FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Treasure in the library at Hatfield House

Posted in England, Hatfield by folkestonejack on May 13, 2017

One of the great treasure houses of England sits just 21 miles north of London in leafy Hatfield, an easy 23 minute train journey from King’s Cross. The 42 acre site is home to two palatial residences – the Old Palace, the childhood home of Elizabeth I, and Hatfield House, a Jacobean prodigy house built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to James I.

Hatfield House

Hatfield House delivers wonderment from the moment that you enter the ornately decorated marble hall until you step back outside. The walls hold so many familiar royal portraits, none more so than the famous Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (even if it looks more like she is holding a garden hose rather than a rainbow these days!). The extravagance doesn’t let up as you explore the rest of the state rooms, though the gold ceiling of the long gallery has perhaps the largest wow factor. It’s not a statement that you can easily ignore…

However, for me the real treasure lay in the library. I’ve visited a fair number of stately homes in my time and you often see glass cabinets full of moderately interesting letters and other exhibits. Not here. The cabinets at Hatfield House hold astonishing historical artifacts such as Lord Burghley’s rough draft of the warrant ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Another fascinating letter on display in the library warns the Earl of Murray not to support rebels fleeing over the border into Scotland in 1569. It is all the more striking because it is written almost entirely in cipher, barring for the signature of Elizabeth I at the end!

The fountain in the West Garden

We are lucky that Hatfield House survives to be visited as it suffered from a terrible fire in 1835 that destroyed the West Wing of the house and might have threatened more had a fortuitous spell of torrential rain not intervened. The chapel had a particularly lucky escape after the heat of the fire melted the lead water tanks in the attic, dousing the flames. I certainly appreciated the opulent interiors and wonderful artworks throughout the building – it would have been a terrible loss had this not endured.

Hatfield House is understandably popular as a wedding venue so we didn’t get the opportunity to take a look inside the surviving parts of the Old Palace but our tickets are valid for the rest of the season so maybe we’ll get the chance to pop back on and remedy that later this year.

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Hardwick Hall – palace and prison

Posted in Chesterfield, England by folkestonejack on April 9, 2016

A short weekend expedition brought us to Derbyshire with the aim of visiting a trio of historic buildings, starting with Hardwick Hall and Hardwick Old Hall.

Our approach hid the historic buildings from us until we were almost upon them, barring for the occasional glimpse of the six turrets above the treeline, making the impact of our first full view of Hardwick Hall all the greater. Faced with the beautiful sandstone exterior and shimmering walls of glass it was not hard to see why this grand house has been described as the marvel of its age.

Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall

Bess of Hardwick was as remarkable as her creation. Born in the old hall in the 1520s to a family of relatively modest means Bess became an astute and wealthy businesswoman over the course of a life that saw her married and widowed four times over. By the time her fourth husband died in 1590 Bess held quite a portfolio of land and property, including Chatsworth House and Wingfield Manor. It was now that her attention turned to her birthplace.

The vision that Bess had for Hardwick defied established architectural rules. In doing so, she created a quite remarkable building, with a great hall turned 90 degrees from the norm, an astonishing quantity of expensive glass and towers topped with her initials (E.S. for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury). Although she utilised the talents of Robert Smythson, the leading architect of the time, there is no disputing that a good many aspects of the design for the hall came from her own mind.

After a seven year build Hardwick Hall was completed in 1597 and it was clearly intended to impress visitors. It is considered to be a ‘prodigy house’, a term used to describe the showy houses built by courtiers and noble families in the Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. Moreover, it was a palace in all but name, fit for a future queen. That queen was expected to be Arbella Stuart, Bess’s granddaughter, who had a strong claim to the throne but ultimately lost out to her cousin James.

The tragic story of Arbella is a thread that runs through a visit to the hall. At first Bess had high hopes for her granddaughter, but almost every step in Arbella life needed the approval of Elizabeth I from her appearances at court to the possibility of marriage. In many ways it suited Elizabeth I to keep the question about her succession open and in this political power play Arbella became an unfortunate pawn. Hardwick Hall effectively transformed itself into a prison for Arbella, who longed to escape its confines for the freedom of a marriage of her choosing. The accession of James I to the throne did not end the misery, as it soon became clear that he would never allow Arbella to marry.

In 1611 Arbella married William Seymour in secret and set off across the channel for a new life on the continent. Sadly, Arbella never made it – her ship was boarded off the French coast and she spent the rest of her life imprisoned in the Tower of London. Arbella died from starvation in 1615.

The view from the old hall

The view from the old hall

The highlight of my visit to Hardwick Hall would have to be the remarkable painted plaster frieze that is wrapped around the upper half of the High Great Chamber (depicting the goddess Diana in a forest filled with stags) but other wonders include a massive plasterwork coat of arms in the Great Hall, the long gallery decorated with its original tapestries and a room dedicated to Mary Queen of Scots (including her coat of arms, presumably brought from the family property at Chatsworth where she had been imprisoned). I also rather liked the softer touches of the family floor which showed how the last occupant of the house, the Dowager Duchess Evelyn, lived here until 1959.

Across the way from Hardwick Hall you can see the remains of the old hall. The label is somewhat misleading as construction of the building, on the site of her father’s medieval manor house, only began in 1587 and was completed just a year before the new hall. Instead, it is better to think of the two halls as complementary structures and both were certainly in use at the same time. Hardwick Old Hall was richly furnished and contained some fantastic plasterwork, including a pair of ‘giant’ Roman soldiers in one room and another forest frieze in another. Fragments of these still survive, giving a small glimpse of how amazing these rooms must have been.

Hardwick Old Hall

Hardwick Old Hall

An admission ticket covering both halls comes in at a pricey £19.10 for an adult if you are not members of the National Trust. It’s certainly an impressive combination of buildings with some stunning features, terrific views and some fascinating history. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought it was a great day out.

Most visitors drive to Hardwick Hall, but it is possible to reach by public transport. We took the ‘Pronto‘ bus service from Chesterfield to Glapwell (getting off at the stop nearest to the ‘Young Vanish’ public house) which takes around 30 minutes. The directions given on the National Trust website for the walk from here are pretty hopeless, making little sense to us as we tried to follow them. However, it is quite straightforward.

After leaving the bus stop at Glapwell ‘Young Vanish’ cross the road and follow ‘The Hill’ to the beginning of Rowthorne Lane (where you will see a sign for Rowthorne and Ault Hucknall). Follow the lane out of Glapwell, through Rowthorne and back into the countryside. Rowthorne Lane curves past a sewage works and the beginning of the ‘Rowthorne Trail’ but continue walking until you see a drive to the left leading to a gatehouse at Rowthorne Gate. Pass through the gate and continue up the drive. Although you cannot see the halls from this point they are in fact straight ahead. The walk should take about 45 minutes.

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A house too great for a king?

Posted in England, Saffron Walden by folkestonejack on May 9, 2015

Audley End was one of the greatest houses of the Jacobean age. Indeed, it was so great that King James I remarked that the house was too great for a King but might suit a Lord Treasurer. As you have probably already guessed, the owner at the time, Thomas Howard, had been appointed to this very post in 1614…

The surviving sections of Audley End House

The west front

Today you can see only a small part of the magnificent house that astounded visitors at its height, but even the sections that survived the 18th century demolitions are quite stunning to behold. How much more incredible it must have been in its heyday, complete with the long gone outer courtyard, east wing and gateway. No wonder visitors reckoned that it was exceeded only by Windsor Castle and Hampton Court in extravagance.

It might have been too great for a king in 1614, but the royal property portfolio was looking decidely unhealthy as the Commonwealth came to an end. Audley End appealed to Charles II as a ready made royal palace, particularly with its proximity to the Newmarket races. Charles purchased the property from the family in 1668, though after the royal lodgings at Newmarket were restored he seldom returned. It remained a crown property until 1701 when it was returned to the family by William III.

The expense of maintaining such a lavish house took its toll on the finances of all its owners and by the early 1700s much of the house was in a poor state of repair. The obvious solution was to downsize and over the next fifty years the family set about this transformation, demolishing the north and south ranges of the outer court and reducing the house to the inner courtyard. Subsequent owners reduced the scale of the property further still.

Audley End House and Gardens

Audley End House and Gardens

We made our visit on a relatively quiet overcast saturday, taking the train from Liverpool Street station (approx 1 hour) and walking from Audley End station (approx 25 minutes) on a route with remarkably few signposts for pedestrians. Our timings working out pretty well, giving us sufficient time to wander around the parterre and get a good view of the east front. It was a good time to visit with a wonderful display of tulips.

The house opened at 12pm and we followed the circuit round, marvelling at the interior for around an hour and a half. Highlights included the ornate great hall, saloon and chapel which are impossible to do justice to in any written description. Some remarkable portraits are on display amongst the rooms, including those of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Henry Ireton (printed guides are available to help you identify the many historical figures).

An unexpected delight came from the coal gallery, constructed in the 1760s, which linked the north and south wings. It allowed hot water to be distributed more efficiently, avoiding the need for the servants to take it up and down the same stairs that the family used. Amazingly the supplies of coal were hoisted up on a winch through one of the windows!

Interestingly, an English Heritage strategy document found that men engaged with the technological innovations of the coal gallery more than the sumptuous furnishings to be found elsewhere in the house. Personally, I found both sides to the house fascinating.

After leaving the house we made sure to explore the delightful grounds, whilst a cricket match was starting on the green (albeit interrupted periodically by bursts of rain). Among the more unusual sights is a pill box located at the far edge of the green, near the Adams Bridge. The house itself has a strong connection with the Second World War as the HQ for the Polish section of the Special Operations Executive. A memorial on the approach to the house remembers the 108 Polish SOE volunteers who trained at Audley End and lost their lives in the fight for freedom.

I didn’t really know anything much about Audley End before my visit. Now I wonder how I could ever have overlooked such a significant property in England’s history!

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