Slow Cotswolds

  • Made to Measure at Upton House

    Have you good taste? That's a question I was asked as I wandered through the panelled rooms of Upton House, a National Trust-owned property that sits close to the edge of Edge Hill on the most northern reaches of the Cotswolds AONB.

    Far from being impertinent, the question posed was making me think, distinguishing my 'favourite' coffee pot and tea urn from that considered discerning by others, most notably the one-time chairman of Shell Oil Company, Lord Bearsted and his wife. My taste is quite possibly different to what was de rigeur in 1920s society - and Upton House is currently 'fitted out' (and will be for the next three years) with an interior style of the decade.

    Indeed, we're in 1927 to be precise. Lord and Lady Bearsted have arrived for a viewing of Upton House, contemplating its purchase from the present owners, the Motion family. A large 'For Sale' sign stands at the visitors' entrance. The society couple are measuring up the property to renovate and turn Upton House into their sporting country house.

    Over the next three years, Upton House will present a 'Made to Measure Home', a project that focuses on the buying and renovating of a rural residence. Visitors are able to follow the unfolding story of how Lord and Lady Bearsted, guided by house and garden experts, made Upton House into a country home - a bolthole in the country - that was 'made-to-measure' to fit their own needs and desires.

    For Lady Bearsted, Upton's grounds offered the opportunity to indulge her passion for gardening. She envisioned the formation of great terraced gardens on the house's inviting slopes - and they are a truly magnificent place to enjoy a picnic or wander the kitchen garden, the Nuttery and the enchanting Bog Garden.

    In order to create the ideal home, the Bearsteds also needed to install all mod cons and home comforts, including central heating, electricity, light airy rooms and efficient plumbing - the hallmarks of a modern healthy life.

    The team at Upton House will be re-telling the story of its transformation, showing through a series of interactive exhibits how it went from a down-at-hell property in a neglected state to a great example of a 20th century country house.

    For my visit, at the launch of the 'Made to Measure Home' project, I'm greeted at the vast portico entrance of the house by Martyn. Today, dressed in 'auctioneer's tweeds', he is my property guide to show me around the house as a prospective buyer. A volunteer guide for the National Trust at Upton House, Martyn is a retired dentist from nearby Banbury. Volunteers matter to the NT; they are the vital lifeblood of the organisation and today all the house volunteers have turned up to celebrate the launch. There are clear indications that this house means a great deal to these local volunteers as a community.

    Says Martyn, "The aim of the project is to point out how people lived and get people thinking about what family life was like." Rooms have been 'put back' to the way they were before the Bearsteds began their full-scale renovations, with the use of large screens. As the three-year project evolves, these screens will come down to reveal the changes that were made to the property. It's a reason for returning again and again.

    One downstairs room has become the Architect's Office (Percy Richard Morley Holder, whom the Bearsted's appointed), incorporating a table filled with 3D models of the house (for children to play with), interior design notes and a draughtsman's bench complete with architectural drawings. In each room there are further architectural plans on view, illustrating how the property changed - where walls and ceilings were knocked down to create one vast room, how the kitchen moved from one end of the house to the other - or indeed how Lord Bearsted turned one room into a squash court. That didn't last when he needed somewhere to display his Canalettos. For now, the old squash court has been cleverly 'reinstated', the priceless artworks displayed in an unconventional form that actually makes you take notice of them far more so than in the usual setting of a traditional art gallery.

    What is clear as I wander through the house is that the entire project, which will evolve and change seasonally and annually to encourage repeat visits, is how it measures with slow travel. The launch is aptly special - the grand-daughters of the original architect were invited, along with the relations of the previous owners of Upton House from whom the Bearsted's bought the property. Representatives from the original estate agents are here to 'hand over the keys' and dozens of volunteers have turned up, eager to see how 'their' house has been transformed.

    Says Emily Knight, the General Manager at Upton, who has been overseeing the mammoth operation, "The purpose is to allow visitors to Upton House to become better connected with the property, to become emotionally engaged with it by arriving as a prospective purchaser and imagining what they might do with it, whether they like the interior design chosen by the Bearsted family or what one might do themselves.

    "Every department has been involved in some way. It is our volunteers that have done much of the research to bring the Made to Measure Home to fruition."

    It's human nature that everyone is a little nosey and curious at how others live - it's one of the very reasons we love wandering around NT properties, often making critical comment about personal taste. Whether you believe the Bearsted's had taste - you'll have to see for yourself.

    Upton House re-opens for the season today. And it is a special day for the property - for it is 90 years to the day that the Bearste'ds completed the purchase.

    (You can find general information about visiting Upton House on page 101 of Slow Travel: The Cotswolds.

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