The Mansion Is Closed Because of Covid. No One Told the Deer.
The Mansion Is Closed Because of Covid. No One Told the Deer.
SOMERSET, England — It was one thing when deer began roaming around the grand house for the first time in decades and a family of weasels appeared on the banks of its moat.
But when a colony of bats took up residence in the ceilings of Barrington Court it was clear that Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns were causing profound changes at the suddenly quiet Tudor mansion in Somerset county, about 125 miles southwest of London.
“We were pretty amazed to find bat droppings in the main house, as it has always been too loud and active for bats to move in,” said Keith Weston, the operations manager of the house and its 80 acres.
The pandemic lockdown has had some surprises for the small team struggling to protect the 480-year-old house, which was used as a setting for the “Wolf Hall” TV series, based on books by Hilary Mantel about the court of Henry VIII.
Normally a bustling estate that attracts more than 120,000 visitors a year, Barrington Court has not been this calm for at least a century. Even during World War II, the main house, an elegant pile of honey-colored limestone, remained busy as a refuge for schoolboys evacuated from a seaside town in Kent for fear of invasion.
The rare absence of humans has opened the way for other visitors who would have been common in the estate’s early days, when it had a medieval deer park.
“I have been living and working here more than 40 years and I had never seen deer in the east orchard right beside the house,” said Christine Brain, the head gardener. “It is a family of five who are normally off in the woods or hedgerows on farmland. All of a sudden there was no people traffic or even planes overhead, so very quickly the wildlife just got bolder and bolder and began coming right to the middle of the estate.”
When the estate was first shut down last March, the moles, badgers and occasional foxes that are normally seen on the grounds became more active and they were soon joined by stoats, ferrets, polecats and new bird life.
The house is still closed, as are the various smaller buildings, parkland and fields, leaving human visits restricted to weekend walks in the nine acres of elaborate gardens, where there are plenty of other changes.
“We have got Jersey moths I had never seen here, and wild orchids suddenly coming up on stretches of grass that we haven’t been able to mow,” said Ms. Brain, who has been head gardener since 1978 but has never had as tough a time as during lockdown, when most of the approximately 20 staff members were furloughed. Mr. Weston, the operations manager, had to move with his family from their home in nearby Yeovil into one of the smaller homes on the estate to help with the workload.
“Money had dried up and we could only do what was essential, like trying to keep the weeds down and stop plants and hedges from getting out of control,” Ms. Brain said.
The loss of staff and funding meant a lot of replanting rather than buying new plants, and 6:30 a.m. starts to avoid the heat of an unusually warm summer.
Mr. Weston cut grass on a tractor and helped to patrol the estate, evicting jackdaws that had nested in the main house’s chimneys and checking for fire safety and general security. (Five local churches had their roofs stripped of lead during the lockdown.)
The skeleton crew also had to place buckets under leaks inside the closed two-story house and monitor its heat and humidity to help preserve the priceless wood paneling and interiors. A survey of historic English houses closed to the public during 2020 found an 11 percent surge in the number of moths and other insects potentially threatening tapestries and carpets, prompting staff at one Norfolk estate, Blickling Hall, to experiment by introducing tiny wasps that prey on moth eggs (in the hope they will keep down the population).
Among the many visitors to Barrington Court before the pandemic were scores of U.S. tourists drawn by the estate’s medieval history and links to the TV adaptation of Ms. Mantel’s novels.
Some of the most important scenes were shot here in 2014, with Cardinal Wolsey’s death played out in a room just inside the house’s main entrance, and the grounds used to represent the king’s strolls in Windsor Great Park.
The estate dates back to at least the 11th century but the current house was built starting in 1538 by Henry Daubeney, who is believed to have spent time as a child with the young Henry VIII. Daubeney was appointed as an earl by King Henry but fell from favor after being implicated in the disgrace of the king’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, in 1541.
The enormous cost of running the estate helped to bankrupt Daubeney and has been a constant problem for subsequent owners. By the start of the 20th century it was almost derelict, with a tenant farmer living in one wing and his chickens and livestock in another.
It was rescued in 1907 by the newly formed National Trust, which bought Barrington Court as its first country house and garden in its mission to protect British heritage sites. The trust’s portfolio now includes 200 such estates, but early on, the crippling costs of maintaining Barrington Court almost convinced the organization to stay away from grand houses.
Salvation came in 1920 in the form of Colonel Arthur Lyle of the sugar-refining company Tate & Lyle, who had the unusual hobby of collecting ancient wooden paneling and interiors of castles and grand houses. Lyle was looking for a family home that could absorb his treasures, and the almost gutted Barrington Court was ideal.
“We’re fortunate that he didn’t collect stamps instead of wood panels,” Mr. Weston said.
The Lyles signed a 99-year lease and poured a fortune into the property, filling the main house with relics such as an ornately carved monastery door, a sweeping staircase from a Scottish castle and room after room of medieval paneling. His touches include an orchard, a kitchen garden and three walled gardens planted in 1925 with advice from the designer Gertrude Jekyll, a legendary influence on gardening in both Britain and the United States. (Jekyll’s surname is familiar even to many nongardeners because her younger brother Walter was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, who borrowed it for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”)
Aged almost 80 and with failing eyesight, Jekyll could not travel to Barrington. Instead, she had biscuit tins delivered to her home 120 miles away in Godalming, Surrey, with soil from various parts of the gardens, allowing her to rub her fingers in the soil and pronounce which plants would be best for each part of the gardens.
Now 63, Ms. Brain was first employed by the Lyles as a 21-year-old to lead the estate’s six-member gardening team. She stayed on when the Lyles returned the lease to the National Trust in 1991. While the lockdown has replenished the soil by forcing a reduction in planting, there has been no “fallow time” for the estate’s skeleton crew, she said.
“A garden is always in a constant state of deterioration fighting to go back to its natural state, so if you neglect a trained apple tree for just one year it can be a nightmare,” Ms. Brain said. “We have had to do as much work ourselves as possible and delay quite a bit of conservation work and repairs.”
For Ms. Brain, bunkering down to get the estate through the pandemic has been a battle, but also a lot of fun. “The wildlife has obviously enjoyed it but so have we,” she said. “None of us will forget this time.”