There’s much to be marvelled over and admired in the world of National Trust, but today we learn of a whole new level of dedication from the team tasked with bringing Uppark manor back to life.
To their credit, to look at Uppark today, one would never know the devastation that was wrought here.
Built in the late 17th century , it stood intact until 1989 when a massive fire razed it. The irony being that the fire started as a result of an electrical fault towards the end of a 2 year restoration project. I wouldn’t have liked to have been the poor tradie who made that mistake.
Fortunately (but so much less so for the insurer) the contactor carried a full restitution insurance clause. £25M and 5 years later, the mansion was fully restored. It sounds simple enough, but the skill this took, to recreate finishes not seen in 300 years and to seamlessly align bits left of carpet, wallpaper, cornices, woodwork and plaster where the fire had not completely ruined them, was not only a task wondered possible, but also probably the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. I took this one picture before finding out that photos are not allowed “upstairs”.
We see a short film of the process, from sifting through the ruins to end up with over 3,000 bins of “bits”, to researching photographic archives, fabrics, wallpapers, plaster and methodologies of centuries past to recreate what was lost. Not only to recreate, but to also then similarly age the end result. It’s truly extraordinary what was achieved.
Apart from restoring a beautiful piece of history, the best outcome of the restoration project was the training of hundreds of tradesmen in skills that were long lost. I’ve walked around countless ancient places marvelling at the skill it took to make them, equally lamenting that those skills are no more. And yet here, is proof that those skills are still possible, if dormant, awaiting reawakening. It’s a heartening thought, all the more impressive when you realise that much of the work was done without the aid of modern tools, as we see in a store room that houses sketches and equipment used.
Uppark was a showcase in its time, built in the late 17th century by the Earl of Tankerville, it was sold to Sir Matthew Featherstone and his wife Sarah who furnished it with the best of the continent sourced on their Grand Tour. Thanks to the talented and dedication team who restored it, it still is today. There’s a delicious family scandal here too: the Featherstone’s son Harry married his dairymaid. Well, what so scandalous about that, you might ask. Well there was the fact that he was in his 70s and she a mere slip of a girl, barely 20.
Also on display is a fabulously detailed 300 year old dolls house, brought to the house by Lady Sarah. Definitely not for children, its use is speculated to be perhaps one for training young ladies of the day in household management.
Uppark’s showcase glory is not the only sight we see: it also offers an insight into the upstairs, downstairs life that it took to run a property of this size. Below below ground is network of extraordinary tunnels that enabled the house staff to run unseen from one end of the house to the other.
We also get the opportunity to see all of the key servants’ quarters including the Butler’s Pantry with its silver safe behind locked doors and Housekeeper’s quarters; two of the most prominent members of the household staff.
Best of all is another literary surprise: we get to walk the tunnels where HG Wells ran as a child. He was the housekeeper son and grew up here. It’s wonderful to walk in his footsteps, in the tunnels that are said to have inspired him to write The Time Machine. Chris is winning the literary path on this trip. HG Wells is another favourite of his.
Later in the day brings the gift of bird sightings three: a magnificently plumed pheasant on the side of a country road and moments later not one, but two birds of prey fly straight in front of the car, breathtakingly huge. The only way you could do country drives justice is to stick a Gopro on the front of the car.
It’s best I mention little of the early morning where Chris, convinced the fridge was not working, drove back 70 miles, to be told it is. Hmmmm.