Tucked away in beautiful countryside just a couple of miles from Banbury is one of the most perfect houses in the country: Broughton Castle. The Historic England site description does nothing to convey the surprise the visitor gets when they turn into the park and gradually the house comes into view. It’s not an obvious statement of power, more a natural assumption of it. It is “olde England” at its best.
That feeling persists in every aspect of the house and grounds, and rightly so. The last time it was sold was 1377 when it was bought by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester. It eventually passed by inheritance to the Fiennes family who have lived there since 1447. But don’t just take my word for the fact that Broughton is rather special. Commentators as diverse as Henry James, Alan Bennett, Simon Jenkins and Patrick Taylor all think it one of the “best” houses in the country… and the gardens aren’t bad either. Read on to find out why…
After such an introduction where do I start describing the site and why it’s so special. Well first of all like all ‘real’ castles Broughton is moated, and its island site is more than 3 acres in extent. The main building, built of the local caramel-coloured ironstone, dates from the 14thc but with additional work and alterations in the 15th, 16th and 18thc before being given a light-touch makeover by George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s.
Despite all these architectural changes everything combines harmoniously, and with the moat full of clear water and buildings glowing in the sunshine it’s easy to see why it makes a perfect setting for films, most famously for Shakespeare in Love starring Joseph Fiennes who is a member of the extended family.
Even the approach is a minor rural idyll. The road enters the park by a Tudor-style lodge and curves gently through the open parkland before turning sharply to give views of the 14thc church and house itself beyond. The church is about 150m from the castle, sheltered by mature trees in its churchyard, with a spire that must be a prominent eye-catcher from across the park. Beyond it the road leads to a small mediaeval stone bridge and the castle’s tower gatehouse, through which is a grassed forecourt and 15thc stable block as well as the castle. This might be a good point to say that ‘castle’ is actually a bit of a misnomer since the site was not designed for defence, and it’s really a manor house with ornamental defensive features dating from 1406 when the family was given permission ‘to crenellate and embattle’.
Originally there was a second gatehouse and drawbridge which can be seen [on the left] in a ruinous condition on prints of the house by the Bucks first published in 1729. These are no longer extant although traces can be seen on the side of the moat. Unfortunately the print’s scale and perspective are not very accurate.
In the mid 16thc Richard Fiennes added the Italianate entrance front, with its “hidden” front door on the side of one of the pair of projecting bays. He also added the two south towers, one of which has what was probably a rooftop level banqueting room with panoramic views out over the surrounding countryside. Known as the Council Chamber it was used as a meeting place for during Charles I’s reign by his opponents because the then Lord Saye was a prominent Parliamentarian, known as Old Subtlety. The battle of Edgehill took place in 1642 just 7 miles away and afterwards Broughton was attacked and wrecked by Prince Rupert. This proved how indefensible the site was and even 5 years later it was described as ruinous.
Even at the end of the century Broughton had probably not fully recovered. Old Subtlety’s granddaughter Celia Fiennes noting in 1690 “my brother Saye’s house being much left to decay and ruine”. Celia later made three major tours crisscrossing England riding side-saddle and visiting every county. Luckily for posterity she recorded her journeys carefully for family reading, and her journals are still in the house. Eventually published they are a wonderful source of evidence for the state of England, and its houses and gardens at the time, and are on my list of future possible posts.
Money clearly came and went. It must have been there in the mid-18thc when Sanderson Miller, who lived not far away, Gothick-ised several rooms at the same time he was advising on the estate’s design and layout. There are also two rooms decorated with fantastic, in every sense of the word, Chinese wallpaper (almost worthy of a post by themselves given the botanical interest and accuracy they display).
But the money soon went again because the 15th Lord Saye and Sele was a cosmopolitan soul rather than a rural one. He abandoned Broughton for the more fashionable Belvedere House in what is now south east London that had been built for his grandfather by James “Athenian” Stuart. [sadly demolished as late as 1960].
He was not only a drinking companion of the Prince Regent but also a compulsive gambler, and lost so much that by 1819 the house was described as “daily dilapidated from misuse” and in 1837 the contents had to be sold – right down to the swans on the moat – to pay his debts. The house came back into use with the 16th Lord Saye who got George Gilbert Scott to carry out essential works to safeguard the house only for the 17th Lord Saye to endanger it all again. He was addicted to horse racing, pouring his money into the turf rather than the castle before being declared bankrupt in 1887. Whilst this was doubtless a family disaster it may well have saved Broughton from the drastic ‘modernization’ or even rebuilding, because with absolutely no cash the castle had to be let.
The tenant was Lord Algernon Gordon-Lennox and together with his wife Blanche they took over a site which, according to Country Life, suffered “from the neglect of years, rendered worse… by not a little vandalism.” There are no photos of the site in this state as far as I am aware but the gardens had been “absolutely neglected and a rough pasture-field ran up to the walls of the house under the drawing-room windows.” But at least being run-down it offered “free scope.” Lord Algernon and Lady Blanche created the gardens, and kept the building in good repair, staying until the lease expired in 1912 and the Fiennes moved back in.
There is a full account of the building’s history and architecture on Britsih History On-Line
There is surprisingly little by way of garden but what there is delightful: “the beautiful framework in which this architectural jewel is set.” An estate map of c.1685 shows the whole of the western side of the island laid out as gardens but by 1887 the OS shows the area largely open and it was probably laid to lawns running to the edge of the moat as it is today.
Luckily the Gordon Lennoxes allowed Country Life to do one of its earliest country house articles about Broughton in 1898. That suggests that Lady Blanche was “the presiding genius” and quite a knowledgable gardener with “an artistic imagination”. She had created many of the garden features described showing ” the all-pervading influence of dainty and cultivated taste.”
Her work included a rose garden and pergola where the topiary lawn now stands and possibly the terrace walk on the west lawn. She also created a large, floral sundial with a topiary gnomon which was mentioned in a second Country Life article in 1901.
She had the moat cleared and filled with newly hybridized Marliac waterlilies and then planted a wild garden full of iris and gunnera on the other side.
‘In a few short years, and with the aid of but four gardeners and a boy or two, great things have been achieved, and a long series of beautiful scenes has been created.’ (CL 1898). Yet she did all this despite the climate which she thought was harsh, with frosts being known in June and all the tender plants having to be taken up and put inside as early as September 1st.
Now for the gardens of today, which are largely based on those established by Lady Blanche, but much simplified and adapted. They can be seen clearly in this aerial view.
Along the forecourt wall and the terraced walk is a long border planted up in 1970 following advice from Lanning Roper, an American who worked on many English county house gardens in the 1950s and 1960s. Lord Saye said of Roper in an interview with Stephen Anderton ‘A nice man, he didn’t actually do us a plan, but gave us advice and the inspiration we needed. He realised our maintenance constraints, told us to remove one formal garden, and suggested plants and colour schemes for the remaining borders.” In his initial notes on Broughton Roper wrote: “treat area simply, and play up the baeuty of the buildings, walls and landscape.” [Patrick Taylor]
Roper kept to a very strict colour palette – yellow, blue, white and grey for the most part and the planting now includes roses such as ‘Marigold’, ‘Golden Wings’, Buff Beauty, ‘Windrush’ and ‘Schneezwerg.’
“So” said Lord Saye, “we followed his ideas, and just bobbled along with one old gardener until Randal Anderson – another American funnily enough – took over: a very intelligent man, with great colour sense.” In 1992, Anderson moved on, “and now we have Chris Hopkins, who lives in the village and trained at Waterperry. And he does very well, too.” But, his lordship added that he and his wife like “interfering a lot”, and he personally has “jurisdiction” over the long border. It still sticks to Roper’s colour scheme: ‘There are no pinks here. Mainly yellow, blue, white and grey. And a little bit of mauve. We are not too purist – life is too short”
As you can see from the aerial view there are borders along all the outer walls. At the southern end one backs onto the wall of a ‘romanticly ruined’ section of the mediaeval house. On the other side of that wall, on the site of the vanished mediaeval service buildings, is the Ladies’ Garden.’ This is the most elaborate part of the Castle’s gardens and again can be seen clearly in the aerial shot. It is listed Grade 1, as part of the house, and was laid out in the 1880s by Lady Blanche.
She designed a spectacular but simple parterre with four box-edged fleur-de-lys shaped beds around a central, circular camomile lawn.
In the centre of that is a basket-shaped planter with a quotation: ‘I sometimes think that never blows so red the rose as where some buried Caesar bled…’ taken from Omar Khayaam’s Rubaiyat.
Randal Anderson introduced four mophead Crataegus Paul’s Scarlet, into the mix, as can be seen in the castle’s guidebook but they have now been removed, and new trees [although I couldn’t tell what] have been planted.
There are mixed borders around the walls but the planting now includes a super-abundance of roses . They climb, scramble and cascade everywhere, amongst them ‘Sanders White’, R. ‘Bonica’, R. ‘Felicia’, ‘Fantin Latoure’, ’Marguerite Hilling’ and ‘Cerise Bouquet.’ Around the edge are mixed plantings that tumble over the edges : ‘Lanning told us that every border should “spill” ‘.
The Ladies Garden is secluded but not cut off. Access from the house is through a small doorway in the south wall of the house at the top of a flight of steps, and there are doorways into the other garden areas. The one through the east wall leads onto a small lawn planted with several topiary yew cubes, with a further mixed border along the wall. To the west is the main west lawn reached through a picturesque ruined arch.
The Ladies Garden is probably best admired as piece of design from the rooftop terrace high above it. This would have been normal to Celia who, when she was visiting great houses on her travels, would have expected to be taken up onto the roof – or the leads – to get a real birds-eye view of the gardens below and of course the wier countryside beyond.
And that’s important because the grounds of Broughton are more than just its gardens. On the other side of the moat is the parkland, rising up to low hills. Mainly pasture it contains stands and clumps of trees some of considerable age with a shelter belt and several small plantations. Estate maps from 1685 and 1724 show it as several separate ‘park areas’ which is thought were remodelled into the present wider park design in the mid-18thc, with the help of Sanderson Miller.
The greater estate runs to 740 hectares mainly to the west of the park and although much reduced in size by death duties it still provides the income stream to support the castle and that’s vital. “It is a constant struggle to keep the place going. We always need more money to keep it up, but the films do help. Shakespeare in Love, The Madness of King George and Three Men and a Little Lady all had scenes that were filmed here… We did major restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, and we’re greatly indebted to film companies for that. ” [Interview with Lord Saye, Independent 19th May 2004]
As Norman Hudson of Hudson’s Historic Houses and Gardens says: “Broughton isn’t a museum – it’s continuing to evolve, it’s alive, it couldn’t be more contemporary. The fact that it’s in such marvellous condition today is because of a huge amount of personal effort by Lord and Lady Saye themselves.”
Although they have moved out and handed over the day-to-day running of the castle to their son and his family. They are both “on duty” most days the house is open, and seem to take great delight in not standing on ceremony or even being recognized.
If you haven’t been to Broughton check out the opening hours now and get yourself there this summer. You won’t regret it!
You must be logged in to post a comment.