In the backcountry roads in Somerset on a single-track line lined with hedges on both sides winding through farmland lies a couple of houses. Collectively these houses are “Lytes Cary”. It is easy to miss due to the hedges but if you notice the low stone walls on either side of an unassuming (with the exception of a sign saying “Lytes Cary Manor”) single-track drive, you can find a nice manor with a couple of acres of land that was once the home of the proud Lyte and Jenner families.
The first records from 1285 show that there was a house there that was occupied and owned by William de Lyte (whose name is the origin of the village of “Lytes Cary” and the “River Cary”). The earliest part of the house that still stands dates from approximately the mid-14th century, which is the chapel. The chapel continued to be used with slight alterations over the centuries until 1948. This is when the National Trust gained ownership of the house, operating it ever since.
Lytes Cary features a great hall, entrance porch, oriel room, great and little parlours, and bedrooms. The Great Hall dates to the mid-15th century and the remaining rooms to the early 16th century. Unfortunately in 1755, the Lyte family sold the house and for the next 150 years, various tenants lived in and did not care for the house. A west and north range that had existed were destroyed during this time.
The 20th century
In 1907 Lytes Cary was bought by Sir Walter Jenner (a baronet). At the time the estate was being used merely to store farm equipment and the chapel as a lambing shed. Sir Walter restored Lytes Cary and decorated it to resemble the 17th and 18th-century styles that had been popular, including Chinois furniture and influences from the East. This also included a lot of oak furniture, antique tapestries and textiles. He ended up also rebuilding the west range but left most of the original house as it was. In his will, Sir Walter left his house to the national trust, who have owned and operated the manor ever since.
Another major feature of the manor is the grounds, the vast majority of which are taken up by gardens. The gardens were originally started by the Lyte family (specifically Henry Lyte). His son, Thomas, notes in 1618 that there were “Apples, 3 skore severall sorts. pears and Wardens (a type of pear), 44 sorts. Plummes, 15 divers kynds. Grapes, 3 severall sortes. Cherries, 1. Walnuts, 3. Peaches, 1.” In modern writing conventions: apples, 60 several sorts. Pears and wardens, 44 sorts. Plums, 15 diverse kinds. Grapes, 3 several sorts. Cherries, 1. Walnuts, 3. Peaches 1.
Unfortunately due to the 150 years of disrepair, the garden went to ruin and was wild by the time Sir Walter Jenner got his hands on it. As a result, the family started over in 1907. They designed a series of gardens in squares and rectangles separated from each other by box and yew hedges.
Over the years the National Trust has also made some changes to the gardens while keeping to the original style and intent. They have added a border to the entire garden and replaced some of the old/dead/dying orchard trees with new ones. They also replaced plants and made the garden more insect- and wildlife-friendly over the years.
It was nice to see the house and there were some great examples of art and furniture. There are examples of campaigns furniture. This is furniture bought by noble or well-off members of the military. They took it with them during their military campaigns around the world. The hallmark of this furniture is that it folds up very small and can usually fulfil many functions at once. The example in the house that drew me was the bed. It could also become a sofa and two chairs, depending on its configuration.
Another feature that exists but you might not notice it is some of the plaster decoration. In the great chamber, this plaster dates back to 1533. This is rare as most houses usually receive a remodelling throughout the centuries.
While I enjoyed going around the house (currently they are not offering tours due to the risk of Covid), it was the gardens that I particularly liked. It never felt like there were many people around and there was a wide range of both plants and gardens. There were fig and banana plants as well as other tropical plants in some areas, a lavender garden in another, a fountain area, a meadow and also topiaries and a lawn for picnics. On their website for the manor, the National Trust has said that they only had one gardener working during the pandemic but the garden did not seem to be in a state of mismanagement in any way. A few plants were growing over their beds and onto the path area but I think that added to the charm and made everything feel more natural.
Overall my impression of Lytes Cary was that the atmosphere was very friendly and cosy. The staff were great; the small nature of the house and the gardens divided into “rooms” made it feel home-like and private, unlike other larger mansions. There is also an excellent tearoom in the manor and a book barn on the estate as well. We had a scone with blackcurrant jam and clotted cream at around noon along with tea and it was obvious that the scone was fresh. Like at the rest of the National Trust buildings and estates, everything that can’t be eaten is recyclable and/or biodegradable. This includes the cups and lids made from plant material and are not plastic (although it is difficult to tell the difference when you use them).
Visiting Lytes Cary
By car, Lytes Cary is 10 minutes from Somerton, 20 minutes from Glastonbury, 30 minutes from Wells, 1 hour from Bristol and approximately 2.5 hours from the centre of London. Buses run extremely infrequently to Lytes Cary, so getting there by any other way may be very difficult if you miss the bus, which also does not operate on certain days.
Here are some more photos of Lytes Cary:
The entrance cost to Lytes Cary is £10 per adult, which seems steep but I would say it is worth it. You can also take advantage of walking trails through the estate. Animals (dogs specifically) are also allowed on the property but only assistance dogs are allowed within the house.
You can current information about opening times and prices here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lytes-cary-manor