One of the great things about being a member of the National Trust (oh yes, Lisa and I both very much feel as though we are that far into our twenties now) is the sheer choice of interesting places to visit.
But our most recent came from me scrolling through their excellent app to find locations not too far away which seemed interesting. And so the app led us to Lyveden New Bield, between Northampton and Peterborough.
The building is situated off a minor country road and remains hidden from view until you’ve bumped and rolled your way along a rough path leading to the National Trust car park. But when it appears it looks most peculiar.
A strong, solid outline of a building standing out on its own in beautiful rural scenery, although seeming not to have windows or a roof – surely a ruin? But no – this is a common misconception.
Although this Elizabethan ‘new build’ has the toothless look of a ruined castle or manor house, Lyveden was in fact never completed, after construction began more than 400 years ago.
And what a remarkable thing it is. Beautiful and very telling of the potential for how it could have been – and yet quite empty and heartbreaking. How rare to find not just a building of this age looking so fresh and sharp in places, but also to find one that was started, never finished – and then never demolished either. Just sat there, all lonely and… weird. But still no less beautiful.
Lyveden cuts a lonely figure perched out there in pristine fields, although it is flanked by a nearby cottage and primitive visitor’s centre (quite literally a shed, although the cottage is being converted into a tea room).
Just over the way is its neighbouring manor house; Lyveden was designed by Sir Thomas Tresham to entertain guests. This primary purpose is evident in the building’s layout. Entrance for 21st century visitors is via a low doorway to the rear – originally for servants.
With no interior floors or features – just holes where floorboards and joists would have sat – it takes a bit of imagination to understand the upper areas. But a handy audio guide does its best to explain the situation of various features of the house, while large recognisable features like fireplaces and doorways stand out.
The scale of the construction is also a bit tricky to get your head around. With no roof to close the space in, visitors are left to crane their necks up at the unusual framing of the sky, which is itself a remarkable feature of the place.
Overall, Lyveden is fascinating from a historical perspective just as much as from an architectural one. The remote rural setting is lovely too, and we were treated to seeing it under a slate-grey sky full of cloud as well as in bright sunlight with blue skies in the space of an hour or so. The mind boggles as to how the place must look in other conditions such as snow or fog.
What a wonderful place. I know we will return.
Meanwhile, having driven us from Milton Keynes to pretty Oundle in Northamptonshire, Lisa, the ever-eager driver, decided that we simply must be closer to the sea than usual…
Despite my apprehension that we must surely in fact be about as far inland as it is possible to get in England, we decided to drive out to the Norfolk coast to see the beach at Hunstanton, overlooking the Wash.
But that’s another story for another blog post, I reckon.
I finally had the opportunity to visit Snowshill Manor recently, the home of craftsman, architect and collector* Charles Paget Wade.
*and artist and photographer and poet and…
I developed a fascination for Wade during my time interning at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, the people responsible for the preservation of the north London suburb well-known for its beautiful architecture and layout.
Wade provided some of the illustrations for this book, including a wonderful map which shows the Suburb’s general layout. But while the map is at least mostly accurate, it is also embellished with wonderful little details, doodles and notes about the history of the area in which the Suburb lies.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that Wade was a rather interesting fellow, and I soon found that he had bought a large Tudor manor house in the Cotswolds after the end of the First World War and proceeded to spend the next thirty years of his life filling it with interesting objects and works of art from all over the world.
Wade was a magpie, spotting interesting and amusing objects at auctions and sales from the four corners of the globe, and his house, Snowshill Manor, became a sort of living museum, with Wade himself living in a nearby Priest’s cottage. The vast majority of the objects were procured in the UK, having been imported by previous owners over centuries. And although calling the collection eclectic would be an understatement, something all the items have in common is their craftsmanship. Wade was obsessed with beautiful, handmade objects.
The map in Unwin’s Hampstead Garden Suburb book, like many of his illustrations, was signed with the sweet epithet Charles Wade Made Me. Lisa and I recently borrowed this phrase for a couple of craft and photography projects, named Lisa Made Me and Lisa Took Me.
Detail of a map by Wade from Town Planning and Modern Architecture at Hampstead Garden Suburb by Raymond Unwin
Fortunately, Lisa wanted to visit Snowshill just as much as me, and so she drove us both from Milton Keynes to the Cotswolds where we found the most wonderful place.
Run by the National Trust since Wade left it to them prior to his death in the 1950s, Snowshill Manor sits in the pretty village of Snowshill amongst a large amount of land, and consists of the Manor House, beautiful gardens, and a few other buildings including the priest’s cottage Wade himself lived in.
The Wade family had a large sugar business based on St Kitts, and Charles Wade came into some of that money after the death of his father in 1911.
Wade first saw Snowshill Manor in a Country Life magazine he was reading in the trenches during the First World War, where it was advertised for sale by auction. The magazine he was reading was rather old by this point, and miraculously, by the time he got to Snowshill some time after the end of the war, the Manor was still for sale, by now derelict and engulfed in weeds. Wade snapped it up immediately, and he and a team of labourers set to work restoring all the various parts of the building which had been added to over its lifetime.
He also began filling it with interesting objects and art works, and that is how it exists today – not as a museum per se, but as a collection – a menagrie. Wade hated the idea of objects being locked away in glass cabinets, and wanted his items to be loved and enjoyed.
Wade certainly is a fascinating fellow. I’m very keen to learn even more about him, having seen some of his collections, read some of his diaries/poetry, and enjoyed some of his art work – including the photographs used to illustrate this blog post.
This desire for collecting interesting objects and having them be used and available came from his childhood, and we were told an interesting tale by one of the curators at Snowshill that his old battle-axe of a granny would occasionally let him explore the contents of a beautiful oriental cabinet if he’d been a good little boy. The cabinet is on show at Snowshill, and contains various objects of eclectic origin, all of them beautiful and no doubt intriguing to a curious young boy.
Indeed, everything on show at Snowshill is fascinating in its own way. There’s a heck of a lot of Oriental objects, including many Samurai suits of armour and something I found very interesting: some Japanese pillar clocks, from before European methods of time-keeping were introduced. But it goes far beyond the Oriental: there are rooms stuffed with bicycles, musical instruments, books, and so on.
The Manor house itself provides a wonderful backdrop to the collection, leading visitors around its winding staircases and up and down unusual levels showing how the building was added to and extended over time. Touches of Wade abound everywhere you look, including most of the rooms having appropriate names painted above the doors – names like Zenith, Meridian and Seventh Heaven.
Just as fascinating was Wade’s living quarters – the neighbouring priest’s cottage, for he never lived in the Manor house itself – with its arts-and-crafts furniture and decoration and rather primitive features. His curtained box bed looked awfully cosy, and the swing-seat by his kitchen table just reeked of the small boy who seems to have existed in Wade for his whole life.
I came away from Snowshill Manor enchanted not just by the beautiful house, nor its extensive collection, nor its knowledgeable and enthusiastic curators, nor its picturesque Cotswold setting, but also by the charming story of a man who had a childhood dream and carried it through into his adult life.
That story is so alive and accessible today that you feel like Wade himself might just be hiding around the next corner waiting to jump out in fancy dress as he often did for his own visitors.
All images used in this post are from Wade’s own collection. You can click each image to purchase a copy, or to browse others in the same collection. Their use here is by kind permission of the National Trust. All Rights Reserved.