Wimpole: A Great Country House
By Linda Gonschior, author of Handsome Men Are Habit Forming
While contemplating where Mr and Mrs Darcy might spend their wedding night and subsequent days for Handsome Men Are Habit Forming, I researched the notable landmarks within a half day’s travel of ‘Meryton’ in Hertfordshire. Just over the county border in Cambridgeshire I discovered Wimpole Estate, and its Gothic tower ruins particularly caught my interest. I dug into more of the history of that great house and its families, and was fascinated with what I found.
The Gothic tower folly especially intrigued me. In the 1760’s, the 2nd Earl of Hardwicke commissioned Lancelot 'Capability' Brown--who still stands as the most famous figure in the history of the English landscape garden style--to design the north park and include those sham castle ruins, based on a sketch by Sanderson Miller. This eye-catching feature became a place for the family to gather and entertain. Yet as impressive as this might be today, it was hardly motivation for Darcy to whisk his bride to Cambridgeshire, simply to view another Gothic structure in a country filled with them.
Focussing on the period most pertinent, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I was delighted to learn that the 3rd Earl of Hardwicke, Philip Yorke, was a gentleman interested in improving agricultural practices, and in 1790 commissioned the creation of a model farm where innovative methods would be demonstrated. This was a progressive attitude, quite in keeping with how many JAFF writers and readers often view Fitzwilliam Darcy's own notions. A changing world needed men with new ideas, not men who simply followed the same plodding footsteps as their forebears.
The earl’s son, also named Philip, was born in 1784 and as such, would have been around Darcy’s age, attending Cambridge at the same time. It was easy to imagine them as friends. Viscount Royston was a young man of literary accomplishments, a reserved but studious fellow who spent more time with books than on the cricket fields or in society ballrooms. The viscount had a passion for classical literature; his translation of Lycophron’s poem about Cassandra was highly praised. During subsequent travels to foreign lands, he wrote letters to his father, describing in detail the people he encountered, culture and languages experienced, many of which were published posthumously in The Remains of the late Lord Viscount Royston: with a memoir of his life by the Rev. Henry Pepys. Tragically, Lord Royston’s life was cut short at the age of 23, lost at sea during a storm in 1808.
Wimpole Estate was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1976. The house and grounds have been extensively restored since that time. Among the estate's notable feature are its Home Farm, consisting of 750 acres of organically farmed land; nature-friendly, productive, and sustainable. Home to many rare and traditional livestock breeds, it is involved in conservation efforts of these as well as of rare wild flora and fauna. It is a popular destination for educational tours and family visits.
Gardens abound on the estate, from the four-and-a-half acre walled garden that produces vegetables and fruit used in the restaurant, and the Pleasure Ground full of winding paths and almost 130 species of walnut trees, to the restored parterre, which had been lost for a century, and the geometric Dutch Garden.
Wimpole Hall itself is a building of some complexity. As with many of the great houses, it underwent many renovations and additions since the original structure constructed in 1640-1670. Some of the most notable features are the yellow drawing room, a grand room for concerts and dancing which was created by sacrificing seven ground floor and first floor rooms in the centre of the house, and the library and book rooms that contain over 10,000 books.
Sound enticing? Now, about that Gothic tower folly, the one that lured me to find out more about this estate.
Situated on a rise beyond the serpentine lakes created by ‘Capability’ Brown, the designed medieval ruins are an impressive sight. Originally used by the Hardwicke family, the tower later became a game keeper’s residence and continued to be occupied until the 1920’s. The following decades saw great deterioration of the stone structure due to erosion from the elements, vandalism, and the presence of... pigeons. The National Trust began extensive conservation and restoration of the folly during a year-long project involving stabilization of the stonework and replacement of missing elements while preserving the ‘ruined’ look.
The end result won the 2016 EU Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award in the conservation category, the most prestigious heritage award in Europe.
Wimpole Estate is one of hundreds of historical sites worth visiting in Britain, but it is definitely on the list for my next visit. Thanks to Darcy and Elizabeth, I found another fascinating destination that is sure to further stoke my imagination.
Visiting Wimpole Hall, The National Trust
Wimpole’s Award Winning Gothic Tower – Wimpole Estate NT
Wimpole Hall’s Gothic Tower in Wimpole – European Heritage Europa Nostra Awards
The Gothic Folly at Wimpole Hall – HistoricEngland.org.uk
The Remains of the late Lord Viscount Royston: with a memoir of his life by the Rev. Henry Pepys, by Royston, Philip Yorke, Viscount, 1784-1808; Pepys, Henry, 1783-1860