RIGHT bank between Nuneham Railway Bridge and Sandford Lock
1910: Nuneham in Thames Valley Villages by Charles G Harper
1756: Built for the 1st Earl of Harcourt, who abandoned his ancestral home at Stanton Harcourt to build on this knoll overlooking the Thames. Originally a Palladian Villa.
Nuneham means "New Village" (new that is in the Domesday Book!) But the ancient village of Newham was destroyed and the villagers were moved to a new village.
1770: Oliver Goldsmith wrote "The Deserted Village" which tells the story of the destruction of a mythical village "Auburn" which was probably based on the destruction of Newham and the rebuilding of Sutton Courtenay.
The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds,
The robe that wraps his lambs in silken sloth,
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth;
His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
Indignant spurns the cottage from the green.
1777: Lord Harcourt's successor employed 'Capability' Brown to reshape the landscape and provide that
seclusion which came from excluding all others.
1786: King George III -
... the most enjoyable place I know.
1791: Samuel Ireland -
The luxuriant hand of Nature has here been peculiarly diffusive : the rich clumps of trees and verdant lawns, perpetually meeting the eye at every break of the river, on our approach to Nuneham Courtney, strongly impress the mind of the admirer of rural objects, and leave not a wish to examine the easy negligences of nature by the rigid and severe rules of art ; the effect of such an enquiry can only tend to diminish our pleasures in the pursuit of picturesque scenery, where nature will be found to be invariably right ...
1793: View of Abingdon from Nuneham Park, Boydell
View of Abingdon, from Nuneham Park. June 1, 1793.
J. Farington R.A. delt. J.C.Stadler sculpt.
(Published) by J. & J. Boydell, Shakespeare Gally. Pall Mall & (No. 90) Cheapside (London).
Nuneham Courtney House, 1811
1818: Walks in Oxford: By W. M. Wade
the celebrated seat of the Earl of Harcourt, is
about five miles south-east of Oxford.
"Here", to use the words of a contemporary topographer, "taste, liberality, and domestic virtue, have united to adorn the Halls, and to spread a charm over every surrounding feature. Poetic genius flew to the happy spot as a secure asylum, and sanctified the shades with its effusions, while it instilled its spirit into every new disposal of the scene."
The House was built by the late Earl, but it has since received many alterations and additions. It is placed on a gentle declivity, with its front towards the ascent, and is a handsome elevation of stone, with projecting wings joined to the central edifice by inflected corridors. The centre of the back-elevation is adorned by a bay window, supported by columns of the Ionic order.
The Park, containing nearly 1,200 acres, 38 of which are appropriated to the Gardens, is richly wooded, and is watered by the Isis, the banks of which, as the river flows gently along the western side of these charming grounds, assume a character of considerable boldness and variety.
The talents of [Capability] Brown have been exerted with happy effect in heightening the natural charms of the park scenery, and in laying out the Gardens, the Flower Garden alone excepted. This, one of the most fascinating appendages of the noble domain, was arranged under the sole and immediate direction of the poet Mason, who, in its disposition and embellishments, has most successfully reduced to practice the theory proposed in his poem of "the English Garden."
THE ENGLISH GARDEN, Mason
Of Nature's various scenes the Painter culls
That for his fav'rite theme, where the fair whole
Is broken into ample parts, and bold ;
Where to the eye three well-mark'd distances
Spread their peculiar colouring. Vivid green,
Warm brown, and black opake the foreground bears
Conspicuous ; sober olive coldly marks
The second distance ; thence the third declines
In softer blue, or, less'ning still, is lost
In faintest purple. When thy taste is call'd
To deck a scene where Nature's self presents
All these distinct gradations, then rejoice
As does the Painter, and like him apply
Thy colours ; plant thou on each separate part
Its proper foliage. Chief, for there thy skill
Has its chief scope, enrich with all the hues
That flowers, that shrubs, that trees can yield, the sides
Of that fair path, from whence our sight is led
Gradual to view the whole ...
1819: Nuneham Courtenay, Cooke's Views of the Thames -
Nuneham Courtenay. Drawn by John Hughes Esq. Feby 1, 1819.
Nuneham from 'The Genius of the Thames' by Thomas Love Peacock -
O'er Nuneham Courtnay's flowery glades
Soft breezes wave their fragrant wings,
And still, amid the haunted shades,
The tragic harp of Mason rings.
Yon votive urn, yon drooping flowers,
Disclose the minstrel's favorite bowers,
Where first he tuned, in sylvan peace,
To British themes the lyre of Greece.
D S MacColl in the Royal River, 1885, commented
"Mason could do most things badly"!
1822: The Etonian, Letters from Oxford. To Frederick Golightly Esquire -
.... Started about One o'clock from the Christ-Church Meadows, on a water excursion to Nuneham.
We were a party of two six-oars, and had sent on our scouts, in a two-oared boat,
with the provisions and crockery-hamper,
for it was our intention to take dinner at the lovely Cottage in Lord Harcourt's grounds.
As I profess to state plain unvarnished facts, you will excuse all description of the clear blue vault of heaven, and the slight fleecy specks of clouds, which made use of the Isis for their mirror, as they flitted slowly above our heads, and were soon lost in vacancy. You can very well imagine the groves of sedge shrinking from the courtship of Zephyr, like a parcel of coy maidens ; the beautiful and pure lily reposing on the bosom of the limpid waters; the equal dash of the oars, and the lightning speed with which our [boat] shot on its way.
Let it be sufficient to notice, that we found good cider at Sandford, and then forwards to Nuneham Park.
We came to anchor after a voyage of near an hour. The baggage and sutlers were safely arrived, and our party dispersed itself over the neighbouring woods and lawns. Some threw themselves, with a book, at the root of some ancestral elm ; and others had brought their fishing-rods.
I was fortunate enough in attaching myself to a most intelligent companion; who took me by the arm, and requested me to stroll with him about the grounds. We visited the various spots which commanded views of the country, but did not reach the mansion. I was suddenly roused from a fit of meditation in which I was indulging, no matter about what, by a quotation, which I could not help observing was pronounced by my companion with peculiar feeling and emphasis:
Sweet smiling village, loveliest of the lawn,
Thy sports are fled, and all thy charms withdrawn;
Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen,
And desolation saddens all thy green ;
One only master grasps the whole domain,
And half a tillage stints thy smiling plain.
Mr. Willis noticed my surprise. "I suspect", said he, "you are not aware of the classical neighbourhood you are in. 'The Deserted Village' was situated in this park; and, as the Poem describes the story, one of the predecessors of the present Lord Harcourt caused the cottages to be taken down, and the busy haunts of life and joy to be removed, as a nuisance, and make way for a solitude. Only one hut was suffered to remain during the few declining years of its tenant; who was no doubt
The widow'd solitary thing
That feebly bent beside the plashy spring;
The wretched matron, forc'd, in age, for bread,
To strip the brook with mantling cresses spread.
I am told that there are some individuals who can point out to you the site of the modest mansion
of the village Preacher, and other objects mentioned by Goldsmith in that delicious composition.
But I find by my watch it is high time for us to return to the Cottage.
The scouts have by this time spread our repast, and the men will not stand on ceremony."
The event answered our expectation. The party had already fallen-to; so, without waiting for an exchange of apologies, we took our seats, and did justice to the cold collation.
The evening was passed in the true convivial spirit; and it was not till some time after the great luminary of day had sunk behind the Cumnor hills, and the shades of night were gathering about us, that we recollected there were four good miles against stream to row home again.
Our boats were manned in the twinkling of an eye, and we bade fair to work off the exuberance of our animal spirits by our increased exertions at the oar. We got home without any serious accident; only the hinder crew had taken us at a disadvantage and bumped us; by which our helm was completely shattered, and a couple of their oars were broken in an attempt to pass us between narrow banks.
The baggage-boat was not so fortunate. They were in the pound; and, by some mismanagement, the prow hitched in to the breast-work of bricks; the consequence was, the vessel filled and went to the bottom with the whole cargo. There was no danger, however; the locksman let down the sluices, and the poor sufferers were extricated from the watery element after a good ducking and a little fright - that was all. The crockery, knives and forks, and other articles, were not taken up till the next morning; and it cannot but be remarked, that ever since that fatal evening there has been a sad deficiency in our tea-services at home.
1834: Tombleson -
Nuneham Court, Tombleson 1834
1841: Queen Victoria -
This is a most lovely place; with pleasure grounds in the style of Claremont.
1845: The Penny magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Charles Knight -
With Oxford holiday-seekers of all classes, Nuneham Courtnay is one of the most favourite resorts.
It lies at an easy distance from the city, being about five miles by the road,
and not more than seven by the river; and as the row to it is one of the pleasantest on the Thames,
few make an aquatic excursion from Oxford without Nuneham serving as the goal:
and it deserves the favour in which it is held.
Few parts of the river are pleasanter,
and fewer of the parks along its banks are so beautiful in themselves,
or afford so rich a variety of views.
Some have not scrupled to assert that it is the most beautiful place by the Thames,
but this is an exaggeration which its loveliness does not need.
A few words will tell all that is necessary of its history. At the Domesday Survey it belonged to Richard de Curci. It afterwards passed to the family of the Riparys, or Redvars: Mary, youngest daughter of William de Redvars, Earl of Devon (surnamed Harcourt), married, in 1214, Robert de Courtenay, baron of Okehampton, by which marriage the manor was probably transferred to the Courtnays, and thence assumed the name of Nuneham-Courtnay. From them it passed through several hands, till, in 1710, it was purchased for £17,000 by Simon, first Earl of Harcourt, and Lord Chancellor of England. It is now the property of the present Archbishop of York, who assumed the name of Harcourt upon succeeding to the Harcourt estates on failure of the male line.
The house is not remarkable for its beauty or picturesqueness, but it has a somewhat imposing effect from its size, and the simplicity of its form. It was erected by the first earl from a design by Leadbeater, but underwent much alteration and enlargement under the superintendence of Brown during the time of the second earl.
It consists of a rather handsome stone front, united by curved corridors to the projecting wings; the back-front is different in character, having a bold bow-window in the centre, supported by Ionic columns.
The rooms are numerous, spacious, and of good proportions. They are elegantly decorated and furnished, and contain an extensive collection of sculpture, paintings, and other works of art and objects of virtu. The paintings are mostly by the old masters, and some of them are very good; the modern pictures are principally by English artists, and amateurs of rank. Among them are several portraits of persons illustrious for their victories by the sword or the pen: of the latter, the portrait of Pope by Jarvis, accompanied by a letter of Pope's, is perhaps the most interesting.
One of the rooms is called the Tapestry Room, from its containing a curious set of three maps
of the counties of Warwick, Worcester, and Oxford, nearly eighty feet square, worked by the needle.
Gough, who has described thern in his ' Topographical Antiquities,'
says they are the earliest specimens of English tapestry-weaving,
which art was first introduced into England by William Sheldon, in the reign of Henry VIII.
The Sheldon arms, and the date, 1588, are worked on each.
They were presented to Lord Harcourt by Horace Walpole,
who purchased thera at a sale of the effects of a descendant of William Sheldon,
at Weston in Warwickshire.
There is another piece of tapestry in one of the rooms not less interesting, it being the work of Mary Queen of Scots: the subject is an allegory, with figures of justice, wisdom, &c, with their emblems. It was long preserved at Windsor, and was given to Lord Harcourt in 1805 by George III.
From the windows of the mansion a variety of extensive and beautiful prospects is obtained. The park has long been famous, and is indeed the grand attraction of Nuneham. It was brought into its present state by the celebrated Capability Brown; and as it now appears, gives a favourable notion of his talent; but nature has no doubt since his day reassumed her pre-eminence here, and added somewhat of wildness to the 'grace' he was so renowned for bestowing.
The grounds are extensive, consisting of twelve hundred acres, well stocked with large trees, and the surface greatly varied. Tall and steep banks, hung thickly with rich foliage, contrast with deep dells; on the slopes are well disposed groups of lofty and spreading elms, and the uplands are crowded with close-set plantations.
From the higher parts of the park the prospects are wide and rich on every side. Oxford, with its spires and domes, the sombre tower of Iffley in front and the woods of Blenheim beyond, is on the north; to the east are the hills of Buckinghamshire, stretching away from their union with the Chiltern hills of Oxfordshire till they are lost in the distance. Southward and westward is the long range of the Berkshire downs, including the noted White-horse, and Farringdon Hill with the circular clump which crowns its summit; two or three villages are seen in this direction, and a tall spire marks the site of Abingdon; while the beautiful stream, sparkling in the sunshine and dotted with swift-moving boats, adds a new life and beauty to all the rest.
As he strays about the park, now across the broad clear glades, and now among its glens, and by the wooded banks which dip into the river, the visitor will scarcely deem that Horace Walpole overpraised it when, in his somewhat pedantic way, he pronounced it to contain "scenes worthy of the bold pencil of Rubens, and subjects for the tranquil sunshine of Claude de Lorraine."
The pleasure-grounds and flower-garden near the house were once considered almost unrivalled. They are not only stored with plants and flowers, but at every turn are statues, busts, or tablets, with poetic inscriptions from Lucretius, Metastasio, Chaucer, Milton, or Marvel, or composed for the places they occupy by Whitehead or Mason. When the garden was in its prime it must almost have deserved the inscription placed at the entrance of it:
Here universal Pan,
Knit with the Graces, and the Hours in dance,
Leads on the eternal Spring.
The garden was designed by Mason, who may be supposed,
from having written a didactic and descriptive poem on 'The English Garden",
to have had a congenial employment. Lord Harcourt was a man of refined taste,
and delighted in the pleasures of his home and the society of men of talent.
Mason and Whitehead were his favourite authors, and owed much to his patronage.
They were both perhaps overpraised in their life-time, and are unfairly depreciated now,
especially the former, who was a man of no mean ability.
At no great distance from the house stands the church, a somewhat singular looking edifice, erected in 1764, at the expense of the second earl, "who himself gave the original design, which received a very slight alteration from (Athenian) Stuart." The most prominent feature in the exterior is a portico "of six Ionic columns that support a pediment, above which a dome rises in the centre. Its interior form," says Lord Harcourt in the notice already quoted, "is simple and pleasing: its only ornaments are two tablets with the Harcourt arms in French tapestry, another piece of tapestry of large dimensions, representing the chiefs of the twelve tribes of Israel at the passover, and a picture in the altar-piece (which was also after his design) by the Rev. Mr. Mason: the subject, which is the Good Samaritan, is well conceived, and has considerable merit. In the church there is a barrel organ, upon which is set Mr. Mason's music for the responses to the Commandments, and his Sunday hymns.
The adjoining flower-garden was formed by him, and he suggested the alterations on the north terrace; so that in a very small space we have specimens of his genius in music, painting, and poetry, and of his taste in improving the beauties of nature."
His genius was not probably very great in either of these things, but for music it appears to have been least adapted - the barrel organ would be well fitted for his compositions, they being 'upon principle' mechanical and rigid, as he averred church music should ever be.
An attractive object in the park is a curious structure which formerly stood at the meeting of the four principal streets in Oxford, and served to supply the colleges and halls with water brought to it from North Hinksey. Its history is told in the following inscription engraven on it:
"This building called Carfax, erected for a conduit at Oxford, by Otho Nicholson, in the year of our Lord 1590, and taken down in the year 1787 to enlarge the High Street, was presented by the University to George Simon, Earl Harcourt, who caused it to be placed here."
The derivation of the name Carfax is not known, but "it is supposed to be a corruption of quatre faces or carrefour, given to it from the situation in which it was placed where the four streets meet."
The village originally stood near the house, but was removed by Lord Harcourt to its present situation outside the park on the Oxford road. From the houses being built in pairs, and the opposite sides of the road exactly corresponding to each other, it has a singular and rather formal appearance. This stiffness of look is somewhat lessened, however, by the gardens and trees in front of the houses, and the whole seems unusually neat and comfortable.
When the rest of the cottages in the old village were taken down, one was left standing, and a tree still known as Bab's tree marks its site. The circumstances connected with it are curious and creditable to both the earl and the old dame. Barbara Wyat had dwelt in the cottage the best part of her life; in her youth she had planted the tree beside it, and now that she had outlived husband and family her tree seemed all that was left to remind her of her early days, and she could not bear to leave it. The earl had provided for her a more comfortable house in his new village, but she earnestly entreated that she might still remain in her old habitation. Her request was complied with, and her cottage not pulled down till after her death; and then the tree was spared, and some commemorative verses were written by Whitehead and placed beneath it.
We have said that this is a place much resorted to by the inhabitants of Oxford, and we should add, that the grounds are now, as they always have been, liberally and freely thrown open to all. A picturesque cottage was built by the earl expressly for the accommodation of visitors; it stands beside a branch of the Thames, across which a rustic bridge was at the same time thrown.
1859: The Thames, Mr & Mrs Hall
and keeping in view the mansion of Nuneham Courtenay, which crowns the summit of the nearest hill, our boat is soon moored at the pretty landing-place which the artist has pictured [here]
COTTAGES AT NUNEHAM COURTNEY
The interest of these pretty and graceful cottages is enhanced by the
knowledge that they exist for the comfort and convenience of pleasure-seekers.
Nuneham Courtenay has long been a famous resort of Oxford
students and Oxford citizens; and seldom does a summer-day go by
without a pleasant "pic-nic" upon one of its slopes, amid its umbrageous
woods, or within the graceful domicile, erected and furnished, literally,
for "public accommodation."
There are few "homes" in England more auspiciously located; and happily it has ever been the wish of its successive lords to share, as widely as possible, with "their neighbours" the bounties which Nature and Art have here associated to bestow upon "house and lands". Long may the present estimable gentleman who owvns the fair mansion and beautiful demesne find imitators in his successors! for the example of his illustrious predecessors has been continued during his honourable life. It is not too much to say that Mr. Harcourt and his lady * make annually tens of thousands of persons happy, and hence derive their own chief happiness.
* Frances, Countess of Waldegrave, the charming and accomplished danghter of the late John Braham, Esq.
Mr. Harcourt is the son of the late Archbishop of York, who suuceeded to the Harcourt estates, and assumed the name of Harcourt-Vernon-Harcourt - on failure of the male line. At the Domesday survey, Nuneham Courtenay belonged to Richard de Curci; it afterwards passed to the Riparys or Redvers. Mary, youngest daughter of William de Redvers, Earl of Devon (surnamed de Vernon), married Robert de Courtenay, Baron of Okenhampton, in Devon. Probably by this marriage the manor of Nuneham passed into the family of Courtenay. The Pollards, of Devonshire, next succeeded to the possession; from them it passed to Audley, of the Court of Wards, called "the rich Audley". From him it passed to Robert Wright, Bishop of Lichfield, whose son, Calvert Wright, sold it to John Robinson, merchant of London, in the time of Oliver Cromwell. From the Robinsons it descended to David, Earl of Wemyss, who married Mary, daughter and co-heir of sir John Robinson, Bart., of whom it was purchased, in the year 1710, by Simon, first Lord Harcourt, Lord High Chancellor of England. We have shown, in treating of Stanton Harcourt, that the seat of this ancient family was changed at the period of this purchase.
To describe the house and grounds of Nuneham Courtenay would
demand a volume, and to do so is foreign to our purpose. The former
is full of interesting portraits, with many line pictures by the great old
masters. The portraits are principally those of the personal friends of
the Chancellor Harcourt — the poets of his time, who were his frequent
guests and companions.
The house is, however, less conspicuous for architectural display than for domestic quiet. It is upon the grounds that taste and wealth have been expended: and they combine, in the happiest manner, beauty with grandeur, "While Nature has been lavish of her bounties, Art has been employed everywhere to give them due effect. Open glades, solitary walks, graceful slopes, a spacious park, fruitful gardens — in short, all that can attract and charm in English scenery is here gathered; and it is scarcely too much to say that the demesne — taken altogether — is unsurpassed in England.*
* In the grounds is a "new" church, built in a style semi-Greek, by no means agreeable or impressive. The old church was taken down by Simon Lord Harcourt, and the present structure erected in 1764 after a design of his own, which was slightly corrected by Stuart.
"It affords a memorable instance of the taste of that age, of which it was the misfortune that those persons who were the most liberal and desirous to serve the church, and who, for their private virtues, were most worthy of praise, were precisely those who did the most mischief. The fault was that of the age, not of the individual."
Happily, in our own times, a far better and holier spirit prevails: our new churches have generally all the advantages they can receive from Art, rightly directed and rightly applied. From the heights there is an extensive view of the adjacent country for many miles around. Oxford, with its domes and spires, and the venerable church of Iffley, the woods of Blenheim, the town of Abingdon, the hills of Buckinghamshire, the green hill-downs of Berkshire, the historic Chilterns,* Faringdon Hill, with its dark crown of trees, which gives it the local name of "Faringdon Clump";
* These hills are a chalky range, which cross Buckinghamshire, and reach from Tring in Hertfordshire to Henley in Oxfordshire. The district is crown land, and the steward is consequently an officer under the crown; but the position gives neither honour nor emolument, and is assigned to members of Parliament who wish to vacate their seats. In this way the stewardship has been granted to several members in one week; and the position is understood on all sides as a legal fiction, and one of the curiosities of our old parliamentary system.
in short, on all sides are presented objects that add value to the fair demesne, while the winding Thames is ever present to refresh the eye that, withdrawn from distance, seeks the beauty that is more immediately at hand.
On one of the slopes that ascend dlrectly from the river stands the ancient and far-famed "Carfax Conduit", which formerly stood as "a kind of central point" to the four principal streets of Oxford. Certain alterations requiring its removal, it was, with "most perfect propriety", presented to the Earl Harcourt. It was built, in 1610, by Otho Nicholson, — a liberal and enterprising gentleman, — in order to supply the city with pure water, brought from a hill above North Hinxsey[sic]; and although the conduit is removed the pipes still remain, and afford a partial supply, likely to be superseded by the new City Waterworks. It is a square, decorated in accordance with the taste of the time — mermaids, "holding combs and mirrors", and dragons, antelopes, unicorns, being scattered about; while the Empress Maud is introduced riding an ox over a ford — "in allusion to the name of the city". The letters 0. N., the initials of the founder, are conspicuous; while above the centres of the four arches are the cardinal virtues — Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence.
It is, however, we repeat, from the spacious grounds of Nuneham that the visitor will derive especial enjoyment: —
Society is all too rude
To this delicious solitude;
Where all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garland of repose, —
so says one of the many tablets scattered lavishly about the park, gardens, and walks; they were written "for the occasion", chiefly by the poets Mason and Whitehead — poets famous in their day, and for a day. The lines we quote, however, are borrowed from a loftier spirit — Andrew Marvel: happily, as we have intimated, the sentiment is not altogether adopted by the generous owner of these beauties, who gives liberal ingress to all comers, to whom '"society" seems ever welcome, when it comes on holiday from thought and toil, and who has learned from a hundred brave and honourable ancestors, that the surest way to be happy is to make others happy. The fine trees of Nuneham hang luxuriantly over the river — it is a perfect wealth of foliage piled on the rising banks.
1863: Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Tourist -
Nuneham Courtney, a fine estate belonging to the Harcourts, and the present residence
of the family.
Here we landed, and, climbing a steep slope from
the river-side, paused a moment or two to look at an architectural object,
called the Carfax, the purport of which I do not well understand. Thence
we proceeded onward, through the loveliest park and
woodland scenery I ever saw, and under as beautiful a declining sunshine as
heaven ever shed over earth, to the stately mansion-house.
As we here cross a private threshold, it is not allowable to pursue my feeble narrative of this delightful day with the same freedom as heretofore; so, perhaps, I may as well bring it to a close. I may mention, however, that I saw the library, a fine, large apartment, hung round with portraits of eminent literary men, principally of the last century, most of whom were familiar guests of the Harcourts. The house itself is about eighty years old, and is built in the classic style, as if the family had been anxious to diverge as far as possible from the Gothic picturesqueness of their old abode at Stanton Harcourt.
The grounds were laid out in part by Capability Brown, and seemed to me even more beautiful than those of Blenheim. Mason the poet, a friend of the house, gave the design of a portion of the garden.
Of the whole place I will not be niggardly of my rude Transatlantic praise, but be bold to say that it appeared to me as perfect as anything earthly can be, - utterly and entirely finished, as if the years and generations had done all that the hearts and minds of the successive owners could contrive for a spot they dearly loved. Such homes as Nuneham Courtney are among the splendid results of long hereditary possession; and we Republicans, whose households melt away like new-fallen snow in a spring morning, must content ourselves with our many counterbalancing advantages, for this one, so apparently desirable to the far-projecting selfishness of our nature, we are certain never to attain.
It must not be supposed, nevertheless, that Nuneham Courtney is one of the great show-places of England. It is merely a fair specimen of the better class of country-seats, and has a hundred rivals, and many superiors, in the features of beauty, and expansive, manifold, redundant comfort, which most impressed me. A moderate man might be content with such a home, - that is all.
"merely a fair specimen ...
A moderate man might be content with such a home, - that is all"
I've always said it - I am a moderate man
1889: Jerome K Jerome -
Nuneham Park is well worth a visit. The house contains a fine collection of pictures and curiosities, and the grounds are very beautiful.
Nuneham Park, undated postcard.
Nuneham Park, 1880, Morris.
1891: The Stream of Pleasure, Joseph & Elizabeth Robins Pennell [going downstream] -
The shores that were so grey yesterday were now full of colour.
Once the long stretch of mud banks was passed [ below Sandford Lock ],
purple flowers fell with the long grass, the the very river's edge;
the fields were starred with white and yellow blossoms;
clumps of forget-me-nots were half hidden in the reeds, and water lilies floated by.
Every tree had a sort of glory round it, an seemed cut out of the landscape,
and yet all was suffused with that soft shrouding mist you see nowhere but in England.
I hardly know how long it took us to get to Nuneham. The whole morning we loafed by the bank while great barges, with gaudily painted sterns, were trailed by slow horses against the current, and men for pleasure towed their skiffs, lifting the the rope high above our green [canvas] top; the sailing boats hurried before the wind, and camping parties, with tents piled high in the stern, sculled swiftly past.
As we drifted on, the flat pastures gave way to woods, and by and by we came to Nuneham, the place of the Harcourts, better known the world over as the picnicing place for Oxford parties during Commemoration Week.
There is a very ugly house which fortunately show only for a minute, and a beautiful wooded hill which grows on you as you wind with the river towards it, and get nearer and nearer, until you reach the pretty cottages at its foot.
It happened to be Thursday, visitors' day, and pink dresses and white flannels filled the woods with colour.
We moored our boat to the banks opposite the little cottages where a peacock was standing in one of the windows, his tail spread out to best advantage against the thatch, and when two swans floated up and grouped themselves at our side for the benefit of a photographer setting up his camera by our boat, we felt very much as if we were a picture in "Taunt".
A big steam-boat, out of all proportion to the river, with a barge in tow, landed a crowd of picnicers on the bridge. The Oxford parties object to these common trespassers upon their preserves; but when men and women on the Thames wear light flannels and pretty dresses it makes little difference, so far as we are concerned, whether they come from Oxford or from the outer world of common men. They are just as picturesque to look at.
We even watched with equanimity the two or three steam launches that puffed by, rocking us on their waves, while we did our best to bury or sink the remains of our luncheon. I am proud to say our bottles never floated, but were sent to the bottom for the benefit of future archæologists and antiquaries.
2004: Nuneham Courtenay from the Thames
Nuneham Courtenay from the Thames, 2004.
Nuneham House is now run by the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University. On their website they have this History of the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay
Picture a meandering river flowing past old oak trees. Hear the gentle chorus of early morning birdsong. Look up the slopes behind you and see, standing majestically, in carefully landscaped gardens, over two centuries of history in the stonework of an old English stately home.
1796: View of Oxford from Nuneham, Boydell's History of the Thames -
View from Nuneham towards Oxford. June 1, 1793. J. Farington R.A. delt. J.C. Stadler sculpt.
(Published) by J. & J. Boydell, Shakespeare Gally. Pall Mall & (No. 90) Cheapside (London).
Nuneham Park was one of the destinations to which Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) took Alice Liddell and her sisters when he was telling them the "Alice in Wonderland" stories.
Robinson Duckworth; Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell; Charles Dodgson.
There are two accounts in Charles Dodgson's diaries of a trip here.
The first was on 17th June 1862. There were eight of them: Charles Dodgson, Robinson Duckworth, Edith, Lorina and Alice Liddell, Duckworth's sisters Fanny and Elizabeth, and his aunt Lucy -
We set out about 12.30pm and
got to Nuneham about 2: dined there, then walked in the park and set off for
home about 4.30pm.
About a mile above Nuneham heavy rain came on, and after bearing it a short time I settled that we had better leave the boat and walk: three miles of this drenched us all pretty well.
I went on first with the children, as they could walk much faster than Elizabeth, and took them to the only house I knew in Sandford, Mrs Boughton's. I left them with her to get their clothes dried, and went off to find a vehicle. We all had tea in my rooms about 8.30.
In those days it was perfectly understood that a hired boat could be left at any point and recovered by a boatman. Do not try it without prior agreement nowadays!
1889: It does sometimes rain on the Thames!
It did on Jerome K Jerome on this very same section as he left Oxford -
The weather changed - and we started from Oxford upon our homeward
journey in the midst of a steady drizzle.
The river - with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech- trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o'er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs' white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory - is a golden fairy stream.
But the river - chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected - is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.
Sunlight is the life-blood of Nature. Mother Earth looks at us with such dull, soulless eyes, when the sunlight has died away from out of her. It makes us sad to be with her then; she does not seem to know us or to care for us. She is as a widow who has lost the husband she loved, and her children touch her hand, and look up into her eyes, but gain no smile from her.
We rowed on all that day through the rain, and very melancholy work it was. We pretended, at first, that we enjoyed it. We said it was a change, and that we liked to see the river under all its different aspects. We said we could not expect to have it all sunshine, nor should we wish it. We told each other that Nature was beautiful, even in her tears ...
They abandoned their "Three Men in a Boat" trip the next day.
Now that rings a bell: Jerome wrote in 1889, but in 1885 Schutz Wilson wrote in The Royal River [ and I wonder if Jerome had read it? ] -
The Thames is essentially a summer river; always with the reserve of the delight
of the sad and splendid hues of autumn in the woods.
The aspect under which the river shows to least advantage is that of a bleak, grey day,
when a coarse, cold, blusterous wind is blowing loudly.
Like a pretty woman, the fair Thames should never have its surface serenity disfigured by passionate turbulence or wrinkled by debasing anger. A rough, cruel wind disturbs the characteristics, and distorts the appearance of the pure silver stream. The gentle peaceful river should ever be smiling and be calm.
There is less objection to the sullen grandeur of a heavy storm, dark with thunder, squally with rain, while a fierce gust of wind sweeps beneath the sombre cloud-heaps, and lashes up the troubled water.
The Thames should preserve a chaste and delicate quiet. Sunny stillness, the majesty of soft repose, are its true characteristics. In brutal, cheerless weather, it looks like a fair face degraded by ignoble pain. Its sweet essence should not be outraged by vulgar fury.
1886: It also rained on Julia Isham Taylor -
Thursday morning was cold, grey and rainy. The water fell in that even business-like way
which denotes that it has the whole day before it and therefore will not hurry
about getting down.
We wiled away as much time as possible over breakfast, and then for two hours restlessly watched the sullen mist outside. The rain wavered into a drizzle and we concluded to start on. A rubber sheet and a rubber coat went far toward making us comfortable in the boat. The rain ceased half an hour later but the sky remained the same and the atmosphere seemed saturated with cold perspiration.
It was one of those cold moist days, dispiriting to look at but gratefully refreshing in the midst of summer heat. A little quiet melancholy can be appreciated after a long period of hilarity and the English, although they malign such days as nasty, manage to extract thorough enjoyment from them.
1886: Since we seem to be on the subject here
is Ashby-Sterry's Riverain Rhyme from his Lays of a Lazy Minstrell
Listen to 'Riverain Rhyme'
Beside the river in the rain -
The sopping sky is leaden grey -
I watch the drops run down the pane !
Assuming the Tapleyan vein -
I sit and drone a dismal lay -
Beside the river in the rain !
With pluvial patter for refrain;
I've smoked the very blackest clay;
I watch the drops run down the pane.
I've gazed upon big fishes slain,
That on the walls make brave display,
Beside the river in the rain.
It will not clear, 'tis very plain,
The rain will last throughout the day -
I watch the drops run down the pane.
I almost feel my boundless brain
At last shows signs of giving way;
Beside the river in the rain.
O, never will I stop again -
No more will I attempt to stay,
Beside the river in the rain,
To watch the drops run down the pane !
1910: More rain at Nuneham! Thames Valley Villages by Charles G Harper -
... and, given a fine day, there is, experto crede, not any trip more delightful.
But if the day turn tearful, then Nuneham is the
very last place to which any one who is not a fish
or a duck would wish to go.
Do I not know the misery of it at such times : the landing on the wet, clayey bank, under the trees of the glorious woods, which shed great spattering drops of rain on one ; the half-mile walk, or rather, butter-slide, by the woodland track, to that picturesque thatched cottage in the lovely backwater, where the cottagers in fine weather supply open-air teas to these pilgrims, and in wet weather do the like ; refusing, much to the said pilgrims' disgust, to give them the much- needed shelter in their own dry and comfortable quarters ; with the result that those unhappy persons grow cold and shivery and develop colds in their heads, and entertain savage thoughts of Nuneham?
Truly, no more miserable experience is possible than that of sitting in one of the picturesquely-thatched arbours by the waterside, and dallying over a lukewarm tea, awaiting the hour for the up-river steamer's arrival, while the moisture-laden wind comes searchingly in at the open front. And it does not make matters better to know that those disobliging cottagers are, all the while, crouching over their own roaring wood-log fires.
But let us dwell no longer upon these harrowing experiences. It does not always rain at Nuneham but only when we want to go there. Then it rains all day.
But when the sun shines, Nuneham is the ideal place for an idle day, and those draughty arbours the most exquisite of nooks. From them you look out upon a river scene that closely resembles some stage "set". The trees, right and left, or, to speak in stage conventional language on Prompt and Off-prompt sides, hang in that almost impossibly picturesque way we expect in the first act of a melodrama of the old Adelphi or Drury Lane type. You know the kind of thing ; or, if you do not, go to Nuneham and see it. Anyway, take my word for it that this is sheerly competitive with the stage.
Beneath these trees, whose other side, you are quite convinced, is merely canvas and framework, are the usual conventional rocks, on one of which the villain will presently sit and gloat over the impending fall of the hero. And swans come lazily paddling up to the rush-fringed margin of the river ; and, really, all you miss is the limelight.
But if this scene seems to have been bodily taken from the stage, the queer timber bridge that here crosses the backwater gives quite another aspect to the place. Looking upon it for the first time, it appears in the likeness of some old friend whom, for the moment, you cannot exactly place ; and then at last you have it. It closely resembles that bridge on the time-honoured Willow-pattern Plate, with which Oriental china has long familiarised us. If only we had the pagoda to one side, and the queer little figures, carrying their yet more queer little bundles, crossing it, the scene would be conventionally complete.
Anyway - to get back to Alice - there was also another Nuneham trip described by Charles Dodgson:
About 10 o'clock Alice and Edith came over to
my rooms to fetch me over to arrange about an expedition to Nuneham.
It ended in our going down at 3, a party of
We had our tea under the trees at Nuneham, after which the rest drove home in the carriage -
while Ina, Alice, Edith and I (mirabile dictu!) walked down to Abingdon-road station, and so home by railway: a pleasant expedition, with a very pleasant conclusion.
Alice's mother, however, was not happy, and Charles Dodgson's company was not
encouraged for the next few months.
A page is missing from his diary. We will not ask why.
This is a tinted version of Charles Dodgson's photograph of Alice Liddell aged ten in the guise of a beggar girl -
Charles Dodgson's photograph of Alice.
Mother may have had a point ...