A Land Shaped by History and Millionaires

The Daily Telegraph
July 2, 2010

By Clive Aslet

We are lucky that there are still people who can afford to cherish our countryside 

In 1986, The Spectator asked me to write a piece on London houses which had been in the same family since 1914. When I accepted, I thought it would be a breeze. It turned out to be nothing of the sort: despite all my research, I managed to find a mere four properties, all of which have changed hands since.

In town, nothing stays the same for very long. How different things are, though, in the countryside. After three generations, you're only just starting to get accepted. Look at Shakenhurst Hall in Worcestershire, which has been in the news this week: it had been off the market for a millennium.

In some places, even that isn't all that impressive. A yew tree at Fortingall in Perthshire - an extraordinary, self-renewing presence, whose centre has died away, life only continuing around the edge - could be 3,000, even 5,000 years old. Imagine what it would have heard, if the news were whispered under its branches. "It's not the Stone Age any more, they're using Bronze. And look, the Romans have arrived."

The mysterious ritual landscape beside the Sound of Jura dates back even further. Last month, I visited the splendid little Kilmaratin House Museum there, which describes how people first left their mark on this fertile valley by felling trees 8,000 years ago. Over time, they left scores of rock carvings, standing stones and barrows - some, strangely, best seen from the air.

It is a moving thing, too, to visit Avebury in Wiltshire, where a village has been built among the stones of the great henge. I imagine Saxons creeping amid the sarsens. Around the village of Eastry in Kent, itself the centre of a Saxon kingdom, some farms still use fields laid out in the Iron Age. When the Romans came, they ran their roads straight through them. In fact, across Britain, you can plot Roman roads by the names on them: all those Streets, Strattons, Strettons and Stratfords take their names from the Latin strata, meaning "paved road". This is drive-through history.

More recent visitors have also left their mark. Honeychurch is named for a Saxon called Huna, who used the tithes from his estate (of about 600 acres) to endow a church in the 10th century. The manor is recorded in the Domesday Book, and the farms on it have remained the same to this day. Blanchland in Northumberland grew up among the ruins of Blanchland Abbey; the pub is in the vaults.

For its part, Shakenhurst Hall shows clearly the regime change that came in with William the Conqueror. Having been held by the Saxon-sounding Eadric and Leofwig, Domesday has it in the hands of the distinctly Norman Ralph de Toeni. Since then, fortune has smiled on it. Coal was found nearby - not on a sufficient scale to obtrude, but enough to help with the upkeep, if not the building, of the fine red brick house, which was improved in 1798, and sits smiling in the midst of what Pevsner calls "a beautifully remote landscape park". Today, it has the works - lodges, tenanted farms, rolling countryside, admirable fishing, shooting, espalier fig trees in the kitchen garden and views of an English loveliness barely possible to describe. The very name of Cleobury Mortimer, the nearest village, confers a Betjemanesque charm.

In 1950, Michael Severne, a descendant of the de Toenis, visited the hall by chance, on the day of the memorial service for the owner's son. He showed her the heraldry on his signet ring, which matched that on the fireback in the hall; 11 years later, she left it to him. Now Savills is selling it for £12 million. A sad day? Not if somebody buys it, and cherishes it. That is the really wonderful thing about Britain: there are still people who can afford to take on such places, their beauty perfected over centuries, care for them - and sometimes, make them more glorious still.

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