Property: Gentleman of leisure needed: A West Country Tudor mansion requires a caring and wealthy owner with time to spare, says Anne Spackman

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The Independent Online
The gentleman who bought Poundisford Park in 1928 was exactly that. Arthur Vivian-Neal was a gentleman of leisure. He was wealthy enough to devote himself to civic and social duties: a JP and alderman, he was also a keen antiquarian and archaeologist. His role in society was little different from that of the West Country gentry who had preceded him as occupants of the house since 1546. They entertained and had guests to stay, all with the help of a full complement of servants.

By contrast, Arthur's grandson, Peter Vivian-Neal, has a typical, late 20th-century existence: his life is dominated by his job. He travels so much that he has to live near a major airport. Poundisford Park, just outside Taunton in Somerset, is hardly suitable. So the family estate, rather than being inherited by Peter, is up for sale.

Ralph Vivian-Neal, Peter's father, is the present owner of the house. He caught his first glimpse of Poundisford Park as an infant from the back of a Rover Tourer.

His parents needed a property large enough to house the many family portraits his mother had inherited. They thought a Georgian or William and Mary house would be most suitable. But even wealthy buyers in the Twenties had to contend with flaws in properties.

'My parents realised, even in 1928, that there might be a problem employing servants in a house that had a drive a mile long,' Ralph Vivian-Neal said. 'It's rather a long walk before you can get anywhere on your day off.'

They settled for Poundisford, which had a drive of a more manageable length, but was 16th rather than 18th century. It was further west than the family wanted to be and was also in a very sorry state.

Arthur Vivian-Neal paid pounds 10,000 for Poundisford and then, in a most unusual move for those days, spent more doing the house up than he had bought it for. Anthony Methuen was the architect in charge of the renovation, which was described in detail in two articles in Country Life in 1934.

When the family arrived, a Mr and Mrs Milton lived in one of the old cottages attached to the house. He had been coachman, chauffeur, and then gardener. He and his wife stayed on at Poundisford until they died in the Forties.

The family also brought their own staff with them. Mr and Mrs Gaye were the chauffeur/factotum and housekeeper. Ralph Vivian-Neal, who is a land agent, remembers Mr Gaye as the man who did everything, from hanging pictures to valeting his father's clothes.

There was a cook, a kitchen maid, a parlour maid and two housemaids, an under-gardener and a boy who helped Mr Milton. Today the same house is run with a cleaning lady and a gardener.

The catalyst for change was the war. Servants disappeared, to be replaced by girls considered unfit for factory work. And when they left, they were not replaced.

Along with other country house owners, the Vivian-Neals began to open to the public as a way to pay for the upkeep of their historic home. They had a better history to sell than most.

Poundisford Park was built in 1546 on land which had previously been part of the Great Manor of Taunton Dene. It retains much of its Tudor flavour.

Entering the double height great hall, where an Elizabethan coat-of-arms is carved, you see many of the features that run throughout the house: an ornate plaster ceiling, panelled walls, leaded windows. The staircase leads up to a gallery with a plaster frieze, where a small window looks down on to the great hall below. Its spring-catch still works.

The gallery leads to Miss Rebecca's Closet, a tiny panelled room, where bunches of herbs hang from the walls. It has been preserved in memory of Rebecca Welman, a noted herbalist, whose family lived at Poundisford in the 18th century.

There is also the Queen's Room, where Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, slept on a royal process through the West Country. Downstairs, the Justice Room is where poachers and other minor villains were dealt with.

Afterthe war the social life of the house continued much the same as before, except that Ralph Vivian-Neal's wife Gillian and their daughters had to do the work previously done by staff. There is a large and splendid dining-room in the Georgian wing of the house which is still considered the party room.

Once the staff cottages became redundant, they were leased out to a couple in the catering business, first as a restaurant and then as a place for functions. Mr Vivian- Neal has seen a number of unknown brides sweep through the courtyard doors, as well as his own two daughters.

Poundisford Park is Grade I listed, so every replacement slate or pane of glass must be approved. With 13 bedrooms, seven reception rooms and 67 acres of parkland, running this kind of house is a business in itself.

When Gillian Vivian-Neal died three years ago, her husband had to decide whether to stay on for sentimental reasons or leave for pragmatic ones. He realised Poundisford Park was never going to be suitable for his son, so now it is for sale.

In the Twenties the people who had the money to buy a house like this also had the time to look after it and enjoy it. Now, those who have a lot of money tend to have traded it for no free time.

The exceptions are the new gentlemen of leisure - men who have sold a successful business and do their work in a couple of board meetings a month. Such a person could install himself at Poundisford and carry on the kind of life established 450 years ago.

Poundisford Park is being sold by Strutt & Parker's Exeter office (0392 215631) for pounds 600,000.

(Photograph omitted)

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