Many of us Nerdy History Folk dream of living in a grand English country house, whether Pemberley, Downton Abbey, or, in the case of Loretta and me, the imagined house in our current WIPs. But in too many cases, that dream country house proves more of a nightmare for the families who inherit estates burdened with taxes and hundreds of years of deferred maintenance. The scores of servants necessary to support such an estate have vanished, and in many cases the necessary income necessary has disappeared as well. It's estimated that 1 in 6 of the great English country houses has been demolished in the last 75 years, and the inescapable economics of a long-gone way of life means that others houses are sure to meet the same fate.
But one house that teetered on the bring of such a disaster has returned to flourish: Ugbrooke Park, located in Devon. Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Clarissa Clifford, Lady Clifford of Chudleigh, and the current mistress of Ugbrooke Park, speak at Winterthur Museum about both the challenges and rewards that Ugbrooke has offered.
The Cliffords have the kind of family history that novelists like me love. Scattered through the centuries are a royal mistress and an Elizabethan privateer, an adventuresome lord who rode the American plains with General Custer, another who became a cardinal, and yet another who was an eccentric famous for founding the Mystic Evolution Society.
But the ancestor most important to Ugbrook was Thomas Clifford, 1st Baron of Chudleigh, who was one of the most trusted of Charles II's ministers. (If you've read any of my Restoration-set historical novels, then you'll recognize Lord Clifford's name, even though he wasn't well-liked by any of my heroines.) In return for Lord Clifford's services, the king granted him the land that would become Ugbrooke.
The 4th Lord Clifford, Hugh, transformed the property extensively in the late 18th century, adding beautiful interiors by Robert Adam and landscapes and gardens by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. The turreted exterior with a medieval flavor was the latest fashion at the time, but a mixed success in a land of Palladian symmetry; it's that somewhat squat appearance that has earned Ugbrooke its reputation as an "architectural ugly duckling."
But over the centuries, the house's fortunes declined. While the 20th c. members of the family preferred their lands in New Zealand, Ugbrooke languished, serving as a school, a refuge for soldiers, and, most ignominiously, a granary. When the 13th Lord Clifford returned with his family in 1957, he began the monumental challenge of making the house once again fit to be a home, a task that the 14th Lord Clifford continues today.
There were many decisions to be made. Instead of restoring the house into a museum-like setting, the family chose to make it a family home with modern amenities where the children's pets were as important as the Robert Adam ceilings. History was respected and embraced – one of the highlights of the restoration was discovering Adam's
working drawings – but never overshadowed the present. Budgets were strict, and addressing unglamorous projects like new roofs, dry rot, and plumbing were methodically accomplished year by year. To help fund the restoration, a family heirloom – the state papers of the secret 1670 Treaty of Dover between Charles II and Louis XIV that had been given to the first Lord Clifford for safekeeping – was sold at auction.
Lady Clifford is a professional London-based interior designer who, after her marriage, threw herself whole-heartedly into the house's rebirth on a budget. Stables and attics were searched, and long-neglected furnishings were restored and given a fresh place in the house. Murky forgotten paintings became glorious again once cleaned and rehung. When recreating an elaborate plaster frieze proved prohibitively expensive, a printed trompe l'oeil version was substituted instead. After a half-century, the transformation is still on-going, but that's to be expected when your renovation has more than eighty rooms.
Today Ugbrooke Park has a new life as Ugbrooke Enterprises. The estate can be hired for destination weddings, corporate retreats, concerts, and hunting parties, and also hosts events as diverse as classic automobile shows and whippet fun days. Lord and Lady Clifford entertain overnight guests from around the world, including groups from Winterthur. (You can read more here on Ugbrooke's website.)
And from Lady Clifford's presentation, I'd say Ugbrooke looks once again thoroughly dream-worthy.
For another country house that's being pulled back from the brink of disaster by its determined family, see this post on Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. For one that sadly wasn't as fortunate, see here for Mavisbank.
Photos top and bottom left copyright Patrick Baty. Photos right copyright Ugbrooke.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.