Christmas at Uppark is pretty special. I last visited Uppark back in the summer, and I fell in love. You might have noticed that I fall in love rather easily, but if I loved it in the summer, I loved Uppark all the more in the festive season. In part, it’s the journey. Travelling from Mid Sussex, you pass through Petworth and Midhurst (both historic and very pretty), you take in some great views, and then when you reach the village of Cocking, you wiggle and wind your way through some tiny little back lanes. Just when you think you have reached the ends of the earth, your journey takes you up and down the undulating curves of the South Downs, and then finally up a tree-lined drive. You’re actually only 59 miles from London but it feels remote and remarkable and sets the tone of your visit. Photos never quite do it justice but the house enjoys stunning views and surrounding silence.
The women of Uppark
You can read about some of the history of Uppark, its fire, and its larger-than-life characters Sir Matthew and Sir Harry Fetherstonhaughs in our previous post. Suffice it to say, Sir Harry had a reputation for being a witless playboy who threw wild parties to which the Prince Regent came and included naked dancing on the table.
The women of Uppark however, deserve recognition. Sir Matthew and Lady Sarah Fetherstonhaugh acquired Uppark in 1747, probably with money from her father who was Director of the Bank of England. Lady Sarah then accompanied her husband on a Grand Tour of Europe from 1749 to 1751. That in itself was unusual as women didn’t often go with their husbands.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider what two years of travelling in Europe would have been like nearly 300 years ago, and it suggests to me she was feisty and intrepid. It was during this tour that they collected many of the household items which are both stunning and at times, unusual. She was also responsible for the famous Uppark dolls house. Two years of renovation work have just been completed on the dolls house, and this detailed and fascinating work of art represents a story within a story. In addition to which, Lady Sarah was a reasonably talented artist in her own right and she continued to manage the household and accounts when her husband died, notwithstanding her spendthrift son. At one stage, she had to sell other family property which gives you an idea of the anxieties she must have been contending with. As a mother of teenage boys, I feel her pain.
Next up in our hall of fame is Mary Ann who married Sir Harry when he was 71 and she was 20! She was a dairymaid, but rather than be daunted by the huge legacy she inherited (they had no children), she took on the house, researched the family ancestry to find an heir after herself, and worked hard to modernise and repair the house. The reality is no part of this would have been easy – from marrying a playboy and above “her station” to managing a grand country house on her own!
Margaret Meade Fetherstonhaugh
Lady Margaret and her husband inherited Uppark in 1930. Married to an Admiral, her life had been transient until then but when she settled at Uppark she embarked on a remarkable period of renovation and restoration. Ask the tour guides to show you the couching (a special kind of stitching) on some of the silk curtains. This epic task (there’s a lot of material) was done by hand and is part of the reason the curtains survived the great fire of 1989. Lady Margaret’s work was so notable that she went on to tour America to explain her methods, some of which are still used today.
A Georgian Christmas at Uppark
The National Trust “do” Christmas well and at Uppark, they’re celebrating in Georgian style this year. In the Salon, you’ll see a set of eight gilded chairs. These are originals and date back to the 18th century. They are rarely seen in public or together as a set as they are so delicate and fragile. Look closely and you may spot that their embroidery represents the stories of Aesops Fables. In the same room, there’s a portrait of Queen Charlotte. She was another inspirational woman and although German, her portrait shows exotic looks.
Charlotte had 15 children, was a keen botanist, a connoisseur of music and a philantropist. But perhaps above all else, she is remembered because her husband George III was afflicted by severe mental health issues that left him unfit to rein. George and Charlotte’s son, who became King George IV, was a friend of Sir Harry. Queen Charlotte was also the first person to bring a Christmas tree inside, a habit later popularised by Prince Albert.
In the Little Parlour, it’s amazing to think that the ceiling collapsed during the fire and much of it has been carefully recrafted from the wreckage including the chandelier and some of the molding on the ceiling. This is my favourite room and I simply adore the Pagoda cabinet.
The dining room is the site of many of Sir Harry’s and the Prince of Wales wild parties. This Christmas it is laid for dinner. It’s believed they had a French chef and the meal is laid out according to the service à la française – a practice that involves serving various dishes of a meal at the same time (as opposed to sequentially) including the sweet and the savoury dishes. Look here too for the four Vernet paintings, which are my favourite of the house’s collection. Moody, atmospheric, they tell yet more stories within a story. And ask the guides about Emma Hart who danced naked on the table with the Prince of Wales and later became Lord Nelson’s lover.
Downstairs you’ll find the Downton-esque servants’ area with tunnels all the way to where the café now stands (and where the kitchen once was). In the cellars, there is evidence of a drunken Christmas party and there are the more humble decorations of the staff. Original liveries hang on the wall and in its own space is the famous dolls house. Every detail of the dolls house is painstaking – right down to the hallmarked silver, the tiny paintings and the tea sets.
A visit to Uppark House won’t take long, and when you’ve finished be sure to explore the grounds a little. The views from the front of the house are breathtaking and the sense of remoteness combined with opulence is peculiar, emotive, and compelling. Nearby, you can also catch some amazing views and walks at Harting Down before you head home. And I defy you to leave without having absorbed some of the unique Uppark spirit of Christmas. Somehow, I know I’ll be back.
If you like this post about Christmas at Uppark, West Sussex, you may also like: