Christopher Stocks


Madresfield | House & Garden


Madresfield… The very name sounds romantic, and this huge, rambling place, hidden away on a 5,000-acre estate at the foot of the Malvern Hills, must be one of the most mythologised houses in Britain. For this is the home of the Lygon family, who in the 1920s befriended the novelist Evelyn Waugh, and whose story, thinly disguised, was the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited. But Madresfield is far more than Brideshead. A treasure-house of 160 rooms, it has been inhabited since 1196, since when it has never been bought or sold, passing down through the generations by inheritance, accumulating rooms and heirlooms as the centuries drifted by.

In the distance across its lush, well-wooded park, Madresfield looks as ancient as its history suggests – a picturesque cluster of gables and chimneys surrounded by a moat, silhouetted against the dark, dramatic backdrop of the Malverns. Yet appearances can be deceptive, and as you approach along one of its four long tree-lined avenues, it gradually becomes apparent that the present house is not as historic as it seems. Unfortunately the Lygons came into a lot of money in the early 19th century, and the fifth and sixth Earls Beauchamp refashioned and rebuilt the old house in a style that has less in common with the mellow beauty of Brideshead than the shiny red brick of St Pancras Station.

Cross the moat, however, on the narrow brick bridge, go under the arch of the Tudor gatehouse (one of the few fragments of the original house to survive), open the Victorian front door at the end of a deep flagstone passage, and you enter a different world. Though few of Madresfield’s interiors are architecturally distinguished in themselves, it’s a remarkably atmospheric place. I think this is thanks to a combination of things. The literary associations certainly help, but what’s more immediately striking is the range and sheer profligacy of the contents. Everywhere you look there are miniatures, marble busts, paintings, books, inscriptions, glassware, carvings, chests, cabinets, tapestries, silver, cases of Limoges porcelain, rugs, William Morris tiles and wallpaper, carved fireplaces, Chinese lamp bases, bowls, inlaid boxes, stained glass, vases, swords and daggers, all of the highest quality.

Madresfield has no overall plan, which makes it a bewildering place for a first-time visitor. Wide passages take seemingly random turns and open onto larger rooms through unexpected corners. A long Edwardian drawing room opens onto a lovely green panelled saloon; directly opposite is the cod-Medieval dining hall, complete with a fake-hammerbeam roof and minstrels’ gallery. Climb a dark, narrow stair behind a curtained recess in a corner of the library, open a double door, and you enter the famous Arts & Crafts chapel, just as it appears in Brideshead Revisited, with its brilliantly painted walls and the triptych, ‘carved,’ as Waugh writes, ‘so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in plasticine.’ Most extravagant of all is the Staircase Hall, a windowless double-height space at the centre of the house, lit only by three glass domes in the roof. Its eponymous staircase has crystal balusters, and the entire room is a riot of paintings, furniture and mementoes, including an inscribed score of Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius (his father tuned the pianos).

For many years this enchanted kingdom was presided over by Lady Rosalind Morrison, but in 2010 she decided to pass the keys of the house to her younger daughter, Lucy, who now takes up the story. ‘I’d known I would inherit Madresfield since 1995,’ she says, ‘but it didn’t really sink in till then. My mother had done a lot of work over the years, so the house was in pretty good shape. The challenge, for us, was to turn it into a family home.’ Lucy and her husband have two boys and two girls, and she points out that ‘until we moved in the Christmas before last, [December 2012, that is] there hadn’t been children living in the house for almost a hundred years.’

The first task was to make the house warm and watertight. In went a biomass boiler; on went new lead and tiles; out came tangles of antiquated wires and plumbing, which (something of a novelty at Madresfield) are now hidden behind the freshly repainted plaster. The next was to create a self-contained house within the larger house in which the family could live some kind of normal life. The ‘brilliant’ Sarah Butler, from the Shrewsbury office of conservation architects Donald Insall Associates, oversaw the building works, but it wasn’t until Lucy turned to the decorator Emily Todhunter, who had worked on her previous house, that the key to the project fell into place. ‘We’d planned to keep the kitchen where it had always been, miles from the family rooms, but then Emily said, “I know this is very late in the day, but have you thought about moving the kitchen?” We all went gulp, but from that point everything started making sense.’

The location of the new kitchen – on the ground floor, directly beneath the family bedrooms – might seem blindingly obvious today, but it took the place of two bedrooms, a bathroom and a corridor. It’s a suitable scale for the house but at the same time informal, which is testament to both Todhunter Earle and the kitchen genius Jane Taylor, whom Emily drafted in to help. Jane explains that ‘design elements from the existing house were my starting point – for instance the panelling was inspired by the drawing room, while the carved oak round the island is an adaptation of linenfold panelling in the house. The feather and leaf handles were moulded in bronze from carvings that Lucy had done in wood. They make the kitchen even more particular to her, as well as carrying on the craft feel of the whole house.’

Impressive though the new kitchen is, it’s only one of around 60 rooms that Todhunter Earle have redone. Much of the refurbishment has been so subtly executed that it’s hard to tell anything has changed – which of course is precisely the effect they were aiming for. Yet hundreds of chairs and sofas have been resprung and recovered, panelling has been repaired and waxed, rooms refreshed and repainted, pictures conserved and rehung. The biggest job of all has been the creation of 18 new bedrooms, mainly in what were, remembers Emily, ‘small, very spare and crumbly servants’ rooms with ivy growing through the windows. Lucy wanted everything to be comfortable and cosy, so we’ve made sure that every bedroom has a fireplace and all the bathrooms have “proper” furniture.

‘Madresfield today has a feelgood factor,’ Emily adds, ‘which flows down from Lucy and her family.’ Jane Taylor feels the same way. ‘I’ve worked in a few stately homes which really were stately houses rather than homes, but Madresfield is the most home-like house I have ever been to.’ In Lucy’s words, ‘It’s such a magical place: it’s so large, yet it’s a house without an ego. Having children here again is so good for the spirit of the place: they love storming round every corner and finding places I never knew existed.’

© Condé Nast 2014