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Mompesson House

by Huw Francis

Mompesson HouseNobody famous owned this house, nor even lived here, but a visit to Mompesson House will send you back in time to the early 18th Century.

As you walk from Choristers Green, with the Cathedral spire rising behind you, and pass through the original wrought iron gates and enter the carved stone doorway, what little of the 21st century that has invaded this far into old Salisbury will disappear. Given the house's period authenticity, it is no wonder that the 1996 Kate Winslett version of Sense and Sensibility was filmed here. Film buffs will enjoy spotting locations from the film.

Built in 1701 by Charles Mompesson, of the same Chilmark stone used to build the cathedral, the house contains an impressive collection of 18th century furniture. It has seen few major changes since the improvements by Charles' brother-in-law, Charles Longueville in the 1740's, when the main staircase, drawing room fireplace and elaborately decorative plasterwork were added.

It is not only the fact that the house is such an immaculate example of its period that makes a visit so special, but the attention to detail and the efforts of the guardians to bring history to life. The dining room table laid for dinner, the square piano in the drawing room and the special exhibitions put on each year give unique insights into the life of the house. This year there will be an exhibition of 18th-century drinking glasses that will not only highlight the artefacts themselves, but the social history and etiquette of drinking and the dramatic change in glassware with the introduction of the Glass Tax in 1745. It is worth noting the designs on the glasses, with apples, hops or barley often denoting the drink each glass was intended to hold.

Mompesson HouseSuch is the wealth of history in the house that each room has something to make a visitor stop for more than a cursory glance. Even the ceilings demand attention and the unwary will be so busy trying to take in everything on view they are likely to end up tripping over another antique.

If accompanied by children, setting them the task of counting every face in the plasterwork will keep them occupied, and they will take great pleasure in pointing out birds, nymphs, mythological kings and satyrs hidden among the vines. If they get up to more than 40 faces they will be doing well and giving you the chance to enjoy the rest of the house.

The ground floor Drawing Room was the place for formal larger scale entertaining, and contrasts markedly to the more intimate Little Drawing Room upstairs above the entrance hall. In the upstairs drawing room, used by family and close friends and overlooking the Close and the Cathedral, the ceiling plasterwork is highlighted with an eagle, the traditional symbol of welcome.

On either side of the Little Drawing Room are bedrooms and opposite the entry doors to each bedroom is a false door in the end wall, giving the impression there are more rooms beyond and that the house is bigger than it is. The original Queen Anne needlepoint chair and the fine brass and mother-of-pearl table are of special interest here, as is the rare Stuart period stump work (raised embroidery) on the walls.

The ladies' bedroom contains the bed where Kate Winslett cried so copiously in Sense and Sensibility, but the Virginian Walnut tallboy will be of equal interest to American visitors. The Hepplewhite Rudd toilet table in the corner is also a rare and intricate piece of furniture worth noting.

The bedrooms are decorated more simply than the rest of the house, with no plasterwork on the ceilings. This economy is a reminder that despite the grandeur of the house, it was built by someone considered middle class at the time.

Mompesson HouseIn the upstairs corridor are paintings by Barbara Townsend, a former resident of the house, which add a personal touch to the décor and give an insight into the pastimes and skills of the English ladies who lived here.

In the 1950s a bathroom was added in one of the rear bedrooms. Fortunately the original panelling was left in place behind the modern wall coverings, and now that the 20th century improvements have been removed and the bare bones of the original room exposed, visitors can see how the rest of the house was put together and how it looked before restoration.

Tucked away in a downstairs corner, just before visitors step out into the garden, is the Library. Styled and decorated by the last resident of the house, who died in 1975, it is a cosy room despite some clumsy 1950s restoration, and is the one place in the house where visitors can sit upon the furniture and imagine they are doing more than just passing through.

Outside in the garden is the last room of the house, the privy. In the rear corner of the garden, behind the yew tree, an ornate moulded stone doorway in the perimeter wall of the Close leads to a panelled and cosy toilet, which originally emptied its waste straight into the back lane.

The outside of Mompesson House also warrants some attention. The front is neatly symmetrical, but the back, which fewer people see, is more haphazard, as are the jumble of outbuildings inside the carriage entrance. Original windows can be identified from their smaller glass panes and larger leading lattice. Mompesson House replaced an older building and the remains of the medieval structure can be seen in the footings of the brick built wing not open to the public.

A visit would not be complete without taking tea in the carriage house and visitors can enjoy fresh cakes and a refreshing drink in the shadow of a 200-year-old Magnolia Grandiflora and of nearby medieval houses with their towering chimney stacks. To complete the scene, the glorious flowers of an ancient laburnum, enjoyed by many generations of Mompesson residents, adds summer color to the garden.

More Information:

Mompesson House

Huw Francis has worked as a freelance writer for ten years, covering primarily travel and international relocation topics. His work has been published in 16 countries and translated into French, Spanish and Korean. He has lived in England, Hong Kong, Turkey and France, and currently resides in Wales. Visit his website at http://www.huwfrancis.com.
Article © 2007 Huw Francis
Photos courtesy of National Trust


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