ANTIQUES/Historic house on and off the auction block. Wiltshire locals convince owner not to sell Tudor manor and its contents
London — FOR SALE: Historic Tudor Manor, Furnished (Obligatory ghost at no extra charge). Price? Rumored to be around 6 million. This tempting offer was made earlier this year by Sir Seton Wills, the owner of Littlecote House in Wiltshire. Historic it may be but it can boast few modern conveniences. Little serious interest was shown and concern grew that the house and its contents, many of which have been in situ for centuries and include the only surviving Civil War armory, would have to be dispersed piecemeal. Sir Seton had even reached the point of instructing Christie's to hold an auction, when upon the scene burst the ebulli ent Mr. Peter de Savery and bought the lot.
Mr. de Savery was already well known as the wealthy backer of the British entry for the Americas Cup in 1983, and here he was again coming to the rescue of another lost cause. Sighs of relief were to be shortlived. Due to a sudden change in personal circumstances, Mr. de Savery decided that he did not, after all, need the house and put it back onto the market. Again there were no takers for house and contents so this time Sotheby's got the job of holding a great auction.
Littlecote, however, has its friends and supporters, especially in the local community, and they got to work on Mr. de Savery to impress upon him the significance of what he now owned. He had already offered the armory to the Royal Armouries which are housed in the Tower of London, if they could come up with the necessary funds before the auction. But what to do with the house and its other contents remained a problem.
Mr. de Savery can hardly be blamed for having second thoughts about making his home at Littlecote. The charms of an unspoiled Tudor mansion have little to do with comfortable living, and what may have impressed the many royal guests the house can boast cuts no ice (a word not idly used) with this pampered generation.
A fine tea caddy in the Sitting Room still bears a label stating that on April 11, 1867, it was stocked with a pound of black tea and half as much of orange pekoe, with instructions to use two spoons of the former to one of the latter.
Imagine yourself an overnight guest at the time, having taken a warming cup of tea by the log fire before retiring to bed. Your hostess hands you a candle and directs you to the top of the stairs and along the corridor to the William of Orange bedroom. (He slept there as recently as Dec. 8 and 9, 1688.) Up the main stairs you go to the half landing where it divides -- try the right and through a door on the landing -- shhhh, that's the nursery. Climbing further up and up and up you find yourself in the
labyrinth of servants quarters.
Back to the half landing and try the other way. This is more like it -- passing the boudoir and numerous bedrooms, down a short staircase and you come to . . . ? a concealed door in the oak paneling of the Long Gallery. Better go right back to the hall and start again. Crossing the Great Hall, the ceiling so high it is scarcely visible in candlelight and the walls hung with Cromwellian armor and sombre portraits of Popham ancestors a secondary staircase looms ahead. Up the long, stone steps to the Brown
Landing, is it left or right, the east or the west wing? Forget the east, that's the Long Gallery again.
``Go West, young man,'' was always good advice. It's the way Elizabeth I took in August 1601. Her room is surprisingly modest, but it was the best they had at the time. On past the New Chamber -- perhaps the Queen had complained to her host, Sir John Popham, of the meanness of her quarters, and who would be a better judge than the Queen, then nearing the end of a long and distinguished career of giving her name to bedrooms up and down the land. Along the haunted corridor -- every great house has one -- past the haunted bedroom (you don't want to know what happened in there) and up a few stairs into the gallery of the Cromwellian chapel.
Press on, round the back of the organ. Seriously? Did William of Orange have to go through all this? Presumably, because here you are at last at his room. It's grand all right, with its four-poster and silver toilet service, but there is no central heating and the bleak Wiltshire elements are pressing hard through the mullioned windows. Now do you see why 19th-century writers referred to ``seeking the couch'' when they meant simply ``going to bed''?
So, if Littlecote is not to be lived in, what is to be done with it? At the 11th hour, as late as the first auction preview, Mr. de Savery revealed that he will, after all, retain Littlecote and open it to the public as a Civil War study center. The term ``theme park'' has been used guardedly. He will even live in a part of the house and keep the historic items of furniture. At the same time the Master of the Royal Armouries announced that they had been successful in raising the funds for the Littlecote
Armoury and that as a result of Mr. de Savery's decision, it will remain in the house where it has always been.
The local community greeted these statements with delight. ``It's what we have all been working for,'' said one activist. She went on, ``Of course, this house really belongs to the area and not to any one family.''
But what about the Pophams, were they not here for more than 300 years? ``Yes, but they acquired it in very dubious circumstances. The previous owner, William `Wild' Darell was tried for infanticide in 1578 and Sir John Popham was the judge. Darell was never sentenced and Popham got the house. Well.''
So much for the Pophams. It seems that subsequent generations of clean living Pophams have failed to obliterate the stain on the escutcheon in local eyes. My guide continued, ``The Wills family had no historic connections with the house, so Mr. de Savery has done just the right thing, and we're very pleased.''