Dusty, Drafty and Doggy-Doting: Lytes Cary Manor is a Perfect British Country House

Armed with a National Trust Pass, I could wander the British countryside for weeks on end. I never seem to get tired of old houses. Above is Lytes Cary Manor, begun in the 1400s and added to over the centuries. (Did it rain while I was there? Just a little. As Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot told dreamboat Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, “It’s nothing that I regard.” She wanted him to walk her home in the rain).

Lytes Cary still has its Great Room from the 1400s. The Lyte family used to eat at the long table on the dais at the end of the room.

Each ancient roof beam is supported by an angel holding the coat of arms of the Lyte family.

Carved owls in the entry passage look a bit newer, but in a house so old, whooooo knows?

Of course I also like much grander mansions such as Harewood. Many of them still have deep-pocketed owners with the means to bring in modern and avante-garde art.

But National Trust properties, which have often come from families hard hit by misfortune and crushing inheritance taxes, lovingly preserve the old stuff that came with the property. The mirror frame above, at Lytes Cary, was worked up in the old needlework technique of “stumpwork” in the 1600s. In the early 1900s, a relative of the newest owner learned the technique and added some panels, including the view of the house in the upper left-hand panel.

A pair of mysterious old leather mannikins, about 3 feet tall, stand beside the fireplace in the Great Parlor.

Their purpose? Possibly to fill chairs in case the dining table would otherwise have 13 guests.

Or possibly they could have been set up in windows to make thieves think the house was occupied when the family was away.

The fireplace settee is very Downton Abbey, don’t you think?

Sir Walter Jenner, the last owner of Lytes Cary, was the son of Queen Victoria’s physician. The Lyte family had been forced to abandon the property way back in 1755. Subsequent owners and tenants allowed the house to fall into decay. Sir Walter bought what was left of it in 1907 and set to work restoring it.

Sir Walter planted yew bushes along the walk. He trimmed them into topiary forms which he named “The Twelve Apostles.”

He kept peacocks which used to scratch at the door for handouts at teatime. Now there’s an enormous peacock topiary beside the front door.

Being abandoned actually saved the house. In Victorian times, rich people busily “improved” medieval manor houses, much the way people today install new Sheetrock walls to cover antique stone or paneling. That’s rare and valuable “linen fold” carved oak medieval paneling above, original to the house.

A little parlor has a “squint:” a tiny narrow window.

It looks like this from outside.

The squint is positioned so that a person could stay inside the house by the fire and still see Mass being celebrated in the little chapel next to the house–which most likely happened regularly in medieval times.

Sir Walter lived happily at Lytes Cary for decades with his wife Flora and their only child, Esme. Sadly, Esme died at age 37 from pneumonia after catching a chill while out riding. She was a keen hunter, serving as Master of the Sparkford Vale Harriers. She died in 1932. (Sir Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, but antibiotics were not yet in wide use).

Sir Walter outlived both his wife and his daughter. A wistful memorial to them both in the little chapel reads, “My Little World!”

When Sir Walter decided to will Lytes Cary to the National Trust at age 88, the director came out to the house to see him, and found him in his canopied bed in nightcap and dressing gown. The house was chilly and drafty, as it was in medieval times.

Another bedroom features a “campaign bed” from around 1800. From Napoleonic times up through the Victorian era, aristocratic military officers who were used to comfy canopied beds ordered custom-made fold-up ones to take with them to training camp and even to battlefields. Why not live in the style to which they were accustomed?

I recently watched a 2016 movie called “Golden Years.” A group of old British friends, battered by loss of their pensions and closing of their subsidized social club, stumble into a plot to roam the countryside, robbing banks and innocently hobbling away to their getaway vehicle: an RV parked in the handicap zone. Cops rushing to the crime scenes try not to knock over the old dears. They’re caught when a sharp detective with elderly parents of his own notices that the banks are always near National Trust properties. The bank robbers have very sensibly combined one of their favorite pastimes with larceny. (It’s a comedy, so all ends well!)

The British love to visit old houses, and they love their dogs. Most National Trust properties encourage dog-walking on the grounds. So do a lot of privately-owned mansions, like Chatsworth. (I also love the very British wordage beside this gateway, “Dead Slow, Hoot.” Translation: If you’re driving into the courtyard, roll ahead at a snail’s pace and lean on your car horn).

National Trust properties almost always have teashops where dogs are welcome at the outdoor tables. The dogs are always polite, though they do cadge table scraps.

It’s easy to strike up a conversation when I stop to pet someone’s dog. I meet a lot of lovely people that way.

Getting to these out-of-the way places requires a brave driver. Country roads are narrow, often only a single lane with occasional pull-offs for when cars meet. And even when there are two lanes, we Americans are driving on THE WRONG SIDE. I wouldn’t do it myself, especially with jet lag. But my husband, bless his heart, thinks nothing of it.

I’m the navigator. I used to maneuver three or four maps at a time to locate things. Navigation got infinitely easier when we acquired a Garmin GPS device with updatable maps. I just plug in the name or the postal code of the destination and we’re pretty likely to get there by following the voice commands and the purple line on the screen. (Note to self: write a post called “How Garmin GPS Saved My Marriage”).

Still, sometimes Garmin gets us into a pickle. Wait, Voice from the Satellite, you really mean we should do a loop-de-loop and then leave the road? Excuse me while I check my paper map.

English country houses: Dusty, Drafty, Doggy-Doting. And sometimes the Directions are Dodgy.

It’s worth all the trouble. Yesterday, daffodils, asters and bluebells were in glorious bloom at Lytes Cary.

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