From the moment we stepped into its kitchen garden, everything about Barrington Court made me want to linger. But don’t visit to savour the great moments that took place at this beguiling Somerset estate, because, so far as I know, none did. Nor should you go to take a peek at the sumptuous interiors and furnishings – because there aren’t any.
Henry Daubney, the Earl of Bridgwater, began building a grand house at Barrington sometime around 1538, having inherited the medieval Barrington Manor estate in 1514. Bankrupt and out of favour with Henry VIII, the Earl died in 1548 with the mansion still unfinished; he was said to be so impoverished that there wasn’t even enough ready cash to pay for his burial. The building was completed in 1559 by its next owner, a London merchant called William Clifton. However, in 1605 the estate was sold to Sir Thomas Phelips of neighbouring Montacute House, who in turn sold it in 1625 to William Strode, a clothier from Shepton Mallet. Strode’s son, also a William, built an ostentatious stable block (guaranteed to impress his friends) next to the house in 1674 and the estate remained in the family until 1745. Interestingly, I have read that the Strodes supported the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685; if so, they did well to survive. Anyway, after the Strodes, Barrington Court passed through many careless hands until, by the late 19th century, the mansion, known as Court House, was in a very sorry state indeed, its ceilings, floors and fittings gone, its windows bricked up and farm animals wandering randomly about. Enter Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. Rawnsley, allegedly after quaffing some local cider, persuaded his colleagues at the Trust to take on the place and, in 1907, they did. It’s not clear exactly how this happened; some sources say the National Trust bought it, others vaguely say that they ‘acquired’ it and at least two, including the National Trust’s own website, say that Barrington was ‘gifted’ to the Trust by a Julia Woodward, possibly of Clevedon. If so, who was this lady and how did she get involved? I have discovered there was a reasonably wealthy Julia Woodward living in Clevedon, Somerset, at the right time and who died in 1910; but that’s as far as I’ve got – for the moment.
However it got hold of the property, the National Trust had only been in existence since 1895 and Barrington was its first country house and garden. The story goes that the place was simply beyond the fledgling organisation’s modest resources to repair or maintain, and that they were struggling with it until what their ex-chairman Simon Jenkins refers to as a “literal sugar daddy” appeared. This was Lt Col Arthur Abram Lyle, a director of what would become Tate & Lyle, the sugar company. Lyle and his wife, Elsie (also referred to as Ronnie – I don’t know which is correct, maybe they both are!), visited Barrington Court in 1915. Even in its ruinous state, this was an impressive classic E-shaped Tudor mansion (actually not quite symmetrical) with features like decorative finials and barley-twist chimney pots hinting at past grandeur. So, they fell in love with the place and, in 1920, took out a 99-year repairing lease on it, thus releasing the Trust from any immediate responsibility for restoration and maintenance.
Consequently, the Barrington Court we see today is essentially the creation of the Lyles’, albeit utilising an existing and inspiring template. Based on plans drawn up before the lease had been agreed, by the Lyles’ architect friend, James Edwin Forbes, the house was completely renovated and refitted, influenced by the Arts and Crafts style. The old stable block was turned into a Jacobean revival house, Strode House, for the family to live in until work on Court House had been completed. Apparently, the whole project took just five years to complete, combining the traditional skills of stonemasons and carpenters, with more modern trades like electricians and plumbers, to deliver an early 20th century home cocooned by older original architecture and features. Arthur Lyle collected wood panelling, fireplaces and other carvings, and the results of this hobby are displayed in the house today – including a 17th century staircase salvaged from a Scottish castle. Outside, Forbes had designs for gardens too and sent soil samples in biscuit tins to a well-known garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, so that she could advise what would grow best. Judging by the state of the place today, everybody did a fine job. But it is sad that the man who made it all possible, Arthur Lyle, died so shortly afterwards, in 1931, and had perhaps just five years to enjoy what must have been his dream house. I would like to know a bit more about Arthur Lyle: all I have discovered so far is that he was possibly Lieutenant Colonel of a London Regiment in the Great War – which would make sense, because Lyle & Sons manufactured their famous Golden Syrup at Plaistow, in the East End – and that he might have been wounded on the Somme. In any event, he must have been a remarkable man.
Visiting Barrington Court today, you’ll find a well-stocked and attractive walled kitchen garden, with further formal walled gardens over a moat, and adjacent to Strode House, which the National Trust uses for its café. It’s perfect to simply meander around Barrington Court; there is something comfortable and civilised about the whole place. It even has a cricket pitch and, of course, that’s almost as civilised as you can get. Court House, as suggested earlier, is empty of any furnishings whatsoever. But everywhere you go there’s historic woodwork, often beautifully carved. The long gallery on the 2nd floor is amazing; it runs the length of the building and is, apparently, full of hidden symbols.
Being enveloped in warm timber made me feel that the vacant house was nonetheless curiously contented. It was gently slumbering, hiding the lives, laughter and tears of families long past inside its panelling and stonework, waiting for the next chapter in its story to begin.
In 2014, Barrington Court had a starring role in the 2014 TV drama, Wolf Hall, deputising for buildings no longer entirely with us, including York Place, Cardinal Wolsey’s home in Whitehall, parts of the old Palace of Whitehall and Leicester Abbey (where Wolsey died in 1530). When A Bit About Britain made its official visit, costumes from the series were being displayed, their headless torsos adding a ghostly frisson to the empty rooms. I am no expert, but the attention to detail in the outfits seemed astonishing, and the work exquisite. The later series Six Wives with Lucy Worsley (2016) was also filmed at Barrington. I guess it could be a perfect location, because the fact that there are no furnishings that need to be carefully moved, or which might otherwise just get in the way, gives set designers the freedom to dress interiors as they want, within a period setting.
The thought does occur that you could visit Barrington Hall not as a heritage sightseer, but as a prospective buyer. Liberated from the clutter and lifestyle of an existing occupant, you could picture the interior as you would furnish it yourself, imagine where you could put such-and-such, the best place for the telly, where you’d stick the Christmas tree – and so on. Perhaps you could do a spot of measuring-up; you might even think of a suitable corner in which to hide that dreadful thing you got from Aunt Maud.
That’s an appropriately amusing note to end on. Except to say that loose ends and gaps irritate me, so I’ll email the National Trust and Tate & Lyle to ask about the purchase of Barrington in 1907, and the life of AA Lyle, and will update this article when I learn something.