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The Carriage Commentator

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ARLINGTON COURT

On a snowy January day, Sarah braved the Devon lanes to go to North Exmoor and spend a morning at the wonderful collection at Arlington Court - January 2023

Nestled in the nooks and crannies of the upper edges of Exmoor moorland, accessible via a maze of wonky Devon lanes, the treasure trove which is the carriage collection at Arlington Court is a rare, and nearly hidden gem.  Tenderly and respectfully maintained and displayed by a dedicated team from the National Trust, whose mantra is ‘conserve and preserve for the next generation’, each carriage is treated as a fragile rarity which can only be handled while wearing gloves and cleaned using soft brushes and a tender touch.  Here in the 21st-century, these once resplendent carriers of important people and information are now in a dignified retirement, among like-minded compatriots.

Arlington Court itself is not an ostentatious house and for over five hundred years was home to various generations of the Chichester family.  As often happens, there was more than one incarnation of the main house, which is thought to have begun as a Tudor hunting lodge, before it was rebuilt in the late 18th-century and again in the early 1820s, with an extension added in 1860.  The final member of the Chichester family to reside at Arlington was Rosalie and she gifted the estate to the Trust in 1945.  Branding the buildings and the surrounding area, where estate entrances are flanked by stone gate posts, are numerous Chichester motifs, the heron with an eel in its beak. 

The carriage collection is housed in and around the old coach house and stable block which was built in 1864 and sits uphill from the main house.  A newer building, where the majority of the larger vehicles are kept, was added on one side in 2003, while other, smaller vehicles are in situ over two floors in several rooms which were once stalls for the horses, hay lofts or storage rooms.  Four original loose boxes are still intact, with their corner hay shutes and mangers, cast iron fittings and wooden slatted sections reinforced with numerous lines of studded metal, to prevent both chewing and damage from kicks and knocks.  They’ve certainly worked as the stables remain in wonderful condition.

Across the passageway is the mahogany lined harness room, with it’s high ceiling, fireplace and wash basin.  It is an evocative room, still with several sets of harness lining the walls, which once would have been a hub of activity on the estate, supporting both the ridden and driven pursuits.

HOW IT STARTED

It was gift to the National Trust of eight carriages from the 6th Marquess of Bute in 1964 which formed the nucleus of the current collection.  As the carriages weren’t linked to any specific property or house, the Trust wanted to find a suitable home for them and at the time, the stable block at Arlington hadn’t been converted for alternative use, unlike many of the other venues in its portfolio. 

The timing coincided with the re-birth of carriage driving as a sport and hobby in the UK, not long before the British Driving Society was founded and around the same time the Reading Carriage Sales stared, so although few people were actively collecting carriages, it is notable that the Trust thought to try and save and conserve these historic artifacts for the nation at the same time as interest in them was being slowly reignited.  In addition to the Bute carriages, former Coaching Club President, Sir Dymoke White donated three carriages, including his Lawton Park Drag, seven carriages were loaned from the Science Museum and several more came from other Trust properties.

THE COLLECTION

Displayed at Arlington is an embarrassment of riches for carriage buffs.  The vehicles are laid out in a thoughtful way which has a flow to it, no single item demanding more attention than another.  As each is treated as an equal, a visitor is drawn in by personal preference rather than headline acts.  Amidst the fine examples of Chariots, Barouches, Broughams, Victorias and more conventional carriage types, there are some quite unique jewels where one can only wonder at their origin and as so often happens, wishes that these inanimate objects could speak. 

In one corner of the newer building is a Lonsdale style Wagonette by Hamshaw of Leicester, built in the 1880s and one of the Science Museum cohort.  Distinguished by its folding leather hood and in an inimitable claret finish and orangey lining, plus a crest, it is one of several which must surely have once been in the Royal Collection.  Next to it is the improbable Portland Wagonette, which has a bit of Heath Robinson about it.  It may well be a bit of a mash up of more than one vehicle, but with the hood on back to front, it clearly wasn’t a style that caught on.  By Silk & Sons of London, circa 1890s, it’s a speculate exercise wondering what the process was that brought about it’s being.

Sitting across the aisle is another – possibly unique – example, the Punch Carriage.  Somewhere between a Brougham and a back to front Hansom Cab on four wheels, its rather bulbous body is nonetheless beautifully crafted with a certain charm about it.  The accompanying information states that it was thought to have been made for a country doctor and is so called because its shape resembles Mr Punch’s facial profile. Another on loan from the Science Museum, it was built by Hayman & Co. of Exeter around 1870.

In contrast, next in line is a grand Postillion Ascot Landau by Cook & Holdway of London whose confident place in the lexicon of carriages is undisputed.  Used only for the finest of occasions to convey the smartest of passengers, it nonetheless has a certain detachment about it: something which may stem the distance between those ‘driving’ the carriage so far in front of the dignitaries inside – formality taken to a distant level.

Making a welcome return to Arlington Court is the only carriage with a connection to the Chichester family, a rather quirky Town Coach by Pettle of Barnstaple built circa 1840.  It will have a feature of its own on The CC soon, but it might well be promoted to a prominent position of its own at the venue, when it is moved into the position recently occupied by the Speaker’s Gold Coach, which after over 10 years in Devon following its extensive restoration, recently travelled back to London.

Opposite are three of the crowning glories of the display, two State Chariots and a State Coach.  The claret Chariot was a gift from the Duke of Onslow, so well known once upon a time to those in driving trials, and is by Adams & Hooper of London, built between 1830 and 1846.  The yellow Chariot came from the Craven family in Berkshire, whose name is still associated with the Hunt in the county.  A later incarnation by Hooper, it dates from the 1850s.  Their larger sibling, the State Coach, by Peters & Sons circa 1860, was a gift from Earl de la Warr of Knole.

Britzskas by comparison to their finer cousins Barouches, can seem rather brutish; generally bulkier and less refined and one pities the poor horses having to pull these travelling machines over rough, rutted roads in all weathers.  The Arlington one, a rare British build by Tapp & Co. of London between 1810 & 1840, balks the trend with more elegance and more quirky features (such as the elephant ear shaped front mudguards) than often associated with many of those produced on the Continent and in Germany – but it’s still huge, and has an especially high front seat, with no shelter from the elements at all for the driver and his assistant.

Rounding off the jaunt through the main collection are the elder statemen, two special Travelling Chariots.  The thought of the sway which sitting inside the bodies, suspended on deep C-springs, above bowed perches, evokes nausea, but it was how the great and the good got about back in the day.  One came from the Butes, by How & Shanks circa 1815-20 and the other from the Antrobus family of Eaton Hall Cheshire (the home of another wonderful collection belonging to the Duke of Westminster).  It must date from before 1814 as it was used to attend the Congress of Vienna held in 1814-15.

Moving into the stable block, Sir Dymoke’s black Park Drag, a rarity to be by Lawton, sits opposite a Forder & Co. Hansom Cab and a particularly fine Albany Cutter Sleigh. Up the stairs and there’s a Cabriolet from the Science Museum, with genuine panache, to meet the eye and then one of General Tom Thumb’s miniature Coaches, used when he was on tour as part of the Barnum’s Circus. 

Moving along a row of two-wheelers, there is a Hooded Gig, another Science Museum loan, which purports to be by Holland & Holland, and is a bit of an anomaly.  There’s no reason to believe that it wasn’t commissioned from this famous builder, but not much of it tallies with what we commonly associate with them and it has a sense of the Parisian about it.  A pretty Governess Car by the best of the builders of this singular type, Sanders of Hitchin, gives way to a splendid Mail Phaeton by Holland & Holland, once used by Sir Dymoke.  The attribution to the builder is in no doubt with this one and it’s an interesting exercise to contrast it with the whimsical Hooded Gig of the adjacent room. 

Attribution of builders and names is rarely an exact science, and so it is refreshing to see a Four-wheeled Ralli Car labelled as such, next to a Four-wheeled Dog Cart by Morgan & Co… or is it a neat Break?  Lines can blur and different generations and individuals can bring different opinions as to what something is called, and it’s a subject that can be healthily debated.

Another area, beyond the harness room, houses a Hearse and some invalid style carriages, including something which may or may not be an Eridge Cart; a sort of Battlesden type, low-slung Ladies Phaeton, four-wheeled Dog Cart… which came from the Earl of Abergavenny of Eridge Castle via the Science Museum. It’s a hybrid sort with a high dash that slightly defies standardisation and so the unique naming of it as an Eridge Cart may well be about as appropriate as it can be.

In between the 40 or so carriages are some superb information boards which enhance the experience, plus sundry items, such as three Guard’s pouches with brass plates marked Old Times; Vivid, Telegraph, Venture; and Commodore, H McCausland, or a pair of cumbersome postillion boots which look as if they were made for a giant.  These items help to provide context and interest, and combined with the illustrations, timelines and stories places around the carriages, help to give them a heartbeat.   

Yet making a static collection of historical objects that were made to be used and driven, which were an element of a greater combination in motion – the turnout – and once were seen with horses, people, a background and life, poses questions.  Having them laid out in the stable block, whose walls ooze history and the sense of the ghosts who once lived there, undoubtedly helps.  But should more be done to make them come alive again?  How do we keep a viewing public interested in them, beyond us carriage anoraks?  How do we put, and indeed promote, their vital place in social history and population mobility, in technical and building developments, in the timeline of transport and communication?  How do we make them appealing to the next generation, one which has never known the horse as a working animal or the carriage as a means of movement?  While the National Trust and the team at Arlington are doing a superb job to ‘preserve and conserve for the next generation’, is there another approach?  Is it financially viable to house them like this?

An ongoing set of question for the curators.

In response to this article, Sytske Knol, Collections and House Officer at Arlington Court wrote,

‘I am currently working on a project around making the stables feel more alive and looking at renewing some information we display about the stable block, which is relevant to your article. A few years ago an archaeological survey was carried out and it was discovered the stable block was built in the 1790’s (the same time as the previous short-lived Arlington Court which was built in front of the church – 1790-1823). The arcade, clock tower and façade of the current coach house were then added in 1864 by Sir Bruce Chichester at the same time as he completed his house extension (the right wing etc. to the current house). The loose boxes are also a later addition, probably installed by the National Trust, replacing something very similar of which we sadly don’t have records. This was deducted from the fact that they do not quite seem to fit the architecture of the building, even blocking a window. A previous member of staff seemed to remember they came from stables somewhere locally. We have also recently found out that the first carriages from the Marquis of Bute came to us through The National Museum of Wales, with our collecting policy stating: A good start was made through the generosity of the Marquis of Bute, who, in 1964, donated eight carriages from Cardiff Castle, his family’s Welsh home, which had long been in store at The National Museum of Wales. What is happening to the Coach House where the Speaker’s State Coach was housed is not quite known yet as options are being discussed, so we are currently unable to confirm whether the Chichester carriage will be moving into that space or whether it will be used for something else.’