Rokeby Park, just outside Barnard Castle in what was once the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit, though you have to pick the right afternoon to find it open.
It’s the home of Sir Andrew Morritt, whose family have owned the estate since 1769.
To describe it as a home is no cliché.
There’s a table with guide-books and postcards, and visitors are offered a commodious ground-floor convenience, but there’s no tea-shop, nor gift shop, no potpourri or potted plants.
You’re welcome to go through any door that is open, and to sit on any chair that isn’t taped.
The house-tour is free-flow, as are the guides, an affable and knowledgeable team who make guests feel at home.
The house was built by Sir Thomas Robinson (1703-1777), the amateur architect who was fond of telling his friends how to design their houses, and who is best known for adding the west wing to Sir John Vanburgh’s incomplete Castle Howard.
Rokeby Park is an almost perfect Palladian villa, never completed because Sir Thomas ran out of money. Rather than leave it unfinished, Sir Thomas rounded it off and successive owners have tactfully extended it.
Sir Thomas sold the estate to John Sawrey Morritt, who commissioned John Carr of York to adapt the original stable wing to provide a spacious, elegant dining room with plasterwork by Joseph Rose the Elder (c1723-1780).
J S Morritt’s son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt (1772?-1843) was a connoisseur and collector, whose Grand Tour extended into Asia Minor. He was one of the founders of the Travellers’ Club (1819) and he was a close friend of Sir Walter Scott, whose poem ‘Rokeby’ is dedicated to him.
He bought the painting by Diego Velázquez of Venus and Cupid, now known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’, which he described as “my fine picture of Venus’s backside”. He went to some trouble over its hanging: “…by raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty, and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing in the said posterior as part of the company”.
The Velázquez was sold by a cash-strapped descendant – it’s now in the National Gallery – and a 1906 copy by W A Menzies hangs in its place.
The park stands at the confluence of the River Greta and the River Wear, and the lawn ends at a spectacular drop into the Greta gorge – the sort of ha-ha no-one could emulate.
The walks through the gorge are comparable with the more contrived landscape at Hackfall, and more formal Yorkshire gardens at Studley Royal, Rievaulx and Duncombe Park.
Rokeby was at one time written as ‘Rookby’, which seems to be the preferred pronunciation.
It’s easy to miss. Don’t miss it: http://www.rokebypark.com.