In the dark days of winter it is sometimes pleasant to look back on summer travels. Last August I was lucky enough to make another trip to Stoneleigh Abbey, in Warwickshire, the ancestral home of the Leigh family. Continuing the Jacobite theme begun by Sunday’s post on Charles I, I thought it was the opportune time to share some of my photographs with you.
Stoneleigh Abbey is a magnificent building, still surrounded by a park and grand gardens, some part of which would still be familiar to Jane Austen should she visit today.It is no longer the home of the Leighs, and is, in fact, now made up of a series of very smart ,multi-occupancy dwellings.
I propose not to go into much of Stoneleigh’s history here-I’ll explore that in another post- but today and in the next post I thought we could take a tour of the grounds in the company of Mrs Austen.
When Jane Cassandra and Mrs Austen visited Stoneleigh in 1806 it was to accompany Mrs Austen cousin, the reverend Thomas Leigh to claim his mighty and slightly unexpected inheritance of the Stoneleigh estate. The Austen ladies had been visiting him at his home at the Rectory at Adlestrop in Gloucestershire when he heard he ought to go and stake his claim to the estate on the death of Mary, sister to Edward, the fifth Lord Leigh, who had died in 1786. As Jane and Cassandra Austen were travelling together, no letters passed between them, so we cannot read their impression of the visit. But there is still in existence a rather marvellous letter from Mrs Austen to her daughter-in-law, Mary,James Austen’s wife, that is full of lively detail .I’m going to quote relevant parts of the letter as we virtually stroll around the grounds.
On approaching Stoneleigh from the Coventry to Warwick Road, you first see the two low built, Grecian style lodges at the entrance to the Stoneleigh estate, below. They were not built when Jane Austen visited: they were later additions to the estate in 1814. Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to improve Stoneleigh as he had done at Adlestrop along with his nephew James Leigh, and there is one of Repton’s famous Red Books still in existence there, complete with all his beautiful plans, though some were not carried out-the subject of another post.
The approach from the lodges leads to a very elegant bridge which was designed by Repton and again would not have been known to Jane Austen.
A magnificent avenue of trees leads to the medieval gate house.
The gatehouse is a relic of the Abbeys origins. As you have probably guessed from its name Stoneleigh was originally an abbey, inhabited by an order of Cistercian monks.More on this fascinating building in the next post…
Mrs Austen seems to have been quite taken aback by the size and grandeur of her cousin’s new surroundings:
The house is larger than I could have supposed. We can now find our way about it, I mean the best part; as to the offices (which were the old Abbey) Mr Leigh almost despairs of ever finding his way about them. I have proposed his setting up ‘directing posts’ at the Angles…
This is the famous West Front of the house,which was designed by the equally famous architect, Francis Smith of Warwick. No wonder Mrs Austen was suitably impressed.
This is an odd sort of letter. I write just as things come into my head. I will now give you some idea of the inside of this vast house, first premising that there are 45 windows in front (which is quite strait with a flat roof) 15 in a row.
You go up a considerable flight of steps (some offices are under the house) into a large hall…
I expected to find everything about the place very fine and all that, but I had no idea of its being so beautiful. I had figured to myself long avenues dark rookeries and dismal yew trees, but here are no such melancholy things.
The first two tall windows on the first storey on the left of the house above are now in the State Bedroom where Queen Victoria was entertained later in the 19th century, but this was the room most favoured by the Austens when they were staying there because of the view it afforded down to the river Avon.
….on the right hand the dining parlour, within that the breakfast room, where we generally sit, and reason good ’tis the only room (except the chapel) that looks towards the river.
The Avon runs near the house amidst green meadows bounded by large and beautiful woods, full of delightful walks.
The elegant stone balustrades facing the river were not in existence when Jane Austen visited….
The view to the other , the facing bank shows some of the plantations,and how they were cleared by Repton to create interesting viewpoints.
Here is a video of the sweep from the river up to the house, showing the water meadow on the facing bank. It was rather windy when I visited- you are forewarned
The Avon winds though the grounds….
and it is indeed very pleasant to walk through the shade of the trees on the riverside…
Here is another video of this part of the river side, again it was terribly windy so I do apologise in advance for the noise …
We walk a great deal, for the woods are impenetrable to the sun even in the middle of an August day.
The boathouse is a Victorian addition and would not have been at Stoneleigh when Jane Austen visited…and it is badly in need of repair….
If you leave the river and return towards the house and the Walled Kitchen Garden you come to one of Humphrey Repton’s garden buildings. It is of a rustic style,with a thatched roof,and was being repaired last summer…
The pattern of the tracery of the internal ceiling made from twigs and branches carefully cut and placed is very pleasing…
It boasts a very rustic bench running along the internal wall…..
Behind the rustic garden building are the walls of the kitchen garden….
Which we will consider in more detail in the next post…..