Visiting my first National Trust property during Covid: Mottisfont

We are now proud card carrying members of the National Trust here in the UK. Only took me nearly two decades to get there. Truly, this is the best deal in the land. It cost me £120 for the two of us and this gives us unlimited access to over 500 locations around the UK, ranging from stately homes to castles, endless coastlines and more. It also includes free parking. Thank God (trust me…as a London driver you realise how important this is)! I’ll just say that I am going to use this membership to the max and I’ll be sharing it all here. Is it too ambitious to promise one property visit a week? I’m going to aim for it. The only “issue” at the moment is just like everything else in 2020… restrictions in place because of Covid. The National Trust is not operating at full capacity, to protect us all. They release weekly tickets for their sites and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to grab a pair or two, but you need to be organised. So, this is me saying I’m going to try to be organised so I can share a weekly spot of fun with you here, showcasing the beautiful stately homes, gardens and more that pepper this magnificent island.

So, the first… and the closest to us…

First, let’s remember I am an American that grew up with my nose in books, reading Jane Austen, and also watching every BBC period dramas I could get my hands on in the Carolinas. So, if I geek out here a bit, forgive me. But, if you like the geekiness, keep reading.

Introducing Mottisfont, in Hampshire.

A little history lesson for us all, before I dive into the pictures taken on the day. And please note that since the buildings themselves are closed during the pandemic, all pictures are limited to grounds and building exteriors only, at present. I fully intend to amend and add to this post once things are running and back to normal.

Mottisfont dates back to 1201. That isn’t a typo. Yes, the heart of this property is over 800 years old and it was originally founded as The Priory of the Holy Trinity. Apparently it’s sacred relic in residence was the forefinger of St John the Baptist. Must have been an interesting sight.

While the Priory was successfully run for some time, the plague of of the 1300s, otherwise known as Black Death, which killed over 200 million people in Europe, saw this Holy institution decline. Then, between the years of 1536-41, King Henry VIII brought about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The long and short of it is this… the crown took ownership of the estates and could do with them what they pleased. For Henry VIII, this meant gifting Mottisfont to Sir William Sandys, who decided it would make a splendid country home. Incidentally, he was also the owner of another home, now a National Trust property, named The Vyne, near Basingstoke. Visiting soon…watch this space. But, at this point I can clearly say this man had quite the property portfolio.

Rather than completely rebuilding the site to modern specifications, Sandys kept the priory and built his mansion around the church nave. Today, when doors reopen, you are able to see the original 13th-century cellarium (which was recently featured in the BBC’s adaptation of Dracula) and parts of the original medieval church. It should also be noted that during Sandys’ time as the owner of Mottisfont, Queen Elizabeth I visited this great estate twice. Yes, when you walk the halls of Mottisfont, your feet are touching the same tiles once tread by the Queen.

Now, I wish the owners of the estate in the 18th century had been as kind as Sandys, with respecting history. Baron Sandys died with no heirs, so the house was left to his nephew. The Mill Family demolished the monastic cloisters and are known for creating the updated facade for the estate we see today. As you approach, there is no denying that the estate is truly sensational, even with the renovations. Changes continued in the 19th century, mainly as the home became more of a country shooting retreat. The house was then leased out to a wealthy banker, with ten children. You can only imagine the wear and tear of ten children on a house… But, it was during this time that notable guests to the house included Sir Charles Darwin and George Bernard Shaw. So far, the guest book on this particular parcel of land is pretty darn impressive.

It is in the year 1934, however, where Mottisfont is brought full force into fashionable society with Maud and Gilbert Russell as the new owners. The couple bought Mottisfont in a state of great disrepair and lovingly nursed it back to health. It would become a country home where some of the world’s most talented artists would visit for respite and inspiration. Ian Fleming, Rex Whistler and Ben Nicholson were all friends of Maud, a great patron to the arts, and frequented the estate.

If you’ve seen Downton Abbey, you’ll be well versed in the role stately homes played in World War II. Mottisfont was not exempt. The estate was transformed into a hospital where wounded officers were treated, in over eighty beds in The Long Gallery, over the course of the war. The stable block of the estate was also transformed into living quarters for children that were evacuated from London.

Maud Russell would eventually make Mottisfont her permanent home, following the untimely death of her husband and the end of World War II. She then, gifted the house, along with over 2,000 acres of land, to The National Trust in 1957, although it remained her permanent residence until 1972.

Just try to imagine what the estate would have looked like, in the hands of so many different owners. I sat on a bench on the estate and found myself daydreaming as to what the hay days on this estate would have looked like. I imagined the religious beginnings. How one could have never predicted the future to be one of country shooting weekends with enormous feast. Then there were the ornate parties thrown in the 1930s. And just imagine the lives transformed in being nursed back to health here in these grounds during WWII. There are so many pages to turn in the history books of this house. And you will find yourself getting lost in this history and who walked where, as you make your way around the grounds.

So there you go. That’s all you need to know, historically speaking, before you visit.

Now, some things to note for your visit:

Who, What, When, Where on a visit to Mottisfont…

Let’s start with the Who.

Right now, doors are not open to all. You do need to make a reservation on the National Trust website. If you try and go without a reservation, you will be turned away.

Now the what…

What you can expect, right now, is mainly an outdoor experience. But, with over 2,000 acres of land at your disposal, it’s still quite the experience. The house, at the moment, is a beautiful backdrop to your day. I would start with the walled garden. Walk all the way to the back of the property and check out a garden that will throw you back to your days as a youth reading “The Secret Garden.” This is magical, to say the least.

From there, take time to roam the meadows, stroll by the river Test and lay out a picnic in the front lawns of the house and pretend, if only just for a moment, that this is your house in the background. Also, most definitely make time for an ice cream from the Jude’s ice cream van. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the women greeting us at the entrance mentioned this as something we, in particular, would enjoy. She didn’t mention that to the other three families we heard going through. I must just looked like an ice cream addict. To be fair, she was right, and the ice cream, eaten with the gardens in the background, was a splendid conclusion to the day.

So, when to visit?

Well, I don’t think there is ever a bad time to visit. I felt like everything was handled perfectly with the pandemic. Lots of social distancing encouraged and lots of room to breathe, without coming anywhere near others. There were signs everywhere, clearly marking the right and wrong way to go. As long as you’re willing to play by the rules, you will find this a wonderful day out. But, it must be said that we did miss peak visit time. Apparently people come from around the country to see the roses bloom here in July. We caught the tail end of some blooms, but I can only imagine how spectacular the walled garden would have been splashed with vibrant colours. So, if flowers are your thing, make sure to schedule your visit in 2021 for July!

If you need a little help with the “where:”

Mottisfont is located in Hampshire. It’s near Romsey and is a short drive away from Stockbridge (which I will be featuring soon). It is a one mile walk from Mottisfont train station, so if it’s a nice day and you don’t have access to a car, a nice walk to the National Trust site would make for a lovely day out.

When you get to the entrance, you will be asked for your tickets and given guidance on where to walk or park. Don’t worry – the attendants are all so lovely and happy to help however they can!

And that’s it, guys. That’s my first National Trust visit during the pandemic and first ever as a member. There’s so much more to see and I hope you don’t mind me being too much of a nerd there with information. There’s such an illustrious history with all of these properties. I mean just look at how many movies and tv shows have come about as a result. So yeah, expect many more mini history lessons in the future. For now, however, I’ll just leave you with the beautiful images of a stunning summer’s day at Mottisfont, Hampshire.


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