Nicola here, with another of my summer historic house travelogues. I finished my latest manuscript a week ago and in traditional fashion celebrated by cleaning the house and doing some ironing. As regular readers of the Wench blog will know, this is the time we all catch up on the thousand and one things that get neglected whilst we are in our writing caves desperately trying to get to The End. Much as a city break in Europe or even a trip to the seaside might sound nice, it’s usually the mundane things that claim our attention, partly because we don’t have energy left for much else but also because we urgently need some clean clothes. However, when my husband tempted me with a visit to one of my favourite historical sites, I felt a lot more enthused for that than for ironing! So it was that on a baking hot day we set off very early in the morning for Northamptonshire and the intriguing Lyveden New Bield.
Lyveden, like so many country houses, occupies an isolated position. It’s set the middle of the glorious Northamptonshire countryside and as you approach, you see what looks like a ruin standing alone in a field. It’s an extraordinary sight. The house was the dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, a Tudor knight who was a staunch Catholic. He was a wealthy landowner who moved in the highest social circles in the county but although he was ruthlessly efficient in managing his estates to produce profit, he was also very extravagant and pursued a lavish lifestyle. It was, however, the heavy fines levied on him for following the Catholic faith that were eventually to lead to his financial downfall.
Lyveden New Bield was envisaged as a garden lodge, with the “Old Bield”, the old manor house, the main family residence on the
estate. Built in the shape of a Greek cross, it was both perfectly symmetrical and perfectly proportioned with three floors, although a fourth had probably been planned. Even as a ruin it is a substantial building. It was started in 1594 but when Sir Thomas died in 1605, work on the building stopped, never to re-commence. By then the family was deeply in debt and they sold the estate in 1668.
It’s astonishing that over the subsequent three hundred years the house was never completed, nor was the stone taken away to use for other buildings, nor were the gardens levelled to create farmland. A project to demolish it in the later 17th century came to nothing, as did one to complete it in the 18th century. And so it remains an extraordinary ruin. One episode in its history was particularly curious; In May 1743, 98 soldiers from the Black Watch regiment barricaded themselves into the moated garden, having rebelled against officers because they feared they were being sent to the West Indies. After a siege of several days , and the death from hunger of one of the soldiers, they surrendered and were marched back to London. Three of the ringleaders were hanged. It’s said that on stormy nights you can hear the pipes and drums of the Highland regiment. Here is Lucy listening out for them!
The Elizabethan pleasure gardens were probably my favourite part of the whole site, although the house is fascinating. The orchards and meadows were gorgeous on a hot summer day but the really unusual part was the moated garden. This has a labyrinth at the centre and is surrounded by canals. There are raised mounds for viewing the labyrinth and a raised terrace to give you a view of the orchard and meadows. It’s the outdoor equivalent of an Elizabethan long gallery! I strolled along the raised terrace (in the photo) watching the dragonflies darting over the moat and then got totally lost in the labyrinth. But my favourite bit was wandering beneath the trees, crossing footbridges and climbing the spiral mounts. These were a popular feature of 16th century gardening, giving a raised view of the landscape and the gardens, and they have spiral paths cut into the side like a cockleshell.
Lyveden also has a rather splendid cafe – with particularly friendly and helpful staff – in an 18th century cottage and the garden provided a lovely cool spot for us to rest with the dogs, have a light lunch and drink lots of water!
From the spiral mounts by the moat you get a wonderful view of the house, which I then went over to take a look at. The way into the ruin is via the servants’ entrance, which was originally a tunnel so that guests walking in the gardens didn’t have the view spoiled by the servants coming and going!
It’s odd being inside a ruin. There are no floors or roof between you and the sky but you can see where the different floors were meant to begin and end because the doorways and the fireplaces and windows are all in place. the most intriguing part of Lyveden for me, however, were the carved friezes between the different storeys. One consists of religious symbols and the other of Latin inscriptions. Not all of the symbolism at Lyveden has been deciphered but it is thought to be a statement of Sir Thomas’ religious beliefs. It would be the most perfect inspiration for a historical mystery!
Do you have a grand plan, like Sir Thomas Tresham? (Mine is to open a book and tea shop in my village). Would you build a special house or design a garden or travel or change your job? We all need a dream, great or small!