Woolsthorpe Manor

The past year and a half has been challenging for everyone. For some, it has resulted in the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, ill health, depression and anxiety. Yet, for others, it has been an opportunity to spend time with family, take up new hobbies, redecorate the house, and learn something new. Perhaps someone has even made a scientific discovery. At least, that is what Sir Isaac Newton achieved during the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Known as his Annus Mirabilis or ‘Year of Wonders’, Newton spent lockdown at his childhood home in the countryside, where he filled his time learning and discovering new things about the world.

On Christmas day in 1642, Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, to Hannah Ayscough (1623-79). Christmas day babies were special, but Newton was also considered blessed because he was born three months after the death of his father, also called Isaac. When Hannah remarried the rector, Barnabas Smith (1582-1653), from North Witham, three-year-old Newton remained at Woolsthorpe Manor with his maternal grandparents.

Woolsthorpe Manor was a yeoman’s farmstead, which principally reared sheep. While Newton was not adept at farming, the environment and landscape inspired his curious mind to observe and experiment with nature. His quiet, contemplative personality set Newton apart from other boys his age, particularly when he started attending the Grammar School in Grantham at the age of 12.

Rather than travel several miles to and from school, Newton lodged with Mr Clark, an apothecary. Mr Clark’s daughter remembered Newton as “a sober, silent, thinking lad who never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad.” Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to study the workings of mechanical devices, such as the newly built postmill nearby. As soon as he had an opportunity, Newton constructed a working model of the postmill from wood.

Visitors can see an example of Newton’s postmill model at Woolsthorpe Manor, which now belongs to the National Trust. The house has been refurbished since Newton lived there, but recent discoveries suggest some sections remain as they were in the 17th century. On a wall in the kitchen, a faint carving of a postmill suggests Newton drew on the walls as a child. Other carvings have also been discovered around the room.

Newton’s notebooks reveal some of the experiments he undertook at school and home during his childhood. These included staring at the sun until he almost went blind and squeezing his eye-ball with a large blunt needle to see what would happen. He also had a keen interest in astronomy, time and mathematics.

At 17, Newton’s mother removed him from school and set him to work on the farm. Rather than look after the sheep, Newton spent his time reading or designing waterwheels and such-like. A disastrous nine months persuaded Newton’s mother to send him back to school, where he gained enough knowledge to enter the University of Cambridge. In June 1661, at the age of 18, Newton left his rural lifestyle behind in exchange for the city.

History books about the Great Plague tend to focus on London, but most major cities across England were affected. In 1665, Charles II (1630-85) tried to halt the spread of the plague by imposing a lockdown to prevent people from mixing. This was not too dissimilar from Boris Johnson’s decisions in 2020. Likewise, if someone came into contact with a plague victim, they had to quarantine for 40 days, painting a red cross on their door to warn others to stay away. Those who could, fled to the countryside where the population was much lower than in the cities.

Newton retreated to the safety of his childhood home in the summer of 1665. Despite being away from his university studies, Newton’s lockdown resulted in some of his best theories that changed the course of science. “For in those days, I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” (Isaac Newton)

One of Newton’s aims was to understand how light worked. He observed that glass used in chandeliers sometimes changed white light into a rainbow of colours. With a glass prism, Newton experimented with light in his bed chamber. By boring a hole into the wooden shutters, Newton let a thin beam of light into his darkened room. When he placed the glass prism in the line of light, the colour changed, creating a rainbow pattern on the opposite wall. To ascertain whether the prism caused the light to change colour, Newton placed a second prism in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism. He noted the colour remained the same, thus proving that the glass had not altered it. From this experiment, Newton inferred that white light was made up of several colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Renovations to the house removed any evidence of Newton’s experiments, but his notebooks reveal the measurements of the room he used. Newton recorded the room had a width of “22 feet from the south-facing shutter to the wall”. Only one room in the manor house fits this description and has since been known as Newton’s chamber. For the benefit of visitors, the National Trust has filled the room with furniture from the 17th century and decorated the white walls with diagrams from Newton’s notes. Despite the carved drawings in the kitchen, it is unlikely that Newton wrote his findings on the wall. To demonstrate Newton’s experiment, a torch shines a light onto a prism, which produces a rainbow on the wall above the bed.

During his time at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton contemplated the workings of the universe. While sitting under an apple tree outside the house, he observed an apple fall to the ground. This incident sparked questions, such as, why did the apple fall straight down and not to the side? Many who have heard this story believe this was the moment Newton “discovered” gravity, yet gravity was hypothesised by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1604 and confirmed by Italian Jesuits, Grimaldi (1618-63) and Riccioli (1598-1671), in the 1640s.

The apple incident encouraged Newton to explore the theory of gravity in greater depth. He theorised that gravity was a key component in the working of the universe. Through numerous calculations, Newton developed a universal law of gravitation, which explained that all things with mass or energy are attracted to one another. Newton expanded upon theories suggested by Ismaël Boulliau (1605-94) and Giovanni Borelli (1608-79), who claimed the planets in the solar system are drawn towards the sun. Newton continued to explain that all planets, stars, galaxies, and even light are attracted to one another.

Newton did not tell the story of the apple tree until much later in life, leaving many people wondering if it actually happened or whether it was an example of gravity in action. Nonetheless, the incident was immortalised by Newton’s biographer, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who wrote, “the notion of gravitation… was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.” Legend or not, there is an apple tree standing by Woolsthorpe Manor, which has enticed pilgrims and tourists to the area since Newton’s death in 1727.

An apple tree has stood at Woolsthorpe Manor for at least 400 years. Many visitors ask if the tree is the same one Newton sat under, but the answer is not straightforward. In 1820, a storm blew the tree down, prompting many people, including students at Cambridge, to attempt to preserve it. Parts of the broken tree were used to make wooden trinkets and such-like, but the roots remained embedded in the ground. From these roots grew another tree, which remains at Woolsthorpe today. Dendrochronologists have determined it is technically the same tree, and the Tree Council has listed it as one of 50 Great British Trees.

Since the National Trust took over the property, the apple tree has been regularly pruned and looked after. It is a Flower of Kent tree, which produces green-red cooking apples. This type of tree was first mentioned in the 15th century and, despite its name, originated in France. At certain times of the year, the apples are used in the cafe at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Not only are these apples famous for their association with Isaac Newton, but they are also rather rare. After almost losing the tree in the storm of 1820, a graft was taken by Reverend Charles Turnor (1768-1853), who propagated the tree at Belton Park in Lincolnshire. During the 1930s, the Fruit Research Station at East Malling in Kent took grafts of the tree at Belton and gave them to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. In the 1970s, Kew Gardens in London grew apple trees from the stock in Cambridge, one of which stands outside the Physics Department at the University of York.

Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, which derived from the incident with the apple tree, were recorded in his most important written work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. Shortened to Principia, the Latin document includes details about Newton’s experiments during lockdown and his further studies at Cambridge University. Whilst at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton also produced three papers on calculus, which he continued working on once life returned to “normal”. Six months after returning to Cambridge, he was elected as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Then, two years later, he was appointed as the second Lucasian Professor. 

Principia is one of the most important books in the history of science and brought about the beginning of the Age of Reason. Yet, Newton usually kept to himself at Cambridge, almost in a state of self-isolation and rarely discussed his ideas with others. Without the prompting of one student and future astronomer, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Principia may never have been printed. Halley coaxed Newton through the writing process by asking questions and demanding written proof. The young astronomer even paid for the publication of Newton’s work.

Although science has moved on since Newton’s era, Principia remains a respected piece of work. When asked to name his 2015 mission to the International Space Station, British Astronaut Tim Peake (b. 1972) chose Principia in honour of the famous scientist and mathematician.

“Not only does it have the link with space and gravity but also it’s a celebration of science and that is what the space station is about now.”
Tim Peake

As well as an English translation of Principia, Peake took seeds from the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor on his trip to the International Space Station. Peake and the seeds spent six months floating in microgravity before returning to Earth in 2016. Then the UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew took care of the seeds, nurturing them into saplings.

In January 2020, one of the “Space Saplings” returned to Woolsthorpe Manor, where Tim Peake planted it a few yards from the original tree. Many people have joked about potential alien DNA picked up by the seeds while in space, but chances are the sapling will grow into a normal Flower of Kent tree.

A competition was held to find homes for the remaining saplings. They have since been planted at the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire, the Brogdale Collections in Kent, the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Cheshire, Bushy Park in London, the Rosliston Forestry Centre in Derbyshire, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. To win the competition, the applicants demonstrated their commitment to science, physics, space and horticulture. As well as looking after the young trees, the centres are expected to encourage education, break down barriers to allow access to science for people of all ages, genders and abilities, and inspire potential future Isaac Newtons.

Whilst the apple tree is one of the greatest draws to Woolsthorpe Manor, the museum-like house provides an insight into Newton’s everyday life. By studying Newton’s diaries and letters from his family and friends, the National Trust has recreated Newton’s childhood home to the best of its ability. Newton had very few possessions and not much wealth of which to speak. From the outside, his home life appeared typical of the seventeenth century, yet Newton saw the world in a very different way.

The house reveals Newton’s human needs, making him appear no different from everyone else. Despite his genius status, Newton had his foibles and, according to a list of sins, quite a temper. Newton’s background did not reflect his achievements, which may give hope to many young visitors who feel their circumstances hinder them from reaching their full potential. In the barns and stables, hands-on activities demonstrate some of Newton’s ideas and discoveries. Not everyone can understand the workings of Newton’s mind, but seeing things in action certainly helps break Science down into manageable portions.

Woolsthorpe Manor is open from Thursday to Monday between 11am and 5pm. Access to the Manor House is by guided tour only, which can be booked online. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.75 for children over the age of five. National Trust members can visit for free.


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Simeon goes to Grantham

Dear Secret Agent Simeon. The miserable malcontent Ivor Grudge is up to his old tricks again. This time he has planted a device in the Bell Tower of St Wulfram’s Church. The device is set to explode at the stroke of midnight. You must act quickly to find the code to deactivate the device and save the Church and the resident Peregrine Falcons who nest there.
Regards, Treasure Trails

Once again, Simeon, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please), is called in to save the day. After receiving Top Secret Spy Mission Documents from Treasure Trails in the post, Simeon headed to the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire to follow a trail of clues around the town of Grantham. The two-mile trek took Simeon past some notable sights, including the birthplace of the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the school attended by Sir Isaac Newton.

Grantham was once an Anglo-Saxon “homestead by gravel”. Names ending in ham were usually medieval homesteads, and “Grant” comes from the Old English word for gravel. Today, the urbanised town contains shopping centres, many pubs, industrial estates and high street shops. Yet, as Simeon discovered, there are plenty of buildings dating back hundreds of years.

According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Edith the Fair (c. 1025-66), the first wife of King Harold Godwinson (c. 1022-66), had a hall or house in Grantham before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After this, William the Conqueror (1028-87) established a manor house, and the area became a valuable asset to future kings. Records also reveal St Wulfram’s Church existed at the time of the “Great Survey”. Yet, the building Simeon set out to save was built at a later date.

Simeon’s trail of clues passed through St Wulfram’s churchyard, and Simeon could not resist having a peek inside the church. The building is named in honour of St Wulfram of Fontenelle (c. 640-703), who served as the Archbishop of Sens in France during the 7th century. Wulfram took holy orders hoping for a quiet life, but instead, he became a missionary to Friesland in Germany. He succeeded in converting the pagan King Radbod (d. 719) to Christianity before retiring to Fontenelle. After his death, Wulfram was canonised, and he is remembered for several miracles. He is credited with the miraculous delivery of a stillborn baby, thus saving the mother’s life, preventing the death of a hanged man, and rescuing two boys who the king had sacrificed to the sea during a pagan ritual.

There are only four churches dedicated to St Wulfram, two in France and two in England. One is in Ovingdean, Sussex, and the other in Grantham. Only a few stones of the original Saxon church remain in Grantham, which was altered and expanded by the Normans after 1066. Likewise, not much is visible of the Norman building due to a lightning strike in 1222.

In 1280, after rebuilding the nave, the church expanded towards the west, taking over the space once belonging to a Saxon marketplace. Supporting piers or columns in the church feature mason marks, which indicate the gradual process of building the tower. Simeon, being on the small side, could not see these marks from ground level, but he felt awe-inspired by the height of the spire, which is visible across the town.

The spire reaches an impressive height of 86.2 metres (283 ft), making it the tallest church in England at the time of completion. Many churches and cathedrals are now taller than St Wulfram’s, but it takes credit for inspiring architects to aspire to reach such heights. One side of the spire is wider than the other to incorporate a spiral staircase leading to the belfry. “That’s where the nasty Ivor Grudge has planted his device,” realised Simeon. “I must prevent him from destroying this beautiful church.”

Simeon hurried off to complete his mission after temporarily getting distracted by the beautiful stained glass windows. The oldest windows date to the Victorian era and illustrate scenes such as the Last Supper, Christ’s early years, the Evangelists and the biblical Prophets. Others depict the four Lincolnshire saints: Regimus, Hugh, Botolph and Gilbert of Sempringham, and the Latin Fathers: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine.

Four windows are relatively modern in comparison to the Victorian stained-glass. One, known as the Catlin window, depicts a war in heaven, as described in Revelation 12:7-12. Designed by Henry Harvey of York in 1962, the window shows the archangel Michael holding the scales of justice and a spear. On one side, a man, surrounded by chaos, begs the angel for help. On the other, a defeated Satan and the condemned fall into hell. This window was donated by Lewis Catlin in memory of his family.

The Porter Window (1969), named in memory of Jessie Porter, depicts the birth and life of Christ. Jessie came from a family of shoemakers in Grantham, so the designer Leonard Evetts (1909-1997) included shoemaker tools in the design. John Hayward (1929-2007), who made nearly 200 stained glass windows in his lifetime, produced the other two contemporary windows. Donated by Thomas Hall in memory of Minnie Hall in 1970 is a window depicting Jesus walking on water. His disciple, Peter, tries to follow suit but begins to sink. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31, NIV)

Hayward designed the other window in 1974 for Lily Pinchbeck in memory of members of her family, who regularly attended St Wulfram’s Church. The design symbolically represents the seven Sacraments: baptism (font and scallop shell), eucharist (bread and wine), confirmation and holy orders (bishop’s mitre), reconciliation (tears), anointing of the sick (oil), and marriage (ring). The window also represents the Pinchbeck family with references to baptism, singing in the choir and serving at the altar.

Having finished admiring the interior of St Wulfram’s Church, which Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78) expertly restored in the 1860s, Simeon ventured outside to search for clues along Church Street. Several old buildings surround the church, including the original building of the King’s School (the present school is situated on Brook Street). On closer inspection, Simeon discovered that Isaac Newton (1642-1726) once attended the school between 1655 and 1660.

The school’s history dates back to the early 15th century, but few records exist until Bishop Richard Foxe (1448-1528) refounded the establishment in 1528. This suggests the school fell into disuse towards the beginning of the 16th century. Foxe came from Ropsley, a village near Grantham and served as Lord Privy Seal to Henry VII (1457-1509). Foxe also refounded Taunton Grammar School in Somerset (1522) and set up Corpus Christi College in Oxford (1517).

During the 16th century, the school officially became known as the Free Grammar School of King Edward VI. At first, not many attended the school, so classes were not large when Newton began studying in 1655. The future “natural philosopher” started attending King’s School at the age of 12, where he learned elementary mathematics, Latin and religion. He lodged with an apothecary’s family in the high street, who noted he was “a sober, silent, thinking lad,” yet records suggest Newton could also defend himself in a physical fight.

Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to make mechanical devices and discover how things worked. (“I would rather climb trees,” says Simeon.) As he approached his 17th birthday, Newton’s mother called him home to work on the family estate, but he proved useless at manual labour and frequently had his head in a book. Newton’s uncle and Mr Stokes, the schoolmaster at King’s School, persuaded Newton’s mother to return him to school. After another year of education, Newton earned a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. As was customary for King’s School scholars in the 17th century, Isaac Newton carved his signature on the wall of the school library.

Isaac Newton is remembered fondly in Grantham, and Simeon spotted many references to the scholar around the town. The primary shopping centre is named the Isaac Newton Centre, which houses the public library as well as a range of shops. Opposite the centre is a statue of Newton, which the town erected in 1858. The sculptor, William Theed the Younger (1804-91), a favourite of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), made the statue from the bronze of a Russian cannon used during the Crimean War. It cost the public £1800 to produce this statue of Newton, which is the equivalent of £230,000 today.

During his search for clues, Simeon discovered another statue dedicated to Sir Isaac Newton. Situated in Wyndham Park Sensory Garden is a large hand holding an apple. Newton developed his Law of Gravitation after witnessing an apple falling from a tree. Nigel Sardeson, a self-taught woodcarver, produced the statue from the remains of a horse chestnut tree in 2010. Unfortunately, the roots and interior of the tree stump began to decay, and the statue sprouted fungus.

An urgent preservation project took place in 2015. The statue was removed from the ground and taken away for treatment. A year later, the Mayor of Grantham, Linda Wootton, unveiled the refurbished apple sculpture, which now sits upon a concrete base.

The apple statue is one of many attractions in Wyndham Park. As Simeon made his way through the grass and trees, he came across an open-air paddling pool, a model boating lake and the River Witham. Carefully skirting these for fear of getting wet, Simeon searched the area of clues.

The park is named after Lieutenant The Hon. William Reginald Wyndham of the 1st Life Guards, who died in action in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. His mother, Constance Evelyn Primrose, Lady Leconfield (1846-1939), officially opened the park in 1924. The model boating lake predated the park by almost forty years and was once used for bathing.

While walking beside the River Witham, Simeon spotted a bench dedicated to Mr James Bench, the inventor of the bench. Scratching his head, Simeon moved on, convinced someone was pulling his leg. Soon, Simeon was distracted by a sign marking the way to “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”. Intrigued, Simeon eagerly took that path, eyes peeled to spot something very old.

After walking almost a mile (a very long way for a little gibbon), Simeon finally came face-to-face with “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”: an oak tree. Resisting his animal instincts, Simeon looked up in awe at the huge tree rather than climb up its 600-year old trunk. The tree is an ancient English oak (Quercus Robur) with a girth of over 7 metres. That’s more than 30 Simeons!

The tree’s exact age is indeterminable, but the Woodland Trust suggest it may have been a sapling when Grantham was attacked during the War of the Roses in 1461. The tree has seen Grantham grow from a relatively small village into a large town with a population of over 44,000 people. In 2018, construction work threatened the Grantham Oak, whose roots stretch almost 7 metres. The Woodland Trust and the South Kesteven District Council intervened, placing protective measures around the tree and its roots to protect it from damage. It is unusual to find an oak tree as old as this in an urban setting. Most are cut down to make way for roads and buildings, so the Grantham Oak’s survival makes it even more special.

Back in the town centre, Simeon spotted the much thinner Market Cross. Demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the cross is a reminder of Grantham’s early days as an 11th-century market town. Grantham played a large role in the wool trade, which helped raise funds to build St Wulfram’s Church. The nine metre-high cross sits in the centre of the historic part of the town on octagonal limestone slabs.

Not far from the Market Cross, Simeon found a tea room (or gibbon refuelling stop, as he calls it) and treated himself to a chocolate brownie. Being an observant gibbon, Simeon noticed the strange name of the tea room, The Conduit. “I wonder why it has that name,” thought Simeon. He did not need to look far to find out. On the pavement outside stood a strange little building, also called The Conduit. This is the remains of Grantham’s first public water supply.

The first water conduit was constructed in 1134 by the Greyfriars, a group of Franciscan monks who lived near the marketplace. They used lead pipes to convey water from a nearby spring to their house. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the water was rerouted to the strange little building outside the tea room in 1597. The inhabitants of Grantham could draw water from the conduit instead of springs or streams, and by 1680, water carts delivered water directly to houses for a fee of £3 a year. The conduit needed several repairs throughout its lifetime, and the lead pipes were replaced with iron pipes. Eventually, the conduit fell out of use due to the advent of modern water systems.

While looking for clues, Simeon came across a whole range of interesting things, including the birthplace of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Thatcher, née Roberts attended Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, which was established in 1910. The King’s School, attended by Newton, only admits boys.

Thatcher and Newton are not the only notable people from Grantham. Edith Smith (1876-1924), the first woman police officer with full arrest powers, patrolled the streets of Grantham. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the author of Common Sense, briefly worked in the town as an Excise Officer. There are also many past and present politicians and sportsmen who hail from the area. Simeon also came across a family of bees living in a hive outside the Beehive Inn. South African bees have inhabited the hive since 1830.

After walking the many streets of Grantham, Simeon solved all the clues, cracked the code and saved St Wulfram’s Church from destruction. He learned so much about the town along the way and thoroughly enjoyed himself. When in the area, Simeon recommends visiting Belton House, built in the 17th century. It is located 3 miles from Grantham and has extensive parklands. It was also one of the locations for the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.

To purchase the Grantham Treasure Trail, visit treasuretrails.co.uk

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!