Stop 1: Dorchester, England, August 17 – August 22

FIRST STOP: AUGUST 17 – AUGUST 22.

We will be staying with Henry and Sophie Digby and their three children in Minterne House. Henry Digby is the nephew of Charlie’s grandmother, Sheila – who we visited in Ireland last September for her 90th birthday.

Minterne House has been the home of the Churchill’s and Digby’s family for the last 350 years and now the seat of the 12th Lord Digby. It was rebuilt in 1905 by Leonard Stokes after the previous house was destroyed by dry rot. Minterne nestles in 1,300 acres of beautiful Dorset Countryside and is described by Simon Jenkins in his book “England’s 1,000 Best houses”, as a “Corner of Paradise”. The house contains many interesting paintings mementos of its past residents, including the Churchill Tapestries which are in the dining room. The House is open for organised parties only.

The first Sir Winston Churchill rented Minterne from Winchester College in 1660, and left it to his younger son General Charles Churchill, much to the fury of his eldest son, the Great Duke of Marlborough, who “just had to make do with Blenheim Palace”. When General Charles’s widow died, Minterne was sold to Robert Digby, a younger son from Sherborne Castle, complete with all the contents, which is why it still contains all the Churchill Tapestries, a ceiling picture by Sir James Thornhill and other Churchill pictures and furniture.

Among the Digby ancestors are Sir Everard Digby who was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament; Jane Digby who lived for 25 years in Arabia married to her fourth husband, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab and more recently, Pamela Harriman, the American Ambassador to Paris who was brought up at Minterne being the sister of the present Lord Digby.

Minterne was originally the Manor of the Abbey of Cerne, and in 1539, following the dissolution of the monasteries, the property was left to Winchester College and was used to provide education & knowledge. John Churchill acquired the property in the early 1600’s & was succeeded by his son, the 1st Sir Winston Churchill. The Churchill’s were Royalists in the Civil War, after which they were heavily fined by Parliament; with the restoration of Charles II, however, the families fortunes were restored. Sir Winston Churchill left Minterne to his younger son, General Charles Churchill, much to the fury of the eldest son, the Great Duke of Marlborough who just had to “make do” with Blenheim Palace!! Charles had no children, and when his widow died, Admiral Robert Digby, who was a younger son from Sherborne Castle, bought the house & valley on a “walk-in, walk-out” basis, which meant that everything in the house remained, which is why Minterne House has so many Flemish Churchill tapestries & pictures.

In 1768 Robert Digby wrote, “the valley is very bare, trees not thriving, house ill-contrived, & ill-situated.” The first thing he did was to plant a shelter belt of trees along the top of the valley to break the wind as Minterne is 850 feet above sea level. Robert then went off to fight the American War of Independence, and when he returned, there were the usual defence cuts, all the ships were laid up, and officers were sent home on half pay. Robert Digby brought key members of his crew back to Minterne to do all the landscaping that can be seen here today.

During the First World War, Minterne became a naval hospital, after which the 11th Lord Digby’s wife refused to move back in as it meant “practicing extreme economy, with only 14 indoor servants, & the hallboy getting the second housemaid in trouble.” This, coupled with the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century meant that people migrated from the countryside into the cities to work in the mills. When the 12th Lord Digby took over Minterne in the 50’s he divided the house in half, the West part being let in flats, which left a still large, but manageable house for the Digby family to live in.

The original house had dry rot at the end of the 19th century and the house you see today was built in 1905 by Leonard Stokes who was President of the RIBA, & Lutyens was one of his pupils. He was a founder member of the Arts & Crafts movement whose objective was to make architecture an art. The results as you see them now are the south front, Elizabethan Manor House with leaded panes & gables, the north front has Gothic windows & the rooms inside are classical Georgian.

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