Property: A palace in the country
PUBLISHED: 10:00 20 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:29 06 September 2016
Part of the former country residence of the Bishop of London and with links to an Anglo Saxon queen, Palace House in Much Hadham is one of the most historic private homes in Hertfordshire. Pat Bramley visited the current owners, who have made their own long history here
At last count, there were 374,081 buildings in England singled out for their special architectural or historical interest. The great majority of this elite group have a Grade II listing. Only 5.5 per cent – 9,310 – have the added star denoting ‘a particularly important building of more than special interest’. Hertfordshire has 472 Grade II* listed buildings and Palace House at Much Hadham near Bishop’s Stortford is one of them.
The house is the main part of the former country palace of the Bishop of London and since 1985 has been the much-loved family home of Anthony and Elizabeth Eastwood.
With three spacious principal reception rooms, nine bedrooms and four bathrooms, the living area over three floors amounts to some 6,000 sq ft, while in spring the private west-facing two-and-a-half acre garden is carpeted with snowdrops and daffodils.
Eastwood is a Cambridge man with an honours degree in engineering. He also has a passion for wildlife and the countryside. He is a former chairman of the South of England Council for the Protection of Rural England, has chaired the East of England projects and acquisitions group of the National Trust, was the first chairman of the East of England Environment Forum and has also been honorary treasurer of the Hertfordshire Society. Elizabeth has retired from running two NHS community paediatric physiotherapy clinics and worked in the rehabilitation unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital. The focus of her voluntary work over some 40 years has been the Riding for the Disabled charity.
Palace House is one of three created in the last century from the mansion which had been the Bishop’s Palace from 991 to 1868, although the historic importance of the site predates its foundation by several hundred years. In Anglo-Saxon times, it was part of the Manor of Hadham, given to the future Queen Ethelfleda by her father Aelfgar prior to her marriage to Edmund I (the Elder, Deed-doer or Magnificent), king of the English from 939 to 949.
Today’s building is believed to date from the early 1500s. Over the centuries it has been altered considerably, particularly after it passed into private hands in the 19th century.
Royal Warrant holder Fairhurst Ward Abbotts, based in Kent, recently completed a conservation programme on the fabric of Palace House. The historic building and decorating specialist has worked on some of the best-known buildings in the land including Chatsworth House, the V&A, the National Gallery and Bletchley Park.
Many people, especially those with children, feel a responsibility to pass on an account of what has been important in their lives, both in the wider sense and in the family. Many never get around to actually writing it down, but Eastwood has.
During the course of his long career – ‘I’m nicely into octoland now; these things are beginning to seem a little distant’ – he’s been an officer in the Royal Artillery, an aerospace engineer for De Havilland, mined gold for Rio Tinto in southern Rhodesia as it was then, before becoming a merchant banker with Charterhouse Japhet and more recently, chairman of an international publishing company.
Throughout all this, he says his constant source of pride has been his wife and their three sons, with Palace House key to it all as the parental home.
As a member of the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust, he commissioned its experts to research the history of the house. The completed illustrated document amounting to some 200 pages is lodged in the county archives. He was then motivated to record his reminiscences for his sons, following-up a similar account written by a predecessor at Palace House for his own sons.
The catalyst for the Eastwoods’ life at the palace was lack of space at their previous home by the time their third son Alexander was hitting his teenage years – precipitating the search for somewhere larger.
‘Our friends would tip us off with possibilities and one morning on Roydon Station platform, Charles Orme, who had been at Christ’s with me and had rowed in the same boat, mentioned that the owner of the principal part of the palace might be thinking of selling.
‘A few days later I was able to have a word with the owner, Raymond Dawes, on the same platform as we waited for our train. Yes, they had in mind selling the following year.’
The actual date was put back but eventually the owners were ready to sell and a price was agreed on the morning the house was offered for sale in Country Life magazine.
‘On taking possession we celebrated by coming over to the house for a swim and our boys spent that first night here in, I think, their tent.
‘The accommodation could hardly have suited us better with three spacious reception rooms and a very straightforward arrangement of each floor. The top floor was given over completely to Rupert, James and Alexander, each with a room, together with a boys’ guest room and a bathroom.
The adults’ floor provided a bedroom, bathroom and dressing room suite, together with a main guest bedroom and bathroom.
Another large room, the Victoria, was allocated to the boys as their day room. There was also a shower-cum-laundry room and a further bedroom which became ‘the train room’.
‘The ground floor layout proved very straightforward with minimal walks between rooms – the three reception rooms, flower room-cum-utility-cum-cloakroom, opened-out hall and the kitchen with its pyramidal ceiling space – all worked so well,’ Eastwood explains. ‘The drawing room with its white-painted pine panelling proved wonderfully sunny, added to which there were French doors opening on to the terrace of the Tudor garden. The oak-panelled dining room too had a door out on to the loggia which gave us an outdoor room in summer time, while the library with its pale polished pine panelling and windows to both east and west was especially pleasant. With all its spaciousness and with the stables and sheds, the garden, swimming pool and tennis court, there was a wonderful sense of space.’
Life in the house quickly settled into an order which remained over the years – breakfast early, invariably in the dining room, ‘a wonderful start to the day as the sun comes up over garden and meadow’. Then lunch in the dining room unless in the kitchen mid-week, or in summer outside on the loggia, and a cup of tea outside in the afternoon. Supper around eight o’clock may well be in the kitchen or in the library with television, or preferably in summer outside on the loggia. On Sundays, lunch and supper are usually taken in the drawing room, unless outside.
Eastwood adds, ‘The pattern has worked well. All the rooms and the loggia come to be used regularly, and enjoyed.’
The Eastwoods are both active members of the neighbouring St Andrew’s church and its related synods. ‘Living so close to the church, we cannot but well hear the chimes of the clock, the ringing of the bells, and the services themselves – altogether comforting sounds, especially as we grow older,’ Eastwood says. His journal records the milestones as his sons progress from school to university. Holidays and expeditions were always a highlight, as were repairing bikes and various contraptions, and fettling vintage cars in the palace workshop.
‘Rupert was the first to travel, taking part in the Durham University/Eton College, Royal Geographical Society-sponsored scientific expedition to the uninhabited Aldabra atoll in the Indian Ocean, which they reached by fishing boat under sail from the Seychelles.
‘Alexander in his penultimate summer at school joined James’ Oxford Brookes expedition to Morocco by minibus, which they had strengthened by welding in the workshop, for camping and for the carrying of bicycles on which they would explore the Atlas Mountains and the fringes of the Sahara.
‘Alexander went up to Bristol with excellent digs in Wills Hall. His expedition experience and in particular his Sahara crossing by Deuxcheveaux taught him the value of fortitude, perseverance and ingenuity.’
Tragically, Alexander was later to lose his life while exploring in the deserts of north-western China. ‘He was very probably at the peak of both enjoyment and achievement,’ his father says. In Alexander’s name, the Bristol University OTC gives a best cadet award.
The Eastwoods have also endowed an annual exploring award in their son’s name with the British Schools Exploring Society, to encourage budding explorers.
‘Perhaps the palace is quieter now – still a family home, but the boys away with their families in their own homes,’ Eastwood says.
However, it becomes very much alive again when both their sons, plus their wives and seven grandchildren visit all together, staying for a few days – with perhaps a picnic outing in the 1926 Rolls-Royce, formerly owned by the Prince de Mahe, which has been in the family for half a century.
With advancing age, yet still an appetite for new projects, the Eastwoods have decided to downsize. Their happy memories of Palace House, safely filed away, will be passed down through future generations.
Palace House is on the market for £2.5m through Savills in Bishop’s Stortford.