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.

Outside

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…

 

 

Hidcote Blues…

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If all had gone to plan at the weekend, this post wouldn’t be here. Instead I’d have written about a visit to Chastleton House over at Mists of TIme (I’ve only been waiting about fifteen years to go to Chastleton, it had better be worth it when I finally get there!).

But on Sunday morning, after a week of rain and grey skies, the sun came out  as we  were driving westward and we made the executive decision to ditch Chastleton and head for Hidcote instead.

Which was such a good move, because it turned out to be the most perfect English summer’s day, and really, what better way to spend it than languidly wandering around one of the most beautiful and iconic gardens in the country (rather ironically the creation of an American).

I took about a zillion photos while we were there, but in honour of the famous lavender ‘Hidcote Blue’ (which I didn’t photograph at all…), here are just a few alternative blues spotted as we meandered through the seemingly endless secret gardens.

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For me, the experience felt like walking through an Impressionist painting. The dazzling variety of textures and jewel-like points of colour seep into your soul and I’m certain it’s not only gardeners who feel inspired by its treasures.

Hidcote Manor is tucked away in the countryside close to Chipping Camden and managed by the National Trust. It’s always beautiful, but just occasionally, when the Fates decide, it’s magical.

 

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Julia Blackett – Needlepoint Heroine

Some of you might know that the other great love in my life after needlepoint, is visiting historic places. (I generally write about that from time to time on my other blog – Mostly Motley).

What practically makes me drool with excitement, is when I get to combine both passions.

This happened to me back in August, when we visited Wallington, Northumberland  (a country house now in the care of The National Trust).

Wondering around the house in the languid way I do these days (so much less stressful now the girls are old enough not to need supervising), I came across  a simply amazing 6 panel needlepoint screen, in a room called – for no reason I could find out – The Pigeon Hole.

detail from the needlepoint screen

It’s a good job that my daughters now make their own way around these historic houses, because my habit of spending long minutes, peering intently at the stitching, is guaranteed to cause them huge embarrassment. Naturally I had a really good look at the panels and what overwhelmed me, was the sheer size and detail of the work and the tiny stitches with which it was constructed (petit point).

I’d rashly assumed that it was something purchased by the family for the house, but the lovely Room Guide pointed out a small portrait of a rather beautiful lady, called Julia Blackett, who I was told, had stitched the screen herself in 1727. The link to that portrait is here if you want to take a look.

According to the guide-book, the screen, which is worked in fine wool, was inspired by Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1663 edition of the Georgics and Eclogues of the poet Virgil. I’ll have to take their word on that, my classics education didn’t stretch that far, but I can’t help wondering about the thought process of Julia when she decided to create the work. Was she a scholar? Was this popular reading in seventeenth and eighteenth century aristocratic circles? Would the people who saw the screen, have understood what it was saying?

Then I wonder how she went about planning it. Did she have drawings? Did she create the drawings herself, or was there a market in needlepoint kits back then? How did she get the wool? Who supplied it? She certainly couldn’t order online!

Of course most people would assume that she had plenty of time on her hands to actually do the sewing, but I wonder about that too. It’s all very well in good daylight, but it must have been nigh on impossible to see well enough at night – have you ever done any fine work by candlelight? I suppose there must be a suspicion that she didn’t do it alone – if that’s true, I wish we knew a lot more about who the other women (I’m assuming it would have been ladies?) were.

I’d love to know more, because this is really what gets me so excited when I find old needlework. It’s the sense of connection with the individual whose fingers held the cloth and plied the needle, for hours and hours and many long hours. When we make pieces of needlework, we put something of ourselves into it – and in some way, that essence reaches out from the work.

I wonder if this is to some extent why historic quilts are so evocative – it’s a similar connection between the lives of people from the past and those going through the same process today.

Anyway, you can imagine, seeing Julia’s work made my day.

But then, just a few steps down the corridor, I came to the Needlework Room!

What a shock – it turns out that Julia had done far more than just the screen. The Needlework Room contains ten long needlepoint (tent stitch) panels, with an oriental theme – exotic birds and flowers. Annoyingly, I didn’t have my camera, so below are a couple of links to show the work.

Go here for a detail from one of the panels

And if you go here, you can see more of the panels There are beautiful almost matching chairs in the room too – you can just see them in the second picture, but they aren’t actually attributed to Julia.

Apparently, she made all these over a period of three years in the 1710’s, for the Drawing Room of her home in Esholt, near Bradford. It was her son, Sir Walter Calverley Blackett, who had the needlework brought to Wallington in 1755, when he sold the Bradford property. I’m so pleased that he was proud enough of his mother’s work to preserve it in his new family home, creating a room especially to show it.

I’ve tried to find out a little more about Julia Blackett, but she remains elusive. We have a couple of portraits and we have her needlework and we know that she was born in 1686 and died in 1736 – that’s it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somewhere in the family archive, there were letters or diaries that could tell us more. In the absence though, we can look at her work and let our imaginations soar.

Julia Blackett, Lady Calverley (1686 – 1736)

Julia Blackett  – needlepoint heroine.

 

 

 

  • Thanks to the photographers on Flickr who posted the pictures.
  • My non-stitchy blog is Mostly Motley – it’s a fairly random affair.
  • Wallington has loads more lovely and fascinating things to see – do go if you’re in the area.