Hampton Court is a grand castellated house set in the Herefordshire countryside. When the VV was a child she loved to stare through car windows whenever out for a family drive, to gaze at that sprawl and fantasise about what might be going on inside.
But Hampton Court has many tales of its own, and none of them more finely told than Catherine Beale's Champagne and Shambles - the fascinating, true history of the house's Victorian years.
The following post has been written by Catherine and explains, very beautifully, the allure, the glory and the pain encountered by those previous souls who also fell under the house's spell...
I’ve been up close with a serial seductress for about twenty years now. She broods. Like the moody lead in a French film - as they would say, “elle boude”. She appears cold, is hollow-hearted and made of stone. Yet to many men, she’s been ruinously irresistible. She’s pushed them away as she’s drawn them in, then emptied their pockets and sent them packing. She’s called Hampton Court, Herefordshire, and was the inspiration for Dinwood Court in Essie Fox’s Somnambulist.
Essie and I, like many others, grew up passing this fifteenth-century fortified manor house to which there is easy visual access from the A417 between Leominster and Hereford. Unlike other country houses, Hampton Court is not secluded beyond an Austenian serpentine mile-long sweep. Until the introduction of a gate-house and tree-planting in the 1990s, the house was baldly visible to all-comers, set back from the side of the road, up a ramrod-straight drive. This involuntary exposure forms part of her charm. It makes her vulnerable – ‘all Danaë to the stars’.
To me she lies on her right side, propped up on one elbow on nature’s chaise-longue, the fertile River Lugg meadows backed by the thickly-wooded slopes of Dinmore Hill. The combined backdrop of low-hanging trees and our view of the north front make the house appear dismal and damp, an impression not helped by small windows and ageing stone. Only her eyes, the leaded panes of the chapel, hint at the spark beyond.
Little boys, young and old alike, see serried battlements on which they yearn to play knights and archers. The central tower and great gate to which the umbilical drive leads are those of the fantasy castle, repelling all-comers while protecting those within. The cross-loops or arrow slits conceal a wily Cupid and contribute to the romance. I suspect that the flag-pole that tops the tower casts the final spell. You have to get inside, no matter what. Better still, to possess her.
When we were little girls, the allure was ripened by the fact that curiosity teased you in but private ownership kept you out. The gardens didn’t open to the public until 2000; the house in 2008. I began to research the history of the Arkwright family, the Victorian occupants, back in the early 1990s.
Hampton Court cast her spell on John Arkwright (1785-1858) grandson of the cotton-spinning industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in the early nineteenth century. Her Picturesque setting was the contemporary ideal and she lay between the estates of the two fathers of the landscape movement, Uvedale Price of Foxley, Herefordshire and RA Knight of Downton, Shropshire. John asked his father for permission to come and live here in 1814 explaining that ‘of all the situations I know, there is none which suits my tastes so well as Hampton Court’. John spent around £46,000 in the 1830s and ‘40s converting the medieval manor house into a Victorian home, and by the end of it wished that ‘he had never touched a stone’.
John and his wife Sarah raised a dozen children at Hampton Court. They filled the house with noise and activity. John’s greatest delight was to get them all on horseback for a tour of the estate. A favourite ride was to the Humber Falls on the brook across the road from the house.
Here, the crashing of water over rocks made a thrilling destination, besides creating the ideal habitat for the ferns so popular at the time. The element of danger was as exciting to the Arkwright girls as it was terrifying to Phoebe Turner, for whom ‘falls’ in Essie’s novel becomes a cruelly accurate description of the location that surely inspired a crucial scene.
John’s son, Johnny Arkwright (1833-1905) lived his whole life here, came into his inheritance aged twenty-four and increased the estate to over 10,500 acres. He was a golden child, noted at Eton for ‘a disposition to noisiness’. He sunk punts at Oxford and was wildly popular, dispatched boxes of roses to his bride ‘and kissed every flower’. Yet Johnny was of that unfortunate generation of late-Victorian owners that, despite doing everything right – investing in the estate, taking a lead in the county, playing his part in London – saw the world change irrevocably for its kind. By the time of Johnny’s death, some of the farms were mortgaged and his son had to offer Hampton Court for sale five years after his death.
The Arkwrights sold Hampton Court to Nancy Burrell in 1912, and during the First World War the house became a Red Cross hospital. Mrs Burrell’s husband died during the war and she was obliged to sell in 1924. She had lost a baby son and poignantly kept his ashes beneath the altar in the chapel, only scattering them when she left Hampton Court – an incident that perhaps inspired the novel’s inclusion of a child’s grave in the woods.
The Devereux family owned Hampton Court from 1924 until 1972, when the eighteenth Viscount Hereford and his wife forsook the life of the country estate, downsized and sold the lot in one of the legendary house sales of the period. Since then, Hampton Court has been bought and sold more times than in the previous 550 years put together. Each time, as funds ran out, more of her original contents were sold to try to stave off ruin, but still the rain seeped in through the leads.
Her knight on a white charger rode in in 1994. American former financier Robert Van Kampen had fallen in love with Hampton Court from afar. He saw her in a video but on enquiry, was told that he was too late, she had already been sold. He visited the UK with his wife on holiday. They pulled up at the end of the drive. Judith Van Kampen spoke of seeing her husband’s shoulders sink as he realised what he had lost. Undaunted they drove up, while surveyors pushed measuring wheels about and sized the old girl up.
They were welcomed inside by the vendor’s wife, who was still awaiting payment. Her husband was summoned from ‘Manchester or Birmingham or one of your cities’, while the Americans took tea. Within half an hour of negotiations, the deal was done. In the ensuing six years, Hampton Court got a new roof, was re-plumbed, rewired and heated throughout. She twinkled again. She dabbled her toes in new gardens commissioned by the Van Kampens from David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell. Joseph Paxton’s Victorian conservatory became a tea room.
Many thousands paid to get in and see the gardens. And what of the curve of Hampton Court’s back, coyly kept from view for so long? It was as dazzling as it was unexpected. Trapped between the house and the hill the sun seems to smile relentlessly down on a private playground, creating a particular paradise. In stark contrast with the public front, the stones seem to radiate warmth, making you inhale, as if to catch her scent. Broad windows glint in the sun and the music room doors are thrown open. Danaë has her back to Zeus and almost wriggles in the heat. She mocks our astonishment. Listen carefully and you might hear the river – or was it a laugh?
Catherine Beale is the author of Champagne & Shambles – Crisis at the Country House (The History Press, 2009) and of Born out of Wenlcock: William Penny Brookes and the British origins of the modern Olympics (DB Publishing, 2011). Her website is at www.cbeale.co.uk. Hampton Court’s website with opening times is at http://www.hamptoncourt.org.uk/