Tuesday, 10 August 2010


A few years ago (quite a few, actually), I worked on the fabric of Ashdown House - above - near Lambourne, Berkshire. It is a 17th / early 18th century hunting 'box' or lodge, belonging to the National Trust, who let it out to people who are wealthy enough to afford it. I was reminded of this place because Her Indoors' Summer School has started again, and I noticed a classic hunting 'drive' nearby this morning, leading to a grand manor house about a mile away from the main gates.

This is the original line of the drive leading to Ashdown House, as seen from the air. In the days when this drive was constructed, it had a much more practical purpose than being an impressive way to approach the house in your Rolls-Royce, with the huge tyres scrunching on the gravel.

See how the drive cuts it's way between dense woodland? Well this is what would happen about three hundred years ago:

The hunting party would assemble on horseback at the far end of the drive, one or two miles from the house. On a given signal, deer would be 'driven' from the woods by the foresters and game-keepers, then onto the drive to be chased by the party on horseback. If all went well, the animal would be killed virtually on the front door-step of the house, and the party would dismount and pop inside for a few drinks and an evening of banqueting. You had to be pretty wealthy to afford this sort of sport for your guests, and the penalty for poaching deer was death.

I came pretty close to death a few times myself at Ashdown, when lowering bags of rubble 'clunch' stone from the scaffold - which turned out to be heavier than I was. Remember that old monologue by Gerrard Hoffnung? Well it's all true.

Ashdown house is very close to the village of Lambourne and the Lambourne Downs, where they keep and train hundreds of top-class race-horses. I went to the local pub for lunch once, and when I walked into the bar, I saw one of the strangest sights I have ever seen in a pub. It took me a while to work out the meaning of it.

Standing around in the large room were about 20 or 30 men drinking pints, and none of them were over 5 feet tall. They all had weather-beaten faces which they turned toward me as I entered, as if I were some giant from another world who had come into their parlour. Of course, they were ALL jockeys having a bit of time-off.

You can see in the photo above that the roof of Ashdown House has a white painted balustrade. When I was there, they replaced all of the oak balusters - even though there was nothing wrong with them, and I took a car-load of them back to Bath to give to an interior decorator friend of mine. He didn't use them for about 20 years, and when he did, it was to decorate his own coffin which he made because he knew he was dying of cancer. It was THE most beautiful coffin I have ever seen.


  1. Interesting post Tom...I did have to look up Gerrard Hofnung and in doing so found a really funny video on YouTube, of him recalling the incident.
    Thanks for the laugh!

  2. It's doll's house heaven. I'd put money on them having had a miniature made for the daughter of the 'box'.

    The hunting of deer has always been ingenious.

  3. That's hilarious about walking into the pub with all the jockeys.! My sister married a jockey once and I felt the same around his "people".

  4. Just the once, Raz? I don't know if you remember Norman Wisdom, but they all looked like they could have been his brother.