My travels about the English
countryside have provided an unparalleled opportunity to see entrancing
landscapes, incredible architecture, meet wonderful people, and inevitably, to
be stranded after missing yet another bus. So it was with some optimistic cheer
I planned an easy, relaxing jaunt on a warm Sunday afternoon to the Vyne near
Oxford with my fellow companions from Stable Close. I figured with the three of us, we could work out all potential travel kinks...and someone would drag me from my daydreaming so I wouldn't add yet another site to my list of places across England where I have been trapped after closing time. Our chosen destination was close to home, but also full of interesting connections - I read Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall shortly before crossing the pond and my head danced with fun facts about Henry VIII and his many wives - a communal
affection for all things Jane Austen (and Colin Firth) also played into trip planning.
This 16th century house, described by the National Trust as a “Tudor palace turned family home” originally belonged to Lord Sandys, Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain. (Although the office of Lord Chamberlain was a political one – that is, it wasn't hereditary – the person holding it was responsible for the Royal Household, not state and political matters. Sandys was essentially a party planner.)
|Another National Trust site, the property is located between the village of Bramley and |
the village of Sherborne St. John. This is the north elevation -
the portico underneath the scaffolding
was designed by a pupil of Inigo Jones.
Not yet the gouty and enormous
monarch of his later reign, Henry visited the house once with his first wife
(Catherine of Aragon), and was twice accompanied by second wife Anne Boleyn. (A
sad footnote to this visit: Lord Sandys was in charge of taking Anne Boleyn to
the Tower of London prior to her execution. I wonder how awkward that journey
Much after the divorce, beheading
and death of most of Henry’s wives, Jane Austen figures in the Vyne's history. Her nephew, James Austen, was vicar of Sherborne St. John, and she visited him several times. In 1653, a barrister named Chaloner Chute brought the property and tore about half of the Tudor house down.
James Austen was apparently good friends with the Chute family, and Jane and her sister Cassandra attended many dances at the house. Given the comparative grandeur of the house and grounds, as well as the lure of the Stone Gallery (full of stone statuary and sculptures collected by one of the Chute boys on his Grand Tour and a tourist attraction in the 18th century) and the Oak Gallery (one of the earliest examples of a long gallery in England) - I can only imagine Jane Austen taking mental notes and observing the foibles of society around her - all in all, probably yet another source of inspiration for her novels. (I was greatly inspired by
the art installation at the house. And I mean that only slightly facetiously.
More on that later.)
Located in Hampshire, the Vyne is
only about 45 minutes from Oxford, which of course necessitated taking the
train to Reading and switching to another (un-air-conditioned) train to the
village of Bramley. Before we left Oxford, we arranged for a taxi to pick us up
in Bramley, and felt quite smug in our trip planning…until we got to Bramley
and realized the taxi was in the nearby town of Basingstoke.
|The train will only get you so far.|
The beauty of
English villages, however, is the local pub, where one can quaff a bitter and
wash away the sting of thwarted travel plans. Thank you good people of Bramley…and
thanks to the other taxi that came and fetched us.
|The Bramley offered some beer and cider, and more conversations about why the British love California. |
The best part of Vyne – and the
most vexing as well – is the hodgepodge of architectural periods, which makes a
walk through the house also a stroll through different centuries of
construction. This is not an unknown experience to me, but I rarely encounter a
building with more than three centuries represented. For a house begun around
1520, the Vyne exemplifies the process of accretion. The orientation of the house
changed, depending on the time period, interiors evolved at a rapid pace, yet
the house flows together in a not unsettled manner.
|The Vyne in the first decade or so of the 20th century. |
During World War II, the house was occupied by a boys school, Tormore School, evacuated from East Kent.
The Palladian Staircase Hall, designed in the 18th century by
then owner John Chaloner Chute, a friend of Horace Walpole.
|The interior is really amazing - lots of linenfold paneling. |
The layers of changes to the house over the years (which I like: history is not static.) meant that the function of certain rooms shifted dramatically from one generation to the next. (Especially, I imagine, when it was a boys school!) Take the room at the left - nice room, right? This space was originally the "ante chapel" leading as it did into the highly detailed Tudor Chapel built to celebrate Henry VIII and his Queen, Catherine of Aragon. The household would have witnessed mass from this room, while members of the family wold have been in the chapel proper, or in the gallery above. By the mid-19th century, the room was used as a storage room for coal and wood, and also contained a toilet.
One of the things I have to applaud the National Trust for is their willingness to entertain multiple uses of a historic property, rather than just presenting a staid house museum. During our visit, there was an art installation Unravelling the Vyne that presented a different interpretation of a facet of the history of the house in each room. Ten artists tackled different themes - like the acorns, symbol of Catherine of Aragon, being swept under the rug in one room - or the pop-up books and paper dolls found in the library (celebrating a legacy of books) - but...the greatest piece, by far, was "An Exquisite Diversion."
|The south elevation of the Vyne.|
Take the tradition of rich young men going off on the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries..combine that privileged and hedonistic experience with Glam Rock, and you get a video inside a small room at the Vyne, portraying all sorts of role-playing, gender bending and sexual exploits. If I could find it on YouTube, it would be posted here.No sound, just lots of scenes shot in the house, rife with innuendo - and the conversation I had with a random guy watching at the same time was hysterical as we both tried to guess what the soundtrack to the air guitar riff might possibly be.....(I went with Queen)
And joy of joys, despite our small mishap upon arrival, the merry band made it back to Oxford without any further mishaps! Sadly, there was no Colin Firth sighting at the Vyne, and the giant statue at Hyde Park went before I could make it to London to see it...
|The Summerhouse, built in the mid-16th century, with one of the first neo-classical domes in England. |
First used as a folly of sorts for taking tea, it was later transformed into a dovecote.