Northamptonshire Holiday
Report by Lesley Struck, Pictures by Ivor Jones

September 2019

Thursday 12th September was a very lovely sunny early morning and 37 members of the West Somerset National Trust Association set off for another eagerly anticipated holiday. This time we were heading for Northampton. What do I know about Northampton - they make shoes but not much else. The first visit on our journey towards the Hotel is Canons Ashby (NT). Built using the remains of a medieval priory, the house and gardens have survived largely unaltered since 1710. This tranquil Tudor Manor House is set in rare terraced gardens and features grand rooms, stunning tapestries and Canons Ashby Jacobean plasterwork. I think everyone was captivated by this lovely place. We had time to view both house and gardens and have a welcome cup of tea and cake. Onwards to the Marriott Hotel in Northampton itself for the duration of our stay.

WSNTA Canons Ashby
Canons Ashby

Friday 13th was a lucky day for us as the weather was glorious and our two visits today exceptional. First we headed to Stoke Bruerne on the Grand Union Canal: a much treasured secret. I have always loved canals and this peaceful canal basin at the top of a flight of locks was no exception. We divided into two groups, one visiting the Canal Museum and the other taking a trip on a narrow boat through the one and three quarter mile Blisworth Tunnel. At the end of the tunnel the groups swapped over. A lovely lunch at the Stoke Bruerne Boat Inn was included.

WSNTA Stoke Bruerne
Stoke Bruerne

Afterwards we set off for Coton Manor Garden, which was originally laid out in the 1920s by the grandparents of the present owner. Managed by three full-time gardeners and a handful of volunteers, this wonderful garden was full of colour even now, as I believe it is during every season of the year.
There were pink flamingos and various breeds of ducks all very contet in their lovely surroundings.

WSNTA Coton Manor Garden
Coton Manor Garden

This holiday was originally planned by Sue to include a visit to Althorp House, family home of the Spencers. Twice Sue has been frustrated by Lord Spencer and the house not opening during our visit and thereafter Althorp House became known as “That Place”.

On our return to the Hotel we passed very close to “That Place” and it was decided to make an extra stop at the Church, which stands at the end of a long avenue of trees leading from “That Place”, but which is actually outside the grounds in the village of Great Brington. Nineteen generations of the Spencer Family are buried in the Spencer Chapel of this delightful church under very strict security, highly alarmed!

Saturday 14th was a day with a difference. A Blue Badge Guide joined us on our coach for an informative journey around the town of Northampton, pointing out many and various points of importance. We later walked with him in the town centre where we were shown the town market, churches and places of historic interest. The afternoon was free to wander at our leisure and visit anywhere we had noticed during the tour and earmarked for a further look or just take time to ourselves and explore on our own.

Sunday 15th after an unhurried breakfast and a later than usual start, we travelled back into Northampton, where we visited The Charles Rennie Mackintosh House. Number 78 Derngate was dramatically remodelled by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the thoroughly modern Wenham Bassett-Lowke, founder of a prosperous model-making business. The house is Grade 2* Listed and for fans of Art Deco this place is a gem. Lovingly restored to as near to the original Mackintosh design as possible, each room we were shown around had the WOW factor-from the wallpaper, tiles, furniture and fittings to the artefacts dotted around. For me personally this was one of the highlights of the holiday.

After lunch at Number 78 we again divided into groups for a tour of the Guild Hall. Again Grade 2* Listed and with a choice of unique and memorable rooms packed with period features and Victorian Gothic architecture, this is a beautiful building inside and out.

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Our third visit of the day was to the Sessions House where we were taken on an informative but fun tour. Our guide Roger has worked at the Sessions House for many years and his knowledge and sense of humour kept us amused for well over our allotted time. We visited the Courtrooms (here some of our members were tried and sentenced for various offences including murder, theft and talking to 30 gypsies – all of which were punishable by hanging).
In fact one of us was sentenced twice to hang for talking to gypsies - some people never learn! We were shown the cells and the hanging yard. All very sobering but interesting nevertheless.

WSNTA Our Group with our Guide Roger at the Sessions House
Our Group with our Guide Roger at the Sessions House

Monday 16th the only day of our stay with cloud and a little light rain to start. We headed for Lyveden, which is the second and last NT property near Northampton. We were promised an unfinished lodge and that is what we got but by far the most interesting were the grounds, which the National Trust are working toward restoring to the original created in 1595 by Sir Thomas Tresham. He had very grand plans for his guests to enjoy a walk from his nearby Manor House (which will eventually be opened as a visitor centre and café by the NT) through terraces, orchards, moats and a viewing mound which would lead to the garden lodge. This is a work in progress and although the outlines of the various elements are visible you need a lot of imagination to see how it will look in the future, although I do not doubt that it will be magnificent when finished. The weather held off and the only thing we got wet were our feet as we walked around the gardens.

WSNTA Lyveden

Our second visit today should have been “That Place” but instead we headed for Broughton House owned by the Duke of Buccleuch whose ancestors the Montagu Family have owned it since 1528. The house is often called the English Versailles owing to the French inspired design. They opened just for us and we were treated first to a delightful lunch followed by a tour of this fascinating house which is famous for its internationally renowned art collection. Room after room contains some of Britain’s most outstanding art, furniture, tapestries, porcelain and carpets. After our tour taken by a guide whose knowledge of this fascinating place was exceptional, we returned to the tea room for tea, coffee and cakes. I am sure after this visit we all thought “What Place”! We definitely got the better deal.

Tuesday 17th all too soon our holiday is nearing the end but we have one more visit before we set off home to Somerset. Sue's Surprise! Farnborough Hall is a country house just inside the borders of Warwickshire near to the town of Banbury. The property has been owned by the National Trust since 1960 when the Holbech family endowed it to them, and is still run and lived in by Geoffrey Holbech's daughter Caroline Beddall and her family. It is a Grade I listed building. Again Sue had arranged for us to visit “out of hours”, so we were the only ones there. Farnborough Hall remains largely unaltered since the 18th century. It is a personal collection containing exquisite sculptures, porcelain and artwork by Panini and Canaletto. The grand staircase leading up to the first floor, with its 18th century skylight dome and beautiful wall decoration, is all part of the grand design. We had the privilege of visiting rooms not open to the general public. Afterwards we had a walk around the gardens, which are being restored to the original layout by the National Trust with the help of Natural England. Standing on the front lawn we couldn’t see one indication of modern life!

WSNTA Farnborough Hall
Farnborough Hall

Back in the coach and heading home. Another successful holiday planned by Sue and driven excellently by Steve, although there were a few challenges for him along the way. What do I now know about Northamptonshire? It is a county with plenty of history and many stately homes. Northampton is the ancestral home of George Washington and was once walled with a Norman Castle on the site of which now stands the new railway station. There was a racecourse, long gone. It began as a village called Hamm Tun and the North was added later to distinguish it from Southampton. Through the years there have been Black Death, Fire, Rebellion, Plague and more Fire. It survived and is today a busy market town well worth a visit. There is still a shoe and leather industry, but on a much smaller scale than in the past, with some very high-end shoes being produced here, one brand of which is Gucci. A word of warning, though: if you do ever go to Northampton do not talk to gypsies!