Visit to Marsh Court, Hampshire

Tuesday, 18 June, 2019

By Charlotte Voake

A large group of us, umbrellas up, assembled in a leafy lane under a lowering sky and drizzle. In these atmospheric weather conditions, Mr Simpson, Marsh Court’s Estate Manager, met us and our visit to the house and its grounds, which overlook the River Test, began.

We set off up the drive — a long, gently sloping avenue of dripping trees. To our right, was a high field and glimpse of a building. The drive became steeper as it made an abrupt turn back on itself into a deep cutting and finally reached a high, open platform. Here there was another change in direction and the drive passed between two brick ranges, then between trees and wildflower meadows as the house itself, designed and built by Edwin Lutyens between 1901 and 1905, appeared, still quite distant, with the massive bulk of the roof, groups of tall chimneys and long low ranges of windows punctuating the whiteness of its chalk walls — a dramatic approach indeed.

To the west of the house the ground drops away and Lutyens, working with Gertrude Jekyll, exploited this to settle the building in the landscape; you descend a stone staircase into a sunken garden, with the dizzying cliff-like walls towering above you to your left. After walking along a series of steps, paths and platforms between walls and hedges, you find yourself on an open area of formal lawn and terrace with views over the countryside — the garden entrance to the house. The friendly, informative Mr Simpson told us how labour-intensive the garden is. It’s organically managed and immaculate.

To date, the box-tree moth, an import from East Asia that has wreaked damage on many British gardens, has not reached that part of Hampshire — and you almost feel it might never do so, given the otherworldly ambience of the place.

I can imagine that when Marsh Court was a school, which it was for many years, it must have been an amazing place for the children with its gardens on many levels, intimate formal ponds and wide sweep of landscape beyond.

Inside the house are the same dramatic changes in scale and light — a deep, low porch, where we took off our wet shoes, opening into a wide marble-floored corridor (no grand hall and sweeping staircase), relatively intimate dining room, magnificent drawing room with its ornate Wrenaissance-style plasterwork and huge Jacobean bay window looking on to the garden. The house presents a beguiling mix of high luxury and domestic cosiness.

Our own home, Fishers Hill in Surrey, was built at roughly the same time, albeit on a far more modest scale — and budget. It has more in common with the lovely brickclad service wing at Marsh Court. We do not have its clear views, surrounded as we are by trees. We are near Woking, not deep in the Hampshire countryside. Fishers Hill never had marble floors — it has red tiles — and no flamboyant carving. But the houses share common elements — for example, the siting on top and side of a hill, the evolving views as you circle them and the changes in scale and different levels. In our case, some details have been lost over the years. Marsh Court has had a chequered history, too, but at present you get the feeling it is back to its full glory. We were lucky and grateful to have the chance to experience some of its magic.