Reading the website for Avington Park I was somewhat put off to see it being described ‘as featured in the X-Factor in the autumn of 2006’. The house quickly dispelled my scepticism and is indeed so pretty, welcoming and well-dressed that it is definitely worth a visit on one of the Sundays (or few other days) that it is open during late spring and summer.
As we drove up through the main gates, along the pebbled drive and past the main door (following our noses to find the unsignposted car park) we felt like real guests. This is one of those houses that doesn’t scream ‘open to public’ and so although one needs to put a little bit of effort in, the guest truly feels invited. No ha-ha here: just an electric fence behind which were lazing two immaculate horses and then fields disappearing into the distance.
Reason to visit: to see Sèvres tiles in the fireplaces.
Roland took us around the house on a 1 hr guided visit and made it clear that ‘this isn’t a National Trust house so you can sit on the chairs and touch things!‘. I thought to myself ‘this is why I sooo prefer HHA member houses’. And our entrance was through the front door. Simon Jenkins would be pleased: he doesn’t like it when we mere mortals are not given a tour as the architect originally intended.
Four rooms and the staircase are included on the tour: the entrance hall, two staterooms (the ballroom & drawing room) and the library. The bannister on the staircase is very sweet: mahogany with holly inlay. A nice touch when so many banisters are plain.
When Charles II was building a Palace of Versailles for himself in Winchester the clergy weren’t so keen on housing his mistress, Nell Gwynn. The owner of Avington Park had married a very rich widow and they welcomed Charles and his mistress to stay with them. It cost them a lot and being before the day of Twitter I am told lots of shenanigans took place that would have definitely made the front page of the News of the World. In the library there are three paintings on board that hint at this, e.g. a female centaur catching another female.
The interiors we see are however later (there has been a house on the land in various forms since approx. 1100). The Prince Regent was a visitor and one gets the feeling Avington was a bit of a party pad. The Bacchus imagery in the ball room suggests there was a theme of ‘wine, women and song’.
Inspired by work of Inigo Jones, the original 1690 portico with wooden plinth was built by local workmen as fashionable builders were busy rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. The body and wings of the house date to 1790 or thereabouts.
Anne Boleyn is an ancestor, whose original surname was Bullen. We were told that during her travels around continental Europe her surname was chopped and changed and when she married Henry VIII she settled on Boleyn.
Upstairs in the state rooms the fireplaces have Sèvres tiles, the first of the kind I had seen.
The tour ends in the twin conservatoires (they call them the T bar or the Orangery and the walls in this part of the building are the only ones that date back to the 17th C) where tea and coffee is served from chinzy cups & saucers. On a sunny day it’s bliss and there are also plenty of chairs to sit on outside on the terrace.
The tour isn’t more extensive because in the 1950s the house was sold and divided into flats. There are 10, including the present owner’s flat. I have to say, I wouldn’t say no if offered the chance to live in one (though I’d be interested to know what the service charge is before committing to one): a house this well-kept and pruned comes at a price but it is certainly pleasing on the eye. Sad to see a house split up this way but then the 1950s was a tough time for houses like this.
The garden is modest, mainly lawn. What there is is very well kept. The two pots of pansies we did see had chicken wire to protect them from the two resident peacocks that we spotted lurking outside one of the apartments’ kitchen doors. The peacocks’ tendancy to nibble and the current divison of the property into apartments may explain why the landscape garden continues to dominate at this property.
When visited: 2011
Stars out of 5 (house): ****
Stars out of 5 (garden): ***
Nearest town: Winchester (4 1/2 miles away). The house is badly sign posted. Take the A33 and look out for the tiny white sign post just before the pub, directing you to Avington off to the right.
Theme tune: Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing (Chris Issak) – if I believe the guide, those pictures in the library are reminders of what sort of naughty things were going on at Avington in times gone by.