As I recently announced in Building a one-place study website and blog – Part 1, I am starting a new one-place study. As the raison d’être of this OPS is to enable me to demonstrate the process of setting up a one-place study website, I have chosen a local parish with a very small population (32 when the 2001 census was taken). I was attracted to this Place for other reasons too, not least its historic church, hall, park, and ruined Dower House. Let’s take a look at these landmarks, which lie in the parish of Fawsley in west Northamptonshire.
Fawsley St Mary the Virgin stands out partly because of its situation on higher ground, and partly because the adjacent villages which it once served have long since disappeared. As a result this structure has stood in splendid isolation, surrounded by sheep pasture, for several hundred years. If you are familiar with the histories of ‘lost’ villages, you will not be surprised to learn that it was a past landowner’s desire to create additional grazing for his sheep which led to the demise of the thriving medieval settlement here (which seems to have consisted of two distinct villages).
St Mary’s dates back to the thirteenth century, and it is thought that it was established in 1209 on the site of an earlier wooden church from Saxon times. It was built primarily with blocks of Northampton sandstone (a.k.a. ironstone), and further work was undertaken in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, with the chancel being rebuilt in 1690. The church is a Grade I Listed Building and was first listed in 1968.
The exterior of St Mary’s in no way prepares you for what lies within. A detailed exploration of the contents of the church and its heraldic delights wouldn’t really be appropriate for a blog post looking at the church as a landmark; in any case a whole series of posts is needed to do it justice. However I can’t resist giving you a glimpse. Behold some of the memorials to the Knightley family, owners of the Fawsley estate for five centuries or so from the early 1400s.
The first of the Knightleys of Fawsley was Richard, a native of Staffordshire who bought the manor in 1415 or 1416. It appears that he was the landowner who evicted the occupants of Fawsley’s villages so that he could extend his sheep pastures. It is thought that construction of Fawsley Hall was begun by Richard’s grandson Sir Richard Knightley, who died in 1534 and whose alabaster effigy is, along with that of his wife, pictured above. However it was Sir Richard’s son Sir Edmund Knightley who completed the sixteenth century part of the house and who is generally credited as its builder. One of the Hall’s most remarkable features is its parlour’s two-storey oriel, on the east side of the building, which can be seen right of centre in the photo below (taken from the church).
Over succeeding centuries, several additions were made to the house, and remodelling and restoration work – not all of it sympathetic to the character of the building – took place. However, after the death of Lady Knightley (Louisa Mary, née Bowater) in 1913 Fawsley Hall was abandoned. The passing of the Rev Henry Francis Knightley in 1938 brought the Knightley family’s ownership of Fawsley hall and its estate to an end; the property was inherited by the sixth Viscount Gage, a nephew of the aforementioned Lady Knightley.
The fortunes of Fawsley Hall declined further over the decades that followed. In 1949, the Northampton Mercury (in its edition of 4 February) reported that “Fawsley Hall, set in acres of beautiful park-land studded with lakes, is in danger of extinction through sheer neglect.” In the early 1970s the building was sold and resold, with schemes for turning it into flats or a private residence mooted. It was listed in 1984 and designated Grade II*. Much needed renovations were eventually completed, and the opening of Fawsley Hall as a hotel in 1998 was the beginning of a new chapter in this landmark’s history.
The illustration below by R Catterson-Smith, dating from around 1890, shows a view of Fawsley Hall from the north-east, with Horse Pond (one of the lakes noted as ‘studding’ the parkland surrounding the house) in the foreground.
In my youth, a family trip to Fawsley Park meant a visit to the three lakes situated to the north, east and south of the Hall: Horse Pond, Big Waters and The Canal respectively. As its name suggests, Big Waters is the largest of the lakes. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s I would, with my parents and brothers, take walks all the way around it, but since the establishment of a fishing club at Fawsley some years ago such explorations are frowned upon. I miss not only those circuits of Big Waters (pictured below), but also seeing dabchicks (or little grebes) on Horse Pond. Quite when those delightful little birds disappeared from Fawsley I cannot remember. Swans, on the other hand, seem always to have been present on two or all three of the lakes.
Although Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has sometimes been credited with their creation, Fawsley’s lakes were in existence some years before Brown was set to work improving the landscape here in the 1760s. He did nonetheless “[make] a large piece of water” at Fawsley in 1763; it is speculated that this may have involved enlarging part of The Canal (pictured below).
Fawsley Park has always extended well beyond the lakes which sit at its centre and grab most of the glory. The part I am most familiar with is that which lies to the north, on the slopes descending from Badby Wood (which is itself part of the Fawsley estate although situated in the neighbouring parish of Badby). The ancient parkland here is still dotted with mature oaks, and to the west of a clump of trees known as The Racecourse is an area of wood-pasture where the trees comprise mainly of beech. To the east of the Racecourse lies a landmark within a landmark, the remains of a house which was not as fortunate as Fawsley Hall.
The Dower House
What is it about ancient ruins that draws so many of us to them? Is it the way they speak to us with a voice entirely different to those structures which have survived the ages more or less intact? Perhaps it is the air of mystery surrounding them, their incompleteness challenging us to imagine how they once appeared, and to reconstruct their decline. Whatever the nature of the attraction, many have made the journey to the Dower House over the centuries since its status changed from uninhabited to uninhabitable. The photo below, showing a view of the Dower House from the south) is from a postcard which was posted in 1905.
The Dower House was built in two stages over the course of the sixteenth century. Originally it was a hunting lodge. Pevsner (The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire, 1961) believed it to be the oldest brick-built structure in the county. In the middle of the west-facing side of the lodge a polygonal tower with a battlemented parapet was constructed. Local ironstone was then used to extend the building and create an H-shaped residence for Lady Ursula, née de Vere, widow of Sir Edmund Knightley. The last Knightley dowager to occupy the house was Anne, née Courteen, who died in 1702; most sources say that the building was then left empty from 1704, but it has also been claimed (by the last Lady Knightley to occupy Fawsley Hall) that it was inhabited until the end of the eighteenth century. Its “twisted, ribbed and moulded chimney stacks” are much-loved features of what remains of the house and by the early 1900s they were the only ones of their type remaining within Northamptonshire.
The ivy-clad remains of the Dower House were listed (Grade II) in 1968. If memory serves, when I visited the site in my teens and 20s there was nothing to prevent people from getting in amongst the ruins and viewing them up close. Since then, safety concerns have (sensibly) prompted the erection of a fence around the house, and work was recently undertaken to stabilise the ruins and make them safe. Hopefully this crumbling landmark will still be around, attracting onlookers and stimulating imaginations, for a good few years yet.
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Fawsley and Waters Upton one-place studies
All photos by the author except where otherwise stated in the text.