Today is one of those English winter days that seems to want to remain anonymous and be quickly forgotten. It’s a day defined by what it’s not: it’s not cold. It’s not wet. It’s not windy. It’s not sunny. Grey, featureless clouds fill the sky like loft insulation. It is a completely inoffensive day. The morning light is no different than the afternoon light and, as we’re two days away from the Winter Solstice, there is no evening light just the early and rapid fall of winter night.
So I thought I would remind myself that some winter days here have character. They dress themselves in bright colours and beckon you to come and see what they have to offer. On a day like that, in November, we drove north a few miles into the hills above Bath and went for a walk in Dyrham Park.
These days, Dyrhan Park is a National Trust property so ordinary people like me are allowed to visit. The National Trust describe it as ‘an Ancient parkland with 17th-century house and garden’.
It’s a beautiful place that I love to visit and I’m grateful to the National Trust for making it available.
My experience of Durham Park is coloured by it’s history as well as its present. To me Ancient Parkland means that these 270 acres of wooded hills have been the private deer hunting preserve of the rich and powerful since the Normans grabbed the land from the Catholic Church in 1086. That’s unexceptional. After all, the Normans appropriated ALL of England. Things get interesting in the late Seventeenth Century when William Blathwayt, created the Park as we see it today.
I think of Blathwayt as a grafting billionaire oligarch with his hands in the public purse. A contemporary of his, the diarist John Evelyn, described him as “very dexterous in business” and as one who had “raised himself by his industry from very moderate circumstances.”
Blathwayt played a significants role in establishing Britain as a colonial power. He set up the charter of the Crown colony of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Later, he bought the office of the Secretary at War and turned it from an admin role supporting the Commander In Chief of the British Army, into the War Office, one of the most powerful organisations in the British Empire.
Blathwayt acquired the Park by marrying an impoverished local noblewoman. He paid for the House (which replaced the existing Tudor building) by the money he got as gifts and bribes from his role as secretary of the Privy Council’s committee on trade and foreign plantations where he was responsible for trade in America and the Caribbean and was active in promoting the slave trade.
I struggle to reconcile the beauty of the place with the ugly things that were done to pay for it.
There is one ten year piece of Durham Park history that makes me smile. From 1938 to 1948 1938 Dyrham was leased to Lady Anne Islington (1869-1958) whose late husband had been MP for nearby Chippenham and Governor-General of New Zealand. In 1939 she invited the Pro Patria Day Nursery to evacuate to the house, and from 1941 the Anglo-American Nursery. I love the picture of the children that goes with this story:
But enough of history. Let’s take pleasure in the present.
Dryham Park occupies the high ground above Bath and has a view that stretches all the way to Wales. We like to walk around the edge of the property and take in the panorama.
Sadly, my camera flattens this out a little but the land falls away steeply towards the Bristol Channel. The hills on the horizon are in Wales. The wind can be fierce here, especially in the winter, but the views are worth it.
Then we turn back towards the woods that stand above the House. This is one of my favourite places at any time of year but I particularly like the play of the winter sun through the almost bare branches on to the carpet of leaves below.
As we head down, the House is shielded by the hill until you are only slightly above it, then, suddenly the House and the Church are in front of you.
My favourite part of the House is the formal garden at the back. I love the way the church, portioned to capture the sun on its old stone, looms over the house against a backdrop of trees.