Northamptonshire has the most stately homes per square mile. We have all sorts of noblemen and women, famous people and celebrities living grandly (some secretively) in the sticks. When I was out on one of my walks last autumn I stumbled upon Nick Hewer, The Apprentice and Countdown guy. He wasn’t drunk on the ground or anything but putting out his bins in front of his rather impressive converted farmhouse. It had high walls and the electronic gates and gravel drive etc and you could see the swimming pool cover. I asked him why he left The Apprentice and he said it had become ‘a bit silly and nothing to do with business. I agreed. He didn’t invite me in for tea although he was wearing those posh peoples brightly colored trousers.
Northamptonshire grandest stately home would have to be Castle Ashby. Boughton House is nice to the northwest of Northampton and Althorp our most famous house but Castle Ashby has the impressive gardens and the dead straight one mile long driveway to the regal gates that mark its domain and so has that little bit more oomph and wow to it.
It’s the ancestral home of the Marquess of Northampton, the current incumbent being Earl Compton, although he chooses not to live at Castle Ashby and just manages it. He has three other stately homes to choose from to kip down for the night, his actual home in Yorkshire. I’m guessing he hasn’t offered to fill them up with Syrian refugees just yet.
The estate is 10,000 acres in size and has 35 acres of impressive gardens. The house is closed to the public all year around and appointment only. The gardens, designed by the world renowned Capability Brown, does offer full access all year to the public. Its £5.50 for anyone over 12-years-old in season and £4.00 in the winter. Kids are free but no concessions. You can sneak in free all year if you go to the village of Castle Ashby church public access right of way entrance route and then wonder over to the house and gardens. I did and no one has time or the inclination to stop you.
The house was originally built as an ‘E’ shape building to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I with the steps within the unseen present courtyard forming the central stroke of the ‘E’. The house is over 500-years old. But you can only go to the gardens and also popular for wedding shoots and events like craft fairs and Easter egg hunts in the spring. They used to hold a Christian rock festival there called Greenbelt but packed it up in 2000. Some surprisingly good bands showed up. Elton John played two open air gigs there at the back end of the Dania euphoria, Northants most famous stiff.
The garden area is a combination of several styles including the romantic Italian Gardens, the unique and rather humid vive riddled Orangery and impressive Arboretum nature walk. They also have a herb garden and a big menagerie with meerkats and Marmosets to keep the kids quiet. You can only take so many pruned hedges and rockeries!
When Capability Brown came to Castle Ashby in 1761; he removed the avenues to the North and West and broke up the avenue to the East with clumps of varied trees. The remaining ‘Grande Avenue’ to the South is still there and stretches for three and a half miles over the main Northampton/Bedford Road and into the picturesque Deer park beyond. Nowadays this Avenue is planted with a mixture of Oak, Walnut and Lime Trees. King William 111 introduced the Dutch custom design of planting avenues in the 17th century. It looks rather grandiose and imposing. The house and grounds are an example of what money could buy back in the day and how you would project power with your house and land. Much of that wealth came from the slave trade and exploiting the empires sugar, tobacco and precious metal trade.
There is a children's play area when the kids get bored of the animals and a plant and herb centre so you can buy a piece of the gardens produce. The perfunctory tea room and gift shop are open from March to October. You can take dogs in but must keep them on a lead in the gardens.
The gardens are no Kew but if you like to get out of the town and get some fresh air in a historic and attractive space then it’s worth a visit. Sometimes they do TV and movie shoots up there and recently filmed parts of the hit Oscar winning film Les Miserable’s. I can understand why they wanted to film there as it’s manicured into an inch of its life to achieve period perfection. Wandering around the gardens is like being in a Merchant & Ivory film and you expect ladies in period costume under a parasol to appear from behind those hedges.
You can drive there easily and around 7 miles out of Northampton and about 7 miles from Bedford and Wellingboro respectively. The local buses aren’t great to the small villages now but you could walk or bike it along the quiet country roads from Billing Aquadrome. It’s a nice spring summer afternoon out.
Canons Ashby is one of the National Trust's relatively few properties in Northamptonshire, that much ignored and rather invisible county pretty much slap bang in the middle of the country. With a county town that's doomed to never get city status after backing Cromwell in the Civil war, Northampton is famous (and I use the word lightly) for a football team prosaically known as 'The Cobblers' and for a down at heel town centre that's unloved and largely unlovable. The average passer-by could be forgiven for basing their assessment of the attractiveness of the county on the rather shabby town and thereby not giving poor old Northants much attention. This would be a shame. When it comes to stately homes, most in the area are living in the shadow of Althorp, the childhood home of Princess Diana and now better known as the money-spinner of her detestable brother Charles Spencer. Since Althorp is only open when Charles needs a few bob, it's worth a look at what else Northants has to offer in terms of heritage properties.
Whilst it's also fair to say that for much of the year Northants is 'closed', it can hold its head up and offer some rather nice little destinations for an historic heritage visit. I came across Canons Ashby when checking up on what I could do last September as part of the Heritage Open Days scheme. I was looking to maximise the benefit of a weekend of free attractions and the joys of free entry into a National Trust property put Canons Ashby on my list as the first destination on a day of intensive local tourism. It would normally cost £7.95 to enter the house and gardens but was going to cost me nothing. Even though the Heritage Open Days scheme means attractions are completely free to visit it's still nice to know that it would have been just about the most expensive thing in the area if they'd been charging.
I'd already confused myself by muddling Canons Ashby with Castle Ashby, a big grand palatial looking pile on the other side of Northampton out on the road to Bedford. That's the sort of place that wouldn't be out of its depth as a Jane Austin film set. My second mistake (after thinking it was an entirely different place) was in believing the listing that described it as being in Daventry. I stupidly set off to Daventry, ignoring the pleas of my Tom Tom until I realised my mistake and let her have her own way. Saying Canons Ashby is in Daventry is like saying Luton is a London airport. With another three places on my must-see list for the same day, I arrived later than I'd planned and a little bit flustered. I passed the house, clocked the sign for the car park, and then ignored it and pulled up in front of the church instead.
As you'd expect from someone who thought they were visiting an entirely different house and had gone in the wrong direction, I hadn't done my homework and didn't know what to expect from the house. I strolled up the road passing a field with some of the prettiest cows I've ever seen and wandered in the front entrance where I found the ticket office. They happily issued me a 'free of charge' ticket along with information about joining the National Trust and pointed me towards the house.
It's a funny place to go into. I expected a rather grand entrance with a big door suitable for being opened by a grandiose butler. I was hoping for a big dangly bell and an intimidating façade but instead I wandered through an archway, into a courtyard and the entrance was off the courtyard. I headed up a flight of stone steps, past some impressive carved wooden tortoises which were part of a local artists open workshops scheme that also runs in September. Once inside the building I arrived in the Great Hall which was filled with a display of work by local artists. Slightly baffled, I asked the volunteer who was in the hall where to go and he sent me down to the kitchens and told me to just keep going and it would all make sense eventually. Frustratingly he also told me that all photography was banned inside the house so all my photos had to be exterior shots.
I headed down the steps into the kitchen which was below ground level with respect to the courtyard but at street level on the other side. I'm still not entirely sure how that happened. It can't have been easy to be a kitchen maid or an under-cook in such a place but at least the kitchen was a pleasant place with beautiful high windows and lots of natural light, although polishing the brass jelly moulds certainly wouldn't have been my favourite task. There were stone floors, a row of bells which the 'family' could have used to call for the servants, lots of beautiful big copper pans and less pretty pewter serving dishes and a big black range that many would envy today. Off the kitchen was a cellar for storage with big hooks to hang meat. One of the key features of the kitchen was a large grandfather clock, and as I left the room by the staircase, the back of the clock was built into the staircase so it could be adjusted.
At the top of the stairs I reached the 'Winter Parlour', a wood-clad room painted with coats of arms. I suppose that being close to the kitchens it would have been one of the warmer rooms. There was a large stone fireplace and windows overlooking both the street and the garden. I arrived a bit too late to get the full benefit of the knowledgeable volunteer who was explaining that the room might have had some significance as a centre of Masonic practices.
Back down another set of steps and I was in the Great Hall again with its art exhibition. There was an enormous stone fireplace and various displays of arms and armour on the walls. On the far wall was a large tapestry of a hunting scene and the room also had some antlers hanging on the walls. Passing through the Great Hall, I reached the dining room which was set with a surprisingly small table but a large amount of other impressive furniture. The walls were covered in family portraits including one of John Dryden the poet who should, by rights, have inherited the house but was disinherited for being a Catholic. There's a lot of that sort of thing going on in Northants history.
Heading back along the front of the house, I passed a grand staircase and came to Henry Dryden's 'book room'. He was clearly a learned fellow as his bookcases covered all the walls and he had a globe and telescope and assorted scientific instruments scattered about. His book-room led through to a smaller room with an exhibition about the conservation work being done on the house. The ground floor was thus completed and it was time to head up the 16th century staircase with stained glass coats of arms hanging in the windows on the way.
It seemed odd to me to put your drawing room on the first floor but I suppose it gave nicer views of the gardens and also allowed a higher and more impressive ceiling than the ground floor rooms. And impressive is a weak word to describe this Jacobean 'domed' ceiling with fancy plasterwork that just left me thinking 'How the heck did they do that?' Apparently Sir John Dryden, who had the house in the mid 17th Century commissioned the ceiling in honour of his 3rd wife. I suppose when you're on your third you've already done all the easy stuff when it comes to presents. Both her and his coats of arms were over the stone fireplace and the original fire place was surrounded by original Dutch blue and white 'Delft' tiles dating to 1680. The other key features of the drawing room were two giant tapestries depicting 'The Continence of Sapio' or at least that's what the guide in the room told me. After all, it's hard to imagine anyone making a tapestry of the 'incontinence' of the fellow.
Next stop was the Red Bedroom where the plaster work on the ceiling was a lot simpler. The bed sadly blocked the view of another large tapestry. However, there were lots more tapestries to come as I headed back through the drawing room to the Tapestry Room. This was modernised in 1710 by Edward Dryden who kept the rooms original 1550 dimensions but filled the room with tapestries covering up several of the windows in the process. The bed was enormous and draped in deep petrol blue curtains that picked up the colour in the tapestries with a heavily embroidered bedspread.
With the house visit completed I headed outside to look at the gardens. Seen head-on Canons Ashby is a dissatisfying unbalanced looking house with the tower not built in the centre of the 'face' of the house as you might expect but set off to one side breaking the symmetry. As is often the case with old houses, you can't help feeling that successive generations have messed about with the structure a bit too much in places. It's a pleasant place but not one that sends you home with a sense of property envy and yearning for an earlier time.
The gardens are enjoyable though which is a good things since during the winter season you can't get into the house and only the gardens are open. The lawns and formal gardens at the front of the house are very pleasant and clearly take a lot of work, and there's a nice orchard with old fruit trees off to one side. I rushed my time in the gardens a bit but hope to return soon for another look.
When I arrived at Canons Ashby village I had parked up near the church but on the house side and so I'd not actually passed the church itself. However, as I was wandering around the grounds of Canons Ashby House, I couldn't help but be drawn to the tower of the nearby church. Finding a path through the gardens which led to the church I set off to have a proper look. My first instinct when I got closer was that something was wrong with the dimensions of the building. It simply didn't make sense for such a small village to have something quite so grand and the tower that stood at one corner seemed much too big for the building to which it was attached. The height of the church was too great for its rather limited depth and it definitely felt as if something was missing. Sure enough, my instincts were right. The church as it stands today is only a tiny part of what was originally on the site. Canons Ashby had been the site of a much larger Augustinian priory which had been home to a large community of monks.
The priory had been founded way back in the 12th Century and the church was added 100 years later in 1250. The whole lot was built in an orange-hued local ironstone that's now weathered to a duller shade of brown. A local village used it as their church during Medieval times but the Black Death wiped out most of that community in the 1300s. In 1536 Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic church and dissolved the monasteries. Canons Ashby priory was one of the first to fall under his rules and he merrily gave the priory to a good friend, Sir Francis Bryan, who set about destroying most of it leaving just the small church and the large bell tower standing. You might suppose it an ungracious way to treat a gift from the King but it his actions probably met with favour as Henry's men went round the country eradicating the Catholic faith.
Today St Mary's Church Canons Ashby is one of only four private parish churches in the whole of England. It's owned and managed by the National Trust who also have control of Canons Ashby House just up the road. Unlike the house which attracts an entrance fee, visitors can enter the church for free if they are lucky enough to find it open. A board at the entrance gives the times of services when it will of course be accessible but if you want to visit at other times, it's probably worth calling ahead to the National Trust office at the house to check for accessibility.
I entered the church through the wooden door which seems rather dwarfed by the height of the building. The interior is mostly very simply decorated with lots of whitewashed walls. The main splash of colour comes from the large stained glass window on the back of the church, above the altar with its rather odd looking pink cherub design on the walls above. The ceiling is also worth a look and craning my neck it seemed almost too plain and simple for a once-grand building, being made or large wooden beams supporting more wooden planks. There was a slightly unfinished look about it and I wondered if there had been a ceiling at an earlier time to hide the guts of the roof.
Standing in the tower, I found a model reconstructing how the Priory would have looked before Henry and his friends 'redesigned' the place. Sure enough with a square cloistered building attached to the church and tower, the whole balance of the construction made a lot more sense. There are pamphlets to read in the tower that helped me to understand more about why the place looked the way it did and sent me off to look at the ghoulish funeral armour of Robert Dryden which hangs on the wall in the main church.
~Worth a Visit?~
St Mary's is a fascinating patchwork of past and present and though I would probably not suggest to anyone to go all the way to Canons Ashby just to see the church, in combination with a visit to Canon's Ashby House, it's a pretty good day out. Would I pay almost £8 to visit? I'm not entirely sure that I would. National Trust properties are seldom cheap and this was no exception. Fortunately my parents bought us a year's membership for Christmas so I won't have to pay next time I visit, but if you like heritage tourism, the combination of house, church and gardens makes for an interesting and balanced destination for a visit.
Elizabethan stately home run by the National Trust