Although I am staying in the industrial Black Country area of the Midlands (UK), you may be surprised to know that the countryside is never very far away. Within 15 minutes or so, through grubby and often neglected suburbs – even more dismal in the chilly autumn rain – the greenery suddenly increases, the houses become either bigger or more attractive (or both!) and the sides of the road leafier, until you suddenly realise you’re actually in the countryside and travelling through some attractive and picturesque English villages.
I took advantage of the fact that my ladies are now able to manage to make themselves a cup of tea and a sandwich to take a day off, and headed out to the National Trust property of Wightwick Manor, just to the west of Wolverhampton and apparently, exactly 10 miles (16 km) away from my base. Having heard good things about the estate, I was keen to see the William Morris textiles and “Brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelite artists” collection that are such defining elements of this particular house, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Although the house appears to be a Tudor manor, it was in fact built behind the original 16th century house from 1887 onwards, initially a comfortable family home which was soon after extended by as much again to the large manor we see today, presiding over large, well-proportioned lawns and woodland, with beautiful grounds, particularly a generous rose garden and a large kitchen garden – and visitors are permitted to ramble around to their hearts’ content. Perhaps more attractive in warmer, or at least dryer weather!
The Mander family was an important one in Wolverhampton and the present day town centre mall is named after it. It had made its name in varnishes, paints and printing inks from the late 18th century and by the time Theodore Mander came to build Wightwick Manor, he had a large fortune to draw on. The family had originally bought the old house but found it too small for their needs, necessitating the new-build, and then its extension from 1893. Being keen on the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement and the Aesthetic Movement initiated by the author John Ruskin, the owners built in a “naturalistic”, yet popular “Old English”-style, so that apart from the William Morris wall coverings and textiles, De Morgan tiles feature prominently in the large fireplaces, Kempe glass is everywhere and much of the art is by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and others of the era – a marvellous and valuable collection (though a good deal was added post-1937!).
Of course, many of the textiles are a little faded and worn after 130 years or have been introduced or replaced at a later date, and yet it is astonishing how well much of the colours are preserved in the wallpapers. Even if the colour contrasts are no longer quite as vivid in the textiles, they don’t appear frayed or tired, just comfortable and inviting. In fact, the whole house is like that – it makes you want to sit and bide your time. Despite the dark oak panelling in Jacobean style that is a dominant feature of the lower floor, the atmosphere is cosy rather than daunting and many windows of varying sizes and shapes, often bow windows, feature window-seats for sitting and enjoying the lovely views over the lower part of the estate, its lawns and gardens and many many great trees. It’s easy to visualise the ladies in their loose, jewel-toned gowns, having the leisure to sit and sew or knit quietly, or to lose themselves in the extensive collection of books that fills the house – not only in the library, but also overflowing in the Great Parlour and smaller bookcases in the upstairs corridors. There is a calm, comfortable feeling in all the rooms, rather than the pomp and splendour of greater stately homes. Surely the owners enjoyed the books and art themselves and weren’t just collecting these things to show off…
The Great Parlour was the main part of the extension added soon after the house was built, doubling its size. An enormous mediaeval hall with towering vaulted wooden ceiling, fantastic painted panels, Morris wall coverings and upholstery, a huge deep fireplace with sofas either side and fine collections of blue and white china (mainly drainer plates), as well as objects brought back from foreign travels. Along the whole south wall there are large windows, all shapes and sizes, it seems, so that the hall is well lit. It features a minstrel’s gallery above, though that is on the wrong end of the hall to be authentic (we were told), and actually gives access to the visitors’ bedrooms that had become necessary additions to the house as the family’s importance increased; Theodore Mander eventually became Mayor of Wolverhampton. Sadly both he and his wife died young, aged only 47 respectively. His eldest son took over the estate and younger siblings and later went into politics, eventually becoming Sir Geoffrey Mander. Over a period of 50 years, all kinds of important people were entertained at Wightwick, from the Duke and Duchess of York to Captain Scott (of the Antarctic) and Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin! The large, formal dining room and billiard room (for the gentlemen) show how exquisitely they were received.
Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1870 (completed by Ford Madox Brown)
Interestingly, the day and night nurseries are featured when you tour the house. Our guide pointed out that they were much closer to the family apartments than was common among that class at that time – she suggested it may be due to the fact that Theodore’s wife, Flora, was Canadian and perhaps encouraged a closer relationship to their children than was usual. It is those private bedrooms which are kept separate and inaccessible – members of the Mander family still visit and spend time at the house, descendants from all over the globe, apparently. (After reading the guide, I noticed how bitter the last Mander owner was – perhaps her father was too busy with politics and her mother too busy with cats, Pre-Raphaelites and biographies to be loving parents?! It seems a shame and the house does not reflect her obvious dislike in any way.)
To finish, it is fascinating to see some “behind the scenes” rooms – a large, tiled Cook’s kitchen, pleasant servant’s hall, roomy scullery and laundry but also the in-between rooms such as the boot room or the butler’s pantry and the back stairs…
Unusually for a house with timed tickets and a guided tour, the visitors are free to browse the upstairs and secondary rooms of the house on their own, with only a few stewards available to keep an eye out and to answer questions (they are very knowledgeable). You can try and envisage yourself as an esteemed guest in one of those visitors’ rooms, which aren’t ostentatious but again, comfortable. A large, albeit shared, bathroom is another plus – warm, too, as the house was built with central heating, as well as electricity! One of those rooms has its own writing and dressing room overlooking the east orchard and used to house a large, elaborate bed said to have been slept in by King Charles II on his travels; however, he slept in it at Mosely Old Hall, so that has been removed back to where it came from.
I certainly had a lovely day out, enjoying the tea-room/restaurant with meals including vegetables grown in the Kitchen garden, the browsable National Trust/William Morris shop and the second hand book shop. Upstairs in the old house some Halloween crafts were being offered for children and I noticed there are a number of events planned for the winter season – how lovely to see so much life in a listed property!
And as I came back out, the sun had appeared to emphasise the wonderful colours of the autumn leaves on the mature trees!
Next stop, the Pre-Raphaelites at Birmingham Art Gallery!
(Outdoor photos my own, the rest collected…!)