Yesterday we finished our transfer from Wales to the eastern part of England by driving from Sheffield to Norwich, in the county of Norfolk. We had a couple of stops but entering the wrong address into our Sat Nav late in the afternoon gave us a delay of about an hour in getting to our hotel.
Just out of Sheffield, and into Derbyshire, we passed the city of Chesterfield and then turned south to have a look at Hardwick Hall. Just before entering the grounds, we found that the old mill was open and we stopped to learn bit about flour milling. This old Stainsby Mill still has most of its original equipment and was used for milling wheat and barley for the Hardwick Estate (more on that in a minute.)
A mill on this site appears to have existed from the early 13th century. Originally all the water for the mill came from the River Doe Lea which fed the Miller’s Pond on the Hardwick estate but now, a smaller reservoir is used. By the 1840’s the mill had been become dilapidated and William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire decided it needed rebuilding and re-equipping. After all, he really liked white bread, rather than the coarse stuff made with lots of bran in it. The mill was substantially rebuilt between 1846 and 1850 in dressed stone from the Hardwick Estate and fitted with modern machinery, including a 5.2 metre diameter breast-shot water wheel. It was in operation for a century until it finally closed in 1952.
Sited on a hilltop between Chesterfield and Mansfield, overlooking the Derbyshire countryside, the nearby Hardwick Hall was designed by Robert Smythson in the late 16th century. Ordered by Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury and ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire, it remained in the ownership of her descendants until the mid-twentieth century when it was given to the government as payment of death duties.
Bess of Hardwick was then the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I, and her house was conceived to be a conspicuous statement of her wealth and power. The windows are exceptionally large and numerous at a time when glass was a luxury, leading to the saying, “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” The Hall’s chimneys are built into the internal walls of the structure, in order to give more scope for huge windows without weakening the exterior walls.
The house’s design also demonstrated new concepts not only in domestic architecture, but also a more modern way in which life was led within a great house. Hardwick was one of the first English houses where the great hall was built on an axis through the centre of the house rather than at right angles to the entrance.
Each of the three main storeys has a higher ceiling than the one below, the ceiling height being indicative of the importance of the rooms’ occupants: least noble at the bottom and grandest at the top.
A wide, winding, stone staircase leads up to the state rooms on the second floor; these rooms include one of the largest long galleries in any English house and also a little-altered, tapestry-hung great chamber with a spectacular plaster frieze illustrating hunting scenes.
Hardwick was but one of Bess’s many houses. Each of her four marriages had brought her greater wealth; she had been born in the now old Hall at Hardwick, which today is a ruin beside the ‘new’ hall.
From Hardwick Hall, we travelled on see Belton House in. Lincolnshire. For three hundred years, Belton House was the seat of the Brownlow and Cust family, who had first acquired land in the area in the late 16th century. Between 1685 and 1688 Sir John Brownlow and his wife had the present mansion built. Despite great wealth they chose to build a more modest country house rather than a grand contemporary Baroque palace. However, the new house was fitted with the latest innovations such as sash windows for the principal rooms, and more importantly, completely separate areas for the staff. The Brownlows climbed up the social ladder from baronets to barons and then to earls and then once again became barons, Successive generations made changes to the interior of the house which reflected their changing social position and tastes, yet the fabric and design of the house changed little.
Following World War I (a period when the Machine Gun Corps was based in the surrounding park), the Brownlows, like many of their peers, were faced with mounting financial problems. In 1984 they gave the house away—complete with most of its contents to the National Trust,
It was a warm sunny day and hundreds of people were visiting the enormous park-like grounds of the house. There was a cricket match being played on the oval and the formal gardens were quite splendid.
At a completely different end of society were the people who lived in the nearby village. I think that their houses would have been rather rudimentary but today they look very cute with flowers growing up their walls.
Today is Sunday. We had a late breakfast and decided that it would be a good day to see some of the city of Notfolk. We assumed the the traffic would be lighter as it was not a working day. We found a car park that was relatively close to some of the main attractions in the city, although we spent most of our time at the impressive cathedral, the spire of which is one of the tallest in England.
The morning service was just finishing so we waited for a while and then had a look inside. It’s a beautiful cathedral with a large organ that seems to be suspended somehow in the middle of the building. The brass baptismal font originally came from a chocolate factory and is almost big enough to bathe in.
We had a short walk along the riverside and saw the large box-shaped caste on the hill. Norwich Castle is a medieval royal fortification. It was founded in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England when William the Conqueror ordered its construction because he wished to have a fortified place in the town. It proved to be his only castle in East Anglia. In 1894 the Norwich Museum moved to the Castle and it has been a museum ever since. The castle is one of the city’s Norwich 12 heritage sites.
We drove to the east of Norwich for lunch at he delightful Dabbling Duck pub at Great Massingham. This is regarded as one of Norfolk’s prettiest villages.
Several large ponds dominate the village, some of which have their origins as the fish ponds for an 11th century Augustinian Abbey. The village is characterised by the flint and cobble cottages which huddle around these ponds.
The village’s origins are thought to go back to the 5th century, but today it is still a thriving community with a village shop and post office, and pub. The village church, St Mary’s has represented the focal point of village life for hundreds of years. For example, the porch, added around 1300, was used as a school room. Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first Prime Minister in 1720 is thought to have been educated in this porch as a young boy.
Not far away is the historic priory at Castle Acre. I’m not really sure of the difference between a Priory and an Abbey. Perhaps they belong to different orders. Perhaps the name Pryor is given to a monk prior to him being appointed an Abbot?
Anyway, this is one of the largest monastic sites in Britain, and one of the best preserved. The abbey here was established by William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and his wife Gundrada, with the first monks arriving around the year 1090. The Earl and Countess of Surrey had visited the abbey of Cluny in France, and were so impressed by the Cluniac lifestyle that the decided to invite the monks to establish a house in England, which they did here on a slope above the River Nar.
The Cluniacs were known for their profusely decorated buildings, and at Castle Acre we see one of the best preserved examples of this highly embellished style in Britain. The abbey church at Castle Acre is a flattering copy of the influential abbey church at Cluny. Remarkably, the west front of the church stands almost to its original height today, exhibiting superb arcading and rounded Romanesque carving detail.
The best preserved of the numerous buildings remaining on the site is the Prior’s Lodging, with a private chapel and accommodation chambers. The lodging boasts exterior flint and chequerwork, and two large oriel windows with fine tracery. Near the Prior’s Lodging are the remains of a barn, granary, brewhouse and a fourteen seater latrine (with the seats over a stream that carried the waste away – a great example of early sewerage engineering).
Late in the afternoon, we made a quick stop at Oxburgh Hall, about 30 miles out of Norwich. Oxburgh Hall is yet another of Norfolk’s stunning stately homes and we are seeing many of them on this trip.
Sitting behind a moat, this impressive Tudor brick mansion dates back to 1482 when it was built by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld and has been in the Bedingfeld family ever since.
The exterior beauty of the Hall is obvious as you enter into the walled garden although today it cluttered with scaffolding in preparation for the roof being replaced. The wonderfully coloured Tudor brickwork really stands out against the immaculately manicured lawns and parterre within the grounds.
As with all of Norfolk’s stately homes, the grounds are beautifully maintained, making for very enjoyable walking tracks around the property. I rather liked a family of swans who were feeding on the weed at the bottom of the moat.
We have already become well known at our hotel. Last night at dinner, a rather stupid waitress gave our meals to another table and we had nothing to eat. When we raised this with the manager, there was a great kerfuffle and our whole bill (including wine) was cancelled. Tonight when we returned for dinner, the staff gave us a very effusive welcome and looked after us very well. Wine through, is another problem. The hotel has run dry. Last night, there was a gala ball in the function room in aid of a charity. As we arrived to check in, the place was overflowing with resplendent looking people in ball gowns and tuxedos having a drink before it started. They have literally drunk all the wine in the stock room and the truck doesn’t come with more supplies until Tuesday!
This is now the time to implement that well known saying – If you can’t have a wine (whine), just have a bloody good whinge instead!