Last updated: Fri 1 May 2015

Evelyn Waugh and Nunney

Author and journalist Evelyn Waugh tried to buy Manor Farm House, next to Nunney Castle, in 1936.

Manor Farm House Nunney

Manor Farm House, Nunney, in 1928


Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh photographed around 1940

Evelyn Waugh was an English writer of novels, biographies and travel books. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer. His best-known works include his early satires Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his trilogy of Second World War novels collectively known as Sword of Honour (1952–61). Waugh is widely recognised as one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century.

The son of a publisher, Evelyn Waugh was educated at Lancing and Hertford College, Oxford, and worked briefly as a schoolmaster before becoming a full-time writer. As a young man, he acquired many fashionable and aristocratic friends, and developed a taste for country house society that never left him.

In the 1930s he travelled extensively, often as a special newspaper correspondent; he was reporting from Abyssinia at the time of the 1935 Italian invasion. He served in the British armed forces throughout the Second World War, first in the Royal Marines and later in the Royal Horse Guards.

All these experiences, and the wide range of people he encountered, were used in Waugh’s fiction, generally to humorous effect; even his own mental breakdown in the early 1950s, brought about by misuse of drugs, was fictionalised.

House hunting

“The house at Nunney is enchanting,” he wrote. “Very small, next to the castle and farm buildings. Exquisite eighteenth-century façade. Castle excellent and whole village very attractive.”

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh and his wife Laura in Somerset

In 1936 Waugh had finally been granted an annulment of his marriage to his first wife Evelyn Gardner (“She-Evelyn”). After an initial meeting in Portofino, he had fallen in love with Laura Herbert. He proposed marriage, by letter, in Spring 1936.

There were initial misgivings from the Herberts, an aristocratic Catholic family; as a further complication, Laura Herbert was a cousin of Evelyn Gardner. Despite some family hostility the marriage took place on 17 April 1937. As a wedding present the bride’s grandmother bought the couple Piers Court, a country house near Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire.

However, in the preceding months Waugh had been house hunting in Somerset, arriving by train in Frome on 14 September 1936 and staying in Mells. On the recommendation of a friend, he looked at properties in Nunney and Whatley a week later, in the afternoon of Monday 21 September 1936.

He wrote in his diary: “Whatley Rectory is quite agreeable, but like a thousand other houses in England. No decent drawing room. The housekeeper Mrs Haynes showed us over. I asked of a tap whether it was hot or cold water. ‘I must ask the canon.’ ‘Why not try?’ ‘Oh, no water ever comes out.'”

Enchanting

Nunney 1931

An aerial shot of Nunney taken in 1931, showing Manor Farm House to the left of Nunney Castle.

He found Manor Farm House in Nunney much more to his taste. “The house at Nunney is enchanting,” he wrote. “Very small, next to the castle and farm buildings. Exquisite eighteenth-century façade. Castle excellent and whole village very attractive.”

“I went to the door and asked if it was for sale. A pretty girl came and said: ‘How did you know? We only decided at luncheon today. We haven’t yet given our notice.’ She, her mother and apparently some other relatives sublease it from Mr Young the farmer on condition he keeps a room there.”

“Inside and out it is very dilapidated but of the highest beauty. Panelled rooms, very fine oak and walnut staircase, Norman cellars. For a considerable sum it could be made one of the loveliest small houses in England.”

Manor Farm House

Manor Farm House, next to Nunney Castle

“Walking back I met Trim who had motored out to meet me. We went back to the house and met the farmer. A shock, as he’s young and a gentleman. I imagined putting him up a bungalow, but clearly that won’t wash.”

Later that week Evelyn Waugh looked at Manor Farm House again, this time accompanied by Laura Herbert’s mother, Mary. They also took a second look at the rectory at Whatley.

The next day he drove to London, only to jump on a train back to Frome at 9am on Saturday morning to show both properties to Laura. “Delightful day, though wet. Went to look at Whatley rectory and Nunney Farm. Laura seemed to like farm. Lunched and dined at [Mells] Manor.”

Nunney Court

Nunney Court as it is today, with extensions.

After Laura went back to London on the Monday, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Major Linton Shore, the owner of Manor Farm House in Nunney who lived 2 miles down the road at Whatley House in Whatley.

A reply arrived the next day, but Waugh described it was “unsatisfactory”. On Wednesday 30 September 1936 he went to see another house in Nunney, belonging to the Wilbraham family. This was Nunney Court on Donkey Lane, which a few years later would be substantially enlarged by new owners, the Andersons. Waugh described it as “poky but pretty”. Another unidentified property proved “wholly unsuitable”.

Restoration

Upon his return to London, Evelyn Waugh received the “grand news” on 5 October that Major Linton Shore was in principle prepared to let him have Manor Farm House. However, Shore was not prepared to sell and would only agree to let the property on a long-term lease if Waugh took on 40 acres of land as well.

Evelyn Waugh returned to Nunney a week later to see Young the farmer. “He was very good-natured and eager to convenience everybody,” Waugh wrote in his diary. “Saw Linton Shore who is a footler but not the bully I had expected.”

“During seven years I will spend not less than £700 a year in restoration.”

Mells Manor

Mells Manor

After another week in London he travelled to Frome on a “very bad train” and took Lady Horner of Mells Manor over to Nunney the day before she relocated to London for the winter. Yet another visit to Nunney followed the next day, on Friday 23 October.

Evidently still keen to purchase the Manor Farm House in Nunney, Waugh wrote to Major Linton Shore and offered him a down payment of £3,000 for the lease plus £50 a year for seven years and then £150. He also proposed to buy the Wilbraham’s house in exchange.

“During seven years I will spend not less than £700 a year in restoration,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to Major Linton Shore. Based on the Retail Price Index this is around £37,000 in today’s money, or £108,000 when the comparison is based on average wages.

Weeks went by without a response from Shore. Increasingly frustrated, Evelyn Waugh returned to the West Country and started looking at other properties, such as Warminster Manor (“beastly surroundings”). He returned to London with his heart still firmly set on Nunney.

Manor House Warminster

The Manor House in Warminster is now used by the charity Action on Addiction.

On Sunday 15 November 1936 Evelyn Waugh wrote again to Major Shore, this time offering to buy the Nunney property but withdrawing his offer to take on the long-term lease. Still without a reply, he continued to travel up and down between London and Somerset, looking at various “no-good” properties in Batcombe, Stroud and other places but feeling “cold, tired and very low spirited”.

Piers Court

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Piers Court, Stinchcombe

Piers Court, Stinchcombe

On Monday 21 December Evelyn Waugh took his first look at Piers Court in Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, describing it as “absolutely first-rate”. The Grade II-listed building is surrounded by 23 acres of land.

After Laura’s grandmother offered to buy the house as a wedding present, Evelyn Waugh’s offer of £3,350 for the Stinchcombe (“Stinkers”) property was accepted in January 1937. He lived in Piers Court from 1937 to 1956, during which time he produced works including Brideshead Revisited. Waugh died in Somerset in 1966.

Major Linton Shore never got back to him about the Nunney property.

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