Sunday, January 17, 2016


  After a rather wet and very windy week in Devon for New Year, as we were driving back home, I was very tempted by a brief stop along the way. I always try to take the opportunity of visiting National Trust places that are too far for a day trip, and it was a bit of a disappointment when I discovered that all those within driving distance of our holiday cottage were either closed for the winter, or it was only the park and the café that was open. Tea and scones are a nice way to finish a long walk in the woods, but I was rather hoping for something more. Still, tea and scones was what we got at Tyntesfield too, because although the house was open for a few hours, we arrived there rather too late to get in. So it will have to be left for another time, and all I got was a tantalising glimpse of the lavish exterior – that, and an equally tantalising guide book.

The house, it seems, was built on an immense fortune made from guano (dried bird droppings). Not the most appealing or fashionable of commodities, but an excellent fertiliser, of great use in revolutionising large- and small-scale Victorian agriculture. The Gibbs family built their fortunes on overseas trade, but the business expanded dramatically after 1842, when they begun to import guano from Peru, so much so that in the mid-1800s William Gibbs became the richest commoner in England. He bought the Tyntesfield estate, enlarged it with the purchase of several adjacent ones, and in 1863 commissioned Bristol architect John Norton to remodel and enlarge the Georgian mansion that came with the estate and turn it into a country house which, according to Mark Girouard, most richly represented the Victorian age.

A committed Christian, William Gibbs did not merely work to enhance his fortune and improve the family home, but also funded churches and charitable works. After his death, his wife Blanche continued to fund many scholarships and community buildings, whilst his eldest son built the Home farm, managed the estate and, when he inherited the house after his mother’s death, he altered and modernised it, using the latest technology, including electricity. Each on the following generations left their mark on Tyntesfield, but the changes were sensitively made, by adding to the work of the predecessors, rather than undoing it. Thus, when the house came to the National Trust in 2002, most of the contents of the house, Chapel, servants’ quarters had survived largely intact, as did the gardens, home farm, woods and farmland, thus giving an exciting glimpse into the workings of the Victorian and Edwardian country house, as well as its decline.

Calke Abbey
The last Gibbs to live at Tyntesfield – Richard, 2nd Lord Wraxall – never married. He lived alone, in fewer and fewer rooms, until his sudden death in 2001. 

His approach, however, was very different to that of the last owners of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire – the ultimate embodiment of the declining country house. At Calke, the owners (dedicated collectors for many generations) filled unused rooms to capacity with the items they had collected over the years, then closed the doors and proceeded to fill another room, so that the National Trust found a veritable Aladdin’s cave when Calke Abbey was entrusted to their care. By contrast, Lord Wraxall ensured the upkeep of the gardens, kitchen garden and the immediately surrounding land and, although the reception rooms were mostly shuttered and closed up, they were kept well-ordered.

I could only learn as much from the guide-book – I have yet to step over Tyntesfield’s threshold myself. But it sounds like a fascinating treasure trove, worthy of further exploration. Hopefully I might be able to explore it in the spring, and also see the gardens in full glory. There’s a Rose Garden, a Rock Garden, the Jubilee Garden, Lady Wraxall’s Garden, and a kitchen garden and walled garden too. The place was a delight even in the dead of winter. In full bloom it must be pure heaven and, although I am a Georgian at heart rather than a Victorian, I can’t wait to go back again!


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I remember a TV programme back in about 2003 on Tyntesfield and how the National Trust was tackling the work that needed to be done before opening the place to the public. They decided. as far as possible, to keep it as it was - as you say, Joana, added to but with nothing thrown out. It sounded like Sleeping Beauty, as if a spell had been cast on it and it's like a fly stuck in amber. It made me long to see it for myself.

So, please, Joana, go back when it opens in the spring and tell us all about it!

Helena said...

I often wish I'd read the guidebook before going to see somewhere, rather than afterwards, so that I could plan my visit. So I'm sure it's for the best, ultimately, that you're going to have to go back again to see it!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

We visited Tyntewfield just after it opened, magnificent place, but we didn't have time for the grounds so that is on the to-do list for 2016. I love stopping off at NT houses when we are going anywhere - and I enjoy reading a guidebook before I visit a house... the alternative is to risk tripping over trying to read it as you walk between rooms!

Thanks for the post, Joana.

Jane Richards said...

If you saw the Christmas episode of Sherlock you saw the interiors of Tyntesfield. They are well worth a visit in all their gothic splendour and the gardens are beautiful in summer as well as in winter.

Joana Starnes said...

Many thanks for your kind words, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!

Tyntesfield is quite unusual, in that it came to the National Trust in very recent years and with all its treasures, rather than as an empty shell. I so loved the Sleeping Beauty metaphor, Elizabeth! Yes, it sounded just like that, so very tempting. Thanks for the lovely words, I'll definitely go back!

It makes so much more sense to read the guidebook in advance, Helena! I hardly ever do, I usually just dash in to make the most of the opening hours, and then go home to read the guidebook and discover I've missed some very special exhibit or other. With any luck, that won't happen here :)

That sounds so familiar, Melinda, tripping over as I walk between the rooms :D Thanks very much for your kind words about my post!

Ah, I missed that, Jane! Such a shame, I'll try to find it. Thanks for stopping by and for your lovely comment!