Step back in time at Canons Ashby

After all the grandeur of Gloucester Cathedral last week, I thought for this week’s helping of heritage-hunting I’d choose something a little more domestic – although it does have a monastic connection – Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. It’s an Elizabethan manor house, built beside the remains of the Augustinian Priory of Canons Ashby, which went the way of those places at the Dissolution (what remains of the Priory is now the somewhat truncated village church).

Canons Ashby

Canons Ashby house is at the ‘ooh, I could imagine myself living here’ end of the spectrum rather than one of the jaw-dropping Chatsworth, Woburn or Blenheim types. Nevertheless, it’s somewhere I love visiting because it has that rare quality of being largely unchanged since the last phase of building work there in 1710.

If you choose your time and day to visit when there aren’t too many other people wandering around, you can almost imagine yourself back in the eighteenth century. Half close your eyes and let your senses bring you the drifting scent of candles and listen for the gentle rustle of silk skirts, perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a servant on the stairs.

It was for many years the family home of the Drydens (not actually the home of the poet and political satirist John Dryden, but they were closely related) and it still feels like a family home to me even though it’s now being shared with all of us visitors. I love the way you’re able to see so many of the rooms, grand and less than grand.

There’s one much more recent resident of the house we do know about – have you heard of Louis Osman? He was the goldsmith who made the crown used at the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 and he lived here from 1969 until 1979. (Although I can’t say it’s something I’d ever want to wear, not that that’s an issue – ahem…).

The house isn’t huge, but it has many small treasures to discover as you wander around.  A speaking tube to pass orders from the dining room to the kitchen, Elizabethan wall-paintings, a magnificent plaster work ceiling, mysterious masonic symbols painted onto cupboards…

Although naturally we all think we’d have been the ones swanning around giving the orders in these old places, I suppose it’s more likely that we’d have been slaving away in the kitchens, but Canons Ashby has a fabulous old kitchen, worth the visit for that alone (well I think so).

The other big draw of Canons Ashby for me is the wonderful amount of needlepoint and woven textiles around the house. It’s not so easy when the house is busy, but there have been days when it’s quiet that I’ve managed to spend really quite a long time peering at the stitched work (and getting some odd looks from the room-guides).

I always find myself thinking about the people who stitched away at those pieces and the lives they lived and what they’d think if they knew we were still admiring their work hundreds of years later.


Just as lovely as the house itself are the gardens, which are gradually being restored. Go on a fine day and you’ll probably want to spend as long there as inside. One day when it’s really warm I’m going to pack up my stitching, drive over to Canons Ashby, settle myself into a garden seat and stitch away the afternoon there.

Don’t miss the statue of Sam the shepherd boy which commemorates a sad event during the English Civil War when the pro-Parliament Drydens offered food and ale to a group of Roundhead soldiers and set their shepherd lad to watch out and alert the soldiers if any Royalist troops arrived – when they did arrive and the boy played his whistle to raise the alarm, the Royalists took vengeance and killed him.

Gaze through the window and spot Sam the shepherd still guarding Canons Ashby.
The church

If you have enough time, wander over to the church which dates from 1250 and which is all that remains of the Priory – as with other churches ‘cut down’ from monastic sites, it feels a bit oddly proportioned, which I suppose is entirely understandable.

Planning A Visit?

  • I should mention that there’s a lovely cafe there too but if the weather is good you might prefer to take a picnic – there’s plenty of space and on a hot summer afternoon it feels dreamy.
  • Bookworms should know that there’s a small second-hand bookshop in the courtyard too, you might want to allow yourself a few extra minutes for a browse around.

Are you planning any heritage-hunting this weekend, where are you off to? Or where would you like to be going? Do tell…



Unleashing the history junkie…

Last week I decided to unleash my inner history junkie onto Instagram and committed to regularly sharing pictures and snippets of history-related trivia on my gallery there.

If you’ve been coming here to my blog for any length of time, you’ll already know that exploring British history through visiting the places where it happened is the thing I want to be doing most if I’m not stitching – in fact the truth is that some days I actually want to do it more!

The thing that really gets me excited is knowing that there’s such a massive amount of heritage surrounding us, wherever you are in Britain, there will be something fascinating nearby, quite possibly even under your feet. We can trace our history back through the centuries and visit places where our ancestors stood thousands of years ago right up to the present.

But it makes me really sad that many people only ever get to see the major attractions, not knowing that they’re missing a huge wealth of other historic sites all with amazing stories to tell.

So, I’ve decided that my mission is to wave the flag for the historic sites in Britain that don’t generally feature on the Top 10 lists of places to visit. Because wonderful though Stonehenge, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle undoubtedly are, they’re just the tip of a massive iceberg of possibilities and I hope to make a small contribution by shouting out about the sites that don’t get quite so much attention and to help them have their stories heard.

My plan is to come here once a week and talk about somewhere I think is pretty special. (I’ll post pictures on Instagram too).

Now if you’re reading this and thinking ‘oh crikey no, I had enough of history at school thank you very much, I can’t think of anything worse, I’m off to surf the web for a new knitting pattern’ all I can say is that I hope to avoid being a bore. There are some fabulously informative history websites (which I happen to love), but I’m not intending to do more of the same. I’m not a historian, just a history geek who loves seeing for herself, so I’m not going to be writing chapter and verse guide books, instead I aim to tempt you with titbits of information, excite you with little connections and thrill you with trivia.

I know I’m not the only history-junkie out there, so if you’re currently hiding your history habit, now is the time to come out and join me. Let me know what it is that really gets your history juices flowing. What are the British heritage places you think the world should hear about? What is it that you enjoy most about making your own history trips? Where do you really want to see but haven’t been to yet? If you’re reading this outside Britain, what would you love to see explored here? How could I bring our historic past alive for you?

I’d love it if you’d leave comments here or on Twitter (I’m @AnnPawley) or Instagram (dreaminginstitches). Let’s start talking history and see if we can spread the word.