Rather a long time ago now, early in the 1990s, walking along the ridge of a hill in Berkshire, I more or less stumbled across Ashdown House, that famous collision of classicised architecture with historical melodrama, now owned by the National Trust, some of the contents of which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London in a couple of weeks’ time.
At this distance the context is hard to recapture. Looking at the online map today in the hope of reconstructing that journey, I suppose we must have been walking from Ashbury to Lambourn. Certainly, I remember climbing up to see the bell tower of Lambourn’s ancient parish church, assisted in this project by a similarly ancient sexton seemingly on leave from a Thomas Hardy novel. Reconstructing further, I suspect the reason we were in the area in the first place was to visit the White Horse of Uffington, Wayland’s Smithy and other prehistoric sites. The Berkshire Downs are, after all, a part of England at once casually beautiful and imaginatively liberating. One gets the sense that man and nature have operated there for so long together, working in such close proximity, that the boundaries which elsewhere separate their legacies start to blur a little. It’s an enchanted landscape.
In any event, I certainly shan’t forget the shock of rounding a bend onto the top of that chalk ridge and then seeing — with all the weird emphasis of an hallucination — the tall trim cupola, detached flanking pavilions and formal parterres of Ashdown House laid out in the valley below me. What could this apparition possibly mean?
The conventional thing to say about Ashdown House is that it looks like a dolls’ house — a comparison made by Pevsner, amongst others. Yet this hardly does justice to the force of its formidable strangeness.