Wimpole Hall is the largest house in Cambridgeshire, and the most important in view of the famous architects and landscape gardeners who have worked there over the last four centuries. The present Hall was built c.1640 by Sir James Chicheley near the site of an earlier manor house. Eventually it passed into the ownership of the Harleys, Earls of Oxford. (Wimpole has been characterised by having a succession of owners whose extravagance finally forced them to sell to a new family, until the last owner, Rudyard Kipling's daughter, gave the hall and contents, garden, park and the Kipling archive to the National Trust on her death in 1976.)
Edward Harley, 2nd Earl, employed James Gibbs who built the west wing and the chapel, designed by Thornhill. In 1730 Gibbs added the library to house the famous Harleian collection. Charles Bridgeman extended the landscape in the 1720s with ha-has and avenues; the great 3 mile long South Avenue was intended as the start of a direct route to Whitehall, but the money ran out. In 1740 Harley's extravagance and lack of male heir forced a sale to the Yorkes, created Earls of Hardwicke. The 1st Earl commissioned Henry Flitcroft to reface the central block in a warm red brick, create a Long Gallery and re-build the parish church. (When the park was enclosed, the village of Wimpole was demolished and re- formed on the far side of the Cambridge road.) In 1767 the 2nd Earl called in 'Capability' Brown to extend the park to the north; he also built the Gothick Tower (a folly typical of its time) and created a chain of lakes. The 3rd Earl, a friend of John Soane, (then at the height of his brilliant career and before he was knighted) commissioned him to create the Yellow Dining Room, a unique design with a glass dome; it was used as a grand reception room and has beautiful late 18th century sofas and chairs in blue upholstery. Soane also provided a Bath House in 1792, again unique in design and cleverly using a confined space. (Not that anybody used it to keep themselves clean - rather it was a plunge pool with health benefits.)
Between 1801-09, Humphrey Repton made further alterations to the park: he produced one of his famous Red Books for Wimpole. In the l840s, the 4th Earl employed Henry Kendall (not an eminent Victorian, but he did some very fine plasterwork) to design the stable block and create new ceilings in some state rooms. The extravagant 5th Earl had to sell Wimpole in 1894 to Lord Robartes. who in 1938 sold it to the Bambridges, Kipling's son-in-law and daughter. Elsie Bambridge used her inheritance to re-furnish the state rooms, sometimes acquiring ex- Wimpole furniture and paintings. She also restored the house and demolished most of the Victorian east and west wings. Luckily for the Hall. she had good taste and rooms like the South Dining Room and her bedroom are a decorative delight and still retain the feeling that she's just left the room. The National Trust, I was told, have been careful not to label things and create a 'museum' atmosphere. I heard several visitors remarking on the 'lived in' feeling.
The interior of the Hall is marvellous. Highlights for me were the South Dining Room. the Gallery with a BlÅ±thner grand piano (unfortunately 'Do Not Touch' - unlike the piano at Felbrigg). the Book Room (Soane) and Yellow Dining Room, the darkly sumptuous Dining Room with its closed shutters, twinkling lights and fully laid table, the Print Room with a stunning view down the full extent of the South Avenue, and two of the basement rooms - the Housekeeper's Room (she wielded a power second only to that of the mistress of the house) and the Steward's Room. From the inner hall of the house there is a view up to the Gothick Tower, and down the South Avenue.
The Home Farm, designed by Soane in 1792, is used as a rare breeds centre for farm animals, including the Suffolk Punch, and was teeming with life; in one pen I noticed a heap often piglets. one of which was foraging under the straw with only its rump visible. I shouldn't haw had that ham sandwich at lunch! Inside the thatched barn, you feel as if in a cathedral- smaller than the Cressing Temple barns but equally impressive. A brisk walk through swathes of daffodils brought me to the Walled garden, a huge expanse, which in the old days supplied fruit and veg to the Hall. Wimpole must haw been a wry large employer for local people - 30 men in the wood yard alone, and 24 staff living in the attics; did the gardeners, horsemen and chauffeurs live in?
A quick look at the Chicheley and Hardwicke memorials and stained glass in the church. No time to get into the park. Cattle and sheep and their young gave a truly rustic, old-fashioned look to the landscape. We were blessed with the weather - sunny, dry, a bit cool, but better than the previous day's hailstorm. Thirty members owe their thanks to June Peck for her wonderful outing organised with her customary cheerfulness and to Charles, our driver.