The Story of Stansted Park

Architecture is about many things – building style, social change, technological advance, but also the human needs and dramas of the people who lived in it. Never was this truer than of country houses. At their height, they formed self-contained communities formed of scores of people, who loved or hated each other, circumscribed by the hierarchy within which they were confined, but occasionally breaking free of it. No wonder so many murder mysteries are set in country houses: people were thrown together and couldn’t easily escape…

Here, Clive Aslet tells the complex, curious story of Stansted Park and its many inhabitants, and also reveals several unusual tales from the house’s long history to provide some inspiration for our #CountryHouseQuirks competition. Read on to learn why Stansted was home to a donkey-riding school in the early 19th century and how a window in its chapel is linked to a seminal work by the Romantic poet John Keats.

Clive Aslet unveils the past of Stansted Park

I’ve been writing about country houses for more than 40 years, and if one thing has kept the subject fresh for me over all that time, it’s the extraordinary tales that can be unearthed. That is why I have called my new book The Story of the Country House. Scratch the surface of any stately pile and you’ll probably find that it has had some extraordinary owners over the centuries – because building was such a difficult, expensive and time-consuming activity that only obsessive, socially competitive, arrogant, vain or, occasionally, idealistic or saintly people would undertake it. Stansted Park outside Chichester makes this point well. Outwardly the house may look Edwardian, but the external shell hides 800 years of continuous occupation by a colourful crowd of people – rarely related to each other since they were singularly bad at producing heirs. They include the 12th Earl of Arundel, a hugely improvident Catholic aristocrat with a mania for collecting (it was said that he introduced both the coach and silk stockings to English life). Unfortunately, this iteration of Stansted decayed after the Civil War and the only fragment to survive is the rose-coloured brickwork on the outside of the chapel. 

In the 1680s a new Stansted arose, with a hipped roof, dormers and pediment, for the 1st Earl of Scarbrough – a soldier who captured an opposing commander, Lord Grey, hiding in a ditch after the Battle of Sedgemoor, which would have been awkward since they were neighbours (Grey’s Uppark was strangely similar to Scarbrough’s Stansted). Lord Scarbrough was succeeded by the 2nd Earl, who shot himself, supposedly on the eve of his marriage, and Stansted was left to another son, from whom it passed to the 2nd Earl of Halifax who had married into the family. Halifax contributed a triangular tower to the wider architectural landscape of Stansted Park; indeed, he is often remembered for the money he lavished on his buildings, as well as electioneering and his mistress who was a singer at Drury Lane. Then came the East India Company merchant and MP Richard Barwell, who ‘made it his study to render himself obnoxious to persons of all ranks’, according to a diarist, by shutting the park to the public.

Stansted Park, engraving by Johannes Kip. Britannia Illustrata, c. 1710

On Barwell’s death in 1804, Stansted was bought by Lewis Way. Way would have become a clergyman if his father had not made him study law, and he was able to pursue his missionary zeal when, after working for a wealthy but unrelated client who shared his surname, he found he had been left a hefty sum of £30,000. A member of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, Way transformed Stansted into a college where young, impecunious Jewish men could stay, be shaved and baptised, and train as missionaries to be sent to their own people. A donkey-riding school even prepared them for future travel in distant lands. It was Way who made the chapel out of surviving fragments of the Tudor house, which would go on to play a small but important role in the history of the Romantic era. During the chapel’s three-hour service of consecration, the poet John Keats had ample time to study the stained glass in the north windows, where the arms of the Earls of Arundel inspired a stanza of “The Eve of St Agnes”.

Then, on the last day of the 1900 Goodwood Races, Stansted caught fire, in a blaze that lit up the country for miles around. Carvings by Grinling Gibbons, Italian ceiling paintings, pictures of the queens who were supposed to have slept there: all were destroyed, and Stansted was rebuilt in an unexciting neo-Georgian style. This was the house bought by the 9th Earl of Bessborough in 1924, after Bessborough House in Ireland was burnt during the Troubles (fortunately, its contents had already been removed and some of its beautiful eighteenth-century pictures still hang at Stansted today). Bessborough asked his old Cambridge friend, the architect Harry Goodhart-Rendel, to come down in his Rolls-Royce and bring his new home up to date. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris inspired a blue chapel ceiling, spangled with stars, and Rinaldo, as the architect was known, built a theatre modelled on the Duchess Theatre in London, which fired the young Eric with a passion for acting. In 1942 while watching a training film, a member of the Home Guard dropped a cigarette and the theatre went up in flames.

My book is about places like Stansted. The country house is an archetype, expressing love of the land, status, self-expression through architecture and, not least, the pleasure to be had there, with gardens, horses, dogs, art, collecting – delete as applicable. It has often been made into a mini-Arcadia, where owner and loved ones can find refuge from a harsh world. It can also be seen as a great and glorious repository of human stories, like a three-dimensional novel that you just can’t put down.

Enter our #CountryHouseQuirks competition!

Stansted has some quirky tales to tell –  but it’s not the only one. Does your local country house have a history to rival Stansted’s? We want to hear it!

Enter our #CountryHouseQuirks competition with your favourite hidden history, surprising story or fascinating fact about a country house in the UK for the chance to win a copy of the The Story of the Country House by Clive Aslet, and an A3 print by the book’s illustrator Bethan Scorey.

Click here for more information on how to enter.

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