In which a ‘doomed’ 15th century painting is saved by the rain.
I love the rain, but as the water-soaked overhanging branches slapped the car roof, I edged alone Mop End Lane, wishing I’d left earlier. I couldn’t be late for the guided tour of Penn House conducted by Earl and Countess Howe no less. Prior booking essential!
Penn House is a typical red-brick Chilterns manor house; not usually open to the public, located down winding lanes leading to somewhere you are not entirely sure where, and bound to be full of surprises. Today all three conditions were fulfilled, and because the rain slowed my progress, I fortunately spotted two large misshapen wooden gates, sagging sadly across a gap in the boundary wall. I knew I was in a for treat, the sort of treat that only the Chilterns can provide.
Every year in September, Heritage Open Days encourages thousands of venues up and down the land to throw open their doors so visitors can inspect spaces and objects normally kept from view, or to enjoy a guided tour from passionate locals, all for free.
It was apparent early on into this very personal tour, that earl Howe had spent many happy hours learning more about the contents of the house and the links they represent to him and his family. By his own admission, the present house itself is ‘nothing special’: dating from 1760, and having undergone extensive re-building and enlarging since the former Tudor house was pulled down in the 16th century. Very little remains apart from a staircase and the roundel with the confusing date of 1536 that sits on the recent facade.
There is a lot of understandable confusion around this Penn family and the other famous local family of William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania in the United States. They are not related, and this Penn family were the original lords of Penn Manor who married into the Curzon family. The Rt. Hon. The Earl Howe PC, to give his full title, was once known simply as Frederick Curzon, until he inherited the title and estate from his cousin in 1984. He has since made this his family home with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.
The tour included a number of fascinating family treasures that link to specific points in English history, each room having either a literary, social, military or religious object. Top of the earl’s list were treasures that his 18th century ancestor Admiral Lord Howe (who was triumphant at the 1794 naval battle of the Glorious First of June), had amassed during his career: many letters, journals, ceremonial swords and his personal well-stocked medicine chest as the alternative to a cup of wine dispensed by the ships surgeon to those unfortunate enough to be ill or injured in battle. In contrast, Sybil Penn was the royal wet nurse in the court of King Henry Vlll and is said to haunt Hampton Court Palace, as she looks for a string of pearls given her by the king; but she will never find them as the present countess Howe was wearing them! She did leave behind a cap worn by the infant Edward Vl. I discovered too that the above mentioned ‘gates’ were found floating on the Nile and brought home by an ancestor! Not your usual Egyptian souvenir.
Assheton Curzon was a considerable figure, and was responsible for most of the renovations at Penn House. He sat as Member of Parliament for Clitheroe in Lancashire for nearly 40 years until 1790, and in recognition of his public service was elevated to the House of Lords in 1794. There is a large portrait of him in his parliamentary finery in the music room and earl Howe took delight in taking him down a peg-or-two as he drew our attention to full head of blonde hair on his 94-year-old portrait!
In 1880 visits by the then Prince and Princess of Wales prompted the third earl to enlarge the house considerably by adding new wings and a new frontage, thereby enabling him to accommodate sizeable and prestigious house parties. The walls are adorned with many paintings of naval battles and ancestors, that I don’t think have been forgotten, we just didn’t have enough time to discover who they were. There were a few comments from the group about family resemblances down the generations that I think pleased the earl. The ruling classes are well connected after all.
The final main addition came in the 1930’s when the fifth earl Howe, who was a prominent motor racing driver, built the mile-long drive to the house, suitably banked, for his personal enjoyment and convenience. This legacy is still celebrated each June with the Penn House Gravity Grand Prix. A treasure from his time is the trophy that was presented by Benito Mussolini on behalf of the Ministry for Tourism after a race he won a prestigious and very dangerous road race.
Hugely enjoyable and a privilege being invited in to peek into their lives, the earl waved us off with an instruction to visit the nearby local parish church of Holy Trinity, Penn, where the family’s long influence on the village is evident, the two properties sharing a story and sense of place.
On a dry day, from the bell tower it is possible to see eight neighbouring counties, but I was content to nose around indoors, on the lookout for the famous ‘doom’ painting; the main reason why this church is of such cultural and historical significance. Now set high on the wall, the 15th century ‘doom’ painting is still looking as bright and fresh as the day it was painted. A ‘doom’ is a traditional English term for a painting or other image of the Last Judgment when Christ judges souls to send them to either Heaven or Hell. Like an early warning system to illiterate congregations, it would have been visible to the worshippers as they faced the alter during services. This one almost didn’t make it! Whitewashed over many years before, during renovations in 1938 the wooden panels were stripped out, placed outside – surely destined for the skip. By good fortune it rained overnight and when the vicar returned the next morning, he saw a number of faces peering out from the whitewash! That is surely a reason to love the rain?
I got the impression this church is still a vital community hub, with feverish wedding preparations as we tried not to get in the way of the florist and another volunteer and her vacuum cleaner. We were put in the capable hands of Helen, local guide, who modestly professed to not knowing much about the history of the building, whilst sharing with us a huge knowledge of the brass rubbings, the Penn family crypt, various lozenges adoring the walls, Penn tiles, the doom painting, various extensions and renovations and who was buried in the graveyard. A mine of information and enthusiastic Heritage Open Days supporter who tossed in wonderful nuggets including the fact that during the 17th century a one-handed clock was all a villager needed, minutes where simply too much information.
At the entrance, there is an inscribed vault stone to mark where Thomas Penn, one of William Penn’s sons, who was allowed to build a large vault beneath the church nave for himself, his brother and four of his children who were interred between 1753 and 1766. William Penn is buried at the nearby Jordans Quaker Meeting House with his first wife, Guilielma, his second wife, Hannah, and nine of his children. Despite the many offers to have him moved to Pennsylvania, he remains in the quiet Chilterns churchyard.
For further information on what to see and do in the naturally outstanding Chilterns
For further information on Chenies Manor, another Chilterns manorial delight.