Gardens to Gables

Sieges, Marble and Bats: The Upper Crust of Dorset

The curtailment of my wanderings in England stems mainly from my lack of a car, but also the very real challenges of (dependable) public transportation in rural England. This conclusion springs not just from the occasions where I have found myself wondering if I can walk nine miles along a highway to the nearest population center, but numerous conversations with the inhabitants of far-flung rural villages and hamlets. “Oh, it’s a lovely place to live – if you have a car,” is one of the most common refrains I have heard in the last two weeks. Bus schedules tend to be erratic (to say nothing of the drivers, their dispositions and driving habits), the stops tucked away down veritable rabbit’s holes, and I tumble about like Alice on my quest to see as much of the architecture and landscape as I can…rail pass firmly in hand. I’ll let that serve as the introduction to my trip to Kingston Lacey, a very large and striking 17th-century pile in Dorset, which is southwest of Oxford.

Kingston Lacey – the north facade, which became the main entrance in the 1830s.

After my adventures at Wimpole, I decided to choose a site directly served by a bus, even if it meant several changes along the route. I boarded the train with 3,000 other people in Oxford, most of them scantily clad and not an ounce of sunscreen anywhere on their bodies. I don’t know if sunscreen would have played a role normally, but this was the first sunny day after two weeks of cloudy gray chilliness, and all of Britannia was ready to go the beach.

Only about two hours by train!

Kingston Lacey is close to the small market town of Wimborne Minster, where I caught my second bus of the day.

Wimborne Minster, which includes the second largest chained library in England.

Dominating the center of town is the church from the which the town takes its name – the Minster Church of St. Cuthburga, which dates to circa 1120 (with many additions and alterations since). A religious order of one sort or another has occupied the site since 705 AD, when Cuthburga, a sister of the King of the West Saxons, founded a nunnery at Wimborne.

Interior of the church.

The Bankes family created Kingston Lacey after their previous home, Corfe Castle, was destroyed during the English Civil War (I went to Corfe Castle in 2010, and it is a spectacular site). The family remained loyal to Charles I (and it is telling that it was Mary that defended the castle during two sieges, while her husband hung out with the king in Oxford…) and following the Restoration began construction of a new house on their “other estate” in Dorset. (How nice to have multiple estates…)

The south facade of the house.

The family member most responsible for shaping the house into what you see today was William Bankes, friend to Lord Byron, amateur archaeologist and lover of art. (His archaeological pursuits are interpreted in the Egyptian room, which occupies two rooms in the servant’s quarter on the ground floor. The display cabinets contained a shocking jumble of figurines, tombs inscriptions and other artifacts – what was once the largest private collection of Egyptian.)

The library – the keys above the mantle on left in photo are the keys to Corfe Castle (left a ruin by Cromwell’s forces). The story is that the soldiers besieging the Castle were so impressed by “Brave Dame Mary” that they allowed her to keep the keys as a “mark of respect for her courage throughout the sieges.” I am sure she really appreciated that as she rode away from the smoldering ruins on top of a wagon, with only a few pieces of furniture and other belongings. Keys to doors that no longer existed….

In the 1830s, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry, transformed the conventional house into his idea of a 17th-century Italianate palazzo. The brick house was clad in a grey-green Chilmark stone and the interior transformed as well by Barry to suit Bankes’ vision as well as house the items acquired on the Grand Tour by William Bankes.

A nice, cozy picture gallery….

The first iteration of Kingston Lacey, built 1663-65, was a red brick house designed by architect Roger Pratt. Apparently, Pratt specialized in building “practical country houses” but until the 1920s, the earlier house was thought to be the work of Inigo Jones.

Looking down the “grand professional staircase” designed by Barry – made of Carrara marble.

The cove ceiling of the Saloon, which became William Bankes’ picture gallery – the painted ceiling dates from 1780.

William Bankes was a colorful character and spent money like it was going out of style. He commissioned numerous sculptures, paintings and a very bizarre bed.

The bed.

The bed, a concoction of walnut and holly, includes a carving of the Bankes coat of arms, but also – a row of bats along the headboard. When William died in 1855, the bed was still not finished (bats take a while to carve) and his brother, George, a bit more sober type where interior decor was concerned, tried to cancel the contract. That did not please the carpenter, and the bed was finally finished in the 1860s. I wonder what the German Kaiser (Wilhelm II) thought of those bats when he slept there in 1907?

And the bats…

The top floor at Kingston Lacey contains the children’s bedrooms – used by the last owner of the house, Ralph Bankes, the seven time grandson of the founder of the family, and his two sisters in the early 20th century (not a happy family, sadly). Ralph donated the entire estate to the National Trust in 1981 – Kinsgton Lacey, 12 working farms and Corfe Castle – some 8,000 acres.

The Dutch Garden on the east side of the house, which dates from  the end of the 19th century. The cedar trees in the distance were planted in 1835.

Kingston Lacey is still a working farm with sheep and cattle. A 19th century restored Shepherd’s Hut is located on the grounds. This corrugated metal hut (the epitome of luxury, but it did contain a stove) allowed the shepherd to stay with the sheep as they moved from field to field.

The shepherd’s hut.

Of course, I missed my bus back to Wimborne Minster, so I threw myself on the mercy of some of the National Trust employees, who were most gracious and wonderful. (I owe lots of people in England some tours of Kentucky, some bourbon and Ruth Hunt candy.)

A vintage advertisement for the shepherd’s hut.

A lovely Kingston Lacey employee gave me a lift to the train station in her Lotus, but I was too preoccupied with trying to figure out which train I would be able to take to really appreciate the car. The journey back to Oxford was slightly quieter than the morning trip down, as all around me, sunburned bodies whimpered and dozed. 

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2 Thoughts on “Sieges, Marble and Bats: The Upper Crust of Dorset

  1. I think we need a dog named Cuthburga, don’t you?

  2. perhaps you could hook some sheep up to the shepherd’s hut making of it a sort of quirky RV with which you might wend your way across the old country

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