In the salmon-pink drawing room, the chandeliers are twinkling and the ornate, gilded ceiling is positively gleaming. Avington Park, found five miles east of Winchester, is like a novel opening up to reveal its various chapters of chequered history. Until recently, the once-private estate has been a ‘closed book’ – not accessible to the public. Now, following a £8 million restoration project, new owner Nicolas Roach – who bought the house and grounds in 2020 – has unbolted the doors, making the lavish property available for sole hire, weddings and events.
Found on the banks of the River Itchen, Avington Park dates back as far as the year 961, when it was originally a priory for the Monks of Saint Swithun, as recorded in the Domesday Book. Perhaps, most famously it was the home of King Charles II, who lived here with his mistress, Nell Gwynn, in the mid 17th century. Eventually it became a privately-owned mansion, with Lady Eleanor Shelley Rolls, the heiress to the Rolls Royce fortune, living here in the late 1940s-early 1950s.
Now its beauty is available to all to see. As you drive through the gates, the mansion’s heritage is first spotted by the majestic peacocks that wander around – making your journey along the drive one of ‘stop and start’ as they step into your pathway. It’s all the better for it, as your slow route gives you the chance to take in some of the 150 acres – including Avington Lake and the quaint iron bridge across the River Itchen.
As well as the extensive grounds, the country retreat has 21 suites (17 of these are in the main house, and the rest are dotted across cottages in the grounds); four opulent public rooms, and an original orangery. A palatial home-from-home – it’s the most sumptuous place for a unique private party, a special event or lavish family gathering.
Everywhere you look, evidence of the home’s rich history can be soaked up. Its role, as part of Henry VIII’s Tudor court, for instance, can be seen with hand-painted wall coverings of the Tudor Dynasty (still in perfect condition) found in Avington’s first floor private family drawing room, and other features including the Tudor Courtyards and bed chambers at the rear of the house.
During King Charles II reign, it became known as a ‘party palace’, with many members of the royal court visiting the house, and there’s nowhere quite like the first-floor drawing room – originally the ballroom – to imagine those times. There’s the elaborate ceiling fresco of cotton-wool clouds and dancing cherubs, painted by Antonio Verio to replicate the Palace of Versailles; oversized, tainted mirrors and a gallery of oil paintings – including one of King Charles II as a young boy. There are also views across the south lawn, which seems unchanged since the early days of the house – stretching across the fountain to the river, and the ha ha, built to keep away the resident sheep and cows from coming too close.
Downstairs, a library has walls lined with endless leather books and vintage titles; arched windows looking out onto the rolling grounds and even a secret door leading to the kitchens, which staff once used. With its roaring fire, antique furniture and hand-painted walls, the King Charles Hall, on the other hand, is the grand, first room you enter on arrival. Dotted with plaster busts, rare ceramics and blooms cut from the gardens, it’s a beautiful place for afternoon tea or quiet afternoons reconnecting with loved ones.
Best of all the new era of Avington, gives you the chance to bed down for the night in one of the refurbished suites. All have their own unique character with the Elizabethan Apartment – which sleeps six across three bedrooms – facing Avington’s medieval courtyard and the Duchess Chandos Apartment, with its antique lighting, soft textiles and bespoke wallpapers, perhaps the most spectacular. All the rooms blend the best of the house’s legacy with modern-day comforts.
As well as intimate weddings, anniversary dinners and celebratory parties, Avington House can also be hired for one-off events. Making the most of its rural location, you can hire local florists, Little and Bloom, for seasonal wreath-making masterclasses or floral workshops; book a fishing lesson along the river or arrange for a day of traditional country pursuits.
In the orangery, its walls are alive with real jasmine, lemon and lime trees, which snake up the brick walls and around the stained-glass windows. Entrenched in the past, it feels like the most vibrant spot to embrace the future of this historic house.