Lacock Abbey

Situated in the county of Wiltshire in South West England is a village that time forgot. Used as a backdrop in many period dramas, Lacock has a history that dates back around 800 years. Originally belonging to a nunnery at Lacock Abbey, followed by its subsequent owners, the village is now almost entirely owned by the National Trust.

Lacock Abbey was founded by Ela, Countess of Salisbury (1187-1261), in 1232 during the reign of Henry III (1207-72). The village predates the nunnery by several hundred years and is recorded in the Domesday Book as the property of Edward of Salisbury, Ela’s great-great-grandfather. The name derives from the Saxon word lacuc, meaning “little stream”, which references the nearby Bide Brook.

While under the ownership of the Abbey, the village inhabitants paid their rent by work and goods, such as hay, corn, hides and fleeces, which were collected in the old Tithe Barn. Lacock Abbey soon became known for its wool trade and owned a flock of 2,000 sheep by 1476. Many village tenants were responsible for shearing the sheep and washing the wool ready for trading. In 1539, Lacock was prosperous enough to be called a town by Henry VIII‘s (1491-1547) dissolution commissioners.

Lacock continued to thrive under the various owners of Lacock Abbey throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The London to Bath road helped bring in more trade, which financed improvements to buildings in the village. Despite being made up of four roads, Lacock opened seven alehouses in the 1620s, of which only four public houses remain. The village also owned a “blind house”, where drunkards were left to sober up.

Despite Lacock’s early success, the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century took trade away from manual workers, replacing them with mechanical factories that could produce wool and other products at a quicker pace. The lack of a railway also reduced trade significantly. Without any money, the modernisation of the village ceased, and some inhabitants sought employment elsewhere. The landlord at the time, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), tried to help his tenants and persuaded Parliament to sponsor a few to emigrate to Canada. Many of the remaining inhabitants ended up in the village poorhouse.

Talbot did his best to support his remaining tenants and established a new school in 1824, which still thrives today. Many people continued to work in the fields, and children occasionally left school early to help their fathers during haymaking season.

As time passed, the villagers set up local businesses in their cottages. These included four grocers, four bakers, two blacksmiths, a draper, a tailor, and a luxury goods store. Several men also worked as carpenters, masons, undertakers and plumbers. Between 1927 and 1966, Lacock had a postman named Harry Potter, who worked six days a week. Coincidentally, parts of Lacock and the Abbey became film locations for the famous film franchise Harry Potter (2001-2011).

Lacock has had a church since the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Although it was rebuilt around 1450, the church retains its Norman dedication to Saint Cyriac. According to legend, Cyriac was a three-year-old child killed by the governor of Tarsus in AD 303. His mother, Julitta, attempted to flee with her son from Christian persecutors but did not make it far. While his mother was being tortured, Cyriac scratched at the face of the governor holding him captive, who subsequently threw Cyriac down the stairs. Julitta refused to weep for her son; instead, she rejoiced that he had earned the title of a martyr. Angry with this reaction, the governor put Julitta to death.

Until 1962, St Cyriac’s Church was the home of the Lacock Cup, “one of the most significant pieces of secular English medieval silver” from the 15th century. Although it was intended for feasting, its purpose changed after the English Reformation in the 16th century. The church used it as a goblet to hold enough communion wine for the congregation. Previously, churches used cups decorated with religious imagery, but these were deemed too Catholic by Henry VIII.

Due to the Lacock Cup’s age and rarity, St Cyriac’s Church lent it to the British Museum for safe keeping in 1962, where it remains on display today. In 2013, the church needed significant money to maintain and restore the building, so they officially sold the cup to the British Museum and Wiltshire Museum for £1.3 million. The Wiltshire Museum agreed the Lacock Cup could remain at the British Museum in London but had a replica made for themselves and another for the church.

Visitors to Lacock may recognise some buildings and streets from period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice (2005). Whilst Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Rosings was filmed at Belton House, parts of Mr Darcy’s Pemberley were filmed at Lacock Abbey, and the Bennets shopped in Lacock, which was renamed Meryton for the duration of the show. For the 2007 show Cranford, Lacock became an 1840s village with earth spread over the tarmac and a false facade erected in front of the Red Lion inn.

Other television shows and films recorded at Lacock include Downton Abbey (2015 and 2018), Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box (2012), Wolf Hall (2015), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and two Harry Potter films. One quaint building in the village appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) during a flashback scene about the death of the titular character’s parents. More iconic scenes were filmed at Lacock Abbey, which was also used as a setting for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018).

The Abbey Cloisters became corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on several occasions. Several rooms also became the Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts classrooms. The Cloister originally ran around an 80-foot open square, but the west corridor later became part of the servants’ quarters. The medieval plaster still contains traces of wall paintings, such as the head of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child, which is visible in the Chaplain’s room off the South Cloister. There is also evidence of 15th-century graffiti signed Johan fecit hoc (John did this).

Restoration work in the 1980s uncovered other faded paintings, including a kneeling nun receiving the blessing of a bishop. The mural dates back to the early 15th century when Agnes Frary (1429-45) was the Abbess. Only the silhouettes of the two figures remain, but people assume the bishop is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the founder of the Augustinian Order.

The first Harry Potter film used the Chapter House as the location of the Mirror of Erised, in which Harry saw his parents reflected back at him. The nuns met in the Chapter House to read a passage from the Rule of St Augustine. Written around 400 AD, these rules served as an outline for religious life in a community and emphasised chastity, obedience and charity.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Lacock Abbey came into the possession of William Sharington (c.1495-1553), an ambitious Tudor courtier who converted the building into a large house. Despite having three wives, Sharington had no children, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to Sharington’s brother, Henry (1518-1581). Henry entertained Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at the house during her visit to Lacock in 1574, earning him a knighthood.

Following Sir Henry Sharington’s death in 1581, Lacock Abbey became the possession of his daughter Olive (d.1646), the wife of John Talbot of Salwarpe (d. 1581). Their eldest son, Sherrington, predeceased his mother by four years, so Olive’s grandson, Sherrington Talbot the Younger (d.1677), inherited the Abbey instead. Sherrington Talbot was a Royalist and was forced to give up Lacock Abbey to the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. Fortunately, his younger brother Gilbert, a founding member of the Royal Society, managed to claim back the Abbey after the restoration of the monarchy. Gilbert died unmarried, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to the eldest son of Sherrington Talbot, John (1630-1714).

John Talbot only had daughters, so on his death, the Abbey became the home of his eldest grandson, John Ivory, who added the name Talbot to his name. During the 58 years he lived at the Abbey, Ivory Talbot made many changes to the building before passing it on to his son, John. Unfortunately, John died six years after inheriting Lacock, so it was passed on to his sister Martha, the wife of Reverend William Davenport (not to be confused with the fictional vicar in the television series Granchester).

When Martha died in 1790, her son, William Davenport Talbot (1764-1800), inherited the estate. As a soldier, Davenport Talbot racked up many debts and left his wife and young son penniless after his death in 1800. His widow, Lady Elisabeth Fox-Strangways, moved out of the Abbey and let it out until she remarried to Captain Charles Feilding in 1827. The Captain, later an Admiral, helped bring the estate out of debt and made it into a comfortable home for his stepson, William Henry Fox Talbot, the Victorian pioneer of photography and the inventor of the negative.

Lacock Abbey subsequently passed on to Fox Talbot’s son Charles in 1877, who left it to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871-1958), who gave it to the National Trust. The house remained inhabited by Matilda’s great-nephew and niece until they died in 2002 and 2011. Since then, the house has become a museum of Lacock Abbey’s rich and varied history.

Most of the rooms at Lacock Abbey are open to the public, although access may depend on the number of volunteers available on the day. One notable room to see is the Blue Parlour, which William Henry Fox Talbot used as a library. The walls were painted blue by his grandaughter Matilda when she inherited the Abbey in 1916, which she believed to be very similar to its original colour at the beginning of the 19th century.

The desk in the Blue Parlour is known as a Carlton House desk. It was first made for the home of the Prince Regent in around 1825. Allegedly, the desk was given to Lacock Abbey by Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who wished to pay off the gambling debts incurred by her father. Also in the room are several items and books that allude to Fox Talbot’s studies. Lacock has a collection of almost 4,000 books that span from the late 13th century to the 20th century.

The South Gallery, which served as a corridor between the nun’s dormitory and the chapel, became a family sitting room during Fox Talbot’s time at Lacock Abbey. Guests frequently filled the long room for evenings of entertainment, which included poetry, singing and piano music. Situated next to the piano is an Angel harp made by the French instrument maker, Sébastien Érard (1752-1831). A photograph, presumably taken by Fox Talbot, shows his half-sister Horatia Feilding (c.1809-51) playing the harp. 

Fox Talbot enlarged the South Gallery by adding three oriel windows, which let in plenty of light and provided views across the land. One of these windows played a significant part in the development of photography.

Although Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) both lay claim to the invention of photography, Fox Talbot is credited for the development of the camera negative. In August 1835, Fox Talbot set up his camera in the South Gallery, pointing at one of the oriel windows. Although it took much longer to produce than a simple click of a button, the result was the first negative photographic image. Whilst the negative reversed the light and dark tones of the image, it captured the 200 diamond-shaped panes of glass in the window.

At one end of the South Gallery is the Dining Room, which John Ivory Talbot decorated in the Palladian style. The doors are set in cases with curved brackets and triangular pediments. The fireplace also features Palladian characteristics. Family meals were usually eaten here until Matilda converted it into a ballroom. The National Trust has since returned the dining table to the room to make it resemble the space where previous owners ate in relative privacy.

When John Ivory Talbot moved into Lacock Abbey, he immediately hired the architect Sanderson Miller (1716-80) to rebuild the “horrid” Tudor hall. At Ivory Talbot’s request, the barrel-vaulted ceiling was painted with 45 heraldic shields. Miller salvaged glass from the nunnery to use in the windows and designed the Gothick cornice and canopied niches. Austrian modeller, Victor Alexander Sederbach, produced several terracotta sculptures for the niches.

Many of the terracotta sculptures pay homage to the nunnery. Above the chimneypiece, a statue of Abbess Ela stands with her two granddaughters, who also served as nuns. Another statue is William Longespée (1156-1226), Ela’s husband. When Longespée died, Ela decided not to remarry and devoted herself to God instead. Longespée’s father was King Henry II (1113-89), who also stands in one of the niches, as do two of his grandsons, Ela’s children. The statue that stands out to most visitors is a man and goat, upon whose nose rests a sugar lump. A student staying at the Abbey in 1919 positioned the sugar lump as a prank, but Matilda found it so amusing that she insisted it remain there, replacing it with a fresh lump when necessary.

Outside the Abbey is an extensive parkland, with several gardens and beds of flowers that bloom at various times of the year. For the nuns, the land provided food and a peaceful sanctuary. For the subsequent inhabitants, it became a space to enjoy and escape the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. The gardens are still carefully maintained for visitors to explore.

Lacock Abbey is open daily for paying visitors and National Trust members. In addition to the Abbey, there is a museum about William Henry Fox Talbot, which documents his life and experiments with photography. Lacock Village is open from dawn to dusk, with several shops selling local products. Visitors need to be mindful that people live in the village and must not trespass on private properties.

For more information about visiting Lacock Abbey, go to the National Trust website.


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Belton House

Belton House is a Carolean-style country house near Grantham, Lincolnshire, that belonged to the Brownlow family and their heirs for three centuries. Now owned by the National Trust, Belton House is surrounded by parkland and formal gardens that visitors can explore. The interior of the house reveals the rooms as they looked at various points in history, allowing individuals to imagine life in the grand building.

The Brownlow family purchased the Belton estate in 1609 for £4,100 (£11.4 million today), agreeing that the previous owners could live in the small manor house until their deaths. Unfortunately, the Pakenham’s lost a lot of money and could not afford to remain in their home, so sold the house to Richard Brownlow (1553-1638), the Chief Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas. The Brownlows did very little with the land, although Richard eventually erected a church tower in 1638, shortly before his death.

When Richard died, the Belton estate was passed down to his son, Sir John Brownlow (1590-1679). John served as the Sheriff of Lincolnshire and is remembered by a monument in the nearby church, along with his wife, Alice (1606-76). Unfortunately, the couple had no children, so Belton was inherited by John’s great-nephew, Sir John Brownlow, 3rd Baronet (1659-97). Known as the ‘Young’ Sir John to differentiate him from his great-uncle, Brownlow approached the architect William Winde (1642-1722) to design a new manor house to replace the now derelict building on the Belton estate. With the help of the master mason William Stanton (1639-1705), Winde designed a stately home based on Clarendon House in London. Clarendon House was demolished in 1683, a year before building work began at Belton.

The Palladian-style building focused on four central rooms: the Marble Hall, the Great Parlour, the Great Dining Room and the State Bedroom. The other rooms were placed in symmetrical fashion around the centre, with space for the domestic staff in the basement. The furnishings were initially simple, but Brownlow and his wife, Alice Sherard (d. 1721), purchased more opulent furniture in the future. The purchases may have coincided with a visit from William III (1650-1702), who granted the Brownlows permission to enclose the parkland. Brownlow immediately created an expanse of formal gardens and planted thousands of trees across the estate.

In 1697, ‘Young’ Sir John passed away at the age of 39. Some say this was the result of a shooting accident, and others claim he committed suicide after suffering from severe gout. John and Alice only had daughters, so Belton passed to his brother William (1665-1701), who died four years later. Williams eldest son, John (1690-1754), who incidentally married Eleanor (d.1730), the daughter of ‘Young’ Sir John, inherited the estate.

Sir John Brownlow, also known as Viscount Tyrconnel, served as an MP for Grantham, although records suggest he did not excel at politics. Tyrconnel spent his money on furnishing and decorating Belton House, including tapestries and paintings. Tyrconnel commissioned French artist Philippe Mercier (1689-1760) to paint a scene featuring the south facade of the house. In the centre stands Tyrconnel with his wife in an invalid chair, next to her cousin on a swing. It was one of the first informal portraits, known as conversation pieces, painted in Britain.

Tyrconnel’s wife, Eleanor, passed away in 1730, and two years later, he married Elizabeth Cartwright. The Viscount continued to spend money on the house, replastering the Marble Hall ceiling for £29 17s 4d (£51,000) in 1742. He also spent over £250 5s (£403,000) on the old parlour, added a bed and turned it into the most expensive bedroom at Belton.

Despite two marriages, Viscount Tyrconnel died childless, so Belton passed to his eldest nephew, Sir John Cust, 3rd Baronet (1718-70). Cust made little impact on the estate, focusing more on his career in politics. He served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1761 until he died in 1770. His heir, the recently married Brownlow Cust (1744-1807), took up possession of Belton House and arranged for many repairs on the building.

Cust’s first wife, Jocosa Katherina Drury, passed away in 1772, and he married his second, Frances Bankes, in 1775. The following year, Cust was raised to the peerage as Baron Brownlow of Belton in the County of Lincoln. With the extra income this entailed, Cust decided to drastically alter the house, employing James Wyatt (1746-1813), a leading architect, to design the changes. Wyatt updated the building to the preferred Carolean or Restoration style, which involved altering the shape of the main entrance and bricking up some windows to create niches.

As well as external changes, Wyatt redecorated four interior rooms. On the first floor, he converted a bed-chamber into a dressing room and another chamber into a drawing-room, sacrificing the servants’ rooms in the attic to create a vaulted ceiling. Wyatt also designed the Yellow Bedroom in the southeast wing, as well as the Blue Bedroom on the floor below. In the latter room, only the chimney-piece, dado and cornice frieze survive, which are dominated by a towering state bed that was introduced to the house much later. Fans of Jane Austen (1775-1817) or Colin Firth (b. 1960) may recognise the bed and room from the 1995 British television drama Pride and Prejudice. The production team used Belton House as the filming location for Rosings Park, the home of Mr Darcy’s aunt, and the Blue Bedroom as Darcy’s private rooms.

When Baron Brownlow passed away in 1807, he left the estate to his eldest son, John (1779-1853), who became Earl Brownlow and Viscount Alford in 1815. The Earl is responsible for the large collection of silver and Italian books at Belton. He also employed James Wyatt’s nephew, Jeffry Wyatville (1766-1840), to make additional changes to the house. Wyatville designed the Orangery, stable courtyard and several cottages in the nearby village. He converted the old kitchen into a room to store the Earl’s growing collection of books and remodelled several other rooms, including the ceiling in the Marble Hall.

The Earl’s eldest son, John (1812-51), predeceased him by two years. As a result, the Earl bequeathed the estate to his grandson, John William Egerton Cust (1842-67). Since John, now the 2nd Earl Brownlow, was only 11-years-old, his mother, Lady Marian Alford (1817-88), oversaw the management of Belton until John came of age. Unfortunately, he had little time to enjoy his inheritance before passing away at 25. On his death, the estate and title passed on to his brother Adelbert Wellington Brownlow-Cust, the 3rd and final Earl Brownlow.

Lord Adelbert “Addy” Brownlow (1844-1921) spent a lot of time in London where he served as a volunteer Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria (1819-1901), Edward VII (1841-1910) and George V (1865-1936). He married Lady Adelaide Chetwynd-Talbot, although he never had any children. As a result, the Earldom of Brownlow and Viscountcy of Alford became extinct upon his death. Nonetheless, he spent a lot of money on Belton, restoring the house to its original Carolean appearance.

Addy and Adelaide rediscovered the tapestries purchased by Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel, in the 18th century. They converted a small dining room into an oak-panelled Tapestry Room, where the four woven scenes are still displayed today. Identified as Mortlake Tapestry, they come from a series of seven scenes depicting the life of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (412/403–324/321 BC). Famous as the founder of Cynicism, Diogenes aimed to live in virtue and agreement with nature.

One tapestry is titled Alexander Visiting Diogenes and depicts a scene described in the 3rd-century AD text The Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. At the meeting, which took place in Corinth, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) asked the philosopher if he could do anything for him. Allegedly, Diogenes, who was sunbathing, replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.” Next, Alexander, who was overawed in the philosopher’s presence, declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”

When the 3rd Earl of Brownlow passed away, Belton went to his second cousin, Adelbert Cust, 5th Baron Brownlow (1867-1927). The family finances were depleted due to the previous renovations, so Cust sold many of his other holdings to keep Belton afloat. At the beginning of the 20th century, many country houses of great architectural value were demolished, and Belton House was lucky to survive.

Adelbert’s son, Peregrine Cust, 6th Baron Brownlow (1899-1978), inherited Belton House just under a decade before the abdication crisis of 1936. As a close friend of Edward VIII (1894-1972), Peregrine was appointed Lord in Waiting. When the government pressured the King’s mistress, Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), to leave the country, Peregrine feared the King would follow her and abdicate. In an attempt to prevent the inevitable, Peregrine invited Wallis to Belton to prevent the King from doing anything hasty. Peregrine advised Wallis to give up the King and helped her word a statement, which he read to the press. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Edward VIII’s abdication farewell was broadcast to the nation on the evening of 10th December 1936.

Peregrine and other friends of the former King were berated by the Archbishop of Canterbury for “consuming” Edward and causing his downfall. Following this, Peregrine retreated from public life and left Belton House to fend for itself. By the 1960s, the house needed urgent repair and received a grant from the Historic Buildings Council. After the renovations, Peregrine opened Belton to the public. Following his death in 1978, his son sold the estate to the National Trust.

The gardens at Belton developed over the centuries per the latest styles and the preferences of the owners. ‘Young’ Sir John landscaped the majority of the estate, but his descendants have added aspects over time. The 1st Baron Brownlow employed William Emes (1729-1803) to make some alterations, including an open pleasure ground. The 1st Earl added an Italian garden, and the 3rd Earl a Dutch garden.

When the 1st Earl inherited the estate, the land at the back of the manor house belonged to the kitchen gardener. When Jeffry Wyatville remodelled the house in 1816, he added an orangery and fountain, which led to the creation of the Italian garden. The 3rd Earl added boxed-edged parterres and planted several beds of violas. The herbaceous border and flowerbeds are full of colour from spring until late autumn.

The Dutch garden reflects the geometric style favoured in the Netherlands. It is part of the 3rd Earl’s aim to restore Belton to its former Carolean fashion. Forty flowerbeds once divided the garden, surrounded by golden and Irish yew hedges. Several beds have since merged, incorporating expanses of lavender and seasonal plants so that colour remains in the garden all year round.

Several statues feature around the estate, including a limestone sundial in the Dutch Garden. The dial, carved by Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700), depicts Eros, the Greek god of love, with Cronos, the Greek god of time. William III appointed Cibber the “carver to the king’s closet”. The sundial was purchased for Belton by Viscount Tyrconnel.

In 1987, author Helen Cresswell (1934-2005) brought attention to Belton when the sundial inspired her children’s novel Moondial. In the story, which was televised in 1988 and released on DVD in 2009, a young girl called Minty discovers the sundial (called a moondial in the book) has the power to take her back in time, where she meets children from the past, who need her help. Today, children from local schools enjoy re-enacting the story around the “moondial”.

The Pleasure Grounds look different from ‘Young’ Sir John’s original design. John intended the formal grounds for gentle walks amongst trees, but as time went on, the expanse of grass was adapted for modern pursuits and enjoyed by energetic children. Rather than maintain the grounds in the same manner as the Italian and Dutch gardens, the plants and trees are left to grow naturally. In 1685, John planted 21,400 ash trees, 9,500 oaks, 614 fruit-bearing trees, 260 lime trees, 2,000 roses and 100 gooseberry bushes. Some of these remain, along with snowdrops, primroses, daffodils and bluebells that bloom every year. The oldest tree is a beech and predates John’s ownership of Belton. It is located beside the Mirror Pond in the Pleasure Grounds.

As well as the Mirror Pond, the Pleasure Grounds include a lake, where many wildlife live. Often spotted in the area are water voles, nocturnal white-clawed crayfish, and several fish, which families at Belton enjoyed catching in the summer. On the lakeside sits a Boathouse designed by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881) in 1821. The Swiss chalet-style hut was once the centrepiece of the Pleasure Grounds, where the Brownlows often picnicked. Today, the Boathouse is rented out for special occasions.

As well as Belton House and gardens, the National Trust purchased the surrounding park, which is home to a herd of around 300 fallow deer. They are direct descendants of the wild herd that lived there when ‘Young’ Sir John enclosed the area in 1690. The park is open to the public daily between 9:30 am and 4 pm.

Visitors are often surprised at the size of Belton, of which the house and formal gardens only take up a small percentage. The National Trust protects the green areas from contemporary developers to preserve the historical estate and give visitors a glimpse of life at Belton House through periodical furnishings that are rotated every year. On one visit, the drawing-room may look how the room appeared during Wallis Simpson’s stay, and on the next visit, may resemble a room the 1st Earl would find familiar.

Belton House is closed for refurbishment until March 2022, but the gardens and park remain open at a reduced price. For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/belton-house.


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