Canon’s Ashby House in very rural Northamptonshire, is one of those half forgotten manor houses that pepper England, and when you find them, you feel as if you’ve been let into a precious secret. I probably shouldn’t even write about Canon’s Ashby in case it gets big headed and loses it’s charm; but I will, because I’m sure if it’s the sort of place that appeals to you, then you should be let into the secret too.
On Sunday, we took ourselves off there for a visit. It had been a couple of years since the last time we went, but in that time it has only got better. Plus, it was a gorgeously hot summers day, perfect for strolling around a quintessential English garden and sitting under the shade of some trees, eating a picnic.
The house was built in the 1550’s by the Dryden family (yes, that Dryden family). It’s on land which had previously belonged to the Augustinian Priory, a small portion of which survives today as the Parish Church of St Mary. The Black Canons (from the colour of their habit) at Canon’s Ashby, were amongst the earliest to lose their land when Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 – one wonders what they’d been up to, to receive that treatment…
Anyway, you can still see what’s left of the Priory. It’s worth popping inside to see the collection of funeral hatchments (what an odd tradition this now seems).
We started our visit by going into the church, because we got there just a little too early for the house opening (1.00pm). It was also so hot by that time, that we decided we’d better have our picnic first, because since the cold box blew it’s fuse, we can’t keep our butties cold for very long. As it was, the box of chocolate mini-rolls I’d packed for daughter two to eat, decided to morph into a sticky chocolate heap.
At last we were on the visit proper.
Do you ever go to one of these historic houses and fall in love with the smell? I know I do. There’s something about beeswax polish and a faint lavender scent, that has me drooling. That’s what I always think about at Canon’s Ashby. It’s one of those very old houses that smells lovely. I could just stand in the Hall and inhale.
The house wears it’s history very lightly. You can quite easily work out the stages in which it was built – the last of which was in 1710, since when it has remained largely unchanged. I like this, it’s so easy to step back in time.
The kitchen is one of the few very old kitchens that I think I could be happy using today. It has a very high ceiling, but excellent light. The range might guzzle too much fuel, and you’d have to be catering to the five thousand to make it worthwhile firing it up, but with a little adaption, I could see myself knocking up a pretty decent sponge cake in that kitchen.
I suppose in grand historic house terms, Canon’s Ashby might not have many breath-taking features, although it can boast Elizabethan wall-paintings and some amazing Jacobean plasterwork, but in a way, that’s the point. This house is simply charming, it doesn’t need architectural bling, it has atmosphere instead.
My favourite room is a bedroom decorated in tapestries and with superb needlepoint covered chairs dating to 1716. I could probably be happy looking at the work in those chairs for days on end. I mentioned to the lovely lady who was stewarding in that room how gorgeous it was, I think she felt it too – perhaps a kindred spirit.
Outside, the National Trust who now run Canon’s Ashby, are doing a splendid job of reinstating the garden. Again, it’s being done in a sympathetic way. I read one commentator who lamented that the Trust should spend more to give the garden more plants, but as someone who still believes that a garden needs time to develop and grow it’s character, I’m not offended by a few bare patches. It won’t be long before it’s lush. It’s already lovely.
Don’t miss the Green Court garden. It’s got impressive yews, and a fabulous collection of old pear varieties growing against the walls, and a lead statue by Van Nost – OK, I admit it, I am a touch jealous of that garden.
It’s also reassuring to see that this is another National Trust property, where they are encouraging games to be played on the lawns. Brush up on the rules of croquet before you go and you can have a lovely hour smashing your opponents balls out of the way!
So now you know. Canon’s Ashby – one of England’s little gems, just don’t tell everyone.