We sometimes refer to important or significant buildings as being a magnificent pile. Ugbrooke House, a Grade 1 Listed building, certainly qualifies for that description, but the word ‘pile’ here is particularly apt; centuries seem stacked on centuries, and styles and trends on styles and trends. Soon after beginning his session, the conscientious guide made it clear that the Clifford family, still in residence, wanted at all stages to do what was right; reflected in their choice of Robert Adam and Chippendale in the house and Capability Brown in the gardens and, not to mention further for the moment, the Pope in Rome for spiritual matters.
The House was taken over by Henry VIII at the time of the Reformation but was never ransacked or pillaged but instead was given by the King to a favourite, The Duke of Somerset. Subsequently, after it had been acquired by the Clifford family who are in residence today, Adam the celebrated Scottish architect was engaged to refashion the building and he completely altered the Tudor manor footprint, raised roofs and ceilings and erected medieval-style castellated towers. Meanwhile Capability Brown carried out his more familiar magic in the gardens.
There are a large number of portraits of the family exhibited throughout the House; it feels as though the house is still populated by many generations of the family. Several members achieved significant personal success in their lifetimes. Others were frustrated in their ambitions by the legal restrictions placed on those who wished to practise the Catholic faith. After the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in the nineteenth century, individuals achieved considerable personal distinction. Among them can be numbered, in descending order of status, the family would probably say; a Cardinal, a Victoria Cross recipient, an Admiral of the Fleet, and a Major-General. There was also an eccentric amateur scientist, known as Silly Willy, who despite a spectacular business failure, is now regarded as someone whose work could be regarded as being of real importance. On the other hand there was a Duchess who thought that Chippendale’s brown furniture would be much improved if coated in white paint, which in a more enlightened age took much time and expense to put right.
A four-poster bed can be seen with vestiges of the white paint remaining in carvings of the uprights. In an adjacent reception room there is a much more inspired example of paintwork. High up against the ceiling there is a frieze all the way round the room which from floor level looks like incredibly detailed plaster relief work. It is in fact not three-dimensional but is entirely flat, the three-dimensional effect being achieved by the use of many shades of grey. A masterpiece of trompe-l’oeil; never could the eye have been more delightfully deceived.
A memorable part of the house is the chapel, which is in constant use. We didn’t have access to its main part but had a good view from a gallery which is entered from the library. The door is concealed behind bookshelves which open by means of a secret catch, although many years of use have left their obvious mark on the books. The books themselves are part of a collection of diverse volumes reflecting many subjects. Prominent among them is a large number of Hansard reports of proceedings in the House of Commons, some of them well-thumbed, indicating that some of the Clifford family were keen to keep their fingers on the pulse of the Nation.
Outside the House the sumptuous Devon landscape needs no further description, but there were several rather surprising features. An impressive maze of intricate design executed with fine topiary was eye-catching, especially as the shrubs were barely knee-high; never going to lose anyone unless they were fairies or some other little folk. Nearby there were some quite abrupt and dramatic changes in levels which had warning signs erected simply saying ‘Sheer Drops’. Difficult to see what Capability could have had in mind. They could conceivably make life difficult and dangerous for advancing cavalry but there appears to be no record of Ugbrooke being subjected to any violent attack. Much less challenging was the elegant nineteenth century Orangery which serves now as a coffee shop and restaurant.
Finally, one of the most memorable features of our visit was the enthusiasm of the official guide who combined erudition with clear and infectious enthusiasm for Ugbrooke. He particularly impressed us when he told us that the immaculate condition of the house and furnishings was maintained by a cleaning staff of only three members.