Category Archives: Country Houses of Lincolnshire

Ellys Manor House

Ellys Manor House, Great Ponton, Lincolnshire

Ellys Manor House, Great Ponton, Lincolnshire

Until a few years ago, most people would have walked or driven straight past Ellys Manor House without giving it more than a second glance. It’s a simple, beautiful vernacular house, distinguished by its crow-stepped gables, in the village of Great Ponton, off the A1 in Lincolnshire.

The crow-stepped gables are, in fact, the giveaway – indicating Dutch influence and high status in a building that dates from around 1520, though there is an older core within.

It was probably built by Anthony Ellys who, like his father, was a merchant of the Calais Staple, and was sufficiently prosperous to rebuild the tower of the adjacent parish church of the Holy Cross which bears his arms.

The manor house was altered – possibly reduced in size – in the seventeenth century,  again altered and extended c1826.

By the early twentieth century it had become two cottages, which were reunited in 1921 by the architect Wilfrid Bond and purchased by the Church Commissioners two years later for a rectory in place of what is now called Great Ponton House, built in 1826.

Small areas of the wall paintings in the east room were discovered in the 1930s, recorded by Dr E Clive Rouse, who returned after the full extent of the paintings had become apparent in 1957, and again in 1961 and 1971.

These paintings proved to be of incalculable importance, “the most complete, extensive and important domestic decoration of [its] date in the country”, described by Pevsner as “a rare English interpretation of French verdure tapestries”, consisting of stylised foliage, flowers, fruit and leaves.  There are groups of trees, their trunks coloured in balancing schemes, within what appears to be an architectural setting of columns, a frieze and some kind of base painted and lined to resemble wood, brick or masonry.  The frieze is decorated with elaborate scrolls, which may have once carried texts.  There are numerous animals – a peacock, deer, and a lion.

They have been gently and sensitively conserved, first by the 1930s rector and latterly by the current owners, Mr & Mrs Clive Taylor, who first opened the house to the public in 2008.

Ellys Manor House is open from Easter until 31st October daily except Tuesdays from 10am to 5pm. Last admission to the house is at 4.30pm:  http://www.ellysmanorhouse.com.

As the manor house is a private home, it may on occasions have to close without prior notice due to other commitments.  To avoid disappointment, please telephone first.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Vanburgh in Lincolnshire

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire:  north front

Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire: north front

It’s curious how the flat lands of Lincolnshire produce architectural surprises.  Tattershall Castle can be seen from miles away, but Grimsthorpe Castle, though it’s visible from the main road, is a sudden revelation.

The show front is unmistakably the work of Sir John Vanburgh, the architect of Castle Howard (1699-1726), Blenheim Palace (1705 onwards) and Seaton Delaval Hall (c1720-8).

Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus Volume III (1725) shows three elevations, dated 1722, respectively for the north, south and west or east sides of the house.  These façades were intended to mask rather than entirely replace the earlier fabric behind, as at Vanburgh’s Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire (1707-9).

Vanburgh was commissioned by the first Duke of Ancaster who died in August 1723, but Vanburgh was almost immediately summoned by his son, Peregrine, 2nd Duke, to begin construction which was under way before Vanburgh’s death in 1726.

Once the north front and forecourt were completed, possibly under the supervision of Nicholas Hawksmoor, around 1730 the project abruptly stopped.

Walking round the four sides of this huge courtyard house shows that it is in fact a palimpsest:  though the facades were tidied up in 1811, it’s obvious that the fabric grew over centuries:  the earliest identifiable fragment dates from the twelfth century.

It’s one of the English country houses that developed in interesting ways during the twentieth century.

When Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Ancaster, inherited Grimsthorpe Castle in 1910, he and his American wife, Eloise, brought in the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey and the decorators Lenygon & Company to modernise the house and built a service wing in the courtyard.

After wartime military occupation, the estates and titles passed in 1951 to the 2nd Earl’s son, James, 3rd Earl of Ancaster and 27th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, who with his countess, Phyllis Astor, employed the architect R J Page and the decorator John Fowler to alter and improve the house, replacing the Edwardian service block with a single-storey kitchen range and turning the riding school into a garage.

Now Grimsthorpe Castle belongs to the third Earl’s daughter, Jane Marie Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.

It’s one of the finest country-house experiences for miles around.  It deserves a whole day:  there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink.

Of all the entertainments on offer at Grimsthorpe, the ranger-led Park Tour by minibus is particularly good value:  http://www.grimsthorpe.co.uk/index.php?ID=15.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Life-enhancing Leadenham

Leadenham House, Lincolnshire

Leadenham House, Lincolnshire

As you drive eastwards along the A17 from Newark-on-Trent, it’s difficult to miss seeing a splendid Georgian house sitting on the top of the escarpment.  This is Leadenham House.  Despite its prominent position, it was virtually invisible when the main road clambered up the slope to Leadenham village;  since the by-pass opened in 1995 it’s become an attractive landmark for travellers.

Built for William Reeve by Christopher Staveley of Melton Mowbray in 1792-6, the house has a cantilevered staircase said to be the work of John Adam, oldest of the three famous Adam brothers.  It was extended by Lewis Vulliamy in the 1820s, and the morning room, originally the kitchen, was decorated with antique Japanese rice-paper panels discovered by Detmar Blow in 1904

Leadenham House is open to visitors on a limited basis:  William Reeve’s descendant, Mr Peter Reeve, uses visitors’ fees to support the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust.

Opening arrangements can be found at http://www.stately-homes.com/leadenham-house which cheerfully advises prospective visitors to “ring the front door bell, as they aren’t open in any sort of commercial sense and all the money they receive from visitors goes to a village charity, so there is nobody waiting expectantly for anyone to arrive”.

There is a fulsome description of the house and its owners at http://www.lincolnshirelife.co.uk/uploads/files/homes_and_gardens/homes-0106.pdf.

The other reason to visit Leadenham is much more freely open.  The George Hotel is my favourite pit-stop on journeys along the A17, whether for morning coffee or a sandwich lunch.  The pub prides itself on using beef from Lincoln Red cattle.

It also has a world-beating collection of seven hundred malt whiskies, collected since 1970.  Just think:  if you lived within walking distance you could go to the George for what Denis Thatcher referred to as a “tincture” every night for two years without repetition.  Ranged round the walls of the bar is a positive library of malt whisky.

The only down-side is that the prices of a single single malt range from £2.10 to £350.

The George website [http://www.thegeorgeatleadenham.co.uk] recommends the malt liqueur Drunkeld Atholl Brose [sic] which you can sip on its own or with fresh cream floated on top.

Denis Thatcher would have been appalled: he avoided ice because, as he said, it dilutes the alcohol.

(Drunkeld Atholl Brose – it seems – is really spelled Dunkeld: http://www.royalmilewhiskies.com/product.asp?pf_id=10000000000819.)

 

Family portraits

Fulbeck Manor, Lincolnshire

Fulbeck Manor, Lincolnshire

One of the delights of the 2010 Country Houses of Lincolnshire tour was visiting Fulbeck Manor, where Julian Fane shows some four centuries of family portraits.

There is always something special about being invited to a country house that is still a home, and being shown round by the owner rather than a bought-in guide.  Fulbeck Manor is exceptional because Mr Fane describes and shows his direct ancestors back to the sixteenth century.

One participant’s evaluation comment said, “To have a direct descendant of all the famous people portrayed explain their history, family connections, national importance, was both illuminating and a privilege, especially from someone with such a fund of stories.”

Alongside the direct line of Fanes there are of course cousins.  I particularly enjoy the story behind a pair of paintings by Harry Hall of the horses ‘Agility’ and ‘Apology’ which celebrate the embarrassing racing successes of Rev John William King (1793-1875).

Despite his use of a nom de course, Mr Launde, Agility’s twenty wins and £6,000 prize-money, followed by Apology winning the fillies’ Triple Crown (the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger) in 1874 as well as the Home Bred Sweepstakes at Newmarket, the Coronation Stakes at Ascot and the Ascot Gold Cup provoked the Bishop of Lincoln to demand that as a clergyman he choose between the Church and the Turf.

In reply, Rev King sent the bishop a card on which he wrote the one word, ‘Apology’.

Fulbeck Manor is open to groups of up to twenty-five people by written appointment only:  details can be found at http://www.statelyhomes.com/areas/details.asp?HID=2329&ID=1006&path=12,32,38,1006&town.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

No shrinking Violet

Harlaxton Manor:  present-day faculty common room

Harlaxton Manor: present-day faculty common room

The interwar rescuer of Gregory Gregory’s vast Harlaxton Manor was as formidable and eccentric as the building – the English daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman who invented Shavex, the first brushless shaving cream, Mrs Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966), the widow of a Belgian artist.

A succession of Gregory’s descendants had inherited this unforgiving pile and, with varying degrees of success, tried to live in it.  When Thomas Sherwin Pearson Gregory died in 1935 his son put it on the market with 500 acres “or as required”:  80 bedrooms are mentioned, though there was only one bathroom.  Jackson Stops & Staff’s plaintive advertisement in The Times – “To save from demolition…noble ancestral seat…probably the supreme example of domestic architecture of its period” – ignored the possibility that Salvin and Burn’s architecture was so substantial that demolition would be uneconomic.

Mrs Van der Elst paid £78,000 for the building and its surrounding land, renamed it “Grantham Castle”, vigorously modernised the plumbing and installed electricity on a suitably grand scale, and was invariably to be found at the great country-house sales of the time – Clumber, Rufford and so on – picking up furnishings, fixtures and fittings at bargain prices.  She made the estate an animal sanctuary, extending her protection even to the domestic mice in the Manor.

A glimpse of the house in Mrs Van der Elst’s day exists as a 1939 Pathé newsreel clip:  http://www.britishpathe.com/video/grantham-castle

She was famed for her vehement campaigns against capital punishment, regularly turning up in her Rolls Royce outside prisons at the time of an execution.  She also made a practice of holding séances to contact her dead husband, and kept his ashes in an urn in the library, a dark, low room dominated by antique barley-sugar wooden columns.

Having shared the building with the RAF First Airborne Division during the Second World War, Mrs Van der Elst ran out of money and sold the house in 1948 for only £60,000.  When the house contents were auctioned Mr Van der Elst’s ashes were accidentally knocked down to an unsuspecting bidder and had to be discreetly retrieved.

The manor passed successively to the Society of Jesus, the University of Stanford, California, and then the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their English campus.

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the recent tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Open House Day at Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor is an exciting place to visit, yet most travellers only glimpse it as an astonishing vista to the south of the A607 Grantham-Melton Mowbray road.

Harlaxton is an exceptionally exciting building, designed between 1831 and 1837 by Anthony Salvin and William Burn for the eccentric bachelor Gregory Gregory (1786-1854), whose name is commemorated in Nottingham’s Gregory Boulevard, developed on one of his six landed estates.

Gregory Gregory’s intention in building such a huge house seems to have been first, to house his extensive art collection, and second to spite his heir, a distant cousin.  The result is a fascinating mixture of dramatic baroque interiors such as the Great Hall and Cedar Staircase and Victorian ingenuity – hidden doors so that the servants literally appeared out of the woodwork and an indoor railway viaduct to deliver coal by gravity to each floor.

In the spirit of the baroque theme, illusions abound.  The Cedar Staircase is nowhere near as high as it looks, and materials are not what they seem – wood turns out to be plaster, and what looks like solid plaster actually moves.  Room stewards will be available on Open House Day to explain the history of this strange building.

I’ve taken numerous groups to Harlaxton over the past twenty-three years, including one group of jaded teachers on a Friday-night near-the-end-of-term mystery tour.  As the coach trundled across the park in the summer evening, it seemed as if every window of the Manor glowed.  One lady (not a historian) thought she was at Disneyland.

Harlaxton Manor is well cared for by the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their British campus.  The college website is at http://www.ueharlax.ac.uk/about_us/index.cfm.

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

Finding a secret tunnel: Stoke Rochford Hall

Stoke Rochford Hall:  coal tunnel

Stoke Rochford Hall: coal tunnel

When I first got interested in local history, at the age of sixteen, I and my mates had an obsession with what we believed to be secret tunnels, often attached to Georgian houses in mid-Derbyshire where we lived, only to discover in our maturity that they were in fact land-drains.  Now I’ve found a tunnel under a country house that really has been a secret and is really a tunnel.

I’m particularly glad that Country Houses of Lincolnshire (August 6th-9th 2010) is based in the magnificent surroundings of Harlaxton Manor (Anthony Salvin & William Burn, 1830-7), and whenever I’ve taken groups to Harlaxton I’ve always tried to include Stoke Rochford Hall (William Burn, 1841-5), a fascinating scaled-down version of Harlaxton for an owner who wanted a splendid but manageable Jacobethan house with what were later called all modern conveniences.

Stoke Rochford is even more interesting since the disastrous 2005 fire because English Heritage insisted that almost all of the destroyed Victorian craftsmanship should be meticulously replaced, and the owners, the National Union of Teachers, now have a conference-centre full of brand-new “Victorian” craftsmanship.

When I went to reconnoitre for the 2010 tour Suzi, my guide, casually mentioned a “coal tunnel”, and showed me a virtually intact brick tunnel, complete with iron railway-rails and turntables, to convey coal into the house.

The staff at Harlaxton, now the American campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana, are very proud of their railway-viaduct, with wooden rails, that brought coal and other goods into the attics of the house, and had no idea that the neighbours at Stoke Rochford had in their cellar a similar facility which, it has to be said, is more modest in size but perhaps better preserved.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.