My Blog



Monday 4 November, 2019
Francis Popham's Grand Mansion - viewed at last
Francis Popham, born 1735, was the fourth great-grandson of Sir John Popham. He married, aged 37, Dorothy Hutton, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Rev Matthew Hutton. They had no children.
Francis was the instigator of a plan to build a "grand mansion" on land adjoining Hunstrete House near Bath. Sir John Popham had acquired the medieval manor of Hunstrete (referred to then as “Houndstreet”) at the beginning of the 17th century, but Francis’s intention was to build a mansion "upon a most extensive and magnificent scale". In a contemporary portrait, the mansion can be seen behind Francis, but he never lived to see his dream fulfilled, dying in 1779. His widow, Dorothy, vowed to continue with the building.   In 1797, Dorothy's death heralded the end of the building work. The project had been under way for about 27 years, with only the north and east fronts erected, and these incomplete. The grand mansion remained unoccupied and gradually fell into a state of disrepair. Under the terms of Dorothy’s will, the house passed to their nephew, General Edward William Leyborne, who had to take the name of Popham in order to inherit. In 1832, he commissioned a survey by a master builder that showed it would cost a further £60,000 (£4 million in today’s terms) to complete the house to the original design. It was decided that the house should be demolished to prevent any further drain on the family finances.

The magnificent contents were put up for sale, and many of them, including the grand central staircase in turned mahogany and the elaborate hand-modelled high relief plasterwork, were bought by Bishop Peter Baines for reuse in the refurbishment of his Prior Park mansion in Bath, after it was burnt down in 1836.  Now an independent school, Prior Park College is not open to the public, although the landscaped gardens, which include the lovely Palladian bridge, are owned by the National Trust and may be visited. But last week I got to go on a rare tour of Prior Park mansion and to see Francis Popham's treasures - at last. Sadly, no photographs.



Saturday October 26, 2019
End of Season

The Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa now boast twenty-eight volunteers, engaged in cleaning and restoring the famous Roman site.  They started work in April 2019 under the expert guidance of the original archaeologists Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips (pictured right and centre, with artist and illustrator Luigi Thompson (left)).   Over the past six months they have made amazing progress, stripping the walls of moss, soil and weeds, starting with the three-storey gatehouse and continuing along the east and south ranges.  They have now finished work for the season, having made considerable  inroads into the complex west range with its villa and hypocaust.  They intend to start again in Spring 2020 where they left off.   It will be a long job, but the walls have been largely untouched since the excavations came to an end thirty years ago!






Thursday August 1, 2019
Sitting Room Complete
Master George's Sitting Room is proving hugely popular with hotel guests.  It has a very homely feel, made all the more so by the addition of family photographs of Sir Ernest and Major George Wills.  The Warner website says "We've re-imagined an historic space, formerly Oliver's Bistro, within Littlecote's Tudor Old House, transforming it into an elegant bar and sitting room perfect for relaxing, drinks and delicious bites to eat during the day and on into the early evening. Above all else though, it's an alternative space to give you more choice in where and how you relax. Here is your invitation to sink into plush sofas and take your time over lunch and a latte, then cheers and a chat early evening. Table service means you won't have to lift a finger either."  Rumour has it that the servants' bellboard from which the idea came will be relocated to the new space.  I like it.


Sunday July 7, 2019
Meet Oliver
One of the tasks awaiting the Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa will be the cleaning of the famous Orpheus mosaic. First found accidentally in 1727 and then considered lost, it was rediscovered in 1976 and restored over a 13-year period.
A visitors' walkway and canopy were added in 2002 but the roof has proved to be a mixed blessing. Birds such as jackdaws have found it an ideal roosting and nesting place, and the local barn owl regards it as his own. The resulting mess on the walkways, handrails and the precious mosaic itself is a constant source of dismay and concern to everyone who sees the site, not least the original team of archaeologists now advising on its restoration.
In an attempt to find a solution to the problem, we have now installed Oliver. A very ferocious-looking decoy owl with rotating head is on duty in a prominent place overlooking the west range, and we wait to see if his presence deters not only the nesting birds but the resident owl as well.  I trust visitors and passers-by will understand the need for Oliver and will ensure he comes to no harm.


,

 Saturday June 22, 2019
 Master George's Sitting Room
Things are changing at Littlecote. Starting on Monday, Oliver's Bistro and the bistro lounge will be stripped out and the whole area transformed into a single lounge with coffee bar - where the Costa Coffee franchise used to be, for those with long memories.  The new Lounge will be called "Master George's Sitting Room", a reference to the servants' bell board in the inner hall. The board was installed in the 1920s by the Wills family, when all of the major rooms were fitted with a bell push to summon the servants. One of the lights on the bell board is labelled "Master George's Sitting Room", and corresponded with the room belonging to a young George Wills.
Major George, as he later became, was the younger son of Sir Ernest Wills who purchased the Littlecote estate from Hugh Leyborne Popham in 1929. George served in the Second World War as a Major in The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry. He fought at El Alamein, was mentioned in dispatches. and was awarded the Territorial Decoration.  George inherited Littlecote on the death of his father Sir Ernest in 1958, but lived at Eastridge Manor on the Littlecote Estate. Littlecote House was opened to the public to generate income, and George gave it to his son David Seton Wills (known as Seton) on his 21st birthday in 1960 to avoid death duties. George died in 1979 and was buried in the churchyard at Froxfield on the Littlecote Estate.
George was very much involved in the local area and duing the 1930s captained the Littlecote football team. They seem to have been very successful, judging from the trophies in the photo above, in which George can be seen holding the ball .  All these changes are in the name of making the old house more guest-friendly, I am told.


Friday April 5, 2019

The Gatehouse is coming to life ....

The Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa are really making an impact on the three-storey gatehouse to the Roman villa complex. At their second meeting they started tackling the most northerly of the twin towers - not easy because the remaining walls are not raised and lots of kneeling is required.  The director of the original excavation in 1978-1991 Bryn Walters and his colleague Luigi Thompson were there, and were delighted with the progress being made. The volunteers from the Hungerford Historical Association now number nineteen.  
Bryn also met with the Warner Site Manager Dean Lavisher and the Head Gardener Grove Russell-Allen to discuss ways of restoring the (originally) roofed areas which were gravelled in 1991. They are covered in moss and it was hoped the gravel had survived, but worm activity over the years has meant its complete disappearance.  So they will be re-lined and re-gravelled over the coming months, which will greatly enhance the appearance of the gatehouse and stable block.




Tuesday  March 5, 2019
On the Tiles
The roof of Littlecote House has been in a poor state of repair for as long as I can remember. Things took a worrying turn last year when several huge stone slates slid off the roof of the Henry VIII wing, embedding themselves in the lawn. A similar thing happened on the north side over the Jerusalem staircase, and as a result the whole house was roped off to prevent guests from straying too close to danger.  A drone survey was carried out and the project has now been approved and work commenced. Parts of the house are not presently accessible, which made for a hasty revision of this morning's tours. Guests are being informed by means of some colourful information boards sited at the east and west entrances. The boards say:
"Parts of Littlecote House date back to the 15th Century, with the Elizabethan manor added in 1592. When Warner Leisure Hotels bought the property from Peter De Savary in 1996, we became custodians of this priceless piece of English history; part of that duty is to maintain Littlecote House for future generations.  We take our responsbiities very seriously, and as such we're embarking on a £1.5m project to repair the roof of our historic house over the next 3 years, which will help ensure that Littlecote House stays standing for the next 500 years too.  While we may not look quite at our best during the project, we sincerely thank you for your understanding as we carry out this vital work to preserve this piece of history."