‘Reader, I married him’
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Eastleigh is a town in Hampshire just north-east of the New Forest. It is also the name given to the fictional house and estate at the centre of a now ten-year-old novel, The Chase by Candida Clark: ‘Built in 1725, Eastleigh was a house to fall in love with. On certain days in spring the bluebell walk within a broad avenue of limes could be seen by the public.’
The house pictured above is grade I-listed Hinton Admiral, situated on the fringe of the New Forest some twenty-five miles south-west of Eastleigh. Its ‘magnificent twenty acre garden within a much larger estate’ includes a ‘ten acre lime-tree avenue filled with bluebells’, one of the many attractions of the Hinton Admiral annual open day each May. The Chase, Candida Clark’s sixth novel in eight years, was published in the spring of 2006. Later that same year the writer married George Meyrick, heir not only to the Hinton Admiral estate but also to Bodorgan Hall in north Wales (itself ‘a sizeable mansion house, run to a very high standard’) and an C18 baronetcy. Since when Clark has disappeared from the literary scene.
(In a remarkable example of art prefiguring life, the pivotal protagonist of Clark’s last book, Celia Domeyne, wife of Sir Leo, has two daughters and is pregnant with a son. The Meyrick household has since expanded in precisely the same rhythm.)
Were the author ever in need of narrative inspiration for a return to the fray she need look no further than the pictures on the walls. At Bodorgan Hall, a late C18 house sequestered within 14,000 acres on the island of Anglesey, there hangs a portrait, ‘Lady Lucy Meyrick (nee Pitt) as a child’. In fact, Lucy Pitt was but fourteen years old when she married into this family, she and her equally youthful cousin being sensational runaway brides of the schoolboy Meyrick brothers.
Some 320 miles south, a Joseph Highmore portrait (r) of Lydia, Lady Mews, adorns Hinton Admiral, a house built a year after their marriage in 1719 by her similarly middle-aged husband. Sir Peter died six years later contentiously leaving all to the ‘hated’ Lady Lydia. These paintings form part of the collections of two private houses whose hitherto entirely separate histories coalesced 140 years ago under the ownership of Sir George Tapps Gervis Meyrick, 3rd Bt. (The tripartite surname endures, foreshortened in practice today.)
At the election of 1715 Owen Meyrick of Bodorgan entered parliament as the member for Anglesey upholding the Whig sentiments of a family long established on the island. Meanwhile, Sir Peter Mews, a Tory MP of five years standing, was again returned for Christchurch (then) in Hampshire, the manor he had purchased for £22,000 in 1708. However, politically and geographically poles apart, a mutual encounter between the two men significantly responsible for the dimensions of the present-day Meyrick Estate is perhaps unlikely.
Valued service to various Tudor monarchs had helped establish the position of the ancient Meyrick (Meurig) family in the south-west of Anglesey. A debilitating decade-long legal wrangle with a neighbouring landowner at the end of the C16 (which saw ‘both parties indulging in a lively campaign of slander, counter-slander and physical violence’) would take a century to recover from.¹ But throughout the lifetime of Owen Meyrick (1682-1759) ‘the Bodorgan estate grew enormously’, initially through inheritance of the lands of the Bold family through his mother, later by systematic purchase.² ‘Owen Meyrick was the real founder of the later fortunes of the family’ in Wales. [Estate archive, Bangor Univ.]
Quite how this pillar of society took the news that two of his sons, then boarders at Westminster School, had impulsively entered into ‘quickie’ marriages with two even younger girls whom they barely knew, one can only imagine. Lady Lucy Pitt was the youngest child of Thomas Pitt, 1st earl of Londonderry, upon whose death in 1729 she was sent to live in the restrictive household of her cousin Jane Chomondeley’s family at their town house in Buckingham Gate, W1. Lucy’s older brothers, Thomas and Ridgeway, also attended nearby Westminster School.
The miserable regime to which young Lucy and Jane were subject came to the attention of the Meyrick boys, Pierce and Richard, who, upon gallant impulse, enacted a ‘plan’ to liberate the girls, marry and perhaps even flee abroad. A dash to the environs of the debtors’ Fleet Prison hastily ensued, wherein dissolute clergymen ‘earned a disgraceful livelihood coupling young people together at the shortest notice’, no questions asked, commonly in the upstairs room of a local tavern. Trade came mostly from the lower orders but ‘occasionally the dreary purlieus of the Fleet were lighted up by erratic flashes of quality and fashion’.
So it was that Pierce took Lucy, Richard took Jane and, surprisingly, all appear to have lived happily ever after. For, as the annals of Westminster School record, after a period of years both couples formally remarried in 1732. On reflection, Owen Meyrick perhaps concluded that the boys could have fared no better in the marriage market had matters taken a more conventional course. Lady Lucy’s grandfather had sold the fabulous ‘Pitt Diamond‘ (acquired during his time as Governor of Madras) to the French monarchy in 1717 for over £100,000. Comfortably outliving her two childless brothers, Woodlands Manor in Wiltshire (r) was among the Pitt assets which flowed to Pierce Meyrick via his wife. (Jane Cholmondeley was also reportedly ‘a lady of great fortune’.³)
Down in Hampshire impetuous teenage offspring were one problem Sir Peter and Lady Mews would never encounter, the pair being both in their forties when they married in 1719. When he was aged just 25, Mews had been appointed Chancellor to the Bishop of Winchester (who happened to be his uncle). Ten years later, the ambitious purchase of the manor of Christchurch, while enhancing his status and taking him to Westminster, gradually burdened his coffers to the extent that a late marriage to Islington property heiress Lydia Jarvis (or Gervis), 42, suddenly made great sense. And now, of course, Lady Lydia would need an appropriate residence.
In the north of Hampshire stands Warbrook House (r), built for himself by architect John James in 1723, the same year in which he succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as surveyor of St. Paul’s Cathedral. James Lees-Milne has not unreasonably suggested that Hinton Admiral is strongly redolent of James’ ‘plain Baroque’4 style, the Mews’ house being similarly a brick mansion with an ‘unmistakable’5 raised central section defined by simple pilasters. Two long service blocks ran perpendicular to the main house, connected by colonnades, a ‘grandiose, grossly inconvenient plan for a house of by no means large proportions’.6
Alas, at the height of his squirarchical pomp Sir Peter Mews died in 1726 aged 54. Claiming no family, Mews left all to his wife but a Thomas Mew of London was anonymously encouraged by letter to pursue a claim. ‘Everybody hates My Lady Mew and wish that she may lose the estate. They say that she is a mean, miserable woman and tricking.’7 A subsequent legal challenge was eventually seen off by the redoubtable Lydia who would bequeath Hinton to her nephew, Benjamin Clerke. His son would also encounter Chancery woe when inheriting as a minor, a suit questioning the legitimacy of Joseph Jarvis Clerke being thrown out at a hearing at the Guildhall in January 1754.8
In 1777, the year before he died, Joseph saw his house gutted by fire. But the exterior structure remained sound, faithful reconstruction commencing immediately, seen through by his heir, cousin George Tapps (created Sir George, 1st Bt., in 1792). Additionally, balancing wings behind each colonnade filled out the original composition.
Meanwhile, just as the restoration and expansion of Hinton was coming together, in 1779 up on Anglesey a new house was also rising.
Bodorgan was now in the hands of Owen Meyrick’s grandson, Owen Putland Meyrick, seen (r) in a George Romney portrait of 1788. Meyrick had married Clara, eldest of three daughters of wealthy Richard Garth (whose family were long seated at Morden Hall in Surrey, now National Trust). Through the first half of the C18 the three great landed interests on Anglesey – Bodorgan, the Bulkeleys of Baron Hill and the Baylys at Plas Newydd – had jostled for dominance. But by the 1770s the young masters of Bodorgan and Baron Hill were congenial contemporaries, Owen Meyrick, Lord Bulkeley and their heiress wives frequently dining together.9
Between 1776-1779 architect Samuel Wyatt was engaged to significantly remodel Baron Hill (left, now derelict though the estate remains in the same hands). Wyatt’s site manager on this project was young John Cooper who would be talent-spotted by Meyrick and given his big break with the commission to rebuild Bodorgan.
The old hall was largely demolished, replaced by a ‘neo-classical mansion of smooth ashlar masonry in a pale, yellowish stone, with a slate roof. The main east front has nine bays, the central three on a semi-circular bow with a domed roof. [There are] fine views from the house and garden out over the park to the estuary and Snowdonia beyond.’ (John Cooper would go on to complete the Anglesey ‘big house’ hat-trick, remodelling Plas Newydd soon after.)
Owen and Clara’s only child, Clara, married Augustus Fuller and their son, Owen Fuller Meyrick, succeeded to Bodorgan in 1825, dying unmarried in 1876. His long tenure saw some rearrangement and extension of the house but ‘the circular saloon, and the hall with its graceful curving stone staircase, remain today as models of C18 elegance’.9 The gardens (which in Tudor times featured terracing
down to the sea) would gain particular repute during this period: ‘A large sum is annually put at the gardener’s disposal for the procurement of horticultural novelties. On visiting Bodorgan the wonder is how such an Eden could be formed in so out-of-the-way a place.’10
In the same year that her brother had inherited this remote domain, Meyrick’s sister, another Clara, married the heir to Hinton Admiral, Sir George Tapps Gervis, 2nd Bt., (whose father had willed that the ‘Jarvis’ variant be appended henceforth ‘to mark my respect for the memory of Lady Mews’). Their son, Sir George Tapps Gervis of Hinton Admiral, gained his second estate and third surname from his bachelor uncle in 1876. (While the last name has been a variable, the christian name of every baronet has remained the same, a tradition certain to continue for at least the next two generations.) Since the unification of Hinton and Bodorgan descent has been straightforwardly father-to-son, the present owner being…
… Sir George (Tapps Gervis) Meyrick, 7th Bt., who ranked on the most recent Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated worth of £125m. This figure is accounted for less by 14,000-acre Bodorgan (and its state-of-the-art racetrack) than by the 6,000 acres of southern England, including sizeable swathes of Bournemouth and Christchurch whose C19 development was significantly underwritten by Meyrick estate investment.
The Hinton Admiral estate also includes 2,000 acres of woodland in the New Forest national park, the proposed boundaries of which were redrawn to explicitly exclude the parkland around the house – ‘It is notable that there are no public rights of way through Hinton Park’ – following a landmark legal case. (Similarly, walkers on the Wales Coastal Path are obliged to take an uncommon detour inland around Bodorgan, affording a level of privacy appreciated by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their Anglesey sojourn.)
In the early years of the last century the fourth baronet engaged Harold Peto to reimagine some of the principal interior and exterior spaces at Hinton. His ‘rich Frenchy ballroom’5 features ‘plentiful gilding done in powdered gold, a method rarely employed on account of its cost’.6 But it is as the creator of ‘some of the finest gardens in England’ that Peto is best known and the annual garden open day at Hinton affords a chance to enjoy the Italianate pergola and terracing (r) of his ‘matchless remodelling’.11
That terracing will likely have had a good hosing down before the day in order to remove the deposits of Hinton’s most conspicuous and troublesome residents, delightful peacocks who further endear themselves by ‘screeching at dawn beneath the bedroom window’.
‘Celia glanced up as one of the peacocks cried out on the terrace. They were her husband’s, too; after ten years of marriage she had still not got used to them.‘ – Candida Clark, The Chase, 2006.