Rooms open to the sky

Norman. Medieval. Tudor. Georgian. ‘Modern’.

Greys Court is a National Trust property a few miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Owned by the Trust since 1969, and most recently the family home of the Brunners (first baronet and industrialist Sir John Brunner was co-founder of a chemical company that merged with others in 1926 to form Imperial Chemical Industries – ICI – in the UK). We spent three hours at Greys, taking the noon tour (that covers just the ground floor rooms) but returned later in the afternoon to explore the house more thoroughly including the library and bedrooms upstairs.

There has been a dwelling here for almost 1000 years. Greys Court today is an attractive brick and flint Tudor country house that underwent some embellishments during the 18th century. From the front of the house there are views over the Chilterns countryside.

Greys Court was erected by Sir Francis Knollys, a courtier under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. In 1724 it became the property of the Stapleton family who lived there until 1937 when it was bought by Liberal politician Sir Felix Brunner (third baronet and grandson of Sir John) and his wife Lady Elizabeth. She was the granddaughter of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving. Lady continued to live at Greys Court until her death in 2003.

The house is full of Brunner memorabilia, not the property of the National Trust. Photography is unfortunately (from my blogging perspective) not permitted inside the house. The plasterwork ceiling in the downstairs reception room dates from the 18th century when the height of the room was increased, and a crenellated two floor semicircular extension was added, clearly.

But the exteriors are delightful, and the small but exquisite garden excites the senses. Because Lady Brunner developed the gardens to explore, to entice, to delight, they were set out as a series of ‘rooms’ connected by gates or doors that invited the visitor to open and see what lay on the other side. One can walk through a wisteria arbour, 150 years old, wander between the silence of the White Garden (under the Great Tower), and check out the orchard and vegetable plots, all surrounded by brick and flint walls.

Outside the garden is a brick path maze (no hedges!), ‘symbolizing the journey through life’, dedicated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in 1981.

In the grounds there is a Tudor wheelhouse with a donkey wheel, drawing water up some 200 feet, and still in operation until 1914.

At the entrance there was a hand-written welcome sign to the property extolling the friendliness of the staff. And they were!


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