Exceptionally Normal. Benthall Hall, an English country house with so much more...
In Britain the term 'a country house' means more than just a house in the country. It typically refers to the seat of a wealthy or aristocratic family who has often owned the same house for hundreds of years. These houses have come in and out of fashion and have sometimes even lain empty for years narrowly surviving demolition and collapse and Benthall Hall is no exception.
In 1934 Benthall Hall's future looked very uncertain. Demolition was probably going to be its fate until descendant Mary Clementina stepped in and bought the house for £6,000, a week before auction. She set about restoring Benthall and in 1958 gifted it to the National Trust on the condition that she and any successor could live in the house. Today Benthall Hall is stunning example of an English country house and garden.
When you visit a house like this, you are really taking a journey back through time. For me, this is an amazing trip, and what excites me the most about a house like Benthall is that it feels surprisingly homely. The rooms are not huge like other country houses and there's a relaxedness... a comfort gained from a house that's been lived in
What is striking about your arrival at Benthall is just how natural and simple the area surrounding the house is. There's a lane lined with oak trees, grasses and wild flowers leading up to the estate. Fields, hedgerows and meadows slowly turn into gardens, lawns and gravel paths.
One of the first buildings you come across is the former Church Of St Bartholomew that sits in a meadow style garden in front of the Hall. Rebuilt in 1667 after the original was destroyed by fire during the Civil War, the porch and stair turret were added in the 1890s and the sundial was restored in 1961. The mix of materials, the stone steps, the beautiful combination of styles, everything down to the hinges on the door are inspiring and add to this magical pocket of Englishness that we English draw on when we think back to a time and an England that, in reality, probably never was.
As you walk around the church, you see glimpses of the Hall through the gardens and trees. And then you find yourself standing in front of Benthall Hall. It's a stunningly beautiful, quirkily asymmetrical, yet perfectly proportioned house, surrounded by lawns, clipped topiary, gravel paths, lush gardens and mature trees, all overlooking endless fields and meadows. You couldn't possibly dream of a more tranquil setting.
When I was a child I remember my grandfather looking out over the town where I grew up and saying he remembered when all this used to be fields. In a strange way, when it comes to Benthall, this is possibly the reverse. In 1709 Abraham Darby pioneered the smelting of iron with coke in Coalbrookdale, which is just over a mile away from Benthall. In fact, standing high above the river Severn, Benthall Hall overlooks what has been described as 'the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution' and is also a stone's throw away from the world's first iron bridge. This area couldn't have been more different then, than it is today.
However, Benthall has a much longer history with the family dating right back to the twelfth century. The name itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words meaning field overgrown with bent grass and it is William Benthall who began the present house in 1535.
In the same way that we change, extend and modernise our homes, many country houses have also slowly evolved into what we see today. It's thought that either Richard or Lawrence Benthall made extensive alterations in about 1580 that give the house its current appearance. There were also various fires, and changes carried out in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and nothing is known of the house that stood on the site prior to 1535. However, many of the original features of Benthall Hall still exist.
You enter the house through the front porch and this still has an original hiding place used to shelter fugitive Catholic priests during times of persecution.
The west drawing room dates from 1630 and has absolutely beautiful carved paneling which is now painted white, and an elaborately decorated plaster ceiling, frieze and overmantel. Again, this is not a large grand room. It feels comfortable and on a human scale.
One of the most beautiful features of this house is the stairs. These are just magical and the more you look, the more you see. Built in 1618, the massive newel posts are richly carved with grotesque heads, and the balustrading takes the form of pierced strapwork panels. It is enchantingly beautiful and even when up close, it somehow seems unreal.
The first floor feels even more homely with a series of family rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms that are interconnected by hidden staircases, doors and passages. In contrast to the exterior, the house inside doesn't feel that big and it flows comfortably from room to room.
A beautiful and fascinating part of Benthall is the garden. After the house was passed to a female cousin in the middle of the eighteenth century and then on to her husband's family, a series of tenants lived there up until 1934. One of these was George Maw a crocus enthusiast who developed the garden from 1865 onwards. Then Romantic painter and sculptor Robert Bateman, the son of a famous hoticulturalist, added the rockeries and terraces of the current garden.
Like the house, the garden is magical. Roses pour over the pathways and terraces, clumps of peonies hide little pools and rockeries. Tall topiary sculptures sit neatly in front of a backdrop of wisteria and clematis, all studded with patches of lavender and foxgloves. It's the perfect English garden and captures that perfectly thought out, yet wild look.
Like many of these country houses in Britain, Benthall Hall was a place I had read about, seen pictures of, and dreamt about going to, long before I got the chance to visit it. And when I finally got there, it wasn't what I was expecting... it was so much better... so much more beautiful... so much more...
To find out more about Benthall Hall go to: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/benthall-hall