The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A complete jumble – Wolfeton

Few Dorset houses can match the character and charm of Wolfeton. John Newth has visited.

Wolfeton from the south-east. The three upper windows facing south are those of the Great Chamber.

Most reference books will tell you that Wolfeton is an Elizabethan house, but the story is more complicated than that. The oldest visible parts above ground may be dated to the 14th century, the original name, Wolveton, is Saxon, and it stands close to one of the Roman approaches to Dorchester. So the human occupation of the site has a long history; ‘Who knows?’ says owner Nigel Thimbleby. ‘There may have been blue-painted men running around here even before that.’
It is true that much of what can be seen today of the house between Charminster and the water meadows of the Frome is 16th-century. It is the legacy of the Trenchard family, who inherited it from the Mohun and Jordan families. In the words of Nigel Thimbleby, they ‘dolled it up’ to become what was regarded as a proper residence for an Elizabethan gentleman. In particular, the Great Chamber was created on the first floor, the roof was raised – the marks of the old, much lower roof-line can be seen on the interior wall – and the great run of windows on the south front was installed, as was the massively impressive stone staircase.

Wolfeton’s great stone staircase

The Great Chamber had a barrel-vaulted ceiling and would have been used as a party room; it still is, although not necessarily for galliards and gavottes. It has a striking carving above the fireplace, featuring Red Indians, and it has been suggested – with very little factual evidence to support it – that Walter Raleigh was a frequent visitor from his country home at Sherborne Castle and gave the descriptions from which the mason worked.
The Trenchards fell on hard times and so did the house, being let as a farmhouse in the late 18th century. By then it was owned by the Hennings, who had been both cousins and lawyers to the Trenchards. In the middle of the 19th century, they sold it on to yet more cousins, the Westons, who did have some money to spend. The Great Chamber was divided into five rooms and the windows bricked up. The Westons knocked down the ruinous parts of the house but conserved the rest, taking the stone from one end (the east) to rebuild at the other. No wonder that Nigel Thimbleby describes his home as ‘a complete jumble’.
The next owner was – inevitably – a kinsman of the Westons, Albert Bankes, a younger son of the Kingston Lacy Bankeses. He died in 1913, but his wife, Florence, lived on at Wolfeton until 1947, attended by the butler, Herbert, who had been at Wolfeton since he was five. Family legend has it that during the War, he was serving Mrs Bankes dinner when an incendiary bounced from the lawn through the window. Herbert imperturbably put down his salver, picked up the bomb and threw it back to whence it came, at which point it exploded.

Carved figures of Red Indians above the fireplace in the Great Chamber

The Bankeses’ grand-daughter, Priscilla Stucley, inherited Wolfeton, which once again was becoming very run-down, and saved it by converting it into flats. She had a career elsewhere and, anxious to find someone who could be more committed to the house, contacted all the relations she could find, including Nigel Thimbleby’s mother, who was a distant connection of the Trenchards. Encouraged by Nigel, she took it on and Nigel himself moved into the distinctive twin-towered gatehouse. Over the succeeding years, the flats were not re-let as they fell vacant, the flimsy partitions were knocked down and, having been invalided out of the 11th Hussars and married, Nigel moved into the main house and started his life’s work of saving it from ruin.

The intricately carved door leading from the Parlour

The most notable feature of Wolfeton is the magnificent carved wood, especially around the door and above the fireplace in the Parlour. Other notable woodwork includes a few remaining examples of the Elizabethan panelling in the Great Hall, which, like the Little Eating Room at the other end of the house, was re-panelled in the 19th century. The Great Hall – not to be confused with the larger Great Chamber – is on the ground floor and was used as a cart shed during Wolfeton’s time as a farmhouse.

The simple panelling in the Great Hall gives it as much style as the other, more decorated rooms

There is also fine wood carving in the Little Eating Room, where the plaster overmantel was part of the Elizabethan alterations, being copied from a 16th-century Dutch pattern book. Here is a porcelain bowl, supposedly presented to the Trenchards by Philip of Austria and Joanna of Castile after their ship was forced into Weymouth by a Channel storm in 1506. They were taken to Wolfeton as it was the nearest house grand enough to receive them. To act as interpreter, the then Trenchard summoned a young kinsman from West Dorset, John Russell, who spoke fluent Spanish through working in the wine trade. John Russell found favour with first Henry VII and especially Henry VIII, and so the fortunes of the Russell family, the present Dukes of Bedford, were founded.
Alas, the bowl at Wolfeton is not old enough by a century to be the one in question, although it is known that the royal couple did present a piece of porcelain, one of the first to enter the country. It is Albert Bankes who is suspected of promoting this and other inaccuracies about the royal visit, including the suggestion that the wonderful carvings around the door in the Parlour are of Spanish chestnut; in fact they are English oak from the end, not the beginning, of the 16th century.
Outside, the gatehouse pre-dates the Trenchard improvements, possibly by as much as 200 years. Today most of it is converted to holiday accommodation, managed by the Landmark Trust. At the base of one of the towers, though, is a tiny chapel, still in use, which combines reverence and charm to a remarkable degree: one of the most exceptional features of any Dorset country house.
The gatehouse chapel is the successor to an earlier one built in what is now the courtyard outside the house’s front door.
Rather further from the house, about a hundred yards in the direction of Charminster, is another of Wolfeton’s remarkable features: probably the oldest surviving riding house in the country, possibly the oldest in the world. A riding house was a sort of indoor manège for the training of both horses and riders and this one had for centuries been used as a barn. Its mullioned windows gave a clue to a rather more distinguished past and it is being painstakingly restored by a Trust to whom it was made over some years ago. Nigel Thimbleby’s dearest wish is to see horses under its roof once again.
He views with alarm the sacrifice of the countryside around Dorchester to housing and increasingly heavy traffic. Anyone who knows Wolfeton will hope that the task of rescue and improvement that Nigel so willingly took up will somehow be carried forward when he eventually lays it down.
• Wolfeton is open from June to end September – on  Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 2.00-5.00 – and to groups, by appointment, throughout the year.

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