Pamela de Figueiredo and Peter Booton visit this iconic 15th-century home in the Piddle valley
Published in April ’11
What have a former Lord Mayor of London, a nephew of the Duke of Wellington, the Ali Khan, Noel Coward, Michael Caine and a Russian cubist painter and friend of Picasso all got in common? The connection is Athelhampton House, an imposing 15th century manor house enclosed in a renowned architectural garden, that enjoys the status of being one of Dorset’s main tourist attractions. Upwards of 40,000 visitors pass through its gates each year. Throughout its long history Athelhampton has been privately owned by inter-related families and its story spiced with the names of colourful personalities and the famous.
The present owners of Athelhampton are the Cooke family who, for three generations have continued to restore, improve and secure its place in history. Bought by his grandfather in 1957, Mr Patrick Cooke was born at Athelhampton and now lives there with his wife Andrea and two young sons.
Situated along the old A35 between Puddletown and Tolpuddle, much of the house dates back over five centuries. Before 1066 Aethelric held the manor and in 1086 the site was recorded in the Domesday Book as Pidele. The name Athelhampton appears in about 1350 when Sir Richard Martyn married the estate’s heiress and the Martyn family name subsequently became synonymous with Athelhampton for the next two and a half centuries.
In 1485 Sir William Martyn built the Great Hall and its timbered roof remains substantially as it was built. It is currently considered to be one of the finest examples of 15th century architecture. Much of the heraldic glass in the windows of this medieval hall also dates from this time. Sir William became Lord Mayor of London in 1492 and received licence to enclose 160 acres of deer park to fortify his manor “with walls of stone and lime and to build towers and crenellate them”. Remains of this boundary can still be found, and Sir William’s tomb lies in the Athelhampton Aisle of St Mary’s Church in Puddletown.
During the family’s ownership a west wing and gatehouse were added to the building but the Martyn connection came to end when without an heir, four daughters broke the line of succession and the estate was divided. The house eventually passed through marriage to Sir Ralph Bankes who held the family seat of Corfe Castle but only five years later it was sold again and divided into two households. Until the late 19th century Athelhampton remained occupied by tenant farmers and became very run down. The imposing gatehouse was demolished and the property changed hands with ownership passing to, among others, the Earls of Mornington, relatives of the Duke of Wellington but finally, the earlier divisions of the estate were reunited and Alfred de Lafontaine, a reputed antiquarian, became the owner.
In his 27 years at Athelhampton, it was Lafontaine who began not only to restore the house to its early Tudor roots but to create a garden to match. He engaged the services of Reginald Blomfield and Inigo Thomas. Thomas was a trained architect, landscape designer and author of “The Formal Gardens of England”, the publication of which, in 1862, resulted in a number of large commissions from new owners of Tudor houses for restoring and enlarging buildings and complementing them with 17th and 18th century gardens. Inspired by the Renaissance, Thomas created “outdoor rooms” and walled areas encircled by the River Piddle which have now matured into one of the country’s great attractions and one of the finest examples of this style. These old weathered walls now support fruit trees, roses and clematis and enclose fountains and pavilions and through gateways, create vistas of balustraded terraces and ornamental features. By the main entrance is the Great Court with its famous 12 giant yew pyramids set around a sunken pool and in front of the 19th tollhouse the magnolia grandiflora produce a magnificent display in early spring. The lawn to the west is dominated by an early 16th century circular dovecote now fully restored and renovated, its oak hammerbeam roof and cedar lantern intact with landing stages for forty doves. There is room inside the dovecote for up to 1500 birds to nest.
Athelhampton employs around 40 or so local people. In charge of the garden is Head Gardener, Mr Mark Eavis who has worked there for 28 years. He is assisted by Mr David Bishop of Puddletown. “I was 17 when I began at Athelhampton and came here on a work scheme with a six month trial,” says Mr Eavis, “I stayed and learnt everything I know from working with two experienced previous head gardeners.” Over the last ten years Mrs Cooke has taken care of replanting and redesigning the borders using different themes and colour schemes. This award-winning Grade I listed garden continues to expand in size and interest with Mr Eavis passionate about the new rose garden and the avenue of pollarded English limes leading down to the River Piddle. The river runs around the north of the house and a system of artificial ditches and brick lined sluice gates can be traced back to ancient times. A boarded walkway has been put in place with seven acres of riverside and meadow set aside to offer sanctuary to wildlife. A range of birds including to kingfishers, herons and little egrets can be seen feeding there.
Thomas Hardy, who was a regular visitor to Athelhampton, set parts of his short story ‘The Waiting Supper’ by the river and in the garden. He refers to the house in his diary, recording that he was dining there when war was declared in 1914. Between the wars the house was owned by the Hon Mrs Esmond Harmsworth and enjoyed a degree of celebrity status as some stars of the time including Aly Khan, Douglas Fairbanks and Noel Coward were all entertained there.
Links with the famous continued when the house changed hands again in 1948 and publisher Rodney Philips took up residence with his wife Marika, the former wife of the French painter Jean Paul Brusset. Accompanying them was his mother-in-law, the Russian artist Marevna who counted Picasso, Chagal, Modigliani and Matisse among her friends. Marika was the result of her relationship with the Mexican cubist painter Diego Rivera, the husband of Frida Kahlo.
Athelhampton is home to an art gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Marevna. “She was 56 when she lived here,” says Mr Cooke, “a prolific painter even then and quite an exotic character.” The gallery has 30 pictures covering all periods and styles of the artist’s life among them a canvas of the pyramid topiaries in the garden and portraits of family and local people. One wall is dominated by the mural size painting “Homage to Friends from Montparnasse” (1961).
“The house and gardens are a tourist venue bringing people into the county,” explains Mr Cooke, “but for the last couple of years we have been concentrating on the people who live in and around our area and that needs to be slightly different from the tourist product, something more than just a house and gardens that people who come to Dorset might visit.” In the drive to involve and interest local people Mr and Mrs Cooke aim to provide an arts venue and local entertainment centre. Mrs Cooke has a collection of period dress and an outdoor theatre is planned for this year, with the Hardy Players and a performance of “Tess”. They have opened a very modern state of the art 70 seat cinema showing films with a local connection, or those regarded as out of mainstream. When the programme included the Mankiewicz classic “Sleuth” which had been filmed on location at Athelhampton in 1972, Michael Caine’s little red MG car that is now in the possession of Mr Cooke, made an interesting exhibit.
With its lavish rooms, wi-fi equipped media suite and the facilities it provides for local businesses and organisations, its restaurants for public and private dining, and its glorious setting, it is hardly surprising that Athelhampton is a popular choice for weddings, conferences and meets. “I feel the house is more together now than it has ever been”, says Mr Cooke, “Virtually every part of the house has got a function. There isn’t too much space that’s sitting wasted. Thirty years ago when I was a child, there was just empty roof space on the top floor.” One of his duties in the winter, he remembers, was to help empty buckets of the water that had leaked through the roof. “The colour and smell of water is not very pleasant when it has run down an oak beam,” he adds.
It is something of an understatement to say that for a 500 year old, Tudor mansion, and family home, this is a very busy place. It has been Mr Cooke’s mission to make Athelhampton more open to the people of Dorset and to preserve this pocket of history for future generations and, without doubt, Athelhampton has moved into the 21st century with style and grace.