The tiny hamlet of Mapledurham can be reached by driving down a long, twisting, narrow lane, which gets particularly exciting at busy times. A far more sedate method is to take a gentle boat journey along a short stretch of the River Thames, departing from the Caversham promenade. Arriving in this picturesque village is like stepping back in time as it appears to be virtually untouched by the usual disturbances of 21st century paraphernalia, and remains a secluded outpost with only a few residential properties, a church, and the Mapledurham estate.
An attractive Elizabethan building with some 18th/19th century alterations, Mapledurham House has been the ancestral home of the Blount family since the end of the 15th century, and remains very much a family home to descendants of that same family. The present house was started by Sir Michael Blount c1588 to replace an old manor house that dated back to the 12th century. As Lieutenant of the Tower of London in the reign of Elizabeth I, Sir Michael felt that a grander residence was more appropriate to his status. Suffering the usual consequences of property belonging to a Catholic family, Mapledurham House went through a torrid time during the 1640s but was eventually secured by Walter Blount in 1651. Through their long association with the renowned 18th century poet, Alexander Pope, Martha and Teresa Blount became the most famous sisters of the family and, following Pope's death, he left many of his possessions to Martha, which are displayed in Mapledurham House. Pope also influenced the layout of the gardens in conjunction with his favoured designer, William Kent.
When Catholics were allowed to follow their faith openly, a lovely little chapel was created in Mapledurham House, in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style that was so popular at the end of the 18th century, and this continues to be used regularly for the celebration of Mass. About 30 years later, Thomas Martin gave the house a thorough facelift, introducing fine plasterwork and classical features to harmonise with the original Tudor work. Although not comparable with the refined work of Robert Adam, Martin adopted his style of blending old and new to remodel some of the rooms. Filled with family portraits, relics and furniture from every generation, Mapledurham House represents an interesting mish-mash of changing fashions and fortunes.
Externally Mapledurham House looks warm and inviting, built of the rich red bricks traditionally used during the Elizabethan period, and displaying some intricate patterns in the brickwork. A survival from the days when it was dangerous to practice Catholicism, is the small gable above a high window at the back of the house adorned with oyster shells. This was once a familiar sight on houses to denote that it was a safe refuge for Catholics.
A remarkable, fully restored and operational 15th century watermill also survives as part of the Mapledurham estate, and is worthy of inspection. Apart from looking delightfully romantic, as a working mill it is possible to see it 'in action' and purchase some of the flour ground regularly on site.