No-one can pinpoint exactly, to the hour, when the Queen came to the Hampshire house.
But she did. They’ve had a handwriting expert in to examine her letter and everything. It’s just that her schedules do not show when this serendipitous visit occurred. It happened at the last minute, it seems.
The letter reads,
June 23, 1972
Dear Mr Dutton,
It was such a delightful and unexpected pleasure to pay you a visit last week, and I greatly enjoyed seeing the lovely garden, and your beautiful house so full of treasures. One does not often see a garden so well placed, with sudden exquisite views to thrill one, and my own garden looked a positive jungle after your green walks and splendid clumps of shrubs and roses!
With my warm thanks for your kindness and hospitality, I am, yours very sincerely,
I’ve never seen a real letter from the real queen before. I’ve seen acknowledgements from her lady in waiting, but nothing as warm and frank and beautifully written as this. But perhaps I do not move in the right circles.
Ralph Stawell Dutton, however, moved in exactly the right circles.
The eighth, and last, Baron Sherborne had consummate taste. He took an old house and garden – Hinton Ampner in Alresford- and made it a little piece of perfection: built in 1790, remodelled in 1867, Dutton took the shell and created what he saw as the spirit of grace and beauty: a Georgian country house. In 1960 a fire raveaged one end of the house and his extensive library. But it did not defeat the Baron; he simply called in the best architects money could buy and remodeled in true Georgian style all over again, buying old books to fill the house.
Filled with things Georgian, it was nevertheless a house which boasted all the modern conveniences: state-of the art bathrooms, telephones in all the right places, heating and plush, deep carpets. A house fit for a queen indeed.
My friend Lydia and I had come ghost hunting. The last house, the Tudor one, had been knocked down after horrific tales of murdered babies and monstrous hauntings, servants who would not stay put, dark spectres and disembodied voices.
And yet as we ambled over the site of the old place we could feel nothing but harmony. For it was such a very beautiful garden. It was theatrical.Everywhere you looked there was a frame, a vista, symmetry.
There was one place inside where Lydia felt something. I asked the room guide, whose room was this? Ah, the guide replied, this was Ralph Dutton’s room. A lovely light place with a huge accompanying bathroom. It is said the toilet was placed beside a window which had ‘ the best view in the house.’
He never married. He lived there, partied there, grew old there and died falling down its elegant stairs, before life could become cumbersome. And he created a house which could delight a queen.
The man had enduring style.