Sunday, 27 December 2020


When Tyntesfield House in Somerset, England was bought for the nation by the National Trust in 2002, not only was it is a media event I remember well, but it was the first acknowledgement by the establishment that Victorian architecture could actually be meritorious. Indeed, since then the Gothic Revival style has had, dare I say it, a small revival in popularity. "I must visit." I said to myself at the time. Cut to 2020 after the first lockdown, and I drove to see my friend Tim in nearby Bristol in the knowledge that Tyntesfield House was once again open to the public albeit in a limited way.

Yes, it really did take 18 years for me to make my first ever covid-defiant visit to Tyntesfield . Tim and I were masked and had to socially distance from the other visitors. There was a one-way system through the house and not all areas (e.g. the upstairs) were accessible. However, the experience was still an absolute thrill, and reaffirmed that I could still feel the magic even after years of grind at Balintore. The interior is unbelievable with bespoke furniture and fittings done to the highest level of craftsmanship. Everything is coordinated and everything is a work of art. The late Victorian and Edwardian eras are, in my opinion, the high watermark for interiors. 

Despite its scale Tyntesfield is not overwhelming and feels domestic, comfortable and liveable - in short the perfect home. We have guano magnate William Gibbs to thank for the house in its present form. Gibbs is no bullish nouveau riche patron. He was partly brought up in Spain, was pious, learned and the impeccable taste of Tyntesfield betrays his great love of Art.

Each fireplace at Tyntesfield is not just of a different design but of a different style. The fireplace pictured below was not the grandest, but just one that caught my eye due to its purity of design and restrained but telling use of colour. I pointed out to Tim that the body of the fireplace is English Alabaster as found in mediaeval tombs. The guide in the room who overheard our conversation confirmed that this was correct.  Alabaster was the only marble-like material available in England. Smaller marble inclusions (such as the roundels here) would have been imported from Europe. This is Victoria gothic revival at its academic best, informed by the palette of materials available in the Middle Ages

a fireplace at Tyntesfield House

Tim and I were thrown out of the library at Tyntesfield, or at least moved on as we were lingering too long. I was naturally drawn to the expansive marble fireplace there - not the one pictured above I should add.              

I found out later that apparently Gibbs asked a friend if the library fireplace was perhaps a bit too over the top. His friend replied "Yes, I am afraid that it is but it is too late now to do anything.".  :-) This is evidence of Gibbs' good taste i.e. the fact that he had these concerns, And to the modern eye, this particular debate is lost in the rich Gothic glory of the interior.

In a world over rich in online images and indeed wishing to experience the world directly, I am hesitant to take any photos. When I do, it will be what catches my eye or what is transient and only occasionally as an aide-memoire. And the range of squashes grown in the Tyntesfield walled garden did create an impressive transient spectacle.

squash at Tyntesfield House

Dan Cruickshank's insightful comment on the charms of Tyntesfield, is that they are due to the fact that Gibbs was quite simply a thoroughly nice man

On the same trip Tim took me to Piercefield House, one of his favourite buildings, immediately adjacent to Chepstow Racecourse just over the border in Wales. 

Tim at Piercefield House

Piercefield was astonishing in many ways: heavily muscled classicism overlooking an idyllic valley leading down to the Wye River  How could such a top flight building ever have become a ruin, especially next to a racecourse which attracts the richest of visitors? Tim regaled me with the recent, sadly embroiled history of Piercefield. And given the current state of the building, it is hard to see how a turnaround could happen. Tim and I discussed how someone might start, and we thought the smaller side pavilions (which provide beautifully proportioned triple height spaces) could be the way in. We both loved the side pavilions.

Tim also took me to Ashton Court on the edge of Bristol. This started life as a mediaeval manor house. The last additions were Victorian Gothic. Now the building is in a state of partial ruin. A section is used by Bristol Council, and another part houses a small restaurant used by members of the public, The buildings and grounds are much loved and visited by the denizens of Bristol, yet a lot of the building is in a perilous and vacated condition. I loved many areas of this building: the mediaeval hall (Tim gave me a puntie-up so I could look in) and I loved the Gothic Revival hall. The frontage of the building, which I know well from photographs, is an impressive and rhythmic phalanx of beige stone, However, the accommodation behind this frontage, based around a much diminished mediaeval courtyard, is much smaller than expected and surprisingly scrappy. When I say "scrappy" I mean consisting of odds and end of bits of buildings from various historic eras. In short, a charming mess. :-)

Yet again tempted by a fireplace, I could not resist taking a photo through the window of the Council offices. My apologies. In my defence, due to covid Council employees were exceeding thin on the ground.

Fireplace in Ashton Court

The range of historic buildings: Tyntesfield (pristine), Piercefield (total ruin) and Ashton Court (in-between) was a perfect sampling and helped put Balintore into a context. It is always useful to get a flash of the bigger picture when one is being ground down by the detail.

Tim is engaged in his own restoration project. Completion is expected end of January 2021. Balintore is quite envious.

To donate to the Balintore restoration project click here.


  1. Your writing is notable for its excellent use of the language, dry wit, and gift for description. May I suggest that you meant to say that Victorian architecture was meritorious, rather than meretricious? Even Homer nods!

    1. Titter - you are correct of course - many thanks. I must have been attracted by the superior sound of the word. The correction has been made.