In July, I was lucky enough to visit the gardens at St Mary’s in Bramber and meet the current owners, Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton. Their love and dedication to the house and gardens is tangible so I recently returned to visit the house which has finally re-opened after the lifting of Covid restrictions.
The hundreds of years of history that surround St Mary’s can’t possibly be summarised in one article, but suffice it to say, it’s like a complex and beautiful tapestry, which brings together the many multi-coloured threads of personal narrative and family stories, blended with events of historical and national significance.
Bramber has its own unique place in Sussex history. William de Braose founded the castle at Bramber in 1073, on lands granted to him by William the Conqueror. He also built a toll bridge over the River Adur and a causeway connecting the castle to the bridge. The causeway took the form of a sort of peninsular built into the river. The course of the river has changed over the interceding centuries. However, a map which you’ll find at St Mary’s shows how it would have looked and how Bramber was a significant crossing point as the river headed on to the busy port at Steyning.
William’s son, Philip de Braose, was on the first crusade to Jerusalem in 1099 and this, in turn, led to the founding of the Knights Templar. When Philip died in 1125, he left five acres of land at Bramber to the Order of the Knights. The land was on the edge of the causeway, close to the bridge with the river lapping at its feet (where the car park is today). And the story of St Mary’s had begun.
As part of the restoration work, back in the 1990s, the current owners discovered a plinth, tiles and some oyster shells under the floor in the parlour which it is believed may date back to the time of the Templars! They also have fragments of the original wooden bridge dating back to 1070 and some stone from its replacement. Although some may say, it’s only wood, it’s not every day that you get so close to something directly connected with the Norman invasion of the 11th century.
The knights stayed until 1154 and in 1190 the wooden bridge was replaced with a stone one and a chapel was built on it called St Mary’s. Ownership of St Mary’s passed to monks of the Priory of Sele who managed the bridge and ran the house as an inn for pilgrim travellers. By tracing some of the ebony beams downstairs at the house today, you can see where the original refectory would have been. When you visit, there is also a helpful plan which shows the medieval layout of the house which formed a quad around a central courtyard.
By the 16th century, St Mary’s had passed into private ownership and the owners had started to make some improvements – adding a few luxuries such as internal stairs, chimneys, panelling, marquetry, and a beautiful gilded, leather wall. Sadly by the 17th century, the western wing and some of the east wing had been destroyed.
It is rumoured that Queen Elizabeth I may have stayed at St Mary’s and in one of the most magnificent rooms in the house you’ll find a series of trompe l’oeil panels depicting local scenes as well as sea battles. It’s thought that these were designed in order to create a bedroom fit for a queen!
Legend also has it that during the 17th century and the Civil War, Charles II may have stayed at St Mary’s as he made his desperate escape along what is now Monarch’s Way to the coast at Shoreham. Stories abound, and the King’s Room at St Mary’s has a secret door and hiding place.
Politicians and poets
From the 16th century, St Mary’s had been linked to politicians including Sir Richard Gough MP, Director of the East India Company, before it gradually fell into disrepair. Bought by a farmer in 1860, the walls were whitewashed to remove the distinctive timber frame we see today but it’s fortunes were revived when in the 1890s, the Hon. Algernon Bourke and his wife Gwendolen bought St Mary’s and set about refurbishing it. They added a west wing, created the music room, and landscaped the gardens. Bourke was the son of the Earl of Mayo and Viceroy of India. The library doors include some stunning marquetry which was part of the galleons of the Spanish Armada and similar can be found at the Bourke’s Mayo residence in Ireland. Bourke and his wife are also believed to be the inspiration behind the characters in the Importance of Being Ernest and in their own right were colourful and unusual.
Subalterns, soldiers, and young Americans
When the Bourkes sold in 1913, St Mary’s came under the ownership of the McConnel family. The gardens, in particular, still hold all the romance and elegance of their era, and in between the wars, wealthy young American girls would stay at St Mary’s to finish their education, visited by pilots from Shoreham and subalterns from Sandhurst.
WWII saw the requisitioning of the house by the Ministry of Defence, in particular for Canadian troops many of whom were later lost in the D Day landings. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the war, St Mary’s was once more in a sorry state and at risk of being lost forever. It was rescued by one Dorothy Ellis. Miss Ellis worked valiantly to restore the house more or less until the baton fell to the current owners.
And the art of being a gentleman
In 1984, Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton came across an advert for St Mary’s which was up for sale. As a project, it was a mixture of madness and fate but undaunted and along with their respective families, they joined forces to become St Mary’s new guardians. It’s a project that has stretched over nearly 40 years and includes both the house and the extensive gardens but Peter and Roger remain as erudite, eloquent and engaging about the house as it is possible to be. And it is surely their unique contributions that truly make it so very special.
They have not only painstakingly (and as authentically as possible) repaired and restored the very fabric of St Mary’s, but they have added their own story too. They have spent decades scouring auction houses, antique shops, and fairs to find both fixtures and fittings that reflect St Mary’s story. The result is that St Mary’s is a true journey of discovery and unexpected pleasures. The Drawing Room has ebony beams and panelled walls, and underneath some beautiful 16th century marquetry sit two (I won’t say how old) teddy bears that belonged to Peter and his sister, along with a photograph of them all as children.
In the hall, you glide past a 16th century painted leather panel with exotic flowers in silver foil and with a gilded effect to finish, aware that here also lives a mystery. There are stories of an underground passageway to nearby St Botolphs, a hidden chapel and a few ghosts, of course!
Through the Parlour there is one of the best collections of exquisite ladies’ evening bags and purses, complemented by Peter’s Napoleon collection, Roger’s collection of Black Basalt ware and a fantastic and intricate dolls house that was donated by a friend.
The stairs lead to what was once the monk’s dormitories and now include the Painted Room, The King’s Room and the Library, along with rare medieval shutting windows. In the library is Peter’s collection of works dedicated to Thomas Hood (a great passion of his) including a copy of his famous caricature The Progress of Cant and in the King’s Room a beautiful Nonsuch Chest reflects the architecture of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace. The Linton four-poster bed is draped in a beautiful antique bedspread, which in turn covers another beautiful antique bedspread, all part of Roger and Peter’s collection.
The Octagonal Room is spellbinding, decorated as it is in Pre-Raphaelite style. It includes a hidden door, a unique collection of costume dolls (covering Medieval to Edwardian costumes) and portraits of the Hon. Algernon Bourke. Under the vaulted ceiling of the music room, there is an altar piece from Findon Church that Roger and Peter rescued from a scrapyard having gone to great lengths to secure permission from the Archdeacon.
St Mary’s has an enormous sense of warmth and welcome as do both Peter and Roger. Both had long and fascinating careers before they arrived at St Mary’s and the skills life had equipped them with were serendipitously appropriate for their work at St Mary’s. Both also have family connections to the house which date back many years and it seems it was surely only a matter of destiny that brought them both here. They know, and clearly love, every inch of St Mary’s and the surrounding area. They have preserved its story for many years to come, and in doing so have also preserved their own. Their enthusiasm is so infectious and as you weave your way back through the centuries at St Mary’s, stopping at every twist and turn in its story, you know you’re visiting somewhere special.
St Mary’s is now owned by a charitable trust, St Mary’s Historic House Trust, in order to preserve it for future generations. The house and gardens are open to the public on Sundays and Thursdays, from 2 pm to 6 pm until the 10th October. Booking is recommended. You can find out more and book at St Mary’s House & Gardens, Bramber, West Sussex (stmarysbramber.co.uk).