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A first sight Stansted Park consists of a large garden centre, a farm shop, tearooms and a café, together with other "retail opportunities".

However, if you can find a site plan and examine it carefully you will spot that tucked away around the back is an Edwardian country house and grounds, but you wouldn't know it when you arrive in the car park.

It takes some perseverance to find your way through the tangle of commercial outlets and family friendly attractions (maze, play area, miniature railway, etc.), but it's worth it.

Don't get me wrong, I fully appreciate that a privately owned estate such as this needs to be profitable, but surely the house should be the main event, not treated as some sort of potential distraction from the business of extracting as much money from the punters as possible.

To be fair I should also point out that there was building work being carried out in the car park at the time of my visit, and this may have resulted in the temporary removal of some signage.

For opening times, admission prices, etc., please see the official site.

And what a fine house it is.

The current house dates from 1903 and is by the architect Arthur Conran Blomfield. It replaced an earlier building dating back to 1686 which burnt down in 1900. Slightly older is the adjoining stable block which dates back to 1840 and is by Thomas Hopper.

Prior to 1686 the main house occupied a site nearer the car park, and there was a house there from at least 1181. It was last rebuilt in 1480, and part of that building is incorporated into the chapel.

Like many an Edwardian stately home the interior is a homage to the preceding two centuries, and shows little sign of the horrors to come in the twentieth.

Having changed hands many times over the years, in 1924 the estate was purchased by Vere Ponsonby, 9th Earl of Bessborough. What we see today is largely down to him and his son, Eric the 10th Earl, who died in 1993. The latter transferred the house and estate to the Stansted Park Foundation in 1983, which owns and manages them as a charitable trust. The 12th Earl, Myles Ponsonby, is Chairman of the Trustees.

It is noticeable that, in the Edwardian period, getting and keeping good staff was becoming more and more of an issue. As a result the senior servants quarters are much more substantial, spacious and well appointed compared to earlier times.

St Paul's Church

In 1644 the old Stansted House was attacked by parliamentary troops and reduced to ruins. Over time these successively became stock sheds, a brewery and a bailiff's house. Then in 1807 the Reverend Lewis Way, who owned Stansted Park at that time, built the Chapel of St Paul in the ruins.

Now known officially as the Church of St Paul, the Regency building by an unknown architect incorporates some of the earlier structure. It was restored by H S Goodhart-Rendel in the 1920s.

In 1819 the poet John Keats was inspired by the chapel when he was writing the Eve of St Agnes.