Contrary to the popular view that it always rains on Bank Holiday Weekends, Good Friday arrived dry and sunny and we set off on the Wightlink Ferry along with many other travellers on the first big ‘get away’ of the season. Our destination, Littlecote House not far from Hungerford.
Just off the A.4, Newbury to Marlborough Road we decided to stop off at Hungerford for a caffeine boost before continuing on to Littlecote House. Hungerford has boasted antique shops for centuries and the town, steeped in history, is still a haven for antiques today. After a welcome coffee at the Plume of Feathers Inn in the High Street sitting in the window watching town life go by we then spent an hour or so across the road mooching round the stalls in the Hungerford Arcade. This building, dating back to 1360, was one of the first arcades of this type in the country and houses some 80 stallholders. We resisted purchasing a very unusual Victorian mounted glass claret jug for ourselves and instead settled for a pair of silver and enamel cuff links depicting golfers. An apt birthday present for one golfing mad son.
By this time Littlecote was calling. Back in the car and only ten minutes or so away we were soon driving along the tree lined avenue and through the paddocks leading to the House. It is easy to close your eyes and imagine riding up to the house on horseback, but this is 2006 and we are in a car so we drive towards the new hotel section within and to the east of the Estate Buildings, park up, check in and unload our luggage for the weekend. One of the pleasures of staying at Littlecote is that you can book a room in the Mansion and let your imagination carry you back in time.
Before the building of a manor at Littlecote finds of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic flint tools and Bronze Age pottery fragments indicate there had been human activity on the site which also appealed to the Romans. William George, a Steward of Littlecote made an archaeological discovery in 1728 the importance of which was not fully realised until re-excavations took place in the late 1970’s when a mosaic floor, dating back to Roman times was discovered. During the 13th & 14th centuries a medieval village developed over the Roman settlement and an early manor house established, held by Roger de Calstone. Now Littlecote is one of England’s finest Grade 1 listed Medieval Tudor Mansions and presents a long history of alterations and additions. From the mid 13th Century it remained in the de Calstone family until William Darrell married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas de Calstone in 1415 and inherited the Estate, later passing to Sir John Popham in 1590, Lord Chief Justice who presided over the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes and who was responsible for much of the alterations and additions.
As a typical visitor to Littlecote I like to visit the Great Hall first with its grey and white diamond flagstone floor, oak panelling and English fan-vaulted ceiling. There is blue, gold and bronze roundel in the high window where Jane Seymour and Henry VIII’s initials are united by lovers’ knots and cupids heads, for it was Littlecote that Henry VIII visited and courted Jane, a relative of the Darrells. Housed in the Hall are a 30 foot long Shovel-Board table and the finger stock said to have been used by Judge Popham to confine prisoners in the dock.
A door at the end of the Great Hall leads into the drawing room decorated with hand painted Chinese wallpaper with windows overlooking the original main drive and lawns. This room is wonderfully relaxing and an ideal place to sit and read the Sunday morning newspapers whereas the Popham Library leading off the drawing room is a very special place to enjoy an after dinner drink. Beyond the library is the Dutch Parlour which would fascinate all art lovers with it’s panels depicting scenes from ‘Don Quixote’ and Butler’s ‘Hudibras’, painted by Dutch prisoners taken from a naval battle around the year 1665.
Carrying on through is the Brick Parlour with examples of 17th century panelling and the Diamond Hall is the Cromwellian Chapel and gallery created by Alexander Popham, grandson of Sir John. We are told that this is the only remaining example of a Cromwellian chapel in a private house, with the pulpit positioned where the alter would be in other places of worship. The term ‘dropping off’ originates from the design of the pews with their slight forward tilt causing anyone falling asleep during a service to literally ‘slip off’. They work too. You just have to try them out! The gallery of the chapel then leads through into the haunted landing and bedroom so called for its association with the murder of a new born baby during ownership by the Darrells.
Story has it that a midwife from nearby Shefford was brought to the house, blindfolded, to deliver a baby. After successfully helping the mother to give birth to a boy the midwife was ordered to throw the baby on the fire by a wild-eyed man later identified as ‘Wild’ William Darrell. It is the ghost of the mother who is said to haunt both bedroom and landing. To complete our visit of the house is a visit to the Long Gallery with its fine Oriel window. Lined with family portraits this room is some 110 feet by 18 feet. Long galleries, a typical feature of houses at this time, provided the opportunity for taking exercise without having to venture outdoors in bad weather. However, no less attractive to the visitors than the house are the gardens – some 113 acres of which 40 acres are formal gardens – but they are another delight, another story.