Gables, gargoyles & creaking corners

Corsham Court provides the ideal backdrop for Bath Spa University’s creative writers

 

Words & photography: Anna-Marie Crowhurst

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It was one hot day in July 2015 that I first laid eyes on Corsham Court. It was my interview for the MA Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – this, I had discovered, was the campus. I walked past the church and through the gate, up the drive. In front of me loomed an enormous, gorgeous historical house, with its gabled front, mullioned windows and octagonal turrets. On the manicured lawn either side of the drive, peacocks roamed around the grass. I must come here, I thought. This is where I could write a book.

I was accepted onto the course. Two days a week I left east London for two days in Corsham, studying in a stately home. Tutorials took place in grand rooms with antique fireplaces; appointments with professors happened in the old servants’ attics, up rickety staircases. I discovered that studying feels like less of a chore in a beautiful building. From my favourite desk in the library there was a view of the Capability Brown– landscaped grounds – the ha-ha, the lake, the deer park beyond, the perspective and the geometry of the vista so perfect it looked like a painting. My favourite study room was papered with exquisite 18th-century handpainted wallpaper so precious the room was kept dark and humidified. Another room in the attic had a view of the drive through ancient leaded windows, criss-crossed with leaded diamonds, rippled with age. I wrote up there, gazing past the stone gargoyles perched on the battlements.

In the summer, lectures were often hampered by the loud screaming of preening peacocks. Between these I walked in the gardens, treading a circular route past the great oriental plane tree with its huge branches touching the ground, past the abandoned Gothic bath house (entry, alas, forbidden), and on to the wild bit of the garden, passing through a Secret Garden-esque door, past the pond with its little fountain, past the ornamental maze, back to the house. 

The longer I spent walking around Corsham Court, the more the ancient magic of the building seeped into my brain by a sort of osmosis. I had come up with an idea for a book – the book that was to be my masters dissertation – the story of a headstrong girl growing up in the Restoration period, who wants to be a playwright – against the expectations of her age. I needed a grand house to set the middle section, a place I knew and could imagine in my mind’s eye. Hence Corsham Court became my fictional Turvey Hall, in the county of Wiltshire. The rolling fields of the park surrounding it, the maze in the garden, the leaded windows, the imposing hallway, the oil portraits that lined the walls, even the pond (I embellished the fountain) – these all wove their way into my protagonist Ursula Flight’s grand country home. I had to imagine how it would have been in the late 17th century – before most of the large improvements were made and the garden landscaped. Before Capability Brown gave it a Palladian makeover, before John Nash made everything Gothic, before the prim Victorian herbaceous borders. Before the peafowl, before the box hedges, before the deliciously crumbling folly. I kept the shadows and the creaking floors. 

Houses of bookish importance

I’m far from the first writer to find inspiration in a country house. One of my own favourite books, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited makes a seductive central character of its titular stately home (said to be based on Madresfield Court in Worcestershire) and is a love letter to the disappeared days of flamboyant aristocracy roaming around palatial old buildings. E.M Forster’s Howards End (inspired by Forster’s Hertfordshire childhood home, Rooks Nest) tends to satirise rather than romanticise its inhabitants, but the building itself is no less captivating. Bath’s own Jane Austen spent a good deal of time hanging around massive piles – and so we have two books centred around grand houses – Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Pride & Prejudice, at the heart of which, of course, is Mr Darcy’s deliciously enormous Pemberley, for which Austen used Chatsworth as the model. Du Maurier’s Rebecca too, would be nothing without the dark corridors of Manderley for Mrs Danvers to creep around in – this was based on the author’s visit to Menabilly house in Cornwall – and what would be left of Jane Eyre, without the Gothic surrounds of Thornfield with its creaking corners and somewhat over occupied attic? (Charlotte Brontë took Norton Conyers in Yorkshire for her inspiration there). 

As a lover of all of these famous books and writers, I had no idea, on that hot day three years ago, that a grand building was to become the centre of my own novel, but the book I wrote in Corsham, by the time you read this, will have been released into the world, within its pages a love letter to the magical year I spent in a stately home. 

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THREE WRITERS INSPIRED BY BATH THAT AREN'T JANE AUSTEN

Sheridan
The Rivals, Sheridan’s first play, is entirely set in 18th-century Bath and deliciously satirises its customs and inhabitants. Sheridan knew Bath well – he lived there for a time when first married. 

Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers takes not only a local village name but features in passages near the beginning of the novel as Pickwick and friends let a house on the Royal Crescent.

Samantha Harvey
Bath resident Samantha Harvey is a Bath Spa graduate-turned-teacher in the university’s Creative Writing department. Harvey’s latest novel The Western Wind is set in 1491 in a Somerset village.

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The Illumination of Ursula Flight by Anna-Marie Crowhurst is published on 3 May (Allen & Unwin; £12.99). The author will be appearing at Bath Festival on 18 May; bathfestivals.org.uk

 
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