If you read Matthew Beckett’s site, The Country Seat (countryhouses.wordpress.com), you may have come across its sister site (www.lostheritage.org.uk), listing all the great English Country Houses which are no longer with us, most victims of war, requisition, decay, decline, 80 per cent death duties, lost fortunes – wine, women, song and the gambling table, asset strippers and developers.
This all took place before listed building status obliged owners to ‘preserve’ properties with notable historic or architectural status. However, for those of who have ever looked into this, we know that this doesn’t mean the owners of such properties always keep their precious belongings in tip-top condition – I live near somewhere that has been clad in scaffolding for as long as I have known it because that stops the place falling down; pretty and well-maintained it is not but English Heritage don’t seem to do much about it.
And the purpose of this preamble? It serves as a worthy introduction to Bowood House, or rather, the part of Bowood House that is still standing.
Embodied in a visit to Bowood is the sad tail end to the story of the country house, one I’d rather not describe as the end of the tail because obviously life does go on, in a rather different way, part in the form of nationalistation/hotel-isation/National Trust-isation/civic museum-isation/school-isation (you get the picture) of our country house and part as it always did, just with less servants.
I used to believe that no one could afford to live in great houses any more, that everyone who owned one or inherited one had to open their doors to the public to survive. The media, the existence of the National Trust and programmes such as Country House Rescue and Restoration Man would have us believe this.
However, a quick look at the pages of Country Life on any given month reveals quite how many gorgeous, great, historic and expansive houses and estates are still in private hands and how many new ones are being built. Granted, not all the houses fall into each of the categories but my working life leaves me in no doubt that there are still some very rich people living in England and some of those have taste, an interest in historic property and the means (and, perhaps more importantly, the business-sense) to keep great estates.
Sadly, you may remind me that Country Life is full of people wanting to sell their properties, and it has long been the case that inheriting-types couldn’t afford to keep them. Certainly, at a point in history between 1935 and 1980, many couldn’t afford to pour gold into their money pits. While some houses, such as Basildon Park (near Reading) were put back together, others did not find their own fairy godmother. Thus, Woburn saw its fourth side demolished and Bowood, despite its Robert Adam interiors (or perhaps because of it – they surely would have raised a bob or two at auction), saw its main house demolished.
I take this opportunity to reflect on this part of the country houses’ history because there isn’t much to say about Bowood House the house we visit today.
Principally, there is one room on show, a library.
Incorporating some pieces from the original house.
I delighted in the salvaged doors and Robert Adam shutters (I have a photo of a Robert Adam shutter from Osterley Park on my wall at home because of how joyful it makes my heart at each glance), and the views from the windows.
The rest is really an orangery and a museum, showing off the family’s collection from all their wonderful connections overseas, namely in the East. D got a diamond fill here as there is indeed some bling on show.
Outside there are the obligatory landscaped gardens (the walled gardens are usually shut, only open on certain days for a supplementary cost), a marvellous playground (alas I’d get dragged off I think if I tried to join in) and a decent café. I can’t fault the family for what they have done with what is left but for me, I wanted to see the graveyard of where the house once stood, now just an uneven lawn to the right of the remaining wing.
Bowood is a stop off of heartstrings tearing proportions. If there are children in your party though, be warned, you won’t get out of here before dusk once they’ve laid eyes on the play area!
Think Syon House without the house. They even have a hotel and spa.
When visited: April
Theme tune: What do you do with a drunken sailor?
House * out of 5: N/A but *** for the remaining bit
Landscaped Garden * out of 5: ***