It couldn’t decide whether to shower or shine, the day we went to Montacute; so it compromised and did a little of both. A tour of the grounds was on offer, which started well enough until rain stopped play. Our party initially huddled together by mutual agreement, near the café, sheltered from the weather; but people drifted away and the expedition was abandoned. That was a pity, because a good guide is often a source of stories behind a place. And, though Montacute is undeniably beautiful, it seemed a little lacking in personality to me; a few juicy tales might have made it come more alive. As it is, I judge Montacute to be a gentle, effortless, place to visit, its three main claims to fame apparently being its long gallery (the longest in England), the portraits displayed in this from the National Portrait Gallery and the fact that it assumed the role of Greenwich Palace in the TV drama Wolf Hall.
It’s a classic Elizabethan mansion, is Montacute, built in the shape of a symmetrical ‘E’ using a local limestone, Hamstone, for Sir Edward Phelips in the late 1590s. In the sunshine, the stone glows with a kind of latent warmth, though when the skies cloud over it looks decidedly grey and gloomy. Unsurprisingly, the stonework is worn in places, like a well-lived-in complexion, mottled with lichens or whatever they are. The architecture is fussy, but impressive: to a layman (like me), it seems to have a touch of Dutch and Italian bolted on top of something else. It looks quintessentially Elizabethan anyway. The windows, chimneys and stone figures are just wonderful. The architect is thought to have been a local man, William Arnold.
Sir Edward Phelips was a lawyer (and a member of Middle Temple) and politician who went on to become Speaker of the House and Master of Rolls under James I. He was an ardent Protestant, on the prosecuting team when the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered and died in 1614. The house stayed with the Phelips for more than 300 years and, unusually, this family did not tinker over-much with their property, so it has survived virtually unaltered. The most significant change was the rebuilding of the west front in the late 18th century, sensitively using Tudor stonework and carvings from a nearby house, Clifton Maybank, which was in the process of being demolished. The original east front entrance then became the back door.
Inside, Montacute is a mixture of décor, from Tudor to Regency with a bit of early 20th century thrown in for good measure. The Great Hall has an imposing stone screen which, though certainly a work of art, struck me as being out of place and, therefore, inelegant. My favourite room was the library, full of welcoming warm light.
The long gallery, all 172 feet of it, spans the entire top, second, floor of the house. Light streams in through windows that run along its entire length on the eastern side, and through exquisite oriel windows at either end. Long galleries were features of Tudor – and later – houses and were used for entertainment and exercise. Apparently, the Phelips children used to ride ponies in this one. I bet they enjoyed themselves so much they got a little hoarse. And it’s here that the National Portrait Gallery displays an intriguing collection of contemporary portraits, the celebrity photographs of their day.
I enjoy looking at portraits; though gazing into the eyes of other astonishing people can be a little unnerving. James I looked a little rough, I thought, as though he was recovering from a messy session of one sort or another; too many pints of heavy, maybe. Elizabeth I looked haughty, regal – and a trifle scary, rather like a strict, self-opinionated, aunt who really has a heart of gold. Henry VIII, I decided, was a nasty piece of work; he had mean piggy-eyes and a petulant, cruel, little mouth. These people were game-changers; where would we be today without them? I swear Catherine Parr gave me a saucy look as I left the room, the little minx.
Montacute House sits in about 300 acres, of which a small fraction has been turned over to formal gardens. The massive yew hedges are trimmed in a unique, undulating style, like irregular breaking waves. The formal border around what was originally the entrance court on the east side was a riot of colour in August, which my inadequate photography has failed to capture. There’s an impressive fountain too. But you wouldn’t visit Montacute just for its gardens. Once, there would have been a large kitchen garden, glasshouses and a further courtyard beyond the east entrance.
The heirs to Montacute were local Somerset gentry, members of Parliament, soldiers, who generally cared for the place down the years. The rot set in with 19th century William Phelips, ‘the Gambling Squire’, who would bet on virtually anything and consequently squandered away the family wealth. By 1911, the Phelips were forced to leave Montacute, never to return, letting the house out to various tenants.
One notable occupier was George Curzon, 1st Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, Conservative politician. Curzon had a turbulent affair with romantic novelist Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) and installed her at Montacute for 18 months to oversee its redecoration. After a notable scene on a dead tiger in one of her novels, the following rhyming couplet became popular:
Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn on a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer to err with her on some other fur?
Ah – a juicy tale at last! George, however, turned out to be something of a cad in this instance. Elinor discovered, when reading her morning newspaper, that he was going to marry someone else; she promptly abandoned Montacute House to write scripts in Hollywood and I assume left George to finish off the wallpapering.
Finally, in 1931 the house was sold; it opened to the public the following year. During the Second World War, it was requisitioned by the army and US servicemen camped in the grounds immediately prior to the Normandy invasion.
Montacute House is a fine, undemanding, place to visit. Its use as Greenwich Palace in Wolf Hall will have done its visitor figures no harm – though it has been used as a location in other productions too. The writer Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, set part of his novel Belgravia (published in 2016) at Montacute House.
Don’t forget to explore the village, if you get the chance, where many of the humbler buildings have been constructed from the same Hamstone as the mansion. The 18th century Phelips Arms looks worth a visit too.