“ Address: Banbury / Warwickshire / OX15 6HT / Tel: 01295 670266 „
Having had a Family National trust membership for the past year 2009/2010, we were eager to renew our membership again this year. The reasons being, it is somewhere to go on high days and holidays, which doesn't cost a lot - our pre-paid membership having taken care of that.
Please let me tell you the aim of the National Trust before I go any further. The National Trust was founded in 1895 by Miss Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Concerned about development of the land for habitable and industrial purposes, they set about protecting the land for future generations.
Still as strong today, the National Trust (NT) now preserve, and protect, houses, gardens and ancient monuments for use by the public. This is not the full extent of their work though, as they also look after forests, woods, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves, and even villages.
The cost of this doesn't fall to the Government, as a charity, money is raised by entry fees, memberships, donations, and legacies. They could still not continue this work without the sterling effort of over 55,000 volunteers.
Having visited all the local NT properties last year, this year we are keen to travel that little bit further afield. The last Bank Holiday weekend, we decided to visit Upton House and Gardens, near Banbury. This proved a different kettle of fish to different properties we have visited recently.
Was it an old property? Yes hundreds of years old, although we didn't ask how old, and neither were we told. The house had been built, and since occupied by merchants and bankers for hundreds of years before.
Why was it different then? Well, the scene was set for the last occupants. Lord and Lady Bearsted purchased the estate in 1927; they remodelled the house to provide space for their extensive art collection. At the same time, they installed guest bedrooms galore, a billiard room, squash court and swimming pool. All of which were expected of a wealthy host. This is not the norm in NT properties, my seven year old daughter has had her fill of priest holes, and this property seemed to lift the spirits rather than feeling like doom and gloom.
Upon paying your entrance fee which is £9 per adult or £4.50 per child, sorry I didn't take notice of any prices for concessions, we, of course, just showed our pass and were ushered through. We were asked by a lovely lady when we would like to enter the house. Appointments are needed at Bank Holiday weekends, as it gets very busy. We opted for an appointment an hour later to give us time for something to eat. An awaiting shuttle bus will take you from the reception to entrance of the house.
The restaurant (a separate building, away from the house) is built in the deco style of the 1930's. It is a glorious building, worth a look on its own. The architecture was wonderful. From vaulted ceilings and some furniture reminiscent of the decade, I was completely taken aback, to find, the restaurant was only built in 2005.
They served hot meals, and sandwiches and soups, along with cakes, tea and snacks. The prices were quite reasonable for a NT property (some are extortionate!). I was happy to be informed that they used produce grown on the estate in their meals. Carbon footprint - zero - you can't get better than that!
We had been asked to watch an introductory film before entering the house. It was of film taken (without sound) during one weekend at the house. It followed what the occupants of the house did, and was very insightful. It was like being a fly on the wall, yet taking a look back in time. The film had been put in the attic and forgotten about, then some seventeen years later, had been dubbed over, using sound - with the advancement of technology. I was worth visiting just to see this. It wasn't long though - just ten minutes in length.
Upon entering the house, you had the feeling of being in a time machine. Having just seen the video footage, the house hasn't changed one iota. In fact, it lead me to question whether actors were playing the parts of the occupants, I am assured they are not.
Visitors are asked to remove very large bags/backpacks for security reasons and also protect the furniture from knocks and scrapes.
The property opens from 11am, although the house is not accessible until 1pm. There are lots to do while you are waiting though. On our visit, we were there all afternoon, yet only managed to get around half the estate. The last entry to the house is at 4.30pm.
Upon entering the house, seeing we had a youngster with us, we were offered a quiz to do. In some houses you pay a fee and get a prize upon completion, no charge here though nor any prize, sadly. Some of the quizzes in other houses are boring - why do we have priest holes? What are the numbers on the clock? and the like. This quiz is interesting though, it has theme of transport. As well as asking questions, it also gave information, in a child friendly way, nothing overbearing. It was great fun, and at one point had me and my partner chuckling hysterically, yet the joke went over my seven year olds head.
I could describe the detail in every room, but that would spoil it for you, should you wish to visit yourself, so I will describe what there is to see.
The House - You get a taste of what a 1930's party setting would have been like. This house was only the country home, yet it was fully staffed at all times. You find all about life at that one weekend in 1938.
Something we found absolutely fascinating was you are able to read the actual journals of the owner, detailing everything that happened in his life. You are also able to flick through Lady Bearsted's scrapbook. Here she had postcards from places she had visited, and photographs, tickets from journeys and even a time table for an airship journey she took. You are also able to read the notebook which was owned by the butler, he kept reminders of his day to day duties.
There is a Shell (the petroleum company) exhibition on the first floor. You might find this is a funny place for such an exhibition, but Lord Bearsted inherited his wealth from his father, who founded the Shell Petroleum Company. It was named Shell, because his father (the Lord Bearsted at 1938's Grandfather) imported shells and glued them as decoration onto boxes - in the style of the trinket boxes we see at the seaside today.
The Art and Porcelain collections - During the re-modelling of the house in 1927, several rooms were designed specifically to house art and porcelain collections of the owner. There are important works here by Hogarth, Stubbs, Canalatto and El Greco to name a few. There were collections of Derby, Worcester and Chelsea 18th Century porcelain but the most impressive, and the one that stood out the most for me, was the Sevres porcelain.
The Gardens - Lady Bearsted employed Kitty Lloyd Jones to re-design the gardens. They became great friends and could be seen together in the archive footage of the introductory film. Together they worked on the bog garden, rock garden, and herbaceous borders.
Looking out of the window in the master bedroom, you first see the extensive lawn. The flatness of it in stark contrast with the rolling hills in the distance. On a sunny day, it would have been a sight to behold. I would have, at that point, sold the kids, to wake up just one morning to that view.
Walking down as far as you can away from the house, you are met by steps leading down to a tiered garden. It is truly a breathtaking view. This leads to the National collection of Asters, which are not yet flowering, so I most definitely will return in the summer to see them at full bloom. Further on there is the kitchen garden, which supplies produce for the restaurant. At the bottom, meeting the properties boundary wall is the biggest lily pond you ever did see. I wholly recommend a visit for the gardens alone, or the house alone. The combination together is astounding!
On your way out, please take a look at the plants for sale. There is a great selection, and I presume they are all hand raised. The prices are very reasonable and cost much less than a traditional garden centre. There are all sorts of things for sale, not just plants - there are wrought iron benches, handmade wooden love seats and even chicken coops. Something for every style of garden, and every pocket.
A plethora of items are for sale in the gift shop, from ice cream to CD's of music from past decades. Surely everyone will find something to buy here. Profits go into the NT's coffers, and enables them to continue their work.
Just a word of warning while on the exterior of the property, please wear appropriate footwear as there are a few sections of slippery and uneven ground. The mirror pool (lily pond) and bog garden have unguarded water - please keep an eye on your children in these areas, there are no safety railings or netting over the water!
As a NT property, Upton House, has got to be ranked in my top three, I love it. I can't wait to return to see the things we missed, and see the garden in its full glory. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said - "I'll be back!"
Upton House and Gardens, near Banbury, Oxon
Satellite Navigation - OX15 6HT
Directions by road: on A422, 7 miles north of Banbury, 12 miles south east of Stratford-upon-Avon. Signed from exit 12 of M40
Telephone: 01295 67026
Fax: 01295 671144