If you find yourself bumbling around the west of West Sussex, then a visit to Uppark House and Gardens is a must! Built between 1655 and 1701 on the South Downs near South Harting, it’s Grade I Listed and just oozes 18th century extravagance, intrigue and appeal.
A witless playboy
Uppark was bought by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh in 1747 and he can be credited with substantial redecoration and a significant and impressive collection of household items. But it’s his son Sir Harry who steals much of the limelight. Described as a “witless playboy”, he was great friends with the then Prince of Wales and known for wild parties and loose morals. I like him already. At age 71, he married a 21-year-old dairymaid having heard her sing and she went on to inherit the entire estate when he died 19 years later! He proposed in this little summer house.
In a magnificent setting
Approaching from Midhurst, the SatNav takes you cross country from Cocking, down the smallest and wiggliest of lanes for about seven miles. Then, after a steep climb and some sharp twists and turns, you approach Uppark via a long, tree-lined drive. Whilst no part of Sussex can truly be described as remote, it certainly feels it here and as I pulled up early one Saturday in July, mine was the only car.
A summer mist hung over the landscape at the time of my visit adding a touch of mystique to the house and grounds. Rounding the main entrance, you meet what was once the back of the house, but before you venture in, walk round to the front. Downton Abbey eat your heart out. Uppark has all the wow factor of an impressive country house but with breath-taking views across the South Downs and a rugged and wild feel.
When you enter, you start downstairs, and you can almost hear Mrs Patmore the cook scurrying about in the kitchens and the butler and housekeeper issuing orders. The kitchen was moved to where the café is now in 1815 which must have been a nightmare for those tasked with serving hot meals (it’s a not inconsiderable walk from house to café). However, the kitchen was eventually returned to its original position in the house which you can now visit, complete with plates, pudding bowls, a scullery for washing up and a vast range.
The Butler’s Pantry is equally reminiscent of Downton Abbey with its desk, fireplace and fold-away bed whilst the Lamp Room has candles laid out and ready for cutting.
Further down the corridors and you find the wine cellars and an 18th century dolls’ house which is one of the most historically important in the country. It came to the house with Sir Mathew’s wife Sarah and is believed to have been made in the 1730s. It is beautifully decorated and furnished, and well worth a visit on its own. Tiny works of art hang on its walls, and delicate lace and silk bedspreads bring the bedrooms to life.
A visit downstairs is both evocative and informative but doesn’t prepare you for the magnificence of upstairs. Before you ascend, you need to bear in mind that in 1989 a serious fire ripped through the house from the roof down. Amazingly, staff, visitors and family were able to save many of the contents and although some of the floors collapsed, they were also able to salvage and repair many of the damaged items.
Descriptions of the day of the fire describe a carpet of priceless items all over the lawn and the restoration work that has been done since was clearly both painstaking and incredible. The second thing to bear in mind is that not all of the house is open to the public as some areas are still used as a family home.
On the ground floor you can explore a number of rooms starting with the opulent Tapestry Bedroom where the Princes of Wales is rumoured to have slept in the 1780s. With an impressive four-poster bed dressed in rich red fabrics and a vast early 18th century Flemish tapestry, it sets the tone for the rest of your visit.
As you move your way around the ground floor, each room evokes a new historical sensation whilst all the time grand views give way to you right out of vast windows. The cream and gilded saloon, which used to be the main hall quietly glows with elegance. Rows of beautifully bound books, portraits, and paintings line the walls, and an assortment of feminine sofas surround 17th century tea tables and a splendid fireplace, while detailed plasterwork gives way to huge chandeliers. It’s a light, airy and regal room, and easy to imagine the women receiving guests or playing the piano by way of evening entertainment while the menfolk watched on.
Delightful and delicate parlours
In the delightfully delicate Little Parlour, which has double aspect views, you can imagine the women gossiping having withdrawn from dinner. Here you also find my favourite piece from the entire collection, a Chinese style “pagoda” cabinet which dates to the 18th century. Oak and carved softwood is decorated in black and gold, with japanned panels imitating Chinese export lacquer, ivory medallions and 17th century Florentine plaques. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it and it is believed that it was commissioned by Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh after his return from his Grand Tour in 1751. Apparently, after the fire, evidence found suggests that there was once Chinese wallpaper in this room and this starts to conjure up what an exotic and splendid little retreat it must have been.
Wild dinner parties
The dining room is more modest than I expected but it’s not hard to imagine a roar of laughter from the Prince of Wales or the wild abandon of Emma Hamilton (English model, dancer and actress 1765-1815) who is supposed to have danced naked on the table! It’s another suitably elegant room with gold and cream plasterwork, arched mirrors, splendid vases and great works of art. Emma Hamilton lived at Uppark for a while but was sent away when she fell pregnant and was destitute.
The gardens at Uppark were designed at least in part by Humphry Repton, a name that pops up often when it comes to great Sussex houses. The surrounding grounds are extensive and a visit to nearby Harting Down offers up views of Sir Harry’s Vandalian Tower. But for those visiting the house, a quick stroll through the scented garden to the side of the drive and a visit to the meadow garden to the other side of the house may suffice. Then coffee and cake in the gardens overlooking the views.
Uppark was so much more than I expected and one of the most atmospheric of our grand Sussex houses. It’s beautiful, wild, and yet also refined. It’s extravagant and yet practical and it definitely wasn’t what I expected to find in what once must have been a very remote corner of Sussex. It captures a moment in time and draws you in. And it’s right up there as one of my best places to visit in Sussex!