Standing on a road that leads from nowhere to nowhere, Chastleton is in its own private world, secluded, quiet, and mesmerizingly beautiful. A visit here is a visit to another time, since very little has changed for four hundred years. Chastleton House has stood for four centuries in a corner of Oxfordshire, close to the borders with Gloucestershire and Warwickshire, in a peaceful spot well away from any chance passers by. It sits in the centre of a triangle between the Cotswold towns of Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold and Chipping Norton, and is by-passed by all except those who go to seek it out.
The house was built probably between 1607 and 1612 by Walter Jones on the site of an older house which had belonged to Robert Catesby, who masterminded the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, fled and was killed when resisting arrest. Jones was trained as a lawyer at the Inns of Court and had been Member of Parliament for Worcester. He bought the village and manor of Chastleton in 1602, although Catesby continued to live there until 1605.The house built by Walter Jones had all the amenities of a fine Jacobean country house.
Built in a square around a courtyard, it is elegantly symmetrical with steps leading to a central entrance porch into the Great Hall. Matching staircase towers at either side mirror the tower of the twelfth century church which stands next door, immediately beyond the wall of the entrance court.The Jones family lost all their money during the Civil War and in the ensuing three centuries apparently had neither the funds nor the inclination to make changes to house or gardens. The result is a piece of fragile history which has survived remarkably intact.
The house remained in the ownership of the Jones family, eventually passing to their relative the art historian professor Alan Clutton-Brock in 1955. It was sold by his widow, Mrs Barbara Clutton-Brock to the National Trust in 1991, at which time the gardens were in a state of decay and much work has been done to re-establish the gardens using family papers and other historical sources.Approaching the house from the car park across a sloping field, there is a stone dovecote with a wooden lantern, built in 1762. Crossing the lane, Chastleton is approached through a stone gateway which gives access to the high-walled forecourt and faces the entrance of the house in Jacobean style.
The forecourt was originally divided in two by a low retaining wall, with the inner forecourt, slightly higher, reached by a flight of steps. This arrangement was replaced in the early nineteenth century when the forecourt became less formal, and it now has a central path leading directly to the door of the house with a circle in front of the house. The walled courtyard is now planted with flower borders including climbing roses.Through a gate at the top of the forecourt is the entrance to the Best Garden, overlooked by the Great Chamber, and it would have originally been entered from the Great Parlour. The layout is a circular hedge surrounding a ring of topiary.
Characteristic of the Jacobean period, the layout of this garden is thought to survive from the seventeenth century. At the end of the last century, photographs show the topiary to have included a sheep, chicken, horse, squirrel, peacock and crown, but the figures have since grown into amorphous lumps. The circle has four rose-arch entrances, added at the end of the nineteenth century, and is a secret place which only the master of the house and his guests could enter or even overlook. Originally a hortus conclusus, there was a clairvoyee inserted in the eastern wall of the garden, with view out to the countryside beyond, probably added around 1700.The Restoration oaks in the field beyond (known as Home Splatts) were planted in celebration of the return of the monarchy in the 1660s, and acorns were sown from the Royal Oak of Boscobel in 1852.To the north of the house may have originally been a bowling green and a garden for fruit and vegetables. None of the compartments was connected to others, and access to each would only have been possible from the house. Today there is access from the Best garden down steps into the large kitchen garden where roses trail over arched trellises across the paths.The croquet lawn, reached down stone steps to the north of the house, established by Walter Whitmore-Jones in the 1860s has been reinstated. His version of the rules of croquet published in The Field in 1865 became definitive, and Chastleton is considered the birthplace of croquet as a competitive sport. Beyond this, a 'wild garden' influenced by William Robinson, was laid out, with a winding grass path beneath trees underplanted with bulbs.Since then, Chastleton has hardly altered. The elegant Jacobean house remained with the same family until 1991 when it was sold to the National Heritage Memorial Fund and transferred to the National Trust who continue to care for the house and gardens.