces, lined with classic Elizabethan English oak panelling, some of it inlaid with expensive woods, and a massive leaded highly decorated wooden screen salvaged from a grand Kings Lynn, Norfolk house.

Arthur, who had the drive, money and vision to save Barrington Court, was succeeded by his son Ian in 1931 who was knighted in 1959, and became chairman of Tate and Lyle. On the declaration of war, like many large houses, Barrington did its ‘bit’ becoming a boy’s prep school, while looking out of the window now it is hard to imagine the Home Guard drilling on the squash courts. The Court continued in the hands of the Lyle family until 1991 by which time they found the cost of on-going maintenance so expensive that they handed the lease back to the National Trust, which is why you can enjoy the marvellous gardens, parkland, stables and house today.

Ironically, while most of the lavish fitting were ripped out of Barrington Court to pay for rising debts during the mid-1700s, today, tucked away in one of the arts and craft buildings, stop awhile to watch the skills of Czech wood-carver Jozef Mesar. Working with simple hand-tools he creates amazing carvings, some commissioned to replace or replicate original pieces.

To learn more go to www.jozefmesarwoodcarver.co.uk

Barrington Court website:
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/barrington-court

Mel Russ