From wooden tubs to marbled temples, the collision of luxury and hygiene has transformed the country house bathroom, says Jeremy Musson
From drafts, cold water and wooden tubs to decadent levels of comfort today, country house bathrooms have been transformed says Jeremy Musson. But what are the essentials of luxury country house bathrooms?
For more on Britain’s country houses, read about the small dogs ruling the stately roosts. Read terriers at the top: small dogs in stately homes.
LUXURY COUNTRY HOUSE BATHROOMS
The British aristocracy and squirearchy took a while to adapt to the idea of the fitted bathroom with hot and cold running water. In truth, it took some comfort-loving American heiresses really to change the scene. This battle was still being fought in the 20th century and when one duke met Nancy Lancaster, the Virginian-born chatelaine of Kelmarsh and Ditchley (who had gone on to own Colefax & Fowler), he called her “a very dangerous woman” to her face. When asked why, he replied, “before you came on the scene, our shooting party guests were content with one or two bathrooms a floor, now they want one en suite; if you own several large houses as I do, that’s quite an expense”.
But the comfortable, generously appointed bathroom – preferably hung with pictures (artistic, sporting or humorous) and often still with an open fire – has become part of the country house dream, expected by family and guests, both private and commercial. Sarah Callander Beckett of Combermere Abbey in Shropshire says: “The restoration of the North Wing at Combermere meant we could create a wonderful, stress-free master bathroom. My tip to people who get the chance is to have his and hers basins, thus avoiding any morning queues and grumpinesses – an added bonus would be a separate shower and bath. I prefer a shower to wake up and a bath to relax.”
Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall in Yorkshire is a firm believer in the importance of bathrooms. “Bathrooms are really important and should be en suite but also generous; in my view, the baths should always be big enough to get two people in, for comfort and conversation. The world has changed a lot. People are no longer prepared to walk miles to find the bathroom. Reliable hot water is also an essential feature and a really good shower. They should be places of style.” At Broughton, he has bathrooms with themed picture hangs: one is hung with Osbert
Lancaster cartoons; another with Country Life’s Tottering-By-Gently cartoons drawn by his sister, Annie Tempest.
Roger Tempest also oversaw a much-admired revival and restoration of Aldourie Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, which he sold in 2014. Here he made the bathrooms (with elegant new baths in traditional style supplied by Drummonds) an unforgettable feature, signifying the full, triumphant return of the traditional and generously scaled bathroom, especially important as the house is let for exclusive-use house parties.
At Holkham Hall in Norfolk, the Earl of Leicester recalls: “Although Holkham’s Family Wing is said to be famous for having the first bath to be fitted in Norfolk, when my father took over, the Stranger’s Wing – our guest wing – was nearly all made up of bedrooms and dressing rooms, with two small bathrooms. He converted dressing and bedrooms so that there were six bedrooms and five bathrooms. The best is the one off the Parrot Bedroom, with a hugely long bath set centrally in an 18th-century room; after a day’s shooting and tea, many guests like to settle in a long, hot bath, and go over the best shots of the day; we always keep a small decanter of whisky in each bathroom, too.”
The “bath in the dressing room” tradition has also been revived at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, where James Hervey-Bathurst carried out a major refurbishment. “We created a bathroom in the dressing room for the State Bedroom, where the third Earl Somers and his wife would have had their hip bath. We found a cast-iron bath in the cellars and had it restored, with special taps made by Adams and one of those columnar wastewater releases that you twist and pull. A fire can be lit and there are good paintings in the room, including one splendid Italian lady – but not by Bellini!”
A PART OF COUNTRY-HOUSE LIFE
Washing was always a feature of country-house life. Water was brought in by servants at the required hour, by hand, and from 1800 a metal tub placed in front of a roaring fire was the norm (before 1800 they had usually been wooden tubs). Although grim work for servants, it is possible that the pleasures of such pampering put a brake on enthusiasm for new discoveries in plumbing in the 19th century – though it was often hard to fit new plumbing conveniently into the older castle.
At the top of the scale, fixed baths, equipped with hot and cold water, were installed at the Palace of Whitehall and Chatsworth in the late 17th century. Diarist Celia Fiennes described it in the 1690s, as in the finest marbles “as deep as one’s middle on the outside, and you go down steps into ye bath big enough for two people. At ye upper end are two cocks to let in, one hott water ye other cold water to attemper it as persons please.”
But for the 18th century the warm bath was not an expected feature of country house life. On the contrary, the vogue was for cold “plunge baths” (surviving examples can be see at Kedleston and Wimpole), which were good for stimulating the blood. Early showers were also usually cold for the same reason. Many showers were in demountable stacked sections, which may well have been developed for use on military campaigns and then brought home – a servant could tip water in the upper basin, and then the showeree pull a cord to get a dousing.
Naturally, some aristocrats grasped the opportunities for luxury early: the Countess of Moira had a bathroom and separate wc off her dressing room at Donington Park in Leicestershire from 1813, furnished with “a gilded wash-hand stand, a dressing stand with gilded basin and ewers, a rosewood book stand, a thermometer and a copper tea kettle”. But it was a matter of personal taste. Stoke Rochford Hall had only two bathrooms in 1839 and as late at 1873 Carlton Towers still had none. Only advanced thinkers had more than a couple. But by the middle of the 20th century, sparkling new classical Middleton Park, Oxfordshire, designed by Lutyens in 1935, for the Earl of Jersey, had no fewer than 14 bathrooms. Lord Curzon liked to sort out bathrooms for his houses and had quaint little rooms created out of Tudor panelling at Montacute in Somerset.
Some sense of the importance of washing generally can be gauged by old etiquette manuals, most amusingly in that written by Stanley Ager, the mid-20th century butler to the St Levan family of Cornwall, who had been trained up in the full Edwardian splendour of country house life: “You should bathe or shower every day and wash your hair as soon as it looks dirty”, and he recommended always bathing (and men shaving) before an evening meal in company.
He felt his strictures were worth repeating, especially in a world with a much-diminished number of well-trained staff. He especially recalled picking up one of his titled charges at Eton: “When I fetched young Trotter from Eton, I would send him to the men’s lavatory to wash before he came back with me, because Etonians, like most other boarding school boys, have an unclean, doggy smell clinging to them. In many ways a man remains a little boy – he likes to play with mud and doesn’t mind getting dirty.” Hence the importance of the best baths. Naturally, this was no less significant for hunting-mad ladies, who had to move seamlessly from hours out on the damp, muddy hunting field to the full length for an evening reception, smelling of roses or the fashionable equivalent.
LUXURY BATHROOMS TODAY
Since the 1990s, the country house bathroom has received a lot of attention (partly spurred by the need to use country houses more commercially). The long walk to find the bathroom for your corridor has become a thing of the past (that’s if you could remember where it was and don’t have the courage to open random doors to find one).
Lady Caroline Percy of Hotspur Design has a great deal of experience of what works and what doesn’t. “At all costs,” she says, “avoid placing the bath in the bedroom itself, which has had its fashion but in my view is the ugliest idea possible. The most important thing is warmth. If a large bathroom, one big or two heated towel rails with the largest bath towels – this is based on my own memories of the freezing country house bathrooms of years ago. Baths should also not be too high and at least 75cm wide. Personally, I prefer off-white or ivory baths and sinks, as much softer and warmer looking than stark white.” Lady Caroline also advises: “no fitted carpet, that was fashionable 1950s to 1980s: tiles, marble, Amtico-type flooring with a flat weave rug, or cotton dhurrie type rug or kelim.” The walls should be closely hung with prints or painted with exotic trompe l’oeil murals: “Bathrooms are a place for escaping and at the very least for having a few moments’ personal peace away from the hurly burly of life.”
Designer Ben Pentreath, one of the UK’s most-followed, English-style gurus and author of English Decoration, says: “The country house bathroom used to be renowned for chilly, hard lino, Victorian tiles, inadequate heating, no showers and either the hot or cold tap on the bath failing to work at all. Nancy Lancaster, who brought unprecedented levels of luxury to the austerity of the English country house style, was the first person to put paid to those miseries. Fifty years later, has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? So many new country houses have taken on the qualities of a small foreign boutique hotel. I’m a firm believer in slightly simpler luxuries: what could be nicer than a plain, old-fashioned bath (with no lavish joinery or marble), piles of interesting books and magazines to read, and some good pictures on the walls – and a geranium, that is constantly in flower, enjoying the warm atmosphere and sun streaming in through a west-facing window overlooking a long lawn with distant topiary?” What indeed. But a tip from the top: don’t forget a small decanter of whisky.