Tucked away in the Suffolk countryside, not far from the Essex border, is the small village of Stoke-by-Nayland. Famed for its timber-framed cottages, many of them thatched, there are a handful of properties that do not fit this mould. South of the village, surrounded by fields, is one such building. This building is so extraordinary in its setting, architecture, history and interiors, that words struggle to do it justice. A fabled folly, lovingly restored and converted in to a comfortable home. This is the Temple at Stoke-by-Nayland.
The Temple of the Four Seasons, as it is formally known, was built by architect Sir Robert Taylor some time between 1750 and 1770 as a fishing lodge. Like his riverside villas in Richmond (Asgill House) and Marlow (Harleyford Manor), The Temple is an essay in Palladian design. It, too, is built on water – in this case an elegant canal extends for two-hundred yards from the loggia of The Temple like a vast mirrored lawn – and like at Asgill and Harleyford you could be mistaken for thinking you’ve been transported to the Veneto.
Situated at the west end of the canal, The Temple is part of the Tendring Hall estate, formerly the seat of the Rowley Baronets. It is a simple, classical design, beautiful in its symmetry and proportions. The square main block has a canted bay on the west front with double hung sashes and glazing bars. There are two sloping roofed wings on the north and south sides, with a glazed door that opens out on to the canal from the south wing. The two-storey east facade of the main block is notable for several key features. It is perfectly Palladian in design, with a single sash window in a recessed arch beneath a simple pediment. Beneath the window is a loggia, into which Raymond Erith inserted a wonderful oeil-de-boeuf window in the 1960s for then owner David Hicks. The roof is low pitched, with wide overhanging eaves and modillions.
Inside, you approach the piano nobile up a wide staircase and through a low Georgian door, after which the room opens up majestically. With its fourteen foot-high ceiling and commanding view over the canal, the saloon is the piece-de-resistance of The Temple. On the far side is a striking white marble fireplace with a plain, pedimented marble overmantel. The ceiling features a plasterwork design of four heads decorated with swags and flourishes, representing the four seasons, for which the lodge was named. Downstairs are three smaller rooms, none of which are particularly notable – a kitchen/dining room, a bedroom and a bathroom. The bedroom in the south wing benefits from glazed double doors that open out on to the loggia overlooking the canal.
The whole building is rendered in a warm ochre colour, conjuring visions of Italian sunsets and Venetian palazzos. This is exactly what the Rowley family would have intended when they commissioned Taylor to build their fishing lodge. With its classical building and glassy canal flanked by neat avenues of chestnuts, The Temple was designed to be both practical and pleasurable; a place for guests to walk to and admire, and a place to transport them to another world entirely.
The Temple’s pared back, Palladian vernacular was designed to compliment the main house, designed by Sir John Soane. The Rowley family still own the estate and the freehold of The Temple, but sadly Tendring Hall didn’t survive the nation-wide purge of English country houses in the second half of the twentieth century. Thankfully The Temple did. Indeed, it would have faced certain destruction had it not been for a saviour in the form of aesthete and designer David Hicks, who bought the lease in the late 1950s. An empty and worn canvas, Hicks was able to work his magic on The Temple, bringing it back to life with his English country house look. He commissioned renowned classical architect Raymond Erith to aid him in the restoration, and it was Erith’s masterstroke to install the oeil-de-boeuf window in the lower east facade to bring daylight to the dark kitchen. John Fowler advised Hicks on the interiors, and Hicks planted hornbeam hedges on either side of the lodge to give privacy from the lane.
Sadly the newfound purpose of The Temple was to be short-lived. Hicks would give up the lease upon his marriage to Lady Pamela Mountbatten, and The Temple would once again succumb to dereliction. Some time later, Charles Beresford-Clark would happen upon it, and restore it once again. It was he who added the Roman busts on plinths to the wall on either side of the fireplace in the saloon. Two leases later, in 1983, New Zealand-born interior designer Veere Grenney would take over the lease, and The Temple has been his country retreat ever since.
Over the last 30 years, Veere has updated and redecorated The Temple many times, but he has always maintained Fowler and Hicks’ English country house style. At one stage he painted the saloon a sunny yellow colour reminiscent of Nancy Lancaster’s ‘Yellow Room’ on Avery Row. These days the saloon is a lovely dusty pink, which contrasts with the white of the fireplace, plasterwork and Roman busts. Veere has furnished the saloon with plain linens, antique furniture and rush matting, all of which allow the eye to focus on the rich plasterwork and sublime view, and add to the Italian air of the place. Downstairs, Veere has decorated the smaller rooms simply but elegantly. He has also converted the former kennels into further accommodation in his trademark classical style.
On the one hand, The Temple at Stoke-by-Nayland is a folly, built to be looked at and admired. But while follies have no practical purpose, The Temple has been transformed in to a cherished home. Yes, it’s exquisite to look at, but it’s also a happily lived-in space. I have never actually been to The Temple – I know it only by reputation – so for me it remains shrouded in mystery. But those friends of mine who have stayed there attest that it is utter paradise. A classical sanctuary in an Arcadian setting. We are forever in debt to those creative men – Hicks, Beresford-Clark and Grenney – for saving and treasuring this gem, and maintaining it so well for posterity.