The morning of our second summer outing in 2019 dawned with driving rain and strong winds. It had been decided that we would go in private cars and, undaunted, everyone set off in their own time bound for The Wise Man Inn in West Stafford, near Dorchester. We enjoyed an excellent lunch and then clutching maps with the warning of “Don’t use your sat nav, it will take you to the wrong entrance” ringing in our ears, we set off in plenty of time to go to Wolfeton House. A few people arrived with no problem, some took a while to extricate themselves from Dorchester, and several cars arrived after a short tour of the county. One poor soul gave up the fight and went home! Driving along a narrow and pitted track, full of deep puddles, we parked and walked through the medieval gatehouse and into the Elizabethan entrance porch.
The present owners, Captain Nigel Thimbleby and his wife Katherine, greeted us warmly and after a short wait for the final members of the group, we set off on the guided tour of this extraordinary house. Captain Thimbleby was an entertaining guide with many anecdotes and stories, perhaps not all of them politically correct, about the history, owners and visitors to Wolfeton over the centuries.
The house has Saxon origins and is Grade 1 listed with the gatehouse being the oldest part. The Romans were here too, evidenced by some finds with a metal detector. Wolfeton is only a mile from Dorchester, a Roman town, so is likely to be the area of a guard post. The Elizabethan parts of the house were much embellished around 1560, with plastered ceilings, magnificent fireplaces and wood paneling and oak work. The Great Hall was re-paneled in 1862 with a new plaster ceiling, and had some early panels of about 1500 around the walls. There was a suit of chain mail hanging over the door. Captain Thimbleby had originally labelled the chain mail suit as 15th C but an expert from the London Armory insisted it was 12th C and may well have gone to the crusades! The long table was laid ready for our tea later, and this gave the room a welcoming atmosphere.
The parlour and dining room were furnished in a homely style, the barrier being a length of hairy string rather than satin ropes, (see the photo above) while the paintings on the wall were beautiful if a little dusty and dirty! These rooms are used by the Thimbleby family and are only heated with the enormous open fires. This is apparently better than central heating as the warmth of the chimneys heats the whole house.
In the dining room (or little eating room as it was called by Captain Thimbleby), there was a small blue porcelain bowl, possibly given to the owners in 1560 by the Archduke Philip of Austria and his Spanish wife Joanna, the daughter and heiress of Ferdinand of Castile and Isabella of Aragon. They had been on the way to claim the throne of Castile, but were caught in a storm and brought from Weymouth to Wolfeton to recover.
There is a link with the Welds of Pylewell in Lymington and the Bankes of Kingston Lacey, all Roman Catholic, and related in various degrees of cousin–hood. The gatehouse holds a small, private family chapel.
Passing the wine store and a stone flag under which there is a tunnel, we climbed the impressive stone staircase dating from around 1580, overlooked by paintings of George III and Queen Charlotte and entered the Great Chamber. This was a huge room, once divided into five small rooms, well lit by large windows with beautiful old original floorboards. It was once paneled and had a barrel-vaulted ceiling, but because these had fallen into such disrepair, the present owners had lined the walls with a bargain lot of hessian and the ceiling was covered in plasterboard. It is used to this day as a ‘party’ room and wonderful for Christmas Carol concerts.
A few paintings were hung there, many of them marked by birds that had got into the room via the ceiling and obviously panicked! One painting was possibly by Van Dyke, or at least one of his assistants. A long story was told about the National Gallery wanting to get hold of this, one of only three known copies. It was a rare double portrait of two sisters, one of whom was about to marry.
Another tale was told of how the floor was rotten in parts so the previous owner had placed copies of Country Life over the dodgy bits and told visitors not to step on the Magazines!
Throughout the house, there were no central electric lights. A few table lamps were dotted about, and we were assured that when they held concerts or carol services in the Great Chamber it looked simply beautiful by candlelight.
Finally our party thoroughly enjoyed a delicious cream tea in the Great Hall before setting off home to Lymington, entranced by the history of Wolfeton House and the racy tales told by its delightful and eccentric owner!