You could be forgiven for thinking that Snowshill Manor is your average stately home when you approach the house through its carefully manicured gardens.
In reality, this is one of the Britain’s weirdest country houses. Once inside, you’ll discover a manor house packed with extraordinary and eclectic treasures collected by its eccentric owner, Charles Wade.
As we buy our tickets, the National Trust guide laughs apologetically and warns visitors that “this is no ordinary stately home – it’s not like our other houses”.
Cabinet of curiosities
“Charles Page Wade Esq. cordially invites you to view his fantastic collection of craftsman-made curiosities and objects of beauty.
You are requested to be present at the front door of Snowshill Manor at any time between 2pm-4pm” – National Trust admission ticket.
From the moment you walk through the door, you’ll discover that Snowshill is like no ordinary, idyllic country house. It’s a cabinet full of weird and wonderful curiosities, the vision of one man – Charles Wade.
Wade had a passion for collecting beautiful and interesting objects. He didn’t want to create a museum – his vision was a house containing a series of rooms full of beautifully crafted objects which would be visually attractive and pleasing to the senses.
Every room at Snowshill is jam-packed with hundreds of strange objects, from old clocks and scary Samurai armour to mechanical toys and bicycles.
There are collections of musical instruments, model ships, dolls and spinning wheels. The list is endless. There’s even a cobbler’s shop, complete with work bench and shoes.
Wade was trained as an architect and his zest for creating intriguing spaces is obvious as you wander through the labyrinth of rooms which make up this medieval manor.
The earliest parts of the house date from 1490 but Charles Wade remodelled the property in the early 20th century.
He also gave each room a name and a theme – Meridian, Zenith, Occidens, Mermaid, Seventh Heaven, Mizzen – and painted their names on the lintels above the doorways.
Mr Wade started collecting when he was seven years old – he developed his love of collectables from his grandmother who owned a Chinese cabinet of curiosities.
It was a hobby which lasted a lifetime. Wade’s motto was “let nothing perish” – he loved unearthing unusual treasures from the surrounding area and the wider world.
He bought from markets, shops and antique dealers in England, and later graduated to collecting pieces from Spain, Italy, Persia and the Far East. He adored colourful and exotic objects from abroad which he added to his growing collection.
Wade was an unconventional man and didn’t care what the world thought of him. There’s a great story of Wade being arrested for wearing a suit of armour on Oxford Street in London, after buying it for his collection. It was the only way of getting the armour safely back home!
Mr Wade didn’t pile up his treasures in dusty cases – he presented them in a theatrical and fun way. Famous friends and visitors flocked to see them including J.B. Priestley, John Betjeman, Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene whilst Queen Mary visited twice to see what all the fuss was about.
J.B. Priestley was impressed by the huge scale of the collection and remarked that “it could have dressed whole opera companies”.
There is a sense of drama as you walk around the manor house. There are no bright lights or labels on Mr Wade’s objects. He wanted to create a dark and mysterious place, encouraging visitors to peer into hidden corners.
Enter the Turquoise Room and you’ll be confronted by beautiful items from China and Japan including a Cantonese black lacquer cabinet based on the design of a Buddhist temple.
Look inside at the strange selection of oddities including an ivory and mother-of-pearl opium case and press.
One of my favourite places is the atmospheric Green Room with its low lighting and moody, dim tone. It holds an extraordinary collection of Samurai warrior armour as well as a large Buddhist shrine and Japanese theatre masks. It’s like entering a completely different universe.
Another favourite room is ‘One Hundred Wheels’, a rooftop space with hundreds of bicycles including Penny Farthings, ‘boneshakers’, velocipedes and perambulators. Bikes hang from the attic roof and the room is stuffed with historic cycles and toy bikes from ceiling to floor.
You wonder what Mary Graham, Wade’s long-suffering wife, made of the thousands of objects which her husband acquired and brought home. Just think of all the dusting and polishing!
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Wades never lived in the main manor house, preferring the nearby cosy cottage, the Priest’s House, as a place to eat, sleep and relax.
The cottage was named by Wade as a nod to the days when the manor house belonged to Winchcombe Abbey and was used as a bakery and brew house.
Wade transformed the buildings into a series of atmospheric spaces. The main living room is dominated by a giant leather chair positioned in front of a roaring log fire. It’s fun to imagine Wade sitting here reading one of his favourite books. Look out for the surreal wooden cat standing on the rug nearby.
The bedroom is a far cry from your regular National Trust country house, boasting a Tudor box bed and religious decorations. It’s more like a chapel or shrine than a bedroom with its crucifixes and religious paraphernalia.
Across the hall, there’s a bathroom which is similarly eclectic in style. I’m pleased to report that Charles Wales enjoyed reading the same magazines as my partner Tony when he was sitting on the loo, including Yachting Weekly!
Back in the manor house, there were guest bedrooms for visitors, although staying overnight would have given me a bad case of insomnia. Tales of ghostly apparitions abound.
Ann’s Room sent a shiver down my spine as soon as I walked into its dark, wood panelled interior.
It was here that heiress Ann Parsons married a young servant Anthony Palmer in secret in 1604, even though she was pledged to be married to someone else. Their elopement was discovered and she was taken away whilst her husband was accused of abduction.
There have been numerous sightings of a ghostly woman. This led Charles Wade to send a wood panel from the room to a medium in Brighton. Although the psychic knew nothing about the story, she felt the presence of a 16th Century young woman in a green dress looking agitated and pacing up and down.
Her ghost is sometimes seen walking into the bedroom from the Music Room next door – and some say they’ve heard music coming from that very same space. I wasn’t going to linger any longer to test the theory of a haunting!
The splendid four-poster bed dates from slightly later in 1630. Look out for the five holes in the side rails designed to hold candles during a vigil before a burial, another grim reminder of death and mortality.
Downstairs, Charles Wade used some of the manor rooms for entertaining guests including the Salamander and Dragon Nadir. The Dragon Nadir also provided the stage for theatrical performances by Wade and his friends.
They’d dress up in costumes and wigs from Wade’s huge collection. Wade started collecting costumes when he was 14 and acquired 2,250 pieces of 18th and 19th century apparel including court costumes, gowns, suits, crinolines, shoes and hats.
One of the things I love about Snowshill Manor is that it is presented exactly as Charles Wade arranged it – as a wonderful treasure trove of curiosities.
The succession of intriguing objects goes on and on as you wander from room to room. This is a truly unique house and I can’t think of any other place like it.
The only parallel is John Soane’s House in London, a similarly eclectic treasure trove of objects, paintings and antiquities. Perhaps, it’s no surprise that both men were architects with a love of fine art. They were life-long treasure seekers and collectors.
The delights of Mr Wade’s collection don’t end as you leave the manor. Wade saw the gardens as an extension of the house, a series of outdoor rooms – a place for “pretty thoughts and soft musings”.
He wanted to create “a garden of interest” and commissioned Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, a fellow architect, who believed that a well-designed garden was as important as a well-designed house.
I love what they’ve achieved – an old English garden style with terraces and courts which feel intimate and informal.
Wade believed that turquoise and blue were the best colours for the garden as a foil to nature’s green foliage. Blues feature everywhere, from the plants and flowers to the turquoise 24 hour garden clock with its astronomical devices and inscriptions.
Look closer and you’ll discover that this is not simply an average country garden.
It is full of surprising features and objects from Wade’s collections. This is designed as a sensory garden – all the ornaments and decorations are selected to provide a theatrical or reflective experience.
There’s a Shrine to the Virgin Mary which recalls Italian gardens whilst an impressive teak statue of St George and the dragon looks down on the top terrace.
What I like most about the garden is its informality. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore and, rather like the rest of the manor house, there’s a surprise around every corner.
My favourite oddity is a large cheese press which was once used for making Double Gloucester, the local cheese.
The biggest surprise in the gardens is stumbling upon the world of Wolf Cove, a model village, which is currently being restored to its former glory.
When he was living in Hampstead, Charles Wade built one of the first model villages designed for the outdoors. He based it on a traditional Cotswold village which he called ‘Fladbury’, but later changed the name to Wolf’s Cove when he moved to Snowshill.
Peer across the wall to catch a glimpse of the harbour, quayside and lighthouse. This is very much work in progress as the ambitious project to recreate this miniature seaport is due for completion in 2019.
The original village had its own railway station, sidings, fleet of ships, canals, main and side streets, thatched buildings and actual living woodlands.
The poet John Betjeman wrote a glowing article about Wolf’s Creek in Architectural Review magazine in 1931 and convinced a number of readers that the village actually did exist!
Although incomplete, it’s a joy to see this mini-masterpiece with its cottages and restored buildings which include a village post office complete with letter box and garden.
Once complete, Wolf’s Cove will boast a fully operational railway and canal system as well as a myriad of winding streets full of houses, inns and small buildings.
The attention to detail in Charles Wade’s original village design is remarkable. He incorporated everything from figurines and a fun fair to ladders, buoys, and boats to make it look hyper-real.
Wade’s wonderful world
Charles Wade was a deeply unconventional man.
He was a visionary and avid collector, with a passion for beautiful things.
It’s an absolute joy to walk in his footsteps through Snowshill Manor and the ‘living museum’ which he created.
Snowshill is one of those unusual and unique places that remains in the memory long after a visit. It’s a country house like no other… for which the word ‘unique’ could have been invented.
Don’t miss its extraordinary collections.
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Snowshill
Snowshill Manor and Garden is a National Trust property and is located in the village of Snowshill in the Cotswolds.
Admission charges apply. Check seasonal opening times on the website. On Tuesdays entry into the Manor is by guided tour only (100 tickets available). These run out quickly at busy times so expect a long wait before your tour.
If travelling by car, drive to Broadway and take the main route to Snowshill which is signposted from the A44.
Snowshill village and nearby Broadway are also worth a detour. These are two of the most beautiful villages in England with their traditional stone-built cottages.
Enjoy this? Also recommended…
Enjoyed Snowshill Manor?
Then why not visit another fantastic emporium of collectables at John Soane’s House in London.