A party of Dorking U3A members enjoyed a day among the roses, history and art of Mottisfont, the National Trust property in Hampshire, writes Pat Verrall
Perhaps for most of us Mottisfont conjures up the image of old roses, but there was a great deal more to be discovered during our visit to this ancient place. On arrival most of us set off immediately, while the sun was still shining, to enjoy the glorious sight and perfume of Graham Stuart Thomas’s famous walled rose garden.
Despite recent heavy rains an abundance of roses festooned arches and walls and filled the beds, softening the formal lines of the 20th-century design. Generous underplanting with campanulas, dianthus, lavender, love-in-a-mist, purple salvia and foxgloves and white penstemons allows no space for weeds, and all is restrained from erupting over the paths by dwarf box hedging. The overall scheme of pink, ivory, blue and purple is interrupted in one corner by a mass of the fragrant golden shrub rose ‘Graham Stuart Thomas’.
There was just time for tea and cake before a guided tour of medieval Mottisfont, although our U3A was under-represented on this interesting walk. It began at the ‘font’, a vigorous spring which has never run dry, and which from Saxon times was used for meetings (‘moots’), giving rise to the name Mottisfont. The meeting font was probably why this site was chosen in 1201 to found an Augustinian priory. The priory housed a prior and 12 ordained canons, representing the 12 apostles, who went out black-robed into the community teaching and performing priestly duties.
The priory also offered hospitality to pilgrims journeying between the relics of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury and St Swithun at Winchester. Mottisfont was said to have its own relic, a finger of John the Baptist – although our guide suggested about 30 other religious houses in Britain made the same claim!
The medieval priory estate thrived, producing wine, fruit, meat and fish; grain was milled (remains of a watermill could be seen as we crossed the River Test) and bread baked to feed travellers. But the good times came to a tragic end with the arrival of the Black Death in 1348. Death of the peasant workers meant no food was produced; the pilgrims did not come, so there was no income; then three successive priors died within one year, so management failed.
The land became neglected and the structure of the buildings suffered, but the priory continued functioning until the Dissolution. Mottisfont was dissolved as a priory but given by Henry VIII to Lord Sandys, his Lord Chamberlain, in exchange for the village of Chelsea!
Lord Sandys transformed the medieval structure to create a Tudor mansion, which remained until the 18th century when it was remodelled to the house existing today. The interior now reflects the life and interests of the last private owners, Gilbert and Maud Russell, who gave Mottisfont to the National Trust in 1957.
Maud was a 1930s social hostess with a wide circle of artistic friends, notably Rex Whistler, whose astonishing decoration of the saloon with elaborate trompe l’oeil pillars and illusory vaulted ceilings and pelmets are the grand finale of the house tour.
The paintings and art collection of Derek Hill, another frequent guest, are on permanent display in the house, while a seasonal exhibition of modern drawings from Henry Moore to David Hockney was showing in the art gallery. On an outside wall, discreetly hidden in a nook beneath an arch, the artist Boris Anrep had created a charming mosaic angel; the face is that of Maud Russell, his close friend and lover for many years.
We had set out in this week of stormy weather armed with waterproofs and umbrellas but, apart from a brief shower when most of us were in the house, the sun shone on our visit. Our thanks to Sue Grant and Judith Kingsley for fixing things with the weather gods and for organising this most enjoyable day out.