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Trip Report – Chastleton House

Chastleton – Centuries of family life

Everywhere you looked, there were echoes of the family who had owned and lived in Chastleton House for four centuries.  Built between 1607-1612, this lovely, highly symmetrical building nestles in a fold of the Cotswolds.  It is arguably one of the most eccentric, but also one of the most untouched of the National Trust body of properties, and Chastleton intrigued the HA&HG members during their visit on Wednesday 29th May.

We were split into two groups and given a private guided tour of the house before the public was admitted in the afternoon.  This was a sheer delight: being able to appreciate each room in peace and quiet, with highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides.  They explained that much of the furniture in the house dates back to the Jacobean period, such as a hugely long oak table in the Great Hall, the top made of only three planks of wood.  Next to this room is the more cosy white parlour with painted oak panelling, where ladies would sit in front of the fire and admire the garden through the room’s long windows.

In the library on the first floor was one of the house’s treasures, discovered when the children of the house were turning out a cupboard during the last century.  This is an oval miniature of Charles Ist’s head, surrounded by flat oval shapes that fit exactly on top of the original.  Each of the flat ovals contains the same portrait but at different stages of Charles Ist’s life: being crowned, in prison and even a ghoulish picture in which his eyes seem to be popping out as he is beheaded.  The collection was intended to teach anyone wanting to know about the king’s life.

The ’Cavalier Room’ contains a secret bedroom, originally masked by one of the many rich tapestries in the corner.  The family was staunchly Royalist and the day after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, master of the house, Arthur Jones, fled home and hid for some time in this small chamber, while his Parliamentarian pursuers searched the property.  Unfortunately, they decided to sleep in the adjoining bedroom and Sarah, Arthur’s wife, finally managed to free her husband by adding laudanum to her unwelcome guests’ food and drink.  Arthur fled on one of their horses, and then did not return to the house for two years; the family was heavily fined for their Royalist sympathies.

There are hints of the family’s Jacobite allegiance all over the house, including a very rare decanter and glass set engraved with roses and oak leaves, emblems of the Jacobite cause.  These are all the more precious since glasses were traditionally smashed after a toast, so few such sets exist.

One of the most extraordinary features of the house is the barrel-vaulted gallery at the top.  This beautiful room (the longest of its date to survive in England) contains little furniture, bar the odd ‘Armada’ (Spanish) chest. But its 400-year-old floorboards creak gently as they would have done for those wishing to keep their fine clothes out of the rain and the mud, while gaining exercise, perambulating.  The room has even been used for badminton, at the end of the 19th century. The ceiling is decorated with a glorious and much-copied frieze of winding flowers and acorns, as though replicating the garden experience.  When the National Trust took over the house in 1991, volunteers collected 40 bags of detritus that had fallen through the floorboards all over the house, consisting of playing cards, small toys and jewellery, some of which is on display here, as glimpses of centuries of family life.

Down three stories to the gloomy kitchen with its undisturbed, blackened ceiling – a world away from the leisured gallery at the top.  The kitchen’s assorted years of equipment includes something looking like a wooden clothes drier: a bacon curer, hanging from the ceiling, and which dates back to the house’s construction.  There is also a serving hatch with a lethally heavy rectangle of wood for closure.  This featured in a pub scene in ‘Wolf Hall’, and ‘Father Brown’ has also regularly been filmed in the house.

Outside, the gardens are mostly formal with clipped box hedges, proud lupins and scented roses; these and the carefully-tended vegetable beds were sheer delight in the uncertain sunshine.  Chastleton is also famous for croquet, the rules having been laid down by Walter Jones Whitmore in 1866.  He also created two croquet lawns which can still be used by visitors today.

The house does not have the gilded brilliance of some National Trust properties.  Although originally a prosperous dwelling, successive owners have struggled to maintain this much-cherished house, and it needed attention when it was finally handed to the Trust.  However, they have respected the love of centuries of families, and have sought a balance between authenticity and polish.  Hence, every room at Chastleton is slightly dusty, containing odd remnants of Christmas decorations, and playing cards lie like confetti in odd corners (a passion of the last owner).  However, it is an absolute jewel of a place, full of echoes of the past 400 years, and a privilege to explore.

Report and photographs by Jane Redley