“ Address: Near Oundle / Northamptonshire PE8 5AT / United Kingdom / Tel: 01832 205358 „
Over Easter, my sister, her partner and her ASBO doggie, Finlay, came to visit and since our cats weren't very impressed by having something larger and hairier than them in the house (I'm referring to Finlay, not my sister) we needed to urgently think of places to take our visitors so the cats could get a bit of respite from Fin's attentions. My parents gave my husband and me membership of the National Trust for Christmas so we checked the local properties and plumped for Lyveden New Bield, a place I'd wanted to see for some time and which appeared to have a very large garden, ideal for a bouncy dog who needed to burn off energy. On Easter Saturday, we piled dog and humans into the car and set off in search of East Anglia's most famous not quite finished building.
For those not familiar with this region, the nearest town to Lyveden is Oundle, itself a rather twee and cute place that's dominated by an expensive public school. We headed there for beer and lunch after we left Lyveden. Getting there from the A14 proved slightly more tricky than it should have since I foolishly thought I knew where I was going - I used to drive that way every day when I worked in Peterborough but I got a bit lost this time. The closer you get to Lyveden, the more narrow and pot-holed the roads get. However once you're in more or less the right area, there's plenty of sign-posting and it shouldn't be too hard to find. Once we arrived we parked up in the car park and headed to the hut at the entrance to pay for our guests and to show our National Trust cards.
~The Man and the House~
Sir Thomas Tresham was a big man in Northants way back in the 16th Century. He was a controversial figure with strong religious principles which meant he often spoke out when it might have been wiser to keep quiet. He spent more than 15 years in prison for his Catholic faith at a time when the Church of England could fairly be described as 'not exactly at its most tolerant'. Tresham built several buildings in Northamptonshire which were overt expressions of his faith, perhaps most famously the Triangular Lodge at Rushton which communicates coded messages about the Catholic Church and the Trinity.
Tresham is famous for his faith and for having a son who was one of the plotters of the Gunpowder Plot. Tresham's other claim to fame is his habit of rarely finishing what he started. It took several hundred years for his Market Hall in Rothwell to get finished and the house he intended to be his family's second home on his estate at Lyveden New Bield still stands unfinished today, pretty much as it was on his death in 1605. It's a testament to the quality of early 17th century builders that the place still looks like you could stick a roof on and move in tomorrow. It's 405 years since it was abandoned but there's nothing that shouts 'ruin' about this place. Had Tresham not died and had his son not died in prison later the same year, perhaps things might have been different and we might now be visiting Lyveden as a grand stately home. Somehow though it's the unfinished nature of Lyveden that makes is so much more eerie and more imposing.
In terms of size, it's not particularly big which has led experts to speculate that it might have been intended as a "secret house", a place where Tresham could have gone into retreat with just a few servants perhaps whilst his main house was given a good spring cleaning or maybe as a place for religious contemplation.
The buildings has a cross shaped foot-print symbolising Tresham's belief in Christ. The outside is decorated with further religious imagery and iconography, much of which I have to admit is wasted on a heathen like me though I did spot some of the themes used in the Triangular Lodge being repeated here. At the time of Tresham's death, workers had already spent years preparing the grounds for landscaping and the site became one of six that the BBC featured in a series called Hidden Gardens and unlike the house, these took rather more work to return to their original intended glory.
We paid entrance for my sister and her partner at £4.50 each and took our maps and headed to a seating area to check out what was available. Finlay is much more interested in walks than in architecture and had been cooped up in the back of the car so we decided that he got priority and we would get the first batch of walking out of the way before exploring the house. Easter was probably a bit too early in the year to really get any great idea of how the gardens should look and we found a lot of the land to be very damp underfoot. First we strolled beside the moat and headed towards the orchard. I had hoped for something mature but all the trees look as if they've been planted in just the last few years. Next we headed through some fields and back alongside the river to approach the house from a prettier angle. Since it was Easter Saturday when we were there, an Easter Egg quiz was running for visiting children who were running back and forth looking for clues so help them win chocolate. Eventually when we'd see all there was to see of the gardens we headed into the house.
The entrance is set below the surrounding ground level through a small door. That did seem rather weird and we wondered if we were missing a main entrance somewhere else. Sure enough there appears to be a scar on the front of one of the wings that looks like there might have been stairs for the family and guests to enter through. I assume the entrance we used was for the servants since it led into the kitchen area. Before going in we took some photos of the iconography around the building which is decorated with panels showing crosses, something that looks a bit like an angel, the IHS initials and the Kai Rho initials in Greek.
Once inside it's like stepping into the skeleton of a house. All the doorways, fireplaces and windows are in place. Someone took away the grand staircase but there's still a modern metal staircase that allows you to get up to the first floor level and look through the shell of the building. In several of the rooms there are laminated information cards that describe what's around you but I didn't feel the need to know too much - I was just happy to wander round and soak up the atmosphere of the place within the honey-coloured stone walls. We also enjoyed looking at the graffiti left by visitors from Victorian days. They seem to have been rather more artistic than modern vandals and you can't help but wonder if some travelled with their own mason who would happily chip away to leave their initials and dates behind.
If you find yourself in the area and you are members of the National Trust, then I'd say this is well worth a visit. I'm not so sure that I'd travel too far to get there though and if you don't already have an interest in the Tresham family, there's not so much to see that would justify a long journey. At £4.50 per person for non members, I'd guess it's probably better value in the summer months when you can enjoy the gardens and the fields a bit more - it was too early in the year, too damp and a bit too cold for us to really get the most out of it. And if it rains, it's not as if the house is going to offer much in the way of shelter.
If you're interested in Tudor times, this isn't a bad place to include in a visit to East Anglia since it's only a short distance from here to get to Fotheringhay - where Mary Queen of Scots was incarcerated - and to Peterborough where the grave of Katherine of Aragon is a fascinating thing to see.
Thomas Tresham's unfinished masterpiece is now run by the National Trust