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‘Oh, don’t you worry about that!’ the elderly National Trust volunteer said with a smile as we tried to show her our membership cards, ‘we’re all honest around here!’
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt given we had, in fact, somewhat dishonestly borrowed a friend’s cards, but we scurried on into the walls of Uppark, a stately home that’s stood grandly overlooking the south downs of England for more than 300 years. As we ventured into the grand dining hall, we were greeted by another grinning man in a National Trust uniform.
‘Try to pick up the rug!’ he challenged jovially. I obliged, discovering that it was, in fact, a print on the carpet rather than a rug at all, much to the volunteer’s delight. He laughed heartily, offered us a brochure and wished us on our way.
The National Trust is one of my favourite things about England, not just because of the actual sites themselves (although I do genuinely enjoy them!) but mainly because of the feel-good factor you get from being around so many passionate and enthusiastic volunteers and visitors. Visiting national trust is a much loved English past time and the watching families out with their dogs, elderly couples eating scones and extremely enthusiastic volunteers sharing tidbits of English history is a much loved past time of mine.
There’s just something so wholesome about it all, not to mention the interesting history and nice little tea shops where you can be even more British and have scones with jam and clotted cream.
Tom and I are currently stationed in Hampshire, just over an hour south of London near the beautiful south downs. It’s a quiet place, far from the usual tourist trail and I certainly feel like I am getting a look at typical English village life here – visits to Nat Trust properties and all. So I will be posting about all of the National Trust properties we visit, and hopefully featuring some stories of the people who lived there as well.
Harting, West Sussex | £11.00 for an adult (free with a National Trust card) | Opening times vary depending on the season
The imposing Georgian manor house of Uppark was built in 1689 by Lord Ford Grey of Warke, and remained in the hands of English nobility (notably the Fetherstonhaugh family) until it was gifted to the National Trust in about 1950. During this time, the house saw many hedonistic parties as English nobility ate and drank in complete excess, sometimes in the company of England’s monarchs.
Entry to the house is free with a national trust card, and with it you get access to both the grand ‘upstairs’ as well as the humble ‘downstairs’ where the servants would have lived. The Upstairs is extremely grand, with luxurious antique furniture and huge paintings all over the walls. I’m no art buff, but I understand that the collection is very valuable (and part of the reason why you’re not allowed to take photographs).
Downstairs is the servants quarters, which is helpfully signposted with lots of information about what day to day life for servants was like. Hint: it was not great. The rooms included the dining hall, cellar, and pantry, complete with a bed where the head Butler would sleep out to make sure no one stole the good silverware. You can also explore the tunnels that connect the various buildings, which were built to ensure that no snobby English noble needed to actually see their servants scurrying from building to building.
One particularly quirky feature of Uppark is the large doll’s house that is today housed in the servant’s quarters. Everybody is very proud of it, consdering it is one of only two in the world. That said, I did feel like everyone was avoiding the obvious in that it’s just a little bit creepy. Especially the doll on the left in the centre, with her cold black eyes. I feel like a monster criticising a three-hundred-year-old dolls’ house, but they really do look like they could be the great great great grandmothers of Chuckie.
The Women of Uppark Exhibit
While we were there, there was an exhibit on for the ‘incredible women’ of Uppark. I must say I was a bit disappointed by it, since the stories of the ‘incredible women’ they chose to feature included the “romantic” tale of Mary Ann Bullock, an eighteen-year-old dairy maid to whom seventy-year-old Henry Fetherstonhaugh took a particular liking and married based on her appearance and singing voice. Personally, I am not sure that story is as romantic as the National Trust seemed to think, but oh well.
A perhaps more interesting story was that of Emma Hamilton, although I’m not sure it was done justice by the exhibit (to be fair, it is a drama of epic proportions and probably difficult to fit on a 1m sign). Emma was the daughter of a blacksmith who was taken as a mistress by Henry Fetherstonhaugh (he liked his women young it would seem) until she fell pregnant and was totally ostracised by him. This second part of the story was mysteriously absent from the information signs.
Emma later moved to London, becoming the muse for the famous painter Romney, until he decided he needed to find a rich woman to marry to continue his painting caper. He, therefore, devised a plan to palm Emma off to his Uncle William Hamilton and tricked her into going off to become his mistress. Eventually, however, the two fell in love and were married for a number of years. During this time, Emma became exceptionally well known for her theatre, singing and art, and also learned to speak three languages (as you do). She also became a close confidant of the French royal family.
As William Hamilton’s health declined, Emma started an affair with Nelson, which her husband apparently knew about and encouraged up until his death. Nelson, however, never actually divorced his own wife, despite the infatuation between he and Emma and the several children they had together. Unfortunately, Nelson was killed in battle and Emma was cut out of the funeral and his will as it was thought unbecoming for a British hero to have had a mistress. The meagre allowance she was left was not enough to maintain her lavish lifestyle, and she eventually fell into debt and died almost penniless. Come to think of it, it’s probably not a very uplifting story to put on display. Still beats the story of the creepy old man and his milkmaid, though.
The Fire at Uppark
Uppark has always been one of the most well-known of the National Trust properties, however it became quite infamous thanks to a fire in 1989. Started by a builder who ignored the “hot work” rules (bet he feels bad now), a huge fire quickly took hold. Luckily, many antiques and paintings were able to be saved as the fire broke out during visiting hours, and National Trust volunteers literally carried them out as the fire ravaged the top floor. This video shows it:
It was feared that Uppark was lost forever, however it was determined that it would be cheaper to rebuild the home than to write it off completely and so it was painstakingly rebuilt. It took five years, but Uppark was eventually re-opened in 1995 after the restoration – the biggest in the history of the National Trust – was finished.
Today, Uppark is one of the most popular sites for visitors in the South Downs. It has amazing views out over the rolling hills of the downs, and also a cute cafe and giftshop. The manicured gardens are absolutely beautiful, especially in summer.