Nudging along the lush borders of Hampshire and West Sussex, not far from the charming town of Petersfield, is Uppark. Pronounced ‘Up Park’ (a corresponding ‘Down Park’ lies a few miles to the north), Uppark’s south-facing Regency rear looks remarkably like a doll’s house; which is appropriate, because there is a real 18th century doll’s house on display inside. From the south, there are pleasing views over gentle grassland to the South Downs and, on a clear day, beyond to the English Channel twenty or so miles distant. Either side of and to the front of the house are charming gardens and woodland walks. Unusual, slightly mildewy, Victorian tunnels connect the house with the stables and kitchens. Somewhat gruesomely, there is a path in the garden near the game larder made entirely of deer hooves. Aside from that, Uppark appears to be a well-behaved kind of place where people of a certain age, like me, can happily potter away an afternoon without getting into too much trouble.
Which was a pity, because A Bit About Britain’s last visit had to be a short one. It was a hot July afternoon; a brief spell of R&R was needed ahead of a 300-mile drive to rendezvous with a traffic jam on the M6. I’d known Uppark as a lad, thought it would be a perfect spot; and so it proved. However, Uppark is a National Trust property; so unless you qualify for the free entry that comes with membership of that august body, stopping off merely for a coffee, bun and a quick skip round the garden is not an economic option. Incidentally, there’s a fine woodland drive up to the house: as we approached, a magnificent hare sprang out in front of the car; but it managed to get away.
Yet, for all its superficial gentility, there is an intoxicating whiff of scandal beneath Uppark’s polite facade. In the middle ages, it was a profitable wool producing estate inherited by Baron Ford Grey of Warke (later 1st Earl of Tankerville), who built the house sometime around 1690. Grey (or Tankerville) was born locally and, by all accounts, was a bit of a lad who seduced his wife’s sister, was involved in the Rye House Plot to murder Charles II and also commanded the rebel cavalry during the Monmouth Rebellion. Somehow, he managed to survive all of that (including the seduction) and ended up being First Lord of the Treasury, an office now held by the Prime Minister, and Lord Privy Seal. Well, I never.
In 1747, Uppark was purchased for £19,000 by the allegedly filthy rich Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, who subsequently sold his family castle, Featherstone, in Northumberland. At this point, I should introduce the potentially touchy topic of name pronunciation. Featherstonehaugh, as everybody knows, is normally pronounced ‘fanshaw’. However, some of the NT staff at Uppark get quite upset that anyone should pronounce it other than ‘featherstone-haw’ in this instance. Presumably, the Northumbrian castle is ‘fetherstone’. Arising from a previous post I wrote on the subject, Uppark’s gardener politely contested my reference to ‘fanshaw’. I subsequently received a comment directly on the post from a Jane Stevens who, reaching out in friendship across the ether, tersely said: “You are wrong the name is pronounced “Featherstonehaw” not Fanshaw. I work as a room steward at Uppark and this branch of the family pronounce their name as I have stated.” So there you have it; the erudite verdict of a National Trust room steward, no less, delivered with charm, grace, old world courtesy and perfect punctuation. Leaving aside the debate about why some National Trust employees are so bereft of certain human qualities, should you be an Uppark Featherstonehaugh reading this, perhaps you can drop me a line and settle the argument.
Featherstonehaugh and his wife Sarah had Uppark extensively kitted-out with objects obtained from their travels in France, Austria and Italy. Sir Matthew was MP for Morpeth from 1755-61 and for Portsmouth from 1761 until his death in 1774. He also had a London home built, Dover House in Whitehall, which is now the Scotland Office – a role it has had since 1885.
Matthew and Sarah’s son, Sir Harry, was another lad who enjoyed a Good Time, a renowned playboy who was friends with the equally bouncy Prince of Wales, the future George IV. Harry included a Cheshire lass, one Emma Lyon, or Emma Hart, amongst his lovers. He’d met the teenage Emma at quack doctor James Graham’s Temple of Health, sometimes referred to as the Temple of Aesculapius (Aesculapius was an ancient Greek god or hero associated with healing) at the Adelphi in London. Emma, depending which source you read, either worked as a hostess or posed scantily draped in filmy muslin garments. Perhaps she did a bit of both. Graham went on to develop a device called the Celestial Bed, which A Bit About Britain hopes to research further, very shortly. Emma went on to become Emma Hamilton, and then mistress of Britain’s naval hero, Horatio Nelson. Whilst at Uppark, it is said she danced naked on the tables, which must have brightened up the dinner parties no end. Harry concluded a lengthy bachelorhood at the age of 70, by suddenly marrying his 20 year old dairy maid, Mary Ann Bullock; somehow, Harry made it to 92. Mary Ann patiently inherited the estate when he died and maintained it virtually unaltered. You can still visit the dairy where the happy couple became betrothed.
Uppark has been cared for by the National Trust since 1954, which set about a programme of restoration through the 1970s and 80s. But a devastating fire broke out in 1989, a consequence of a careless blow-torch, which quickly engulfed the old house and engaged more than 100 fire-fighters. A human chain of visitors and staff heroically managed to salvage numerous treasures as the flames took hold. So much was damaged, seemingly beyond repair, and the upper floors of the house collapsed leaving a four foot carpet of ash and rubble. Some felt the house should be left as a shell, others that it should be pulled down; balancing social priorities isn’t easy. In the event, restoration was apparently judged cheaper than write-off, though the insurance claim against the builders responsible for the errant blow-torch went all the way to the House of Lords. It was an enormous, unique, restoration project – a story in its own right – and it is thanks to the ingenious and meticulous efforts of restorers and conservators that visitors can see Uppark as it is today.
And it is a magical place, a little piece of 18th and 19th century high society preserved. Oh – I almost forgot – H G Wells’ mum was housekeeper and his dad was a gardener at Uppark; Herbert George spent part of his teenage years there, with free access to the library. We will be back ourselves sometime – promise. And I’ll make a point of searching out Jane Stevens, just to be sociable.