Thrumpton Hall - an invitation to view with owner, historian and writer Miranda Seymour
PUBLISHED: 12:55 28 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:55 28 August 2015
Recently discovered links to the Babington Plot and Lord Byron have added to the historic atmosphere of this fascinating Hall on Derbyshire's doorstep. Pat Ashworth talks to the owner, historian and writer Miranda Seymour
MIRANDA Seymour is writing her latest book in the room on the very top floor of Thrumpton Hall that was once her nursery. There’s a delicious irony in that for the novelist and biographer, whose childhood memory of the room was of a place ‘very ghostly and frightening, very dark and dusty. It felt so remote,’ she remembers, ‘and I was very afraid. I was also imaginative, so I made up ghosts for myself and then believed it all.’
Now the very remoteness of the room is a blessing. ‘Nobody can really be bothered to climb up the five flights of stairs unless they really have something to communicate,’ she says with a smile. Her parents spent 50 years restoring and preserving the Jacobean house from near-dereliction. She has been the owner since her father’s death in 1994 and lives here in contentment with her American husband, Ted, and her 92-year-old mother, Rosemary.
For a historian, the story of the manor house and its previous owners couldn’t be more thrilling. The Powdrill family had it in the 16th century, forfeiting the house and the lands when they were discovered to have been involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and put her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The plot was hatched by the Powdrills’ neighbour, Anthony Babington, of Kingston on Soar (and Dethick in Derbyshire), and the remains of that early house are still visible in the wall timbers.
Its connections with Roman Catholicism and the Babington Plot are well documented and evidenced by what visitors can see on a fascinating tour of the house and gardens. Thrumpton Hall is now one of 87 properties that are part of the national scheme, Invitation to View, where the owners of country houses take visitors round themselves on certain days to give a personal, fascinating and uniquely informative look behind closed doors. I’m privileged to be doing just that today, already inspired by the long driveway leading to the house via mellow red brick gateways.
I draw up to the house, my tyres sweeping on the gravel of the terrace overlooking the lake. It’s a romantic backdrop for the 50 weddings a year that are celebrated here: a business Miranda started seven years ago and which is flourishing beyond all expectations. For who wouldn’t want to lean elegantly on this balustrade, with herons and swans on the water and a rustic bridge beckoning beyond? Some of the gardens at Thrumpton Hall – replanted and tended by gardener, Brenda Heard – date back to the seventeenth century, including an Elizabethan knot garden, sweet with the fragrance of roses and the scent of herbs.
There are ancient larches and commemorative cedars, picture-book trees with their twining roots. ‘I used to have my swing up here,’ Miranda observes with pleasure of one particular broad-branched tree. Now it’s her granddaughter who delights in the fairy enchantment of soft pine needles underfoot and the amassing of fir cones for winter fires. There is a sense of wave and movement in the great sculpted yews. We pause by a classic English oak tree, sprung from an acorn from Lord Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey, and perfectly duplicating the shape of the tree from which it came.
The Byron connection is woven into this house. After the fall of the Powdrills, the socially ambitious Pigott family took over, turning the place into a spectacular showpiece. It ruined them: no longer able to keep up the mortgage payments to their lawyer, Mr Emerton, they were forced to sell the estate to him in 1685. It stayed in the Emerton family, and in 1820, Mr John Emerton created the lake and the beautiful 350-acre park. His 16-year old niece married Lord Byron, whose daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was a frequent guest at Thrumpton on her visits to Nottinghamshire.
Lord Byron’s nephew, the 10th Lord Byron, was succeeded by Miranda’s father, George Fitzroy Seymour. Miranda proudly displays Byron’s signet ring – ‘It just fitted my finger,’ she says happily – and as her current work in progress is a life of Byron’s wife and daughter, she is immensely pleased to be finding more and more Byronic connections to Thrumpton.
‘Byrons lived here for 100 years. We have found all sorts of little bits and pieces to do with Ada and it’s very exciting,’ she says, adding, ‘That’s what I find particularly good about doing the Invitation to View tours. The people who come are often very knowledgeable and will say, “Do you mind my saying...?” And I don’t at all. They come up with all sorts of ideas, some of which lead to a new discovery and some of which don’t.’
There was a once a brewery at Thrumpton, and the old beer and wine cellars remain. Servants who worked at the Hall in the 1920s benefited from model accommodation built round the stables and the carriage court. Reminders of history are never far away. The steep slope rising behind the Hall was originally the main entrance and Miranda observes, ‘If you were riding a horse and came in a straight direction from Kingston, home to the Babington family, it would take just five minutes.’
The shutters are closed in the Oak Room, where the Babingtons – a famous Derbyshire family – are believed to have hatched their plot. It feels portentous and mysterious, and well it might, for a corner of the room opens into a secret priest’s hole and the stairs lead up to what has recently been established to be the old Chapel. A rose carved in the ceiling is valuable supporting evidence: ‘We think the family who came here after the plot did this in homage – sub rosa meaning “under this rose no secrets will be revealed”,’ Miranda observes.
For her as a biographer, no room is more wonderful than the library with its five thousand volumes. ‘I have Blackwood’s Magazine, the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review, so I can look up all the original reviews of Byron’s poems. It’s so much more exciting than looking on the internet,’ she says. ‘And on paper which is still in good condition... and the books smell so beautiful.’ Wedding parties come through into this room after the civil ceremony in the entrance hall or after arriving from the church, and they use too the splendid dining, drawing and breakfast rooms on the ground floor.
‘The rooms seem to embrace these events as they have always done,’ Miranda says happily. We ascend the sweeping, 17th century staircase – characterising the Powdrills’ grand ambitions – that dominates a whole side of the house, fashioned from elm, pine and oak from the estate and laden with carved fruit that invites a caress of the hand in passing. ‘This was once heavily varnished and so dark and gloomy,’ Miranda remembers. ‘My parents had the whole thing stripped. It took a whole year, with three people working on it, and it was terrifying because along the way, it went the most dreadful shade of bright ginger. But it came out in this lovely honey colour.’
Her parents valiantly and determinedly took on the house in 1950, at a time when the fortunes of many country houses were in terminal decline. She has described what that was like in a candid, passionate and critically acclaimed book, In My Father’s House. ‘My father was a wonderful owner but also a very controlling one: it was his vision and his house and there wasn’t really room for any of us to contribute to that,’ she says. ‘My mother admirably just stuck through it with him and arranged these parties and things where she was quite often the sole cook and washer-up.
‘It created a far grander life than they could afford. My father would give his guests a drink and then scuttle off to the rooms upstairs and pull down the beds and draw the bath to make it look as if a maid had been in. But it was all him. It was valiant and kind of crazy too, very English eccentric.’
We pause on the landing to examine the new cabinet of Byron paraphernalia: a locket of his hair; Ada’s soft and slender kid gloves, ‘the sort a lady might wear to a court ball,’ Miranda suggests; a first copy of Byron’s poem, Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, given by the publisher to her father; a fragment of the flag which Byron famously carried on his journey to fight in Greece, ‘all stitched by his mistress’; a piece of the bed hangings from Byron’s honeymoon bed, red damask through which the firelight shone, causing the poet to wake in terror and think himself in hell.
The discovery of a diary showing the young Byrons going with the family from Thrumpton to visit Byron’s home on Lake Geneva has delighted the family, as has confirmation that the South Room, now the Bridal Suite, was the room where the poet stayed during his visits. This was once the Chapel (where the secret staircase comes up), and the location of the altar, the family pews and the niche where the reserved sacrament was kept are all known. It’s all very ‘Brideshead’, and there’s still the feel of a family home in all the 11 bedrooms available to wedding parties.
Miranda and her husband, Ted, were married here 10 years ago in a stunning first-floor drawing room decorated with wooden carvings that look every inch like plasterwork. Their own story couldn’t be more romantic: they did a house swap, she to the rooms in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she had rented earlier in her life, now occupied by Ted; he to her London flat. ‘We agreed we would never meet, never speak, just exchange,’ she remembers.
‘But then we saw each other’s books and music and realised we had an incredible affinity. Everything seemed to be exactly what the other liked. I used to sit watching his lovely black-and-white films and one day I thought, “This is silly. I’m just going to ring him up and tell him how lovely it all is.”’ They talked and talked. And when the time came to end the swap, she burst into tears, they cancelled arrangements each had made, met by mutual consent in Miranda’s London flat and never looked back. ‘This wonderful man,’ she says. ‘I just walked into his arms and that was it. And he fell in love with this place from the first moment he saw it.’
It’s a very different life now from what she remembers as a child here and later, as an adult. There was the challenge of taking on the house in 1994, with writing friends visiting and ‘a lot of laughter and dressing up out of these boxes full of uniforms and diplomatic cloaks and things, and sitting around in ridiculous wigs. Somebody in the house party would write a play and we’d all act in it. My mother would play some grand old dowager, usually in a pink negligee, looking very theatrical and not saying much. It was all great fun.’
But the bigger challenge came in 2000. Continued survival of the Hall largely depended on arrangements by which repairs and maintenance of country houses like Thrumpton could be set against the cost of the estate. Those arrangements ceased that year and with no tranche of land that could be developed, another source of income had to be found. Happily the weddings have provided that, and the magnificent addition of the Lakeside Pavilion that stands, unseen from the house at the end of the newly christened Lady Byron’s Walk, is further testament to Thrumpton’s popularity as a wedding venue.
But it has done more than bring in the income necessary to maintain the Hall and grounds. ‘When the weddings are happening here, it just feels as though the house is alive. It’s lived in and loved in a very wonderful way,’ Miranda Seymour concludes. ‘It goes on and it thrives.’