Lecture Details and Reviews

Oxfordshire Country Houses

5th January, 2016 Alastair Lack
The English country house is considered by many to be England's greatest contribution to European culture. From early manor houses to stately homes such as Highclere (Downton Abbey), they provide a vivid insight into the nation's architectural, social and economic development. In this talk, Alastair Lack considers four of his favourite houses in Oxfordshire, all different a great palace, a Jacobean masterpiece, a family home and an isolated house with a romantic past.


Reviewed by Rachel Adams on 8th January, 2016

Mr Lack began by explaining how many of these great houses had disappeared in the 20th century, particularly after the wars, due to the lack of funds, high inheritance tax and their use during the wars by government departments as hospitals etc. Oxfordshire alone lost 13 since 1930 but because of the involvement of the National Trust there is better survival and wealthy people are now building and restoring properties.

Mr. Lack chose 4 houses to tell us about and to show lovely and interesting slides. The 4 were:

  • Family house
  • Palace
  • Jacobean Gem
  • Dolls House

Rousham House The first was Rousham house, owned by the Cotteral Dormer family since 1620 when the land was bought by the Dormers, who built the house in 1635. In 1735 they asked William Kent to redesign the house. He added two wings to the original house and a stable block. The interior of the house, which is not open to the public, retains the 17th c paneling, original staircases, furniture, paintings and bronzes. Rousham house remains as Kent designed and the gardens with its rills, cascades and statues represents the first phase of English landscape design and again it is exactly as Kent left it. Rousham is said to be Prince Charles' favourite country house.

Blenheim Palace The Palace, was Blenheim, built by Sir John Vanbrugh for John Churchill as a reward from a grateful nation for his victory at Blenheim over the French and Bavarians during the Wars of the Spanish Succession. It is the only non-royal — non-episcopal building to hold the title of “Palace”. Soon after construction began, the building was the subject of political infighting and Vanbrugh was eventually sacked and Sir Nicholas Hawksmoor completed the work. The 4th Duke of Marlborough employed Capability Brown in 1764 to design the beautiful landscaped gardens with the famous bridge we enjoy today. The King at the time was heard to exclaim, “we have nothing like this at Windsor”

Chastleton House The Jacobean Gem, built 1607-12 was Chastleton House. The Chaucer family originally owned the land, but in 1604 the house was sold by Sir Robert Catesby of Gunpowder Plot fame to Walter Jones a lawyer and wool merchant. As the house was owned by the same family for 400yrs until acquired by the National Trust in 1991 much of the interior furnishings have remained the same. The house is built of Cotswold stone around a courtyard and its outstanding feature is the Long Gallery, which is 22 metres in length, here the family would play cricket on winter afternoons. This was obviously a family fond of sport because the rules of croquet were formed here and a beautiful croquet lawn lies in front of the house. A rare Bible- The Juxon Bible is an important treasure kept at the house. It was said, to have been used by Bishop Juxon at the execution of Charles 1st, therefore this was the last thing on earth to be touched by the King.

Ashdown House Finally, The “Dolls House” or Ashdown House which lies on the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border a few miles from White Horse Hill. The Earl of Craven built the house for the “Winter Queen”, Elizabeth of Bohemia, a sister of Charles 1st. but sadly, she never came to live there. one of the most amazing slides we saw was of the staircase, which winds up and up through several floors to the cupola on top of the tower where one can view the strange mysterious countryside.

The time ran out too quickly on such an interesting and entertaining lecture but it certainly made us eager to visit these fabulous buildings.

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