“ Address: Stansted Park, Rowlands Castle Hampshire PO9 6DX / Tel: 44 (0) 23 9241 3432 „
Stansted Park is some 1,800 acres of ancient beech forest, situated near Rowlands Castle in Hampshire. Inside this enchanted forest is a lovely jewel known as Stansted House, an Edwardian country house complete with state rooms, chapel and delightful gardens. However, stunning though the house and grounds are, it's the servant's quarters that make this place more unique and interesting. Stansted Estate have made a real feature of the "below-stairs" part of their house, and lifted it from just another stately home into something a lot more accessible and interesting for the majority of visitors.
~*~ NOW AND THEN ~*~
Stansted House began life as a hunting lodge way back in the 11th century; a shelter for those who enjoyed riding and shooting in the nearby Stansted Forest. Over the centuries the hunting lodge enjoyed a succession of different owners, who added to and extended the former lodge into something more substantial and permanent. Sadly the original house burnt down in a calamitous fire in 1900. However it was rebuilt on the exact same footprint as the burned 17th century remains in 1903, and this is the house you can view today. The house was purchased by the Bessborough family in 1924, and became the home of the 9th and 10th Earls of Bessborough. In 1983, the entire estate and house were handed over to Stansted Park Foundation, a charitable trust.
Nowadays, Stansted House is open to the public and it gives a superb insight into an English country house in its Edwardian heyday. The rooms are laid out exactly how they would have been then - full of interesting artefacts and knick-knacks from that era. There's a very interesting contrast between the magnificent state rooms of "upstairs" compared to the austerity of the servants quarters "downstairs" - much like we've come to see in various TV and film adaptations such as Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Anyone who has enjoyed the intrigue and contrast between the lives of the privileged upper classes and their down-trodden servants in either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park, would find a tour of Stansted House fascinating. It not only brings to life the marked contrast between the classes during that era, but the enormous amount of work involved in running a large house with nothing but hard work and plenty of elbow grease.
~*~ UPSTAIRS ~*~
The upstairs mansion rooms at Stansted House are as you'd expect from a stately home. They're full of fine displays of elegant furniture and cabinets full of delicate bone china and porcelain. There are family portraits aplenty as well as tapestries, fans, chandeliers and Dorian pillars.
I'm not a great lover of art but if you're interested in oil paintings and the like, then there are fine displays of portraits by Kauffman, Lawrence, Reynolds, Hoppner and Liotard. I was intrigued to see a large oil painting of Georgiana, the famous Duchess of Devonshire, but failed to ascertain what her connection with Stansted was.
The rooms are all laid out exactly as they would have been in the Edwardian era, and as you wander around them, it's easy to imagine the guests will be returning for cocktails in the Blue Drawing Room at any moment - the ladies refreshed from their post-luncheon nap and the gentlemen from their afternoon shoot in Stansted Forest. Some way make their way into the Library for some quiet time, or to gather in the Music Room for a recital.
However, none of this seamless elegance and relaxation was achieved without a great deal of hard work elsewhere...and that's where the servant's quarters downstairs comes into play.
~*~ BELOW STAIRS ~*~
To me, the "below-stairs" experience at Stansted is infinitely more interesting than anything you can view upstairs. To my mind, you've seen one Old Master and cabinet full of porcelain, and you've seen them all. That might be plebeian to some of you, but I put it down to my background! Both my Grandparents were in service in this sort of house in the 1920's, so a tour of this sort really brings their lifestyle and how they spent their youth to life for me. My Grandmother went into service when she was just 14, and went onto to meet and marry a footman some years later. The footman was, of course, my Grandad, who rose up the ranks through the years and eventually became butler to Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle. Sadly they're both dead now, but a tour of this ilk is a lovely reminder of the lives they lead in their youth.
The kitchen at Stansted is huge with a stripped wooden table to the centre decorated with all manner of catering paraphernalia from the era. Old fashioned metal mincing machines are screwed onto the ends of the table - no magi-mixers in those days - it all had to be done by hand! A metal set of scales graces the centre of the table with old fashioned weights scattered around. To one wall is a dresser chock full of old copper jelly moulds and a multitude of pots and pans, from the tiny to the so massive they would have needed two kitchen maids to lift them. As you'd expect in the kitchen of a stately home, a huge and ugly range is the focal point of the room, and it's easy to imagine a red-face and bossy cook barking out orders to the kitchen or scullery maids as she laboured over her dishes. Just on from the Kitchen, is the Pastry Room with cupboards groaning with all manner of jars containing various jams, chutneys and pickles.
Away from the kitchen, there's a well-dressed Housekeeper's Room, with cupboards containing all manner of tablecloths, sheets and linens. There's also a dressmakers dummy for repairing any tears to the gowns of the ladies upstairs. The Housekeeper would have been the second most important person in the servant's hierarchy (anyone who has enjoyed Gosford Park or Downton Abbey will appreciate that the hierarchy in the servant's quarters was almost more strictly adhered to than with the ladies and gentleman above stairs), with the Butler being king-pin. Therefore, the most "luxurious" rooms of below stairs are the Butler's Quarters - consisting of a bedroom and his pantry. Despite being top dog, the furnishings and décor are still pretty sparse and utilitarian, but infinitely more accommodating than the shared bedrooms for the maids and footmen (no the maids and footmen didn't share - that would have been a huge "no-no". A footman would have been billeted with another footman and maids with maids, in strictly separated quarters to avoid any shenanigans...). In the Butler's Pantry at Stansted, the desk is laid out with the old ledgers showing the accounts and cellar stocks - all beautifully handwritten in black ink. Finally you come to the Servant's Hall with a large wooden table to the centre where they would have taken their meals - all seated in their strict hierarchical structure - the Butler to the head of the table and the Housekeeper either opposite or on his right-hand side.
As you wander around the rooms at Stansted, you'll come across guides dressed in the costumes of the era, who will explain more about life in the heyday of the house. When we visited there was a Butler and a Housekeeper to hand to explain all about life in times gone by.
~*~ THE GROUNDS ~*~
The first point of interest you'll probably want to visit is the private chapel in the grounds of Stansted. The Chapel of St Paul is small, but extremely elegant and gloriously decorated. The chapel stands on the site of the first Stansted House, which was destroyed during the Civil War. Some of the 15th century masonry from the original house was used to build the chapel. The stained glass windows were evidently inspired by the poet John Keats, and he eventually attended the consecration of the Chapel. For me, the most stunning aspect of the Chapel is the intricate painting of the walls and the ceiling in particular. Rich burgundy colours with gold leaf borders decorate the walls. However the ceiling is particularly stunning - it's painted midnight blue and decorated with tiny gold stars. The cornices and the ceiling roses are all outlined in beautiful and intricate gold paint.
Outside, the rest of the grounds are most pleasant. There are a couple of walled gardens. The Dutch Garden is intricately paved with tiny hedges and inlaid pools. It's a very quiet haven and the scent from the plants in spring and summer is glorious. Further afield there are woodland walks into Stansted Forest as well as an arboretum, which is thoughtfully labelled so you can easily identify the various different trees.
~*~ STANSTED FOREST ~*~
Being some 1,800 acres, there are many footpaths and bridleways across the Estate, including the Sussex Border Path. Most is open to the public, but some areas are managed to conserve wildlife habitats and plants. You'll most likely see plenty of deer, pheasants and various other forms of wildlife as you wander about. Primroses in early spring are followed by a glorious profusion of bluebells in April.
~*~ WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO THERE? ~*~
If you happen to be in the area in the winter, you'll find Stansted House and the Chapel are closed to the general public. However, don't let that put you off a visit to the Estate, as there is still plenty to see and do there.
The Grounds at Stansted Park are open all year round, and you can wander around the huge walled garden and then enjoy afternoon tea there. If the weather is inclement, you can sit inside The Pavilion Tearoom, which is a restored glasshouse, so you still get the delightful views over the Park. We've partaken of many a scone or slice of cake from this café and it's always delicious. When it's warm and we can sit outside, we often take the dog with us, and she helps us out with the eating of any cake we can't manage :o)
There's a huge Garden Centre at Stansted, which is open all year round. There's a Light Railway, a pottery, a jeweller's workshop and an intriguingly named Salon du Chocolat, where you can make your own chocolates.
In addition, Stansted Park hosts many different events throughout the year including a garden show, a Christmas festival and various open-air concerts and firework displays. I've just found out that Stansted have a newly planted maze, so that's definitely on my list of things to do in the spring.
~*~ NEARBY POINTS OF INTEREST ~*~
The nearest village to Stansted is Rowlands Castle which is very picturesque, but is missing the castle it should have! There are some remains of a motte-and-bailey castle to the west of the village, but they're quite hard to find. The city of Chichester can be found about 9 miles away and is home to a famous cathedral, theatre and a Medieval Market Cross. Slightly further afield (12 miles) you'll find the coastal city of Portsmouth with many attractions such as Nelson's "'Victory" and the historic dockyards
~*~ RECOMMENDATION ~*~
There is plenty to see and do at Stansted, so you don't necessarily need to time your visit for when the House and Chapel are open to the public in the summer months. However, it has to be said that the highlight of my various visits to Stansted Estate, has been the tour of the House, especially the below-stairs aspect. Stansted have done a remarkable job of breathing reality into life for both upper and lower classes at the turn of last century. Any children (or adults) with an interest in history would definitely benefit from a visit, as it really does show life as it was 100 years ago in an informative and interesting manner. Coupled with delightful gardens and plenty to see and do, Stansted comes highly recommended for a most pleasant day out.
~*~ FURTHER INFORMATION ~*~
Stansted Park is located 2 miles east of Rowlands Castle in Hampshire. You can follow the brown heritage signs from the A3 (Rowlands Castle) or A27 (Havant). Car parking at Stansted is free. The nearest railway stations are Rowlands Castle or Havant.
Please note that although the grounds at Stansted are open all year round, the House and the Chapel are closed to visitors in the winter months. Stansted House opens every Sunday and Bank Holiday in April and May 2011. From June until September 2011 opening hours are on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1pm to 5pm (last admission 4pm).
Admission to Stansted House and Chapel in 2011:
Family Ticket £18.00