|Eastnor Castle c. 1880, Morris|
Courtesy Wikipedia Commons
’Twas the start of Half Term and Bank Holiday Monday to boot. Susana, Lady Ellis, and I, escorted by my two faithful hounds and a large picnic, set off for Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. ’Tis not a real castle, you understand, but a revival or mock Gothic fortress, and lies in the feudal village of Eastnor, two miles outside the market town of Ledbury.
A fortified house in the Norman style, with towers and turrets at each corner around a central keep, it was built by John Cocks, the 2nd Baron Somers (later the 1st Earl) between 1810 and 1824, according to the Castle web site. The date is variously recorded as 1810, 1812 and 1814; one article cites 1812 – 20. Designed by Sir Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum, it contains a wealth of historical treasures and artefacts, including paintings, tapestries, armour and carved walnut furniture.
The Cocks family arrived in Herefordshire in the late sixteenth century and bought the Manor of Castleditch, going on to purchase more land round about during the next two hundred years. Marriage between the Cocks family and the Somers family of Worcestershire improved their fortunes further, John Somers, the 1st Baron and Lord Chancellor of England, passing to his descendants a considerable inheritance. Then, at the start of the eighteenth century, the 1st Earl Somers sold his father’s estate near Evesham and the funds from this, in addition to those acquired from the Cocks Biddulph bank (now a part of Barclays) put him in the financial position he needed to build Eastnor Castle early in the Regency. Described as a ‘princely and imposing pile’ when it was built, the mansion cost £85,923 13s 11½d, and took 4,000 tons of stone, 16,000 tons of mortar and 600 tons of wood in the first eighteen months alone! Iron was used for roof trusses and beams to save money. Being a family respected in the fields of politics, the law and the army, an estate in keeping with their social standing was deemed de rigueur. Being a canny individual, the 1st Earl married the daughter of celebrated (and wealthy) historian Rev. Treadway Russell Nash, and thus further increased the family coffers.
The mansion was built as a sign of the family’s status in defiance of the reverses, adversity and concern caused by the war with France. Basically, Lord Somers was cocking a snook at Napoleon and the establishment, although the house possesses a stern symmetry in keeping with the family’s talents rather than the sprawling splendour of the earlier and more romantic Smirke design at Lowther Castle in Cumbria for the Earl of Lonsdale. Nevertheless, it has not been universally approved. In A History of the Gothic Revival, published by Longmans, Green & Co. 1872, Charles Locke Eastlake wrote a somewhat scathing report of the architecture:
“It is a massive and gloomy-looking building, flanked by watch-towers, and enclosing a keep. To preserve the character at which it aimed, the windows were made exceedingly small and narrow. This must have resulted in much inconvenience within...” he said, and went on, “…The building in question might have made a tolerable fort before the invention of gunpowder, but as a residence it was a picturesque mistake.”
|Eastnor Castle from the Lake Walk|
The house has remained in the ownership of the Cocks family since the Regency and is occupied today by descendants of the 6th Baron. As James Hervey-Bathurst and his family reside in the castle, it is only open to the public at certain times during the summer. Perched on the hillside above a shallow valley, the house enjoys wonderful views towards Midsummer Hill and Hollybush Hill, both part of the famous Malvern Hills. Below the castle is a pretty lake (one can easily imagine Mr. Darcy diving into it!) which sparkles in the sun before a backdrop of woodland, set within a three hundred acre deer park. As the visitor faces the front entrance, to the right lies an Arboretum, around which one can walk. There is a tree hunters’ trail, a kind of ‘I Spy’, much enjoyed by children of all ages, as evidenced by the number of eagerly brandished clipboards and pens.
Those of a more mature disposition (and of energetic pooches) can go a little further afield and seek a modicum of peace on a Bank Holiday by walking paths in the woods, circling the Arboretum to visit the Ice House before following the path around the lake. The Arboretum walk takes 20-25 minutes and is moderately hilly, while the lake walk is level and takes 30-40 minutes. A fairly decent walk can thus be found for the sprightlier canine within easy reach of the castle. There is also (joy for the dog owner!) an off lead area to the left of the maze near the entrance from the car parks.
Unlike most country houses, Eastnor Castle welcomes dogs into the castle itself and gains a dozen Brownie points from this author for doing so. Although there is not a lot of space for two large hounds when the whole of Herefordshire seems to have chosen the same day to visit, it is wonderful not to have to miss out or rush back to the one left outside holding the ‘babies’. I did feel, however, a few more signs indicating walks around the grounds would have been helpful, since the plan was not particularly clear – and I am a competent map reader. I resorted to following my nose and it all turned out happily. I daresay it is a question of once you have been a time or two, you know where to go.
As remarked above, the day we visited was Bank Holiday Monday, and there was a traction engine display in the forecourt before the main entrance. This was noisy and there were a lot of people, so it was difficult to linger and properly absorb all the architecture and, within the mansion, the furniture &c. Nevertheless, there was much to see and enjoy.
A flight of steps leads the visitor into the Entrance Hall, where another, red-carpeted staircase rises to the Great Hall. Along with early Gothic style benches and chairs, designed by Robert Smirke for the house, and medieval armour collected by the family in the late nineteenth century, the Entrance Hall contains portraits of John Harrison Cocks Jnr., the 1st Earl Somers, and the 12th Earl of Shrewsbury (later Duke), Sir Godfrey Kneller.
The Great Hall measures 16m x 8m and is three storeys high. Sunlight blazes in from windows high above and reflects on the highly decorated walls and furnishings introduced by G.E. Fox in the 1860s. The marble columns in the gallery were also added at this time. However, carved walnut furniture is still much in evidence in accordance with Smirke’s original plan.
Three doors lead off the Great Hall, to the Staircase Hall, the Red Hall and the Octagon Room. The tour moves into the Red Hall, from which the State Dining Room is situated at the front of the house. Unfortunately, because of the crush of visitors, we were not sure quite which way to turn from here and missed the Dining Room. That would seem an excellent excuse to return!
|The Great Hall|
The Red Hall is lit by high, leaded windows and is dominated by a fabulous knight on horseback, armour rich in red and gold, and bearing the Italian arms of the Visconti family on his shield. The room also contains an eighteenth century Dutch clock, an Elizabethan sea chest, fourteenth century Austrian pavises (shields used to protect crossbowmen when reloading) and mid-nineteenth century armour from Northern India.
|Knight's Armour in the Red Hall|
The State Dining Room measures 11m x 7m and looks incredible from the picture. It has deep blue walls, covered in gilt-framed portraits with half panelling below, a marble fireplace and a ceiling decorated in gilt panels to reflect the paintings. This was done in the 1850s, the panels containing crests of families with some connection to either the Cocks or Somers lines. A large gilt and glass chandelier hangs in the centre of the room, above a long dining table with at least a dozen carved walnut chairs. The latter, along with benches and fire screens, are part of the original design for the castle. A sideboard graces the end wall and appears also to be walnut. The dining table is original and is made of Cuban mahogany. Robert Smirke designed the room with Gothic arches at each end and over the doors, but these were removed in 1933. The ceiling decoration reflects these in a complicated design in blue and gilt.
Returning to the Red Hall, the circuit continues with the Gothic Drawing Room. An imposing apartment, the drawing room is 11m x 7m and remains much as it was when redecorated in 1849 for the 2nd Earl. A.W.N. Pugin designed the decoration, including the desk, table, chairs and bookcase, the work being executed by the Crace Brothers. A large and highly ornate fireplace by Bernasconi is topped by a colourful representation of the family tree and has tiles by Minton and firedogs by Hardman of Birmingham. The latter was also responsible for the beautiful chandelier, which was put on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. A grand view of the lake can be obtained from this room.
|Gothic Drawing Room|
The Octagon Salon comes next, boasting large pier glasses and three fine floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Upper and Lower Terraces, with the lake beyond. An octagonal table with a carved edge stands in the centre of the room while rich, red Regency chairs and a sofa grace the walls and sit before the centre window. More portraits adorn the walls, including Lady Henry Somerset, her sister Adeline, later the Duchess of Bedford, and their father, the 3rd Earl Somers. The carpet was made in 1994 to replace one of a similar design to those in the Long and Little Libraries. The ceiling is divided into panels of a geometric design in gilt, cream, black and red lines.
|Sofa in The Octagon Salon|
After this we moved on to the Long Library, which is definitely a room with, in modern parlance, a wow factor. Four windows adorn the right-hand wall and bookcases line the opposite side of the room. The inlaid woodwork and shelves were made in Italy and built in situ by workmen on the estate. Between the bookcases sit two carved fireplaces and above hang tapestries dating from the seventeenth century. These depict scenes from a poem written in honour of Catherine de Medici, while between the windows more tapestries show scenes from Classical Mythology. Two chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling, which is decorated with symbols representing virtue and vice.
From the Long Library the visitor passes into the Little Library, currently home to a large billiards table (sadly dating only from the twentieth century) and a lovely Regency score ‘board’. Apologies for the photograph; against the light from the window, it is rather less than great, but as few still exist, one hopes it gives the reader of this article some idea of what such scoring systems looked like. Done in shades of blue, the room boasts a large looking-glass above the fireplace and some lovely walnut furniture, including seventeenth century bookcases from Siena. Redecorated in 1990, the walls are covered in a fabric specifically reprinted by Watts of Westminster to a Victorian design. More portraits hang above the bookcases and a bay window opposite the fireplace gives another view over the lake.
|Billiards Score Board, 1800s|
The Staircase Hall may not be to all tastes, for modern sensibilities are often offended by mounted animal horns, an elephant’s foot and stuffed birds in glass cases. However, it is through the Victorian thirst for exploration that we know so much about various species of fauna and flora. It is not the object of this article to discuss the rights or wrongs of such artefacts. The walls are hung with several sixteenth century tapestries, the largest depicting the meeting of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. There is a set of three tapestries from Bruges, showing biblical scenes of Judith, Susannah, and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The benches and chairs date from the seventeenth century, and the chandelier, also of wood, was acquired from the Palazzo Corsini in Florence.
At this point, we went up the Smirke-designed staircase, with its cast-iron banisters and deep red carpet. However, the ground floor tour completes with the State Bedroom, accessed from the Staircase Hall and thence back to the Great Hall. The State Bedroom was the 3rd Earl’s bedchamber and is a very grand apartment. A carved walnut, canopied bed greets the eye immediately one enters the room. Hung with rich red and blue-grey hangings, the bed appears fir for any visiting dignitary, even the King. Of Italian workmanship, it dates from the seventeenth century and belonged to Cardinal Bellarmine, now Saint Robert. A large wardrobe and chest of drawers are also seventeenth century and come from Genoa. Above the fireplace is the motto of the Cocks family, ‘Hope Knows No Defeat’, in Latin. Wall hangings were created by the Royal School of Needlework, while two paintings, The Last Supper and The Birth of Christ were produced by disciples of Jacopo Bassano and Tintoretto respectively.
Adjoining the State Bedroom is a Victorian-era bathroom, complete with white enamel bath in the centre of the room, the taps on standing pipes through the floorboards!
Several rooms are open for viewing on the first floor, most from the doorway. There is a wealth of interesting items, from portraits and clocks to canopied beds of various design, tables and other furnishings. One room contains a small chapel with stained-glass windows and a decorated screen. Another, far smaller bathroom than that pictured above contains a commode fitted against the wall and a free standing child’s version. A gallery of portraits face on to the Great Hall.
Much of what the visitor sees today is due to the hard work of the Hon. Elizabeth Cocks Somers and Benjamin Hervey-Bathurst, parents of James Hervey-Bathurst, the current owner. They came to Eastnor in 1949, inheriting dry rot, empty rooms and a succession of repairs which had been left untended for many years.
Although the family’s fortunes had flourished in spite of the huge expenditure incurred by the building of the castle, their prosperity was not to last. Although owning over 13,000 acres, Reigate Priory in Surrey and Somers Town in London (gifted to Lord Chancellor Somers by William III), the latter years of the nineteenth century proved the family’s downfall. Having an income from agriculture proved almost disastrous when the depression of the 1870s hit the country. The earldom became obsolete in 1883 and by the time the 6th Baron Somers inherited, the castle’s art collection had been divided between he and his cousin, and much of the land sold. The family moved to Australia when he was appointed Governor of Victoria in 1926, and Eastnor Castle was closed up. They returned in 1931 and made use of some rooms, evacuating eight years later so the house was available to the Government during the war. All the contents were removed, although in the end it was never used. Between 1845-9, Lord Somers’ widow returned to live in the servants’ wing after death duties left her almost ‘without a feather to fly with’.
When repairs began in 1949, they were funded partly by income from the estate and partly from the sale of artefacts. Grants from both the Government and English Heritage have restored the battlements of the corner towers following storm damage in 1976 and helped pay for other outdoor renovations. James Hervey-Bathurst and his family continue the work by offering the mansion as a venue for weddings, conferences and corporate entertaining, in addition to opening their heavy wooden doors to the public.
I am sure you will join Lady Ellis and I in wishing them joy of their endeavours and the very best of good fortune for the future.
All photographs are the property of Heather King unless otherwise stated and may not be copied or downloaded without the expressed permission of the owner.