Oft-times the best laid plans can come to nought. In the case of the most famous address in the land, quite literally so.
“I told the contractor how I wanted the lettering done and got something entirely different..and completely wrong.”
The words of architect Raymond Erith in 1964 not long after having completed a major renovation and expansion of the official residences in Downing Street, London SW1. Erith was referring to a detail which, although relatively minor in the scheme of what was an inevitably high-profile, sometimes fraught, project would become something of a defining emblem: the wonky zero.No matter what moment is being played out before it, Handed on has long been vaguely transfixed by this quirky badge of Britishness. Or bodge, as Erith would have it: “The numerals..are beastly,” he declared, “all I want to do is forget about it”. But there would be no hiding place for his newly-finished creation in 1963 when scandal convulsed the political establishment. All eyes were on No.10 as sensational revelations about the behaviour of War Minister John Profumo pushed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s ship towards the rocks.
Immediately after his resignation from government Profumo was able to give a rabid press pack the slip for thirteen days, hiding out at the Warwickshire village home of his constituents Air Commodore and Mrs. Victor Willis. And it’s not too fanciful to speculate that the last-named had also been affording sanctuary of a sort to Raymond Erith throughout his trying times at No.10, being ascribed as the client for a building regarded as among the architect’s ‘most characteristic and successful’ works.
Exactly contemporaneous with his Westminster project, the Gatley Park Folly would be chosen to illustrate the covers of both the only substantive monograph on Erith’s career (left, by his daughter Lucy Archer) and the catalogue which accompanied the Sir John Soane’s Museum restrospective in 2004 (r), some thirty years after his death.
One of the more defiantly un-modern 1960s buildings of listed status (GII), the domed three-storey tower on an oval plan exemplifies Erith’s distinctive style: restrained classicism significantly informed by locally appropriate forms and material. Built around a spiral staircase newel post ‘reputedly the trunk of one vast tree’ and commanding spectacular views, this indulgent little edifice even featured a small library.1 John Fowler was hired to fit out the interiors but he and Erith ‘did not work together terribly well, for Erith was a rather austere man with little understanding of how most people lived’.2
The residence was concieved as a dower house for Peggy Willis on the ancestral estate of her former husband, Philip Dunne, in association with their son and heir, Capt. Thomas Dunne. In a remarkable echo of previous events, precisely ten years after the Profumo affair the Dunnes’ daughter Philippa and son-in-law the 2nd Earl Jellicoe would pitch up at Gatley seeking rural refuge from political scandal. In May 1973 Jellicoe, then Leader of the House of Lords, had decided to fall on his sword in anticipation of more call girl revelations. Their bolthole would be quickly rumbled, however: ‘Two hours later, the press knocked on the door at Gatley. The News of the World wanted to upstage one of their rivals by bringing Christine Keeler to be photographed at the bottom of the drive.’3But Herefordshire remains as good a place as any in which to hide out. ‘A remote and seemingly secret part of the world, to the layman it means half-timbered houses and the county is rich in them.’4 And it would seem Gatley Park was just one among them when it was acquired by Royalist parliamentarian Sir Sampson Eure in 1633. Dendochronology ‘suggests that Gatley was built during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign. It would appear that Sir Sampson added a brick skin to the original timber-framed Tudor house’. The central cluster of nine octagonal chimneys is, however, thought to predate this work. Eure’s gabled house was on a modest ‘square plan with a projecting panel-lined porch’; extant metal fixtures at Gatley still bear dated engravings of his arms or initials. The estate would be sold for the last time in 1678, Sir Samuel’s widowed daughter-in-law selling to Philip Dunne (‘descended from the Welsh family of Dwn, and through them from many of the early Welsh princes’) whence it has passed in the male line to this day. The next three generations at Gatley are memorialised together in Aymestrey parish church. Philip’s son Thomas (d. 1734) was responsible for various interior enhancements including much panelling and ‘an overmantel with an early C18 painting of the house in its landscape’.5 But the house was to remain substantially unaltered until the last years of the C19 as family attentions turned elsewhere…
… initially to the nearby town of Ludlow, just over the border into Shropshire.
‘In or around 1757’ Thomas’s son, also Thomas (d .1770), created a pair of Georgian townhouses – ‘smart little buildings with a raised walk in front of them’ – at the lower end of Broad Street. The scene is little changed today (above, looking south). In 1770 his son and heir Martin Dunne (left, mounted) ‘moved into no. 36 and practiced there for the next forty-four years as a doctor’.6
‘A practicioner much ahead of his time who did his own experiments on the use of electricity in healing,’7 Dr. Martin died childless and the Dunne estate now passed to his nephew Thomas. The latter married Ann Smith whose own substantial paternal inheritance, Bircher Hall just two miles SW of Gatley, would be enlarged by Thomas c.1827 and become the favoured Dunne abode for the next two generations.(In 1854, the same year as her husband’s death, Ann somewhat unexpectedly inherited Four Ashes Hall in Staffordshire (left) from a distant relative. Having little need of another large house it was given to her second son, Charles, who took the name Amphlett in exchange for an estate which has since passed by descent in that line and ‘remains something of a time capsule‘.) It was in the last decade of the C19 that Gatley Park took on the enlarged footprint seen today, if not it’s exact form. For so ‘appalling‘ and ‘aesthetically disastrous’ were new wings east and west that they would be ‘thoroughly remodelled , 1907-8, to [now] conform remarkably will with the gabled brick centre’.5
Secreted away at the end of a ‘magnificent’ kilometre-long winding drive which rises through dense woodland (‘halfway between parkland and arboretum’), 2,500-acre Gatley retains the quality which was to see it cast momentarily as a fastness from political scandal.8
Not that any such has ever attached to Gatley Park’s present occupant, of course. Being Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement in the current Tory administration. ‘Philip lives near Ludlow where he was brought up on the family farm,’ says his official website. Now coyness is hardly the first attribute one might ascribe to the typical elected politician but Dunne is by no means alone at Westminster in seeking to play down a sizable ancestral inheritance.
The MP for Dorset South, for instance, Richard Drax was ‘brought up in Dorset .. where local schoolchildren [can] spend a day on his farm’ aka the 7,000-acre Charborough Park estate complete with its fine mansion (as previously featured). Berwick-upon-Tweed’s Anne-Marie Trevelyan makes no mention at all of the family home at Grade I Netherwitton Hall while Richard Benyon MP, present squire of the 14,000-acre Englefield estate (by descent since 1635), is simply ‘a local farmer .. born and raised in West Berkshire’.
One hundred and fifty years ago over 400 MPs ‘came from families owning 2,000 acres or more’. In 1910 – when Philip Dunne’s great-grandfather Edward was the member for Walsall – ‘the landowning fraternity’ still constituted a quarter of the House of Commons.9 Today, while there are several ‘farmers’, the number of ‘landowners’ is apparently zero. Another wonky political zero, you might say…
1. House and Garden, February 1966.
2. Wood, M. John Fowler: Prince of decorators, 2007.
3. Windmill, L.A. A British Achilles, 2005.
4. Reid, P. Burke’s and Savills guide to country houses. Vol. 2, 1980.
5. Brooks, A. and Pevsner, N. Buildings of England: Herefordshire, 2012.
6. Girouard, M. The English town, 1990.
7. Lloyd, D. Broad Street – its houses and residents through 8 centuries, 1979.
8. Mowl, T. and Bradney, J. Historic gardens of Herefordshire, 2012.
9. Beckett, J.V. The aristocracy in England 1660-1914, 1986.