Just outside Bristol, and not far from Bath, stands one of the most beautiful country homes in England. It has only been open to the public since 2002, when the National Trust acquired it. I visited a couple of years after the opening and can’t wait to return.
By the time the 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, died in 2001, he was the only person living in the house. The house had been hit by bombs several times during the Bristol Blitz of World War II, and had never been properly repaired. Birds and bats took up residence in whole wings of the house. Lord Wraxall had maintained the house as best he could, but over the years the four generations of the family had simply closed off areas not in use. So the house contained a treasure trove of historical belongings. For example, there were packages of shirts dating from the last century, still in their original wrappers as they came new from the shop. And Tyntesfield was the last High Victorian house available for purchase in all of England.
Lord Wraxall’s will specified that the house be sold and the proceeds divided among 19 heirs. The market value was about 20 million pounds, or about $31 million. In addition, double or triple the purchase amount was needed for repairs. Sotheby’s took charge and began cataloging the house’s contents for auction.
Various gazillionaires were interested. (The press reported that Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were looking). But the National Trust of Britain, one of the two main preservation societies, managed to raise the purchase money within a period of 50 days. (Controversy arose when a semi-secret deal with the National Lottery provided some of the money for this project that many considered “elitist”). The Trust took possession in July of 2002. This was the first new acquisition by the National Trust in many years, and the largest in its history. Today, over 800 paid and volunteer staff work on the estate, 3 times the number at any other National Trust property. First order of business was repairing the roof. A free-standing scaffold the size of 10 tennis courts covered the entire structure for 18 months. Then the entire house had to be re-wired and re-plumbed. An elaborate fire protection system was installed. One by one, rooms were cleaned, restored and the furniture carefully arranged, using historic photos and descriptions.
In the meantime, visitors were welcomed. The Trust had determined that the more people were able to see of the property, the more they wanted to donate and volunteer. Instead of the usual years of construction followed by a great unveiling, the renovation has proceeded with the enthusiastic participation of legions of volunteers. The renovation itself is a great educational project, unprecedented in National Trust history. Elitist? Not today. The estate buzzes with the activity of volunteers, workers, school groups and tourists eager to bask in a lost way of life. I’m writing a number of posts about Tyntesfield because it’s such a fine example of the work of the National Trust. We can learn so many lessons from the ups and downs of a house’s history. Good or bad, the events of the past help us figure out how to live in the future. I notice that the National Trust has now published a book all about Gibbs family history, Fertile Fortune: The Story of Tyntesfield, by James Miller, National Trust Books, 2006. If I don’t acquire the book beforehand, I’m sure that on my next visit I’ll walk out of the gift shop with a copy. Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!