Nuffield Place is typical of the Chilterns: modest, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably near heard of.
The William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts Movement-fame casts a huge shadow on this William Richard Morris, Viscount Nuffield who brought affordable motoring to Britain, and this is his story.
Born in 1877 in Worcester, William Morris moved with his family to Oxfordshire where his mother had been born and raised. Due to financial pressures, he had to leave school at an early ago to become apprenticed to a local cycle repair shop. A natural mechanic and ‘ a tinkerer of things” he saved £4 over a mere nine months and opened his own business repairing bicycles from a shed in his parents garden, labelling his product with a gilt cycle wheel and The Morris.
He met his wife Elizabeth Anstey whilst both members of the local cycling club. Despite going on a tandem-cycling holiday across some vast distance, they still decided to get married! They had no children.
His stratospheric rise to the heights of motor car designer, manufacturer, wealthiest self-made industrialist of his age and philanthropist seems almost unreal as you wonder around his former home. A slightly shabby, down at heel 1930’s house, I was there for an altogether different reason: the launch of the Ridgeway Partnership that is taking a new look at how this ancient pathway is being promoted and used. Nuffield Place just happens to be en-route, tucked away in a secluded woodland above Henley-on-Thames. There is an ever-so-slightly unkempt feel here, which I love. No sharp edges, ropes and bossy signs. The gardens are full of wildflowers and so many foxgloves! A pair of kites wheeled lazily overhead, and I was tempted to get a game of croquet underway on the lawn.
Nuffield Place is typical of the Chilterns: modest, intriguing and tucked away in a beautiful place you have probably near heard of. Designed by Oswald Partridge Milne, this Arts and Crafts house was completed in 1914 and originally named Merrow Mount, which explains the ship on the weather vane. When Lord and Lady Nuffield purchased the house in 1933, they renamed it Nuffield Place after the nearby village. Refreshingly unpretentious, very personal and seems to have escaped being ‘done over’ to appeal to the historic house visitor demographic who needs tips on lifestyle enhancement and all-round heritage self-help. This is a recent acquisition by the National Trust and came very close to being sold, when at the 11th hour, Nuffield College (the college he founded), handed the house to the nation in 2011. We are grateful.
This great philanthropist who gave upwards of £600 million in today’s money to big medical research projects, also gave quite touching donations including buying a supply of wedding dresses that he kept in one of his shops, that wartime brides who, for whatever reason, could borrow to wear for their wartime wedding. There are still letters from these grateful couples who told of what would have been an otherwise drab day had been sprinkled with some much-needed glamour.
Overheard inside the house: ‘Everyone says it’s so modest…but it isn’t is it?”
Not much has changed from when they lived here and all sorts of personal touches are to be found on dressers, hangers, tables and beds; books including “Rheumatism and you – a handbook”, the ‘Book of Etiquette’ by Lady Troubridge and ‘The Scottish Terrier’ by D.A. Casperz. The ‘Cries of London’ picture series that shows the different street sellers, took me back to my childhood! I am not sure which two or three we had in our modest dining room, but am sure were only cheap prints compared to the entire wall-full of images hanging here.
There is no great car collection either, only a modest Wolseley in the garage, which he saw no reason to upgrade. His wife was a terrible driver, but we are not told of his driving skills, only that he didn’t much like the Morris Minor.
To the many volunteers who were working so hard in the gardens and inside the house, ready to share delightful stories, this special house would not be open without you – thank you!
Modest until the end
Morris remained in good health for a man who chain-smoked until four years before his death, but declined after the death of his wife in 1959. His ashes are buried beneath this modest stone near the door of Holy Trinity Church in Nuffield parish church, although he had almost no interest in religion. The bulk of his remaining estate, valued at over £3m in 1963 money, was given to Nuffield College.
Naturally I recommend a visit, and if you are a NT member, the splendid Greys Court is nearby so can be enjoyed on the same day.
If enjoying usual and memorable places is your thing, then why not try these other quirky Chilterns destinations?