The Library: Editor's Picks Winter 2019

  • 02 Dec 2019
  • Article

The Forgotten Country House: The Rise and Fall of Roundway Park 

Simon Baynes | Quiller | £25   

Simon Baynes is Chairman of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust and the owner of Bodfach Hall, Montgomeryshire, a Historic Houses member property. This handsomely produced volume recounts the history of Roundway Park in Wiltshire, a now mostly demolished Georgian mansion with which the Baynes family was once connected.  

The substantial enlargement of an earlier house at Roundway was commissioned from James Wyatt by James Sutton, MP for nearby Devizes. Sutton employed Humphry Repton to landscape the grounds of his new mansion in 1794. The Suttons were well connected (James’s brother-in-law, Henry Addington, was Prime Minister from 1801 to 1804), and the book thereby is the story of a sizeable and prosperous gentry estate which passed, intact, through various family hands: to the Estcourts and then to the Colstons, which, through marriage, began its link with the Baynes family.  

Part house history, part family memoir, the final decades at Roundway are tinged with sadness. After the war the house was sold to the local council but was then scheduled for sale and partial demolition in 1953. Baynes includes some material on the link between the Colston family wealth and the slave trade: his argument, after all, is that a house such as Roundway can only be understood through close attention to the lives and fortunes of the people who lived there.  On balance, the owners of Roundway were loyal and generous custodians of this corner of the English countryside, and the book is a fitting tribute to the house and estate that it commemorates. 

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Knowle Revealed 

Natalie Cohen and Frances Parton | MOLA; National Trust | £10 

Knole – an enormous house, more village than single dwelling, fully four acres, sprawling across at least seven courtyards and more than six hundred years – has been the subject of major works of repair, recording and discovery since 2011. The later part of the efforts – named ‘Inspired by Knole’ – involved an unprecedented archaeological survey of parts of the buildings uncovered, in some cases, for the first time since their construction. As the layers of history were peeled away, with the meticulous and painstaking care and conservatism characteristic of the Trust’s approach, materials, methods and phases of construction were revealed and pieced together, and hitherto unknown treasures, from objects to inscriptions – discovered and dislayed. 

Cohen is the Trust’s regional archaeologist for London and the South East; Parton is the curator at Knole. Their comprehensive work is satisfyingly detailed – precise plans, diagrammatic elevations and cut-aways, and plenty of photos richly illustrate throughout – but never dry. As is to expected, it is the most relatable of the human stories that shine through, even against the backdrop of the fascinating architectural history. One in particular has a reflexive quality, being the creation of a character from the past in complete self-consciousness of his place in a future history. Found in an early 20th-century Perrier bottle, a rolled-up note reads, ‘Sept 26th, 1906. This bottle was dropted here in the year AD 1906 by S G Doggett when these radiators were put in, also the Hot Water service.’ The Trust followed up members of Mr Doggett’s family – his grand daughter has donated his old tool box to the Knole collection. 

Combat Civilian 

Gilbert Greenall | The Book Guild | £25 from (signed) 

It’s a central tenet of the Historic Houses philosophy that there is no substitute for simply living in the incredible places our members care for, generation after generation. However fascinating the lives of the occupants of past centuries, however engagingly they brought to life by dedicated curators, there is one thing that houses that are now museums can’t do – produce new inhabitants with lives as extraordinary and engaging as any of those from the history books, whose experiences and collections come in time to enrich the stories of their homes. 

Gilbert Greenall – chairman of our Heart of England region and resident of Bromesberrow Place on the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire – has not written a book about his house, which was a former home of the economist David Ricardo, any more than one would expect a biography of Ricardo to focus on his country retreat. Instead he has documented the career of a soldier who became a doctor and a pilot in order to work on humanitarian missions in a catalogue of the world’s most troubled places over the last forty years – Cambodia, Angola, Somalia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just a few of the eighteen countries covered. 

The result is a vivid first-hand account of work that is harrowing and rewarding, one hopes in at least equal measure. The insights and stories span high policy – some of it reflected on in the library at Bromesberrow, whisky in hand, on a respite from the field – to the heartbreak of feeling guilty for dropping a young woman – already long dead from malaria and malnutrition – because Greenall was simply to exhausted to carry her body any further through the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ of Cambodia. It’s a surprisingly modest account of an admirable life, and one that stands comparison with any that has unfolded in one of Britain’s great houses. 

Cover image 'The Forgotten Country House: The Rise and Fall of Roundway Park' by Simon Baynes

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