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Parnham House, a family home again

One of Dorset’s finest and most important houses has undergone a transformation, as Sophia Moseley reports

Parnham House is a Grade I listed stately home

Parnham House is a Grade I listed stately home

The Strode family took possession of Parnham in the mid-1500s, when Richard Strode married Elizabeth Gerard, whose ancestor built the first house on the site in about 1400. The oldest parts of the present house date from the 16th century and it was the Strode family home for 200 years. On 5 July 1645, while protecting house and home, Lady Strode was brutally killed by a soldier under the command of Colonel Fairfax, but otherwise the house and garden flourished and grew, thanks to the family’s continued prosperity.

Parnham’s topiary has remained unaltered through the ages.

Parnham’s topiary has remained unaltered through the ages.

In 1764, Parnham passed through the female line to the Oglanders of Nunwell and in 1810 William Oglander commissioned John Nash to restore and enlarge the house. Features of his work remain in place. In 1896 Vincent Robinson moved in, followed by Hans Sauer, who was keen to restore the Tudor interior. The Rhodes-Moorhouse family followed; William Rhodes-Moorhouse was the first airman to win the Victoria Cross in the First World War.

The staircase and hall created from an outside courtyard which had effectively cut off a large part of the house

The staircase and hall created from an outside courtyard which had effectively cut off a large part of the house.

During the 1920s Parnham was a country club, until it was requisitioned during the Second World War for the American army. Then in 1956 the house became a nursing home until 1973. It was sadly left empty for three years until it was bought by John and Jennie Makepeace, who saw it as an ideal location for their School for Craftsmen in Wood, where some of today’s leading cabinetmakers trained.

Many would be reluctant to take on the Herculean task of changing a building that had been used for so many different purposes back to a family home, but Michael and Emma Treichl and their family, who bought the house from the Makepeaces in 2001, have not only succeeded; they have exceeded expectations in re-creating the grandeur of a Grade I listed stately home and at the same time the more intimate atmosphere of a delightful family home.

The kageloffen, whilst no longer emitting any heat, is no less welcoming as you enter the house.

The kageloffen, whilst no longer emitting any heat, is no less welcoming as you enter the house.

With the guidance of English Heritage and West Dorset DC planners and under the expert eye of the Bath architect, William Bertram, the segregating hallways, corridors and stud walls were removed. This transformed the collection of smaller, functional rooms into fewer, larger rooms that were enhanced by the additional daylight now flooding through enlarged windows and new doorways. But what has also been achieved can only be described as a kind of room reverse psychology. Whilst the rooms have been made bigger, instead of finding them loft-like and unfriendly, you feel drawn into them and compelled to stay within the comfort they offer. The rooms are bigger, airier, lighter but at the same time almost cosy. For example, the Treichls’ family living room had previously been divided into a number of smaller rooms with a corridor running along the outside. The corridor and partitioning walls were removed and a new door and window put in to give symmetry and extra daylight.

The placing of tables and chairs in the landing area make it more than merely a conduit between rooms.

The placing of tables and chairs in the landing area make it more than merely a conduit between rooms.

There has also been a significant and architecturally brilliant construction of an inner staircase and hall created from an outside courtyard that had cut off a large part of the house. This addition not only stands out for its own merits, but it also naturally moulds together the two wings of the house.

As you walk through the house, you see the way a landing area or entrance hall has been given a specific function; it is no longer just a conduit between rooms. The change of use of what would traditionally be just a passing area has completely removed the rambling sense you sometimes experience when walking through a stately home, and the design and layout have had the effect of reducing the huge size of the property into a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. There are parts of the house that are more functional and some are used less often than others, but even the guest rooms appear very much part of the whole, so you feel that should something occur to prevent you leaving the house, there is a room ready for you to occupy at short notice. The bed is made, clean plump towels are in the bathroom and a robe hangs on the door.

The living room, formerly a number of smaller rooms with a corridor running alongside, was given a new door and a new window when the corridor was removed.

The living room, formerly a number of smaller rooms with a corridor running alongside, was given a new door and a new window when the corridor was removed.

Emma Treichl enjoys the different moods each room inspires. It is just as much a pleasure to sit in the less furnished breakfast room as it is to relax in the more formal drawing room that is probably Emma’s favourite room, with its views across the garden and perfectly proportioned interior. Here, mullioned windows with stone surrounds that stretch from low level virtually up to the ceiling are framed by voluminous quantities of heavily tapestried curtains and there is a large open fireplace that is used throughout the winter.

There are stacks of original features to be admired, such as the Nash staircase and the stone mullioned windows. A wall of 18th -century wood panelling has been cleverly reproduced where there had been just a few original panels left on one wall, so that to the average eye, the effect is seamless.

But that is not to say that the house is stuck in one particular era or, for that matter, country. Far from it: there is a clever mixture of Austrian (Michael Treichl’s home country), old and new. For example, as you enter the house, the kageloffen stands proudly and resolutely in the corner of the room. This wonderful item is part of a heating system that was used in Austria; the box at the rear of the cylinder jutted out into the hall of the house while the main part of the system was in the room, so the fire could be stoked without having to disturb the occupants of the room it was warming!

The characteristic original Nash staircase, which would have been seen by few visitors and used mostly by domestic staff.

The characteristic original Nash staircase, which would have been seen by few visitors and used mostly by domestic staff.

Heading outside, you can see the fallow deer (bought from Powderham Castle as there were no deer left in the park following its multifarious uses), calmly grazing in the fields. The sweeping avenue-style driveway is bordered on either side by impressively mature lime trees. A new timber garage and stable block with oak Tuscan columns and broad overhanging eaves was erected under the watchful eye of Stuart Martin, who worked closely with William Bertram.

The gardens, like the house, are an eclectic mixture of old and new, although the topiary collection has remained virtually unaltered and these trees stand like devoted sentinels near the house. There is a public footpath that cuts through the fields. This path used to go virtually through the middle of the property, between the stable block and the house, and would have been of little consequence when the house was open to the public. Given the inevitable intrusion this would have caused to a private family home, the council were happy for it to be moved, but there has been the odd occasion when someone has rung the doorbell in the hope of having a look around!

A statue of Hebe by an unknown sculptor welcomes you as you reach the top of the drive.

A statue of Hebe by an unknown sculptor welcomes you as you reach the top of the drive.

With the spring and autumn being her favourite times of the year, both seasons bursting with their characteristic fresh new flowers or fresh fruit and vegetables, Emma’s thoughts turned to the history and availability of locally produced and grown food. She hit upon the idea of a local directory that would be of use to everyone, combined with photographs and descriptions of Dorset scenes, to be the ultimate accolade to Dorset food production. The book, Eat Dorset, was the precursor to the Eat Dorset Food Fair, one of the most popular events in the area. The fair has been run every year since 2006 and has proved ever more popular not only with the visitors but also with the stall holders. Emma also opens the gardens for people to enjoy during their visit. This year it will be held on Saturday and Sunday 17 and 18 October.

Let Emma Treichl have the last word about Parnham’s transformation: ‘It is a question of balancing the aesthetic with the practical. Four children and a historic treasure can go together, but both need to give a little. The children enjoy the atmosphere of suits of armour and endless games of hide and seek, and a house needs to be lived in for it to feel like a home and not a museum. We smoothed out the corners a little, but didn’t dent Parnham’s considerable history.’

The imposing and unusual gate at the front of the house.

The imposing and unusual gate at the front of the house.

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