Last year, I found myself a new favourite old house. Well, favourite apart from the one I’m living in anyway.
Haddon Hall is one of the best surviving examples of a medieval manor house. Built originally in around 1150, it was gradually added to over the following five centuries, before being abandoned in the early 18th Century in favour of the much grander Belvoir Castle, after its owner was elevated to the Dukedom of Rutland.
After standing empty for 200 years, the castle was sympathetically restored by the 9th Duke of Rutland, grandfather of the present owner, Lord Edward Manners. But more of him later. The real heroine of this story is Dorothy Vernon, though she may not have known it at the time.
Dorothy’s family had come into possession of the hall in the late 12th Century through the marriage between Sir Richard Vernon and Avice Avenel, a descendant of the hall’s founders, and her parents probably had great plans for her, but Dorothy was having none of it, instead eloping in 1563 with Sir John Manners, the second son of the Earl of Rutland. The bridge where she met up with Sir John is still standing, although I’ve heard some people confuse her bridge with the much grander one towards the front of the house. Alas, the various flights of steps she would have had to descend have all been replaced, although one flight in the house, dating from 1645, are known locally as ‘Dorothy Vernon’s Steps’.
Dorothy and John were forgiven, and the hall passed to the Manners family, who have owned it ever since. Dorothy and John completed work on the Long Gallery begun by Dorothy’s father, redecorated the State Bedrooms, and laid out the gardens, probably as squares of Tudor knots with a mixture of flowering plants and herbs. The gardens are still magnificent today, and in fine weather there are also wild-flower meadows to explore going outside the walls and down towards the river and Dorothy’s bridge.
As a rare, mostly unimproved example of an early hall, Haddon is very popular with the Tudor Group, a collection of historical intrpreters. In September 2014, they held a muster, and showed off their skills with longbows and muskets.
In December 2014, the Hall opened for the Christmas Season for the first time in many years. I visited on the 6th, the first day of opening, and also the first of two days when the Tudor Group were in residence. The day was rather cold and frosty, but the Hall was decorated inside and out, including the Chapel of St Nicholas. However, the mulled wine on offer, and the roaring fire in the great hall did little to dispel the chill from the house having been closed up for the whole of the preceding month. Which just makes you glad we live now and not in Tudor times, I expect.
But back to the chapel, which is one of the areas to which the 9th Duke paid particular attention. The chapel dates from around the time the Hall was founded and is still the parish church for the now almost extinct village of Nether Haddon – one of the UK’s smallest parishes. The 9th Duke loved Haddon Hall and put a lot of time, money and effort into restoring it – there’s a small museum elsewhere in the Hall, displaying the various small items he found, and also some of the larger pieces he was unable to display elsewhere – and in the chapel, he had the original fresco seccoes uncovered and repaired – a process that is still going on today.
The frescos are thought to date from the early fifteenth century, and were covered up during the Reformation of the mid 17th Century. Like so many other church decoration that were not completely destroyed by the Puritans. The frescos would have have originally been highly colourful, but are still magnificent today, depicting the lives of saints and various morality tales. The chapel also contains a replica of the tomb designed and partially carved by the 9th Duke’s mother to commemorate her first son, Lord Haddon, who died in childhood (his story played a large part in Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms).
There’s always something new to see at the Hall, and I make new discoveries all the time. Not to be missed are the signatures of various Royal visitors on the wall of the Earl’s Apartment, and the many works of art throughout the various rooms open to the public.
Haddon Hall is truly an essential place to visit, no matter the time of year (although it’s closed over the winter apart from during the Christmas season) and those who aren’t able to go, or who wish to read up on the place before a visit can purchase a copy of guide book which provided much of my information from here.