Chris and I have visited many manor homes in our travels. Some wear their heritage with pride, some as a heavy mantle. Others wait the touch of loving hands and deep cash reserves. Every so often though, we come across one that is steeped in love. It’s these that are the most glorious, the love story that made them still at their heart as you walk their paths.
Stourhead is one such place. A magnificent estate of some 2,650 acres with a heritage spanning back nearly 300 years. Held by the Hoare family until the late 1940s, it was initially bought in 1771 when Henry Hoare, then a Fleet Street private banker wanted a weekend retreat. He built the house in a Venetian style, having bought what was originally a medieval estate at the source of the River Stour. Sadly, he did not live to see it completed, a task left to his son, also Harry. The name, along with Richard, repeatedly appears through each generation.
Henry also inherited the task of the garden which was set in the natural
valley of the River to create a lake and a series of classical temples which still exist today.
It’s a little glossed over, but it’s understood that the family hit hard times in the later 1800s. Many of their possessions were sold and the estate was left unloved and idle until 1895 when it was inherited by the newest Hoare generation, Sir Henry, Lady Alda and their six year old son Harry, who went by his second name, Henry. Their chapter in history is stepped in love and loss.
Henry and Alda were childhood sweethearts, meeting in early childhood. They travelled to their new home on Valentine’s Day in 1895, hoping it would bring them happinesses and luck. By all accounts, theirs was a love match, and they were determined to set the estate in order and leave a legacy for their only, beloved, son. Henry was a sickly child but he thrived at his new home, eventually helping his father to manage the estate at 23.
Their work was not without trauma, in the middle of one refurbishment, the main house caught fire and they were lucky to save it. The servants and groundsmen were to rescue the day, at the cost of their own belongings.
Alda kept detailed diaries, giving an insight into life on the estate. She strikes me as a woman who knew her mind and broked no nonsense. Her love for her husband and son are woven through her words. She loved to entertain and built a small village within the estate for their guests to stay in.
The Great War put an end to their dreams. The house, as many were, was put to use in the war as a convalescent home. Despite his poor health, Henry volunteered. He was shot through the lungs and died in 1917, ending his family legacy and his parents hopes. They wrote “Our only and the best of sons. He never grieved us by thought, word or deed. He loved Stourhead, worked for it, and with us, all his life. He was deeply respected by all here who mourn his loss”. It’s heartbreaking to read.
Without their son and heir, the Hoare’s are left bereft. They live their lives out at the estate, eventually negotiating release of half of the estate to the National Trust, the remainder left to family.
Alda always claimed she could not live without her husband, and she was true to her word. He died in the morning in August 1946, she, that afternoon. It’s a fitting end to a love story that spanned their whole lives.
This story unfolds as we tour the estate. We walk around the lake taking in the glorious garden, ancient trees and endless banks of rhododendrons, some still in flower. The lake showcases a beautiful stone bridge and Italianate temples at key viewing points, along with a grotto and many side paths. Ducks and swans appear here and there, as do water lilies. There’s also a thatched cottage that features an open fireplace, a favourite place for Alda to write her journal entries.
Having lapped the lake, we head to the house which is much as it was left, part magnificent manor house, part family home. The library is a grand room featuring almost 6,500 books. The gallery magnificent also, hung with beautiful many paintings and gorgeous crystal chandeliers. Mementos of Alda’s journals and the Great War are everywhere.
We also tour the walled garden, and glasshouses which are part flower, part vegetable and herb with many fruit trees.
On the greater estate are stables, an old stone church and the village inn and cottages, built for guests. In a separate part is a second set of stone cottages, now available to let via the National Trust. It’s more than an estate, it’s a whole village, one if the most beautiful I’ve seen.
Hours later, we’re spent and make our last stop the farm shop where we stock up with beautiful local produce, including strawberries so fresh they look as if they’ve been lacquered.
It’s off home to spy on the fat rabbits that romp on the field in front of us, one last night, two this morning, three tonight. They’re lightening fast, but make good subjects through my binoculars.
It’s rained on and off all day. Frizzy hair has claimed me, but it’s a small price to pay for the glory of having that lake walk all to ourselves. Bliss. What an absolutely glorious place.