This month local historian Laura Malpas guides Pulse readers around the extraordinary history and natural and landscaped beauty of the gardens at Northamptonshire’s Castle Ashby.
It won’t be too long before the world starts to reopen, and we can all enjoy some of the most spectacular historic gardens in Northamptonshire. One of my absolute favourites belongs to glorious Castle Ashby, the ancestral home of the seventh Marquess of Northampton, Spencer David Douglas Compton.
The history of Castle Ashby reaches back to Saxon times at least, but the building of today’s Castle Ashby was begun in 1574 by Baron Henry Compton. He was a royal courtier, and one of the peers who attended the death of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay. The house was shaped like an ‘E’ to flatter the queen, and it was built as a showpiece, a ‘prodigy house’ designed to show the taste and wealth of the family, and large enough to host the Queen and her courtiers on the summer progress. The building was continued by Henry’s son William, and the flattery worked. The Queen visited in 1600. William, who was later created the first Earl of Northampton seems to have become a royal favourite, as Elizabeth’s successor King James visited five years later, bringing his Queen.
The Compton family were staunch Royalists, which made the Castle a target during the civil wars, resulting in its being burned and looted.
The house was eventually restored, enriched and embellished further, along with the gardens. At this point the parish church of St Mary Magdalen was fully incorporated into the estate. Nine formal parterres were arranged symmetrically, with gravel paths, urns, lollipop trees and specimen planting.
King William III visited in October 1695, and was very taken with the grounds, suggesting improvements to make it even more impressive, bringing the gardens into focus. The King suggested that four avenues of trees radiating out from the house would add to the formal impact. This suggestion was accepted, and the double avenues of Lime and Elm, accompanied by formal ponds, took 25 years to establish.
Fashion, of course, is fickle! The next generation wanted to lose the formal landscape, exchanging it with a more artful approach. The landscape gardener ‘Capability’ Brown removed two of these great avenues, broke up the third into clumps of trees, and extended the southern ‘Grande Avenue’ to three and a half miles, simplifying and naturalising much of the previous formal gardens.
But it was during the later Victorian era that the gardens acquired many of the landmarks we enjoy today. The beautiful Orangery with its deep pool full of fish and tropical feel dates from this time. The Birmingham Houses were constructed, with their elegant spiral staircases. These are greenhouses where most of the bedding plants used in the gardens are grown. My other favourite structure is the round Fuchsia House, home to over 180 varieties in summer. This area of the Gardens is also home to the Rainbow border, the Secret Garden, the Butterfly Garden and the Walled Garden. In summer these areas are filled with beautiful fragrant and colourful annual planting. Take a step further down, and the woodland nature trail takes you towards some impressive ancient trees, and alongside waterways and bridges with natural planting, wildlife and aquatic birds.
My husband, a lifelong fan of cricket (why?) is always tremendously impressed with the most glamorous cricket pitch in the County, home of the Castle Ashby House CC. Its backdrop is the Castle itself, and it is shielded from the winds by avenues of ancient oak trees on either side. The old pavilion is set back into the trees so it doesn’t impede the view of the Marquess when he looks out of his bedroom window in the morning.
But my top tip is to visit the Church. I love a churchyard, and to feel the echoes of past lives and loves. This particular churchyard is full of stories on the headstones. A friendly stone mason kindly showed me the ‘Witch’s gravestone’, complete with carved skull, crossbones and severed hand to prevent her from casting spells in death. The Compton family clearly had a ‘thing’ for angels, there are lots here with some very fine carving. The largest and most imposing was originally created as a memorial for the fourth Marchioness, with a larger-than-life angel looking down sorrowfully onto a grand table-top tomb. There are many other members of the Compton family memorialised here in grandiose granite inlaid with brass lettering, but the most touching is hidden directly underneath.A modest sandstone cross is laid with the inscription simply carved in italic lettering ‘my darling’ is all it says. It quite brought a tear to my eye.
The gardens of Castle Ashby are a wonderful place to meet and picnic with your family and friends, as there’s lots to explore and discover. I would rate it as one of the best places for a game of hide and seek! Spring, summer and autumn are a riot of colour, as the gardens are well tended despite their large size. There’s even a menagerie with marmosets and meercats, a sure-fire way to entertain visitors of all ages. Dogs on leads are permitted, and there are places where a well-behaved canine is allowed off-lead. There’s a play area for children, an essential café, a plant centre and small souvenir shop, clean loos, and the whole COVID thing seems well controlled. Do check the website to check what’s open on the day you want to visit, and it’s best to book tickets online too.
Roll on the end of lockdown, and the gradual opening up of society once more. Of course, If you’re lucky enough to be local, you can visit right now. The Gardens are open 365 days a year!
> For more information, please visit www.castleashbygardens.co.uk