FASCINATING as it is to visit historic houses that have been continuously inhabited by one family since they were built, it is equally interesting to find a venerable building that has not been so privileged and protected.
St Mary’s House at Bramber in is just such a place: constructed by Bishop Waynflete in 1470, it has weathered periods of dereliction, division and habitation by monks, farmers, MPs, Oscar Wilde characters, soldiers and even cattle, and has probably never looked more beautiful than it does today – a tribute to the present occupants, Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton.
The house presents a classic half-timbered Wealden façade. It is listed Grade I, not only for its exterior but also for interior features, which include a panelled room with Elizabethan trompe l’oeil painting and medieval shuttered windows, which lacked glass but coped with the vagaries of the weather through a system of triple-hinged wooden panels.
St Mary’s original occupants were monks, who provided hospitality for pilgrims walking the South Downs Way to Canterbury. The monks were also guardians of the Great Bridge of Bramber and its integral chapel. What is now the village street was then a wharf on the estuary of the River Adur. The present garden wall is built of local winklestone recycled from the medieval wharf and set with plaques commemorating former owners of the house.
Foremost among them is its builder, Bishop William Waynflete of Winchester, Lord High Chancellor of England, first Provost of Eton and founder of Magdalen College, Oxford. Although his original entrance door has been replaced, a section of its arch survives, carved with his mitre and a Plantagenet rose.
The great bridge, which stood until the 17th century, was not the first on the site. Bramber was fortified by William de Braose soon after the Norman conquest – his ruined castle can still be visited – and a wooden bridge then spanned the river.
In 1125 the site of St Mary’s was given to the Knights Templar, who used the port of Bramber as an embarkation point for the Holy Land and built the first chapter house; its hearth, of clay tiles, was discovered in 1990 under one of the floors in St Mary’s. When the Templars moved to Sompting, the property passed to the Priory of Sele and later to Bishop Waynflete.
The bishop, in turn, bequeathed his estate to Magdalen College, which leased out St Mary’s for the next 300 years – mainly to members of Parliament for the thoroughly rotten borough of Bramber. (Until the Reform Act of 1832, the constituency, of fewer than 100 inhabitants, returned two MPs.) Notable among them was the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who apparently passed through his constituency only once, quite by accident, and asked the post boy where he was. “Bramber?” he exclaimed in surprise. “Why, that’s the place I’m member for!”
Some earlier MPs had felt they should at least pretend to reside in their constituency, so St Mary’s was enriched with embossed and gilded leather wall-coverings, oak panelling and elaborate marquetry fireplaces.
The first floor’s Painted Room is unique in England today; only one other interior at all like it survives, in Essex. Although similarly painted in crude trompe l’oeil panels with land and sea views at their centres, the Essex painting is on canvas, whereas St Mary’s is on wood.
The room was possibly, or even probably, decorated for the visit of Elizabeth I during her progress through Sussex in 1585. Claims that “Elizabeth slept here” have become something of a joke because there are so many of them; but the parsimonious queen really did make so many progresses that she must have stayed in dozens of houses.
Similarly with Charles II and the many hiding places he used during his flight into exile. St Mary’s has a King’s Room, believed to be his last sleeping-place before he embarked for France from nearby Shoreham.
By 1841, St Mary’s was divided in two, with half of the building used as a cattle shed. Its renaissance began with the tenancy of prosperous Farmer Hudson, whose photograph, taken about 1860, shows him with his wife, Harriet, beside the front door. They and many of their 11 children lie in Bramber churchyard.
The Hudsons would probably have approved of their successor, Captain Ashmore of the Irish Royal Fusiliers, because he came to St Mary’s after a spell in an Episcopalian community in Iowa, where he pioneered organic farming. But they would doubtless have tut-tutted over the next occupants for precisely the same reasons that Oscar Wilde was attracted to them: the Hon Algernon Bourke was the pleasure-loving second son of the Earl of Mayo and cousin to the Marquess of Queensberry. He and his fashionable wife, Gwendolen, inspired Wilde’s frivolous characters of the same names in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Alfred Musgrave, who succeeded the Bourkes, filled the house with sumptuous furnishings, including Louis XV gilt suites and early Flemish tapestries. Then the Second World War brought dereliction to the property – not from enemy bombing but from “friendly” occupation by the Royal Canadian Artillery.
In 1944 the house was rescued by Dorothy Ellis and she gallantly struggled to restore and maintain it, by breeding spaniels, dealing in antiques, taking in paying guests and selling off land and portions of the house. Eventually, in 1979, she was forced to sell. For the next four years St Mary’s was filled with butterflies – the collection of a lepidopterist, Paul Smart – until he, too, had to sell.
St Mary’s needed another rescuer, and happily found two: the author and composer Peter Thorogood and the artist-designer Roger Linton, who moved into the house in 1984. Inspired by several historical family connections, Peter and Roger have since devoted their lives to the house.
Land sold by Ellis has been bought back. Algernon Bourke’s Music Room, with the addition of a charming octagonal ante-room designed and built by Roger, is once more the scene of concerts, poetry evenings and parties. The garden makes an idyllic summer setting for Shakespeare productions.
A charitable trust has been formed and a bid for National Lottery money is under way. If successful, the funds will be used to restore areas of the garden, uncover medieval murals in the King’s Room and buy back a section of the house currently divided into flats. But there is already more than enough to entertain visitors on the special open days arranged for Planet readers next weekend. Taking St Mary’s into the realms of time travel, you can even see the marks of blue paint made by Dr Who’s Tardis during the shooting of Silver Nemesis.
St Mary’s (01903 816205) is in the centre of Bramber, West Sussex, which is off the A283, three miles from the A27 junction and 10 miles west of Brighton. The special open days for Planet readers will be held next Saturday and Sunday (January 24 and 25) between 10am and 4pm.