Dorset’s gain – Sandford Orcas Manor
Sandford Orcas Manor is one of the best examples of a largely unaltered Tudor manor house in the country. John Newth has visited.
Published in February ’15
When the county boundaries were re-drawn in 1896, the parishes of Trent, Poyntington and Sandford Orcas were moved from Somerset into Dorset. That stroke of a civil servant’s pen also transferred what Arthur Oswald in his great book, Country Houses of Dorset, calls ‘one of the most charming manor houses in the West of England’: Sandford Orcas Manor.
The name of the parish is a corruption of de Orescuiltz, the family who held the village in Norman times. Their house was probably on the site of the present manor, but in the 14th century it came into the possession of the Knoyle family, originally from South Wiltshire, where they took their name from the villages of West and East Knoyle. In 1533 the manor was inherited by Edward Knoyle, who knocked down any previous building on the site and created the present house, probably in about 1550.
Much of the interior stonework, such as the fireplaces in the hall and the parlour, dates from this period, while the sumptuous woodwork which is such a feature was originally put in place by Edward Knoyle or his immediate successors. The screen that separates the hall from the entrance passage, for example, is Jacobean and the cresting that tops it is identical to that on a screen in Shroton parish church installed by the Freke family, who were related to the Knoyles. Similarly, some of the decorative detail in the house echoes that at Athelhampton, built a few years earlier; Edward Knoyle married the sister of Nicholas Martyn of Athelhampton. It is rather pleasing to imagine the picture of county magnates after a good dinner, exchanging the names of reliable tradesmen over their port.
What Edward Knoyle could not appreciate as he planned and built the house was that his family’s fortunes were about to turn, hastened by their knack of backing the wrong horse. They were Catholics under Elizabeth I and Royalists in the Civil War, allegiances that cost them dear in every sense. By 1651 they had to mortgage the house and in 1674 the mortgagees foreclosed. The terms of the foreclosure gave the Knoyles a life tenancy but they finally left in about 1700. For sixty years the absentee owners were London merchants, but in 1736 they instructed a local lawyer, John Hutchings, to sell it. Hutchings, who clearly knew a good thing when he saw it, promptly bought it himself and the house is owned by his descendants to this day.
The house was let to tenants until the 1870s, when it was taken back by Hubert Hutchings who, with Edward Knoyle, is the most significant figure in the house’s history. He embarked on a major restoration, using an architect called Henry Hall. The words ‘Victorian restoration’ usually provoke pursed lips and a worried frown, and Henry Hall’s church restorations at Milborne Port and elsewhere are indeed typically heavy-handed. Hubert Hutchings must have been a forceful and interesting character, for it was presumably through his influence that the changes at Sandford Orcas Manor were carried out so carefully and sensitively that one of the intriguing (or frustrating) mysteries of the house is what is original and what was imported by Hubert. He was a keen collector of stained glass, and certainly some of the heraldic roundels in the magnificent tall mullioned windows to the south and east of the hall were bought by him: those showing the arms of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have misled some authorities into dating the house to the 1530s.
Three fascinating wooden overmantels were installed at this period. The one in the hall has a Jacobean central section (originally, it has been suggested, a bed-head) and outer sections have been created and joined to it with such skill that only a very slight difference in the colour tones of the wood gives them away. In a small sitting room upstairs, the overmantel is carved with intriguing figures which resemble everything from an Aztec warrior to, as suggested by the present owner, Tenniel’s drawings of the Duchess in Alice. One bedroom is dominated by a massive carved overmantel of the arms of James I, brought here from the Joiners’ Hall in Salisbury. More interesting wood is found in what was the solar, where an ornately carved bed is part Jacobean, part Victorian; again, only a skilled eye can tell where one ends and the other begins.
The 1870s restoration involved little structural alteration, although Hubert Hutchings and his architect did restore windows that had been bricked up by the Georgian tenants. As with the woodwork, it is hard to tell which of the windows are originals and which are Victorian copies. Hubert was an avid collector not only of glass and of wood: he brought in many of the objects to be seen in the house today, including a 17th-century leather jug and a small but handsome collection of pewter.
After Hubert’s death, his widow lived on in the house until she died in 1914, when it passed to a cousin, Sir Hubert Medlycott, the 6th baronet, who lived at the magnificent Queen Anne house called Ven at Milborne Port. He has left behind some charming paintings of Sandford Orcas. His son, also Hubert, lived at Sandford Orcas until his death in 1964 but his son, Christopher, a bachelor, let the house until 1978, when it came to the present owner and 9th baronet, Christopher’s nephew, Sir Mervyn Medlycott.
Sir Mervyn found that although the tenant had had a repairing lease, he had rather neglected the ‘repairing’ part of it, and undertook the biggest refurbishment since Hubert Hutchings a century earlier. Saucepans and buckets had to be strategically deployed every time it rained, because the roof was in a dreadful state. It was completely renewed and the whole property was re-wired and re-plumbed. While the gatehouse ante-room was being refurbished, a pair of shoes was found behind the plasterwork – this was a not uncommon practice to bring good luck to the house and is recorded from as early as Roman times.
The house was first opened to the public by the non-repairing tenant of the 1960s and 1970s, who saw the commercial potential of ghosts and was largely responsible for the present-day belief among those susceptible to such things that it is ‘one of the most haunted houses in England’ with no fewer than fourteen spirits supposedly floating around it. Sir Mervyn reports that he has never been aware of any such spectral congestion: ‘I can only assume that the ghosts left with the tenant,’ is his wry comment.
One enthusiast for the supernatural wrote that it is ‘an eerie-looking building, the grey stone walls of which give the appearance of being every inch the haunted house of tradition’. Nothing could be more inaccurate to describe the warmth of the Ham stone and the friendly scale of the building as it nestles in a manor’s traditional place, immediately next to the village church. The gables are topped by stone lions but also decorated by little pinnacles at the bottom of each gable. The charming overall effect is completed by the gatehouse which spans the drive, including an extension with unusual quatrefoil windows (which almost certainly provided ventilation for a privy).
Sir Mervyn has a theory that the best-preserved houses are those where the owners are well enough off to maintain them but not so rich that they can carry out drastic alterations or re-building. Sandford Orcas Manor proves his point but has also had the good fortune of some enlightened owners from Edward Knoyle, through Hubert Hutchings, to Sir Mervyn himself. The result is a rare unspoiled example of a small Tudor manor house; Somerset’s loss was indeed Dorset’s gain when the map was re-drawn in 1896. ◗
❱ Sandford Orcas Manor is open from 10 am to 5pm on Easter Monday and from 2pm to 5pm on Sundays and Mondays in May, July, August and September. Organised parties can be accommodated on other days by appointment. 01963 220206.