Stanway House - At home with Lord Wemyss

  • Stanway House
  • Lord Wemyss
  • Stanway House

We stop by Stanway House for a cup of tea and a chat about Thomas Cromwell, the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the tallest gravity fountain in the world

The Cotswolds have more than their fair share of gorgeously historic country homes. Some of these rambling piles have ended up managed and maintained by the National Trust, the dynasties that once occupied them now little more than curiosities for the daytripper. The clocks have stopped in such residences - these are the grand family homes that have succumbed to the passage of time, becoming museums instead.

Not so at Stanway House, where the story of the Tracy family and their descendants continues after centuries. The public are allowed to wander the house and its grounds to their content, in select summer months at least, but those expecting to find a palace preserved in aspic will be disappointed. For all its old world charms and treasures, Stanway remains resolutely lived in, a place that still lives and breathes. Today it is a fine home to James Charteris, Earl of Wemyss and March and his Countess, Amanda Feilding.

Lord Wemyss allows us a little ramble before we convene in the kitchen for a spot of tea. Constructed from beautifully mellow ‘Guiting Yellow’ stone and distinguished by Jacobean mullions and gables, the house is situated in a hollow and surrounded by breathtaking parkland.

Inside, much of the furniture has been in the house since its creation, including a Charles I shuffleboard table. We are surprised when, during a inspection of a collection of curiosities, a modest rectangle of dark marble reveals itself to have been a piece of Hitler’s desk from the Berlin Chancellery, portioned up amongst the victorious Allies and acquired by Ian Fleming, the husband of Lord Wemyss’ cousin Ann Charteris.

‘The estate goes back to 715, we think,’ says Lord Wemyss in the AGA-warmth of the kitchen, buttering up a slice of homemade soda bread that he takes with a cup of Japanese rice tea. ‘It was given to Tewkesbury Abbey by Odo and Dodo, two Saxons who lived in the Winchcombe area. Then in 1533 it was leased to Richard Tracy. Richard had a bee in his bonnet about the fact his father was declared to be a heretic after he was already dead, his body being dug up and burnt. So he became friendly with Thomas Cromwell, who was leading an anti-monastic campaign at the time. Cromwell – who was so powerful at that point - suggested the abbey lease the land to Richard and it was done within four days of Cromwell writing the letter.’ He marvels at the expediency of this: ‘You could hardly do something like that today, even with the Internet…’

It happens that a crew have recently filmed here for a televised adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Cromwell novel, Wolf Hall. It is fitting that that the story of the infamous Thomas Cromwell – the blacksmith’s son who became Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor and the chief architect of the dissolution of the monasteries – should include Stanway House: after all, it was Cromwell who delivered it into Tracy hands. ‘It was rather curious…they had the actor portraying Cromwell here in the Great Hall, being filmed interrogating suspects in Lambeth Palace. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for Cromwell.’

But although Cromwell was later toppled and beheaded in 1540 – the very year after the Abbey of Tewkesbury was dissolved – Richard survived: this in spite of the controversial tracts and dangerous opinions he continued to circulate. Stanway was eventually secured for the Tracys when they purchased the freehold from the crown.

‘My family married what turned out to be the last Tracy, Susan Tracy, in 1771 and she inherited it in 1817.'

‘The Tracys were squires. They got an Irish peerage at one point, and became Baronets at another, knights quite often - but they were never peers in the English parliament. Their roots remained in Gloucestershire really. They were a typical old, honourable, knightly Gloucestershire family, and that’s why they built such a lovely house because they were completely rooted in that home. They had a very ancient lineage – they traced their descent back to Charlemagne, something not very many people could do. To have an old lineage in the 18th century was the one thing you were valued for.’

Under the Tracys and their descendants, Stanway House withstood the subsequent Civil War and the tumultuous 20th century; its Jacobean grandeur, 18th century water garden (most likely designed by Charles Bridgeman) and attractive situation fostering a uniquely peaceful atmosphere.

Does Lord Wemyss enjoy losing himself in the annals of his family history? ‘I find out as much about family history as I can. One of the best sources we have is the from a daughter of the house, Anne Tracy, who wrote a diary between 1723-25 that gives you a very good picture of what life was like. The excitements were things like somebody you might marry coming over so you might go for a walk through the fields together, or somebody else giving birth to a baby in a barn. There was a lot of sewing. When it was summer you went down into the cellar to get cool – you didn’t shed your clothes and hop into a bikini, you kept them on and went and sat in the cellar.’

The 20th century witnessed the arrival of some rather noteworthy houseguests. Peter Pan author J.M Barrie summered at Stanway House with a troupe of his illustrious friends for six weeks every year between 1923-1932 (his literary cricket team, the Allahakbarries, famously included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, A.A. Milne and G.K. Chesterton).

‘H.G. Wells stayed here, as did L.P. Hartley, author of The Go Between. Edith Wharton was here once or twice, and David Cecil, who wrote books about Lord Melbourne. Barrie was an insomniac and David Cecil used to have to amuse him for an hour or two every night or he’d end up groaning, making these strange noises. He had a terrible cough that went on the whole time, particularly at night. His room was situated at the corner of two long corridors so his coughs would be heard in every bedroom.

‘But he was very generous. The staff loved him because he left big tips, and in many ways he saved the house by renting it every year. He kept the show on the road for just over ten years. In 1924 he bowled a hat trick and built the cricket pavilion in ’25 to commemorate it with.’

Tea finished, we take a stroll around the grounds. Of particular note is the Egyptian-styled memorial stela to Lord Weymss’ aunt, Helen Murray, complete with hieroglyphic inscriptions – a prayer for the deceased - and a symbolic doorway to allow her spirit passage in and out. It is a beautifully crafted monument, and one that has required no small amount of research to create.

‘My aunt was an Egyptologist of sorts,’ says Lord Wemyss. ‘She came from Capetown and was in coastal artillery in the war. They had a lot of women spotting for the 9.2 inch guns they had around Capetown. She rose to be a staff sergeant: she was the sweetest, mildest, frailest aunt that you could imagine ever being a staff sergeant.

‘In order to write [her prayer] I had to learn quite a lot about hieroglyphs. But it is the most charming language ever invented, so clever and rooted in its countryside. Most of the objects represented are things you find on the farm – the ribcage of an ox for instance. The symbol for beauty is actually the windpipe and lungs of an ox. By using a repulsive object to symbolise beauty, or sort of unite the beautiful and the ugly. Farm instruments represent sublime concepts. The thing you feared most if you were an Egyptian was a dog digging up your mummy and ending your afterlife, so you make the dog-headed god Anubis the guardian of your cemetery. It’s a clever way of going about things and they were a brilliant people.’

‘They had about 770 signs and we’ve only got 26. And all their myths are woven into the language: they had a completely consistent worldview, no loose edges. And their whole life would be spent preparing for the afterlife.’

Onto the canal, where that enormous fountain abruptly gushes into life: a single jet, two inch nozzle creates a magnificent plume capable of reaching up to 300 feet into the sky. Since the opening in 2004 it has been an understandably popular addition to the grounds, and it is certainly a talking point.

‘It is the tallest fountain in Britain, and the tallest fountain in the European Union because the fountain in Geneva that is much taller is not in the EU. It’s about the only reason I know I have for wanting the EU to exist,’ Lord Wemyss laughs. ‘And it’s not a very good reason.

‘This fountain is never the same for two seconds. It is always on the move.’

This extraordinary fountain is driven through a 2km long pipe leading from a 100,000-gallon reservoir situated 530 feet above the canal. When the wind catches the plume it carries the water out into a curtain of rippling mist. Wherever did they get the idea to have such a thing put in?

‘The idea of putting the canal back was mine, based on a painting displayed in the hall. The architect Paul Edwards suggested we put in a fountain behind the pyramid, so we made some minor adjustments to a small pipe and got a seventy-foot fountain. The problem was it drained the pond behind the fountain when you turned it on, so I was trying to think of a solution…

‘It happens that the gods were kind, because a sheep urinated in the spring we were providing a water company…Suddenly all the water they were previously taking away was made available for our fountain, and it was all thanks to one sheep.’

It’s a funny old world when you think about it. No letter from scheming Cromwell, no Stanway House as we know it; a sheep piddling in the water eventually births the world’s biggest gravity fountain. ‘That’s history for you,’ says Lord Wemyss. Here at Stanway House, many things seem possible.

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