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On this occasion we were not so lucky with the weather as we normally are, since the sky remained overcast all day, and the wind was stronger than we would have liked.  Fortunately, despite the persistent cloud, it remained dry, something for which we were more than usually grateful, because, on arrival at Hinton Ampner, we learned that, due to electrical work, the whole house was closed to visitors even though our Organiser, Joan Gray, had, quite recently, ben assured that the principal rooms on the ground floor would be open, while those on the upper floor would not.

The living rooms on the ground floor are all fairly small, but, since their furnishings predate the era of Victorian clutter, they give a pleasant impression of being both airy and cosy at one and the same time.  In one room, precious fragments of the original wallpaper have survived in a window alcove, and thus it was possible to have it copied, so that the whole room could be papered exactly as it was in Jane’s day.  The rooms contain various items both large and small that actually belonged to the family, and the most moving one is the little table on which Jane wrote her immortal novels.  It is not the kind of writing desk that one would expect a famous author to have used, since it was little more than a small occasional table of the kind on which we might put a lamp or a vase of flowers.  I could not help murmuring “Thank you, Jane,” as I gazed upon this relic, holy to all who love her books, many different editions of which are available in the well-stocked shop.

On the first floor there are six smallish bedrooms.  In one there is a replica of the kind of bed that Jane would have slept in: a pretty cream-coloured tent-bed with an arched top and dainty light-weight curtains.  A complete contrast is the bed in the room occupied on visits by one of Jane’s naval brothers who rose to the rank of admiral.  This is a simpler, more solid affair, covered with a bright multicoloured patchwork quilt.

The charming cottage garden is an ideal place in which to relax after going around the house.  It too is tranquil and unpretentious, with lawns, shrubs and plenty of informal flower beds, once tended by Cassandra.  In Jane’s day, the kitchen garden was Mrs Austen’s province, where she raised vegetable and soft fruit.  In one of the outhouses visitors could watch an introductory film.  The former brewhouse had a chain across its open door, temporarily excluding human visitors because, as a notice informed us, swallows were nesting inside.  Another notice, with the unusual warning “Beware of the cat”, explained that Marmite, the resident cat, disliked being petted and should be left alone!  I managed to catch a glimpse of this potentially dangerous feline curled up and blissfully snoozing undisturbed in a sheltered spot.

In 1597, when Sir Thomas Stewkeley leased Hinton Ampner, there was a large Tudor manor home on what is now the orchard near the church.  The Stewkeleys, and indeed other families who inherited the manor, had an unfortunate tendency to go extinct in the male line, leaving an heiress to marry into a new family.  Thus Ralph Dutton, who left Hinton Ampner to the National Trust, was a direct descendant of Sir Thomas through the female line.  In the middle of the 18th century, the Tudor manor apparently became so afflicted by hauntings that it was deemed uninhabitable, and was demolished by the then owner, Henry, 2nd Lord Stowell, who built a new Georgian-style mansion a short distance away, and it is this house which forms the nucleus of the present one.  In Victorian times, Ralph Dutton’s grandfather modified the house in a pseudo-Tudor style, described by Ralph as being of “exceptional hideousness”.  When Ralph inherited Hinton Ampner in 1935, he decided to return it to something approaching its original Georgian form.  The project was much delayed by the Second World War, when the house was occupied by an evacuated girls’ school.  By 1960 the long transformation was complete.  One chilly afternoon Ralph went out for a walk.  He returned to find the whole house consumed by flames, apparently started by a stray spark form a log in the Library grate.

The house and certain utility features open to the public – outbuildings (now converted into the NT shop, restaurant etc.), the orchard and a huge walled kitchen garden – stand on relatively high ground, which slopes down to the south, offering splendid views over the formal gardens, the park and the countryside beyond.  Although the gardens include shady meandering paths beneath trees and through shrubberies, as well as small, secluded ‘rooms’ and a lily pool, their central and most striking feature is the descending series of long terraces running parallel to the house, with lawns, flower borders and numerous decoratively clipped yews.  Garden tours were available.  Of all the beautiful flowers that I saw the most memorable were the spectacular display of wisteria on one of the terraces and the so-called ‘plant of the week’, which was a rare white Judas tree.  In the park below the terraces I saw another rare variety, this time of cattle, in the shape of several Old Gloucesters, whose coats are a very dark mahogany red, and whose contrasting tails are snow-white.

The church, which stands on the high ground near the orchard, is also well worth a visit.  A few Saxon elements have survived major rebuilding during the 13th and 19th centuries.  In both cases the original pre-Conquest plan and proportions were adhered to.   Inside there are monuments to various previous occupants of Hinton Ampner, including Ralph Dutton, whose loving devotion to the place included concern for the church.  Certainly, the latter’s most striking feature is the the colourful stained glass which he caused to be installed in the two exceedingly tall and narrow lancet windows of the east end.  Designed by Patrick Reyntiens, a pupil of John Piper, they respectively depict the pillar of cloud and of fire mentioned in Exodus 13.

Despite certain disappointments, there was plenty to enjoy, more than enough to send us home happy, and an extra source of satisfaction was the welcome presence of both John and Joan Gray.

Text by Mercia MacDermott                                      Photographs by Antony Hobden and Tony Ede

Jane Austen’s House Museum and Hinton Ampner

Our first port of call was, however, the unpretentious house in the village of Chawton to which Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra and their mother moved in July 1809, and which was to be Jane’s home until her death in 1817.  The ‘cottage’, as the family came to call it, is a modest, L-shaped brick house that exudes peace and content.  Built in the 17th century as an inn, it has two main storeys, plus an upper attic floor with dormer windows, where things could be stored, or servants accommodated.  The restored period kitchen is now entered by an outer door which one encounters before finding the entrance to the rest of the house.

Jane Austen’s House

Compared with the Austen home in Chawton, Hinton Ampner is on a different level, although it is best described as a country mansion rather than a stately home.  Several of us agreed that the word “Ampner” seemed rather awkward to pronounce.  Apparently, it is derived from “almoner”, and reflects the fact that at the time of the Domesday Book the parish of Hinton was in the possession of the Bishop of Winchester, and that it remained attached to the Priory of St Swithin until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when it passed into the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral, who were its ground landlords until 1863.

Courageously Ralph decided to begin again, and over the next three years he restored the house and acquired new furniture, pictures and other items comparable to those lost in the fire.

Sadly, we were unable to see what he had achieved inside the house beyond the vestibule, where we were offered an introductory talk on arrival.  There is a more detailed account in Ralph Dutton’s  book “A Hampshire Manor”.

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