Stanway House: an earl, a sheep and the highest fountain in the UK

Interview by Fiona Scott-Lazareff
Stanway House and Fountain,Toddington 

The facade of Stanway with the gatehouse on the right and the graveyard in the foreground

I’m wondering how I should address the owner of Stanway, who, due to the intertwining of illustrious aristocratic families has  landed up with a handful of titles: Earl of Wemyss, Earl of March, Lord Neidpath…After reflection, I settle for  Lord Wemyss. Even this isn’t as straightforward as it seems since ‘Wemyss’ is pronounced 'Weems' and according to the current earl has been spelt in 38 different ways since the 13th century.

This tangle of rich, influential families and their marriages probably explains why Stanway has been so beautifully preserved. After all, for over a thousand years the place has only had two owners: the Church for 818 years and the Tracy family (and its descendants - the Chaterises - who married the Earls of Wemyss) for the  five hundred years which followed.

Just as my  GPS indicates that  I’m arriving at Stanway,  an exquisitely beautiful Jacobean entrance-way comes into sight.

The Gatehouse, Stanway

The Jacobean gatehouse 

Fortunately, my homework tells me that this entrance is no longer in use and instead of trying to get in here,   I follow the lane which curves round to the right, from where I see a less prepossessing entrance and drive, which looks like a sensible way of accessing Stanway.

Looking at the layout of the place today, you can quite easily imagine how the various buildings developed over the centuries.  To begin with, the abbot’s medieval manor house (with the church at its side) and the gatehouse in between were set around a courtyard at what is now the back of the house. In the early 16th century, it seems that Sir Richard  Tracey who bought the house from the Church spent a small fortune  on it, building the south wing, gatehouse and west courtyard,  turning it round to face the front and at the same time blocking up the windows  which overlooked the courtyard. 

Knowing that you can destroy the visual aspect of such a beautiful facade by leaving anything but a vintage Bentley in front of it, I park my car in the courtyard at the back. The front door appears to be on the front facade of the house, but  I stop to ask somebody if they know where I can find Lord Wemyss.  I’m told he’s in his ‘office’; a finger points to the first floor and indicates a door on the ground floor to get there.

Lord Wemyss’ office is comfortably messy with an open fire in the hearth already laid and longing  - on this damp march afternoon - to be lit. A  black labrador sidles up to me for attention. 


Lord Wemyss in his office

After a quick exchange of greetings, we agree to chat whilst looking around the house, with the first stop being the kitchen for a cup of coffee, so we follow a  passage before descending to the ground floor,  to the kitchen and the adjoining buttery. Lord Wemyss tells me that they have served the same purpose since they were built in the early 17th century.

We sit down at a small table with a gas fire on wheels pulled up close although there is another open fire laid on the other side of the room. He tells me that this is the original kitchen.  Whilst he eats a yoghurt, a banana and some freshly brewed coffee and  I drink my tea,  I wonder what it must have been like growing up at Stanway, but Lord Wemyss explains that he grew up at Gosford House in Scotland, a huge 19th-century neoclassical house, which Wemyss has  been restoring since his father died in 2008. 

The conversation turns to Gosford and I learn to my surprise that it has nothing to do with the movie (Gosford Park) which was in fact filmed mostly at Syon Park and Wrotham Park.

Gosford House, East Lothian, Scotland

 He explains that his father, (the 12th Earl of Wemyss) was dedicated to Scotland and barely crossed the Border. In contrast to his father,  he made his home at Stanway, after going to Eton, followed by  Oxford and then onto nearby  Cirencester  Agricultural College,  the finishing school  where  sons (and more recently daughters) of the landed gentry learn how to manage the estates which they're re going to inherit. 

‘At the time’, he says,  ‘Stanway was empty: my grandmother had been living there, with her second husband,  on a full repairing lease. Once she had gone it suddenly had to be maintained’. So he stepped in and has been there ever since.  Today the estate still includes 5,000 acres which are farmed by many of the same families which have been tenants for several generations.

‘When I moved in,  the garden was very overgrown - there had been no gardeners for some time… then the  whole property had to be reroofed in the 90s.’

The house’s heyday, it seems, was from 1817-1835 but after that ‘'my ancestors, who lived in Scotland and used it as a summer residence, got bored with it. They couldn’t get to it easily. Sometimes they  arrived  by ship at Bristol  and then  came  down from there  by canal. ‘After 1835 it was largely  uninhabited until 1867 when my grandparents moved in,’ he explains. This probably explains why the house has retained so many of its original features.

The dining room leads into the Great Hall. The two-story-high ceiling with its minstrel’s gallery is breathtaking; largely thanks to the windows, (comprising 792 panes)  at the end of the room. The window was installed by Sir Paul Tracey (1550-1625) together with the massive fireplace.  Wemyss explains that glass had always been a sign of wealth but by the beginning of the  16th century, though still very expensive, it had become affordable allowing the rich to show off by installing large windows, such as these. ‘This is my favourite room,’ he says ‘though not in winter’. Once it was heated by an intricate system of boilers and canalisations which sadly no longer work. At the far end of the room is a painting which shows people boating on a lake. Wemyss explains that it was thanks to this painting that they realised what the Water Gardens were originally like and he was able to restore them to their former glory.

Lord Wemyss in his favourite room, the Grand Hall

In the 1720s John Tracey employed Charles Bridgeman to create the most extraordinary water garden with a  500-foot rectangular ornamental canal on a terrace 27 feet above the ground floor of the house, fed by a  cascade. It was  623 long and 118 feet high surmounted by a circular pool and another narrower cascade.  The whole thing blended brilliantly into the hillside. 

John Tracy's eldest son Robert, the owner of Stanway 1735-1767 embellished it by employing Thomas Wright of Durham to layout serpentine paths up the hillside and build the pyramid over the head of the cascade, with a banqueting house dedicated to John Tracey.

‘But when I arrived’ says Wemyss, the water garden scarcely existed.’  Francis 7th earl of Wemyss 1795-1883 and his wife Louisa had filled in the canal, covered up the cascade and drained the pyramid pond. At the same time, they decided to give the place a Victorian look, demolishing part of the second tithe barn and stables and employing  William Burn to build new stables and a servant wing.

Not only has Lord Wemyss restored the water gardens but he added, in 2004 a single-jet fountain of 300 feet, making it the tallest fountain in Britain. ‘The engineering was a technical challenge,’  he says,  'but it’s also thanks to a sheep which peed in the water source. Otherwise, the water would be used by the water board’.

The Fountain, the tallest in the UK. Photo Ian Gee

Not so obvious but just as costly and time-consuming has been the repair of miles of Cotswold stone walls.

Next, we pass into a beautifully proportioned drawing room, notable for its double exposure. Wemyss explains the long battle he had to open the windows overlooking the courtyard, which had been filled in shortly after the Traceys bought the place and decided to turn the house ‘inside out’ so that it no longer looked onto the courtyard.

The majestic proportions of the room owe much to Sir Richard Tracey (2nd Bt) who inherited Stanway with the hope of becoming High Sheriff which meant he had to have a Royal Apartment,  in case the monarch came to stay. Such apartments had to have two chambers,  a cabinet and back stairs as well as furniture fit for a king (or Queen) He, therefore, turned the wing from north-facing over the courtyard to south facing over the lawn adding several more south-facing windows between  1626-1628 prior to becoming Sheriff in 1628-29. The result is one of the loveliest facades in England.


Chinese Chippendale day bed

But it wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that it was lived in by John Tracy Esq who owned  Stanway from 1682 to 1735. He employed Francis Smith of Warwick, one of England's greatest architects to insert sash windows in the great parlour and the windows above it. The room is elegant but cosy and has two unusual and spectacular Chinese Chippendale daybeds. 


Interior of the canopy of the  Chinese Chippendale day bed

 I ask Lord Wemyss what he would like to have done if he hadn’t landed the full-time job of looking after Stanway and Gosford as well,  where he goes once a month to keep an eye on things.

‘I would like to have been a full-time historian, he says. ‘I have written the guide book to Gosford and I have written this  book on the subject of attainder,’ he says, picking up a book: ‘Jacobite attainder and forfeiture’

 ‘Attainder was the  "corruption of blood" which arose from being condemned for a serious crime, usually treason’ he explains. 'You could use your life,  property and hereditary titles but also the right to pass them on to one's heirs'.  Acts of attainder were used by medieval and renaissance monarchs to remove anybody who posed a potential threat to them. 

‘My several times' great uncle David Wemyss, Lord Elcho, (the fifth Earl's eldest son) was attainted for his part in the Jacobite Rising of 1745, so after his death in  1756 the earldom became forfeit. It wasn't until 1826 that my ancestor, Francis Charteris Wemyss  (1772–1853),  succeeded in getting a reversal of the attainder'. 

He shows me three tables in the front of the book, There are 55 families in the three tables which had a better claim to the throne in 1714  than George I but were debarred by their Catholicism.  ‘When Prince  Charles received a copy of the book,’ says Wemyss, ‘He joked 'When I see  how many people had a better claim, I'm doing very  well on being the next in line to the throne today.’


The small drawing room

Above all Stanway is still a family home for Lord Wemyss and his wife Amanda, a fascinating personality, well-known for  The Beckley Foundation, which she founded in 1998 for the reform of drug policy.  She is also a fan of trepanning, a way of relieving depression and stimulating creativity by having  a hole drilled in your head to get more blood and oxygen into the brain. 

Having read that Lord Wemyss has been trepanned himself, I ask him, before I leave,  if he would recommend it.

‘‘The effect was beneficial’ he replies, with a mischievous smile.