Wolfeton House near Dorchester dates back to the 14th century and is rife with tales of ghosts, royalty and rivalry. Captain Nigel Thimbleby gives Joanna Davis a tour

Chances are you haven’t visited Wolfeton House yet.

Hidden among water meadows on the outskirts of the county town on the way to Charminster, the house is as discreet as Grade I-listed medieval and Elizabethan grandeur can get.

It’s hard to believe that just 2,000 visitors discovered the charms of Wolfeton last year. It is open during the summer for three days of the week but the house is not advertised and relies upon word-of mouth recommendation.

After driving down a long winding road passing by the confluence of the Rivers Frome and Cerne, I am greeted by Captain Thimbleby as I approach the Gate House, the oldest part of the building said to date from the 14th century.

Wolfeton, once known as Wolveton, dazzles on its first impression. Once home to the Trenchards, its opulence allowed the family to compete in the great game of one-upmanship with other well-heeled Dorset families. It was, after all, the residence King George III selected to breakfast in while he was staying in Weymouth.

The first room all visitors see is the Great Hall, which was re-panelled in 1862. As I am shown some early panels dating to 1500, Captain Thimbleby points to the corner, where there used to be a bath, and the window, where there was a kitchen. The room used to be a self-contained flat, he tells me, and it was only when Captain Thimbleby took over as a relative of the Trenchards that the house was restored to its original state.

He said: “I was a happy bachelor soldier at the time and my mother wrote to me out in the Middle East asking me to come and look after the house.

“I was a happy bachelor without a care in the world and the plan was for us to take this house on. “I got invalided out of the Army and in due course I came back to this country.

“I came and saw a tumbledown house with some tumbledown tenants in these tumbledown flats.”

At first Captain Thimbleby stayed in the gatehouse but as the tenants moved on, he and his wife moved into the house, restoring it to the beautiful and romantic house it was in the 16th century.

The Thimblebys have remained there ever since, frequently visited by their grownup children, cursing the badgers who frequently pothole the lawn and proudly counting electric heaters as their ‘central heating’.

Wolfeton has a prestigious collection of paintings, including a work by Van Dyke featuring two sisters, one of whom is Lady Elizabeth Thimbleby, CaptainThimbleby’s ancestor.

“We don’t know which is which but I do hope the one on the right is my ancestor,” he said. “I just think she’s a lot prettier.”

The most famous event associated with Wolfeton was a visit by the Archduke Philip of Austria and his Spanish wife Joanna, who sought refuge there after being caught in a storm in the Channel. The couple became the first to import Chinese porcelain bowls into the UK when they presented Wolveton owner Sir Thomas Trenchard with the bowls in gratitude for the hospitality. But perhaps the most intriguing story from Wolfeton is that of the ghost of Lady Trenchard. An image of her standing behind her chair with her throat cut and her head under her arm was said to be seen by a judge who was dining at Wolfeton.

Shortly afterwards a messenger delivered the news that Lady Trenchard had taken her own life. Today, Captain Thimbleby’s love of the house he inadvertently came to live in hasn’t waned.

He said: “We had a Country Life photographer here who wanted to get a good shot of the gatehouse.

“The photographer had four days of getting up at 5am to find the perfect shot. “I joined him and I remember finally the haze hanging lifted and the sun came through and it was the most wonderful morning sun shining its light onto the building.”

  • Wolfeton House is open from June to September on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2pm to 5pm. Group visits can be arranged by appointment throughout the year.