29 June 2012

Thence I Went: to Broughton Castle

Broughton Castle is a very special stop on my journey to retrace Celia Fiennes's travels because it was - and still is - the home of her family; her grandfather, the first Viscount Saye and Sele, lived here and is buried in the adjoining 14th century church. He was followed by Celia's older half-brother, then her nephew, who each inherited the title and estate. She visited often, undoubtedly more often than the journeys noted in her diary, and compares other country houses to its splendor. One look and it's easy to see why.

Broughton Castle, June 2012
I first visited Broughton back in May with some fellow gardeners who kindly indulged me as I abandoned them to meet Lord and Lady Saye and have a look at the manuscript of Celia's diary. As we drove through Oxfordshire and especially through the village of Banbury, I kept wondering how many times she had ridden through the same streets and lanes? How many of the ancient stone houses and churches would still be familiar to her? Had she seen the fields in spring blazing with rapeseed like we did?


I think Celia would approve of the way the castle has been restored, for even she described it as being "much left to decay and ruine" when her brother inherited. It was first built in 1306 by Sir John de Broughton and sold to William of Wyckham, Bishop of Winchester in 1377. It was a descendant of his, Margaret, who married Sir William Fiennes, second Lord Saye and Sele, and the castle has been in the Fiennes family ever since. The castle has undergone subsequent additions, remodels and renovations, alternately falling into a state of decay then being rescued by following generations. During the Civil War the castle was even occupied by Royalist forces (William Fiennes, Celia's grandfather, was one of the leading activists against the Crown).

Today it is still very much a family home, lived in, cared for, and appreciated by the many visitors who are often greeted by Lord and Lady Saye themselves. And may I say, they are absolutely delightful and were most generous in letting me see the diary on such short notice. Holding the diary, written by Celia herself over 300 years ago, and seeing her handwriting - so tiny and close - is a thrill I will never forget. Books bring an author's personality to life but seeing the original manuscript in her own hand just makes the writer more 'real'. It's awe-inspiring and very humbling to be able to actually touch a piece of history like this.

Me and Celia at the Broughton Gatehouse
I returned in June at Lady Saye's suggestion to see the garden at its peak. The walled Ladies' Garden, which is just over one hundred years old, is as romantic as the castle with roses spilling over archways, double clematis tumbling through borders, the heads of allium nodding in the breeze, and waves of lavender within box fleur-de-lis, all within the honeyed glow of an ancient brick wall.

The Ladies' Garden seen through the south gateway
The enclosed garden is only half an acre but with the borders outside the wall and along the moat, it feels larger. The views from without the wall are spectacular, stretching across the water to the countryside beyond, or bounded by rolling hills grazed by longhorned cattle and sheep, punctuated by huge oaks. A group from a local girls' school was being shown around while I was there and I heard several of the girls exclaim they wanted to be married here. Me, too!

Long border on the west parapet wall

The Ladies' Garden in summer
The best way to see the garden is from the roof. A tour of the house is essential to earn a view like this, and I wasn't going to miss it.


As I toured the rooms, marveling at the 15th century armor, portraits of ancestors and Civil War artifacts, what really struck me was the modern furniture in some of the rooms. This is no museum house sealed in aspic. It and its inhabitants have embraced both past and present and I'm reminded that when it comes to well crafted antique furniture in antique houses, there was a time when it, too, was modern.

Hand crafted oak bed and side table in the King's Room by Robin Furlong c.1992

Part of the upstairs gallery with portraits of the family
 I hope to be able to return to Broughton again and again over the years, to see how it changes and evolves. I always think it must be a daunting thing to keep a house like this going from generation to generation, and I'm sure there are more than a few challenges, but Lord and Lady Saye are justifiably proud of their inheritance and are genuinely keen to share it with others. I am indebted to them for allowing me to spend time with Celia, who I hope to know better and better as time goes on.


Broughton Castle is located about 3 miles from the village of Banbury in Oxfordshire, on the Shipston-on-Stour road from Oxford. If taking public transport from Oxford in the south, you can try the local bus (timetable here) but I'm told these can be unreliable. Trains run regularly from Oxford and a taxi from the station will run about £8 each way. From North Newington public footpaths will take you through the park.

The house and gardens are only open a few days a week in spring and summer, so check the Broughton Castle website for visitor information.

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