Belton House, a mile or so outside Grantham is the one-time home of the Brownlow family, who, as Brian Spencer discovered, were closely involved with an attempt to stave off the abdication of King Edward VIII, the short-reigned monarch who chose love before duty.
The short walk from the car park at National Trust’s Belton House, quickly leads outwards into acres of manicured parkland cropped by fallow deer. They are the descendants of the herd trapped there when the park was enclosed in 1688. An oval drive surrounding a cricket pitch makes the perfect foreground to a view of the front of the house.
The Brownlow dynasty was founded by Richard Brownlow (1553-1638), who held the oddly titled post of Chief Prothonotary, a kind of Chief Clerk to the Court of Common Pleas. For this he was paid the annual salary of £6,000, a princely sum roughly equating to £18 million in today’s money. He invested much of his money in land, especially in Lincolnshire. In 1603 he turned his attention to an estate owned by Henry Pakenham, from whom he bought the manor of Belton for £4100 (£11.4 million today).
Strangely the early Brownlows rarely visited Belton, preferring to live in London and looking on it, one suspects, simply as an investment. On Richard’s death, the estate passed to his son Anthony who preferred to be known as John. Being childless, the property then passed to a nephew also called John, but known as ‘Young’ Sir John in order to differentiate from his uncle. This descendant of the original Brownlow was even wealthier, inheriting £20,000 plus a yearly income of around £9,000 (£19.8 million today). Tiring of life in London, ‘Young’ Sir John set about developing Belton. With huge amounts of money at his disposal he was able to employ William Stanton a leading sculptor-cum-mason, as supervisor for a house designed by William Wylde. Between them the builders earned £5,000 creating what was to become after later alterations, the stately pile of today.
These later changes, both inside as well as out, were created by James Wyatt (1746-1813), the up and coming architect of the day who had designed the fashionable Pantheon meeting house on London’s Oxford Street. The work at Belton was carried out by the behest of Sir Brownlow Cust, Baron Brownlow, who had inherited the property along with the huge income of £103,000 (£11 million today). As an aside, one cannot help envying the Brownlows’ ability to attract wealth at every turn, but they certainly spent their money prudently, leaving behind the attractive house we can visit today.
Inside Belton, the rooms are laid out with a degree of opulence that speaks of wealth carefully spent. Most of the work is the result of Wyatt’s discerning eye; intricate plasterwork and sumptuous furnishings are all around as you walk through its rooms, both downstairs and up. One thing that does come to mind is the size of the rooms, a perfect blend of stately magnificence and comfort. For example, the dining room as it is set out today, contains a table set for ten, neither too large nor too small for an intimate meal with friends.
Upstairs in one of the towers overlooking the park, the bedroom and its adjacent bathroom was used by Edward, Prince of Wales, and later King Edward VIII, soon to abdicate and become Duke of Windsor. He was a frequent visitor to Belton and became the close friend of Peregrine Adelbert Cust 6th Baron Brownlow (1899-1978) who had inherited Belton in 1927. As the Duke’s confidential friend, Peregrine was closely involved with the abdication crisis in 1936. He persuaded Wallis Simpson not to leave the country as he feared the King might try to follow her. Successful so far, but he could do no more and so the King abdicated and left the country for ever. Subsequent squabbling over the crisis saw Peregrine and other advisors blamed for the debacle, he was accused of interfering and therefore had no alternative other than to retreat from public life.
By the 1960s, Belton was in need of urgent repairs and Peregrine spent the last of his days overseeing a major programme of work, carried out with the aid of a grant from the Historic Buildings Council. The aftermath was, that the house was opened to the public for the first time and six years after his death in 1978, his son Edward gave the house, its garden and some of the contents to the National Trust. With an endowment set up for the Trust, some £8 million has been raised to preserve and maintain this magnificent house.
Outside, the gardens and woodland area form a perfect background to the differing aspects of Belton House. An ideal place for children to run and play, it is a blend of formal and informal ranging to wild. Not only do the wild fallow deer roam freely throughout the enclosed 1300 acres of land, but the parkland is an ideal habitat for the six different species of bat, which use Bellmount Tower as a maternity roost. To create Pleasure Gardens, the River Witham flows through the park where it has been dammed or diverted to create the formal Mirror Pond, and a semi-natural lake with its Swiss chalet-style boathouse designed by Anthony Salvin in 1821. Rare white-clawed crayfish and water voles have colonised the clear waters.
In 1915 during the First World War, Lord Brownlow gave over a huge area of the park for the war effort and it became the training camp for tens of thousands of soldiers from the Machine Gun Corps (MGC). From Belton, soldiers went out to fight in the first industrial scale war, with scores failing to survive. There is an exhibition of their life at Belton in one of the old buildings next to the formal gardens, just one of many exhibitions and special events held at Belton from time to time.
Maintenance of both grounds and house is an on-going thing. When we visited, the Orangery was surrounded by scaffolding to assist work on repairing and restoring the framework holding the masses of plate glass. Outside on a slightly minor, but still necessary scale, a helper was carefully scrubbing green moss from a statue, bringing it back to its original pristine white marble.
Considered by many authorities as a perfect example of an English Country-house estate, Belton House, a National Trust property, is open from mid-March to the end of October, Wednesday to Friday including Bank Holiday Mondays, 12:30-5:00pm. The grounds are open every day throughout the year.