IF the makers of family history programme, Who do you Think You Are?, were ever stuck for a good story, then a trip to Tynedale’s Capheaton Hall would yield dividends. For there is a wealth of material wrapped up in Willy Browne-Swinburne’s ancestral heritage that would have TV viewers transfixed.
For example the original hall would never have been built had it not been for one of his ancestors’ powers of feline description. More of that anon. Safe to say it’s unlikely Willy would be surprised by any ‘big reveal’ on the part of the programme makers as he is a real authority on his forebears.
“The Swinburnes originally were probably just modest French squires who came over in 1066 and were given small holdings, presumably at Swinburne,” he says.
“But the family, as it developed, never owned land at Swinburne though we have always owned land at Chollerton, so the North Tyne Valley area was where we originated and, through luck and happenstance – and marriage and guile – we managed to claw our way up the ladder.”
Willy is sitting in the east wing of Grade I listed Capheaton Hall where he and his wife Eliza live with their children, Jessica, 19, Lucy, 18, and Sam 15. This part of their home is a later addition to the original mansion.
As Willy wittily relates, his family first won the estate in a bet. “Again, through luck and I think a slightly wild and irresponsible Fenwick in 1260 we got Capheaton. That was off one William de Swinburne, Queen Margaret of Scotland’s man of business.”
In those days, boundaries were blurred and this part of Northumberland was seen as a hinterland of Scotland. Queen Margaret gifted it to Swinburne. “Capheaton was won in a bet with the irresponsible Fenwick and we have been here ever since,” Willy says.
Prior to the house, there had been a castle. Although there’s no pictorial record, a certain John Swinburne was occupying it just prior to the Civil War. “He was a Catholic and a Royalist, who was promised a baronetcy by Charles I,” Willy says.
“Unfortunately, before he could receive it, he went to lunch at Meldon and was run through with a rapier in an argument about a horse in 1643. His wife ran off with a colonel and their son John, like a lot of catholic heirs was sent to France to a Benedictine monastery for safety.”
Willy continues: “At the end of the Republic a Mr Radcliffe, a cousin of the Swinburnes, was meandering round France and found this boy in a monastery who was brought back to claim his inheritance.
“John proved his identity by describing the markings on the tabby cat at Capheaton and the family’s silver punch bowl and on the strength of that rather flimsy evidence he got his inheritance and moved in to Capheaton.”
It was this rather lucky Sir John (the 1st baronet) who knocked down the castle and built what Willy describes as the ‘perfect Baroque’ house. A splendid painting of it from 1669, long before it was enlarged around 1800, sits on the family’s staircase. Sir John and his wife, a Miss Isabelle Lawson of Brough, are believed to have chosen the house they wanted from an Italian design book of the time and the Newcastle builder, Robert Trollope, was engaged to realise their dream.
Willy has enormous respect for the couple. “Isabelle and John must have been very creative, because they really said, ‘just go for it’ and built this amazing house which in Northumberland in 1668 must have been extraordinary.”
Charles II granted Sir John a baronetcy and amazingly the couple had 25 children. “So there they were and I think that was the place pretty happy for a hundred or so years,” Willy says.
During the eighteenth century and the Age of Enlightenment, the Swinburnes, in common with many privileged Catholic families, were great European travellers and promulgators of the Grand Tour.
Indeed Henry Swinburne, the fourth son of another Sir John Swinburne, the 3rd Baronet wrote in 1783 Travels in the Two Sicilies and Travels in Spain 1775 and 1776. “The latter became the officer issue guide book to Spain in the Peninsula War,” says Willy, who retains first editions of both books in Capheaton’s library.
“Henry Swinburne was a great cultural celebrity in Europe. His son Tom was page to Marie Antoinette. He inherited Hamsterley (in neighbouring County Durham) and his brother Edward lived here.” Edward, was a progressive who started to think Georgian.
He was the first one to start landscaping the park and his thinking was earlier than Capability Brown. “Edward rebuilt the village, moving it further from the house but it was his son, John Edward, who was probably the most progressive Swinburne of all – apart from Eliza!” Willy says.
He was grandfather of the writer Algernon Swinburne and a great patron of the arts. And he was the first president of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle and of the Artists’ Benevolent Fund and a patron of Turner and Mulready. “They were both resident artists here and taught his children to paint,” Willie says.
“With Newcastle architect, William Newton’s help, he altered and enlarged Capheaton on the lines envisaged by his father. Thankfully, he retained the original south front, about which architectural historians are so enthusiastic, but in the process he changed a Restoration gem into something substantially less manageable for future generations! John Edward oversaw the building of the wings and the ripping off of the redoubts.”
“He went to lunch at Meldon and was run through with a rapier in an argument about a horse in 1643. His wife ran off with a colonel and their son John, like a lot of catholic heirs was sent to France to a Benedictine monastery for safety.”
Moving on to Willy’s great, great grandfather – another Sir John – a great deal of family heirlooms were lost because he failed to sign his Will. “There was a huge sale at the start of the First World War where a lot of the collections, particularly books, had to be sold.”
But Willy reserves particular sympathy for his great grandfather, Hubert. “He was supposed to be the most charming man in England and was caught in that terrible moment after the first war. Being a gentleman and therefore not supposed to work, he had no money – farm rents were nothing and he was forced to keep up appearances.
“He was desperate to be a lawyer, but his father would never let him work and so really that was the moment where the estate moved from 55,000 acres to 6,000 within five years. It was a great cultural change and we handled it particularly badly. My grandmother spent a great deal of time saying how silly he was but I sympathise.
“He married Alice Clayton of Chesters. Capheaton was known then as Eskimo Hall. It was so cold and it was shut up for most of the winter and they spent their time at Chesters. Then Hubert died in about 1935 and he and my great grandmother only had one daughter, Joan, my grandmother. She married a tenant farmer from Slaley, Dick Browne, my grandfather who was a very, very good farmer and he changed his name to Browne-Swinburne because he was going to run the estate and felt the name should stay.”
“Again the house was pretty miserable and they lived in it on a shoestring. The only good thing about the war was that we could move out of the house. When war came, the house was requisitioned and the family lived at the end of the drive in Orchard House where my parents now live.
“It was a tragedy because my grandfather had just got things in shape in terms of the farming and completely fell in love with the whole place and then he went to war with the Northumberland Hussars in 1939 and never came back till the end of the war.”
The park had to be ploughed up for corn to feed the war effort and when his grandpa returned, wounded from Europe, the story goes that the first thing he did when he got to England was to buy 35 tons of grass seed. “He got home, had a light supper and started hand sowing the park,” Willy says. “All his life he was incredibly precious about it and if anyone rode their horse across it he was very cross!
“Eventually in 1966 we got some very limited war reparations and that helped my grandparents and my father who was just about to be married to do up the east wing. They did fantastically well and they brought the garden back and then Eliza and I took over eight years ago and a handy thing called biomass gave us the opportunity to heat the house so it was worth doing up the ground floor.
“Since 1966 the house has been very steadily coming back to life and it’s in pretty good shape .There is always a hell of a lot to do but it’s amazing how science means you can quietly move forward. If you get down about it and think it can never happen, it might not, but generally something good comes along and you can do something about it.”
Willy shies away from the suggestion that his inheritance is too weighty a responsibility. “I think it comes with so many good things – no point worrying abut the burden. We have both been lucky enough to have been brought up in Northumberland where there’s always something really interesting to do.”
They’re a forward thinking couple. Eliza is following in the footsteps of Willy’s travelling forebears, making forays to India, South Africa and South America to source new and exciting stock for the fairly traded ‘ibbi’ homeware brand she has created with two friends, Clare McAlpine and Anna Kirkup.
Upstairs in the main house, the old library is currently a huge storage space for a colourful and quirky selection of vintage sari throws; charpoys (Indian beds) and vivid South African ceramics. On the landing a decorative Marwari horse keeps a watchful eye on the visitors below.
“I am particularly passionate about these vintage saris. I love their faded colours,” Eliza says. “The charpoys are also popular. We sold two of them this week. They are what the Indians lie on on the side of the street and they are very comfortable.”
From September through to December the enterprising trio have 44 days of fairs from Wiltshire up to Dumfries to spread the ibbi word and their Facebook page has more than a thousand followers.
The Browne-Swinburnes have also enjoyed their first successful year marketing Capheaton as a stylish wedding venue where guests can take over the whole of the west wing.
And Willy is now sharing the expertise he has built up through the management of Capheaton with others. As an associate director of the national company Rural Solutions, he is helping farmers and landowners look at their assets in a way that can help them generate income by diversifying away from standard rural business.
A new horticultural team is also in place with a view to reopening the walled garden to the public for charity. So if you would like to take a privileged peek into one of Northumberland’s most magnificent gardens watch this space for further news.