In the northernmost portion of Warwickshire, Arbury Hall, a short distance southwest of Nuneaton, was once an Augustinian Priory seated in what today is a hundred acres of dense landscaped woodlands with gardens, lakes and splendid walkways. It is quite attractive, as well- inside and out. It was on this property that Griff House was built, just around the bend of the old highway, which was the childhood home of George Eliot who was born in November of 1819 as Mary Ann Evans at South Farm, a short distance away. It is a well-established belief that her book of stories, Scenes of Clerical Life was based on people and events connected with Arbury Hall where her father, Robert, worked as a land agent and some of the corresponding characters in the book are largely drawn from real life including herself. Descriptions of Arbury Hall- the Saloon and Dining Room plasterwork ceilings, in particular- are contained in the book as those of the fictional Cheveral Manor. Apparently, she and her brother Isaac had the run of the property and she absorbed much of her surroundings with a keen eye.
As a monastery, originally, the estate dates back to Henry II’s time (i.e. mid-12th century). However, as the seat of the Newdegate family for four and a quarter centuries now, it has been through quite a few changes with the most amazing transformation taking place during the time that classical architecture had waned, mid-18th century. The exterior and interior of the mansion may be the most eclectic of its time and the finest example of Gothic Revival architecture in England. Inside, you will view exquisite and extensive collections of antique Chippendale and Hepplewhite furnishings, portraits and framed art by Lely, Reynolds, Devis and Romney along with glass and china collections throughout the magnificently elegant rooms available to the public. The fan vaulted ceilings, filigree tracery and plunging plasterwork pendants are described as breathtaking by those who have toured the principal rooms.
Most of the appearance of Arbury’s estate, overall, was commissioned by Sir Roger Newdigate (the different spelling is correct) who inherited his title as Lord Daventry in 1734 at the tender age of fourteen while still a student at Westminster. He acquired two estates- Arbury Hall and Harefield Place at Middlesex, the latter of which had been traded by the Newdegates back in 1586 in exchange for Arbury and at the time of exchange, Arbury had been rebuilt by Edmund Anderson, a lawyer, in the Elizabethan style. At some later date Sir Roger’s relative, Sir Richard, bought back the property at Harefield and in so doing made Sir Roger a very wealthy teenager. Roger’s renovations, later on, were extensive and impressive, inside and out, and drawn well becoming a Georgian antiquarian, engineer and scholar in the bargain with a Verse prize which bears his name at Oxford!
Starting with a Grand Tour in 1742, where Roger made sketches of his favorite buildings and collected art and sculptures, within six years he commenced creating a Gothic interior at Arbury retaining only one classical room, the chapel, which was built by his grandfather late in the 17th century. He worked room by room for a period of fifty years and left behind quite a bit of work but he passed on at the age of 88 with the mansion not quite finished. Every room shows signs of the work he commissioned over the decades and the tasteful stucco is considered to be the most exemplary of its kind and ahead of its time of the Gothic revival greats such as Nash, the Wyatts, Salvin and Pugin. Henry Keene was the first architect employed and he stayed with the project from 1761 until his death in 1776. Quickly replaced by Henry Couchman, the south front and the Saloon were taken on and may be the finest interior work at Arbury taking twenty years to complete. The bow window of the Saloon was completed a little bit later in 1795 with the finest tracery plasterwork of the entire house. After 1789 until his death in 1906 Sir Roger conducted the work himself and completed all- save a few- of his projects.
The entrance hall opens to a Gothic cloister which was added to the Elizabethan central courtyard- part of the older portion and the staircase sweeps up in a graceful and mysterious curve. A tour will begin with the chapel which has a magnificent ceiling decorated heavily with cherubs, swags and drops. Elsewhere the style is much more profuse and effete which works well at Arbury. Fan vaulting gives a lift to the School Room, the Little Sitting Room, Saloon and the Drawing Room is barrel-vaulted with a fan vault near the bow window.
Sir Roger’s work can be found in the dining room and was constructed inside the old Great Hall which has tremendous height giving the fan vault, wall piers and plasterwork magnificent spatial quality. Along with niches and statues, the precious fireplace along with an exceptional portrait of Elizabeth I the decor can truly be called awesome. The Elizabethan Long Gallery contains only Elizabethan and modern furnishings along with much more contemporary art.
Sir Roger’s work extended to the estate itself and most of the park and gardens were landscaped over the 72 years he presided at Arbury replacing the wild deer park with lawns, winding paths and wonderful trees including oaks from the Forest of Arden and even the existent formal garden to the east of the house. He installed large pools which are often interpreted as lakes although the lake on the south west was most likely natural. The Rose Garden and surrounding yew hedge are a nationwide attraction but the pools were an instrumental part of the canal system which Sir Richard had installed after it was found that coal existed on the Arbury estate at the beginning of the 18th century. Sir Roger later incorporated the small canal into a larger system. Their use dropped off considerably after he died and by 1819 the upper levels were unusable for their original purpose. When flooding from the canals into the Coventry Communication Canal became unmanagable some were drained. Only a portion of the old system remain visible but the Bedworth Mill still exists as a grade II listed edifice and is supposed to be the inspiration for George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
Today, the mansion remains in the Newdegate family with James FitzRoy as the 4th Viscount Daventry along with his wife and three children very much present. As so many are now, Arbury is a private home available for hire for corporate events and weddings between the months of May to September and prior arrangements must be made to the contact listed below. Not to be missed is a stop over to the Dutch gabled stable block which has been converted over to tea rooms for hire and may have been the work of Sir Christopher Wren.
The Stable Tea rooms are adjacent to the house along with shops and on site parking.
Contact Lyn Kilcoyne T-02476 382804
Just a few miles further southwest of Arbury, the exterior of Fillongley Hall is a prime example of neo-classical Greek revival architecture- one of the few in England- and was first designed by George Woolcott for Reverend Bowyer Adderley, an uncle to Lord Norton I in the first quarter of the 19th century. Curiously, it was built in two distinct stages starting with the south front with three very large reception rooms and a library on the west. Fifteen years later a classic Greek temple portico extension to the north entrance front was added along with a hall and a small projecting wing along the west. Those designs were drawn up by J.L. Akroyd of Coventry. Leading to a vestibule and entrance hall with a continuance of the ionic columns, the architecture is remarkable for its unique mixture of Georgian and neo-classical Greek columns and statues. Various themes of this curious but interesting mélange of styles are carried on throughout the interiors with magnificent floor to ceiling windows in the dining hall and bedrooms.
The restoration of Fillongley has been very recent with the current heir (the 8th Lord Norton), his wife Frances and a builder who already knew the house, as the workforce. They have brought the mansion into the 21st century with sensational accuracy and beauty. The new décor and furnishings are in keeping with the Regency period along with a completely modern kitchen and ten refurbished rooms including a magnificent drawing room which is situated across from the dining room, along the east side of the house. The four hundred acres of ground are mostly a wooded area but there is a cricket pitch with landscaping and gardens which showcases the estate in a rather resplendent fashion.
Of course, this mansion did not escape the attention of George Eliot who stayed at Bede Cottage, adjacent to Fillongley and was an obvious inspiration and source of material in her novel Adam Bede. In addition to Bede Cottage there are three others all of which are guarded well by an entrance lodge. Despite all the work put into restoring Fillongley, the Norton family have put the mansion and 100 acres of the land up for sale as of 2010, moved to Switzerland with their young daughter and are being very careful about who will have the privilege to own the property.
Besides being in company with medieval farm buildings and forty acres of partial woodlands which include extensive gardens and the largest man-made lake in Warwickshire, Middleton Hall can boast of twenty-four framed historical embroidery panels occupying the first floor corridor which depict the history of not-too-distant Sutton Coldfield. From the outside it would seem an unlikely place for such an exhibit, however. Five other museums are housed here which include a History Room, the Peel Collection, Police Museum, John Ray room and the Natural History display. The Jettied Building behind has an exhibit about the local history.
Middleton is eclectic, pretty and also rather detached from Warwickshire and even of its own frame of reference, because it sits directly on the border between the northernmost border of Warwickshire and the southernmost border of Staffordshire. There is a little confusion as to which county it belongs and, in addition, is surrounded by a maze of super roadways but closest to the A4091 on the opposing side. It doesn’t seem to spoil a day outing here, however, and there is something for everyone whether they are interested in botany, architecture, gardening, history, fine arts or even technology.
As a dwelling of the 17th century naturalist Sir Francis Willoughby, founder of the Royal Society and heir of Wollaton Hall which I have already covered in my Nottingham entry back in September of 2007, the estate originates from 1285 as testament to the long term residency under the overlordship of Hugh de Grantmesnil. Buildings from the 13th to the 19th centuries around the courtyard were restored by the Middleton Hall Trust beginning in 1980 when the entire complex of buildings were under threat for demolition by Arney Roadstone Construction. From Hugh the estate was passed to the Marmions of Tamworth Castle and afterward the estate was divided three ways in 1291 when the Frevilles gained ownership. Margaret Freville left her portion of the estate to her grandson Sir Henry Willoughby and stayed in that family until 1924.
On the garden side, the hall has a rather ordinary 18th century aspect but an Elizabethan Great Hall was obviously restyled in Georgian with a marvelous staircase, flanked at the top of the balcony with fluted columns and filled with copies of ancestral paintings on the walls. Much restoration has been carried out with the other buildings of earlier origin and you will see 13th century features such as a manorial undercroft, stone mullioned windows, a solar, timber-frames from the Tudor period along with an oversailed upper floor. The eleven-bay Georgian West Wing dates from the late 18th century when the Willoughbys gained the title of Baron Middleton.
The extended grounds feature the nine acre lake with footpaths available which includes the old orchard, meadow and woodland path on the far side of the lake. The area is considered a site of special scientific interest with events scheduled year round for enthusiasts. By the mid-17th century Francis Willoughby, who was a famous mathematician and naturalist, carried out a prodigious amount of work along with John Ray on classification of flora and fauna in and around the estate. After Francis death John Ray continued to direct the Willoughby children in their studies and arranged the publication of Willoughby’s work as well as his own. Additional attractions are the two walled gardens, souvenir shop, restored smithy and second hand books room, with refreshments available in the tea room overlooking the south pool. Bookings for wedding parties are available.
T-018272 83095 middletonhalltrust
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