Thursday, 18 May 2017

the stately homes of Essex

I went on a visit this afternoon to Layer Marney Tower.  It is Grade I listed and has the tallest Tudor gatehouse in England.  I've been there a couple of times in the past, once to attend the AGM when I briefly belonged to the Essex Gardens Trust, and once to buy a historic rare breeds Christmas turkey, when I got hopelessly lost in the maze of lanes and had to ask a man in a Land Rover. Today, having studied Google maps carefully before setting out, I did not get lost on the way there, but did get lost on the way back because I had not thought to visualise my planned route in reverse, and so my mother and I saw more of the new housing developments going up around Colchester garrison than we had intended.

The Tudor brickwork is really very fine, although the owner who was showing our party around delighted in pointing out where the Tudor builders had slipped up and the pattern of black bricks weaving through the red had gone awry.  The battlements, which look like carved stone, are actually early UK examples of terracotta.  Layer Marney Tower was built by a courtier to Henry VIII, a successful courtier in that he started under Henry VII, achieved the rare feat of staying on in the court of the next king, and died very rich and at a ripe old age before Layer Marney Tower was finished.  What we see today is the stupendous gatehouse and one side of what should have been a whole palace surrounding a courtyard.  His only son only outlived him by a couple of years, following which nobody had any interest in finishing the building project.  By great good fortune it has passed down through a series of owners who all managed to keep it more or less structurally intact but lacked the means to substantially alter it.

Inside the house the room that is now the main hall, originally a carriage arch, provides a rare opportunity to see genuine Tudor and reproduction Edwardian Tudor panelling side by side.  The owner during the early twentieth century recycled some original Tudor panels from elsewhere to do up the archway, but ran out and had to finish one wall with reproductions.  The Edwardian craftsmanship is fine, but you can see the difference between the machine cut wood and the entirely hand crafted panels.

Upstairs in what is now called the large spare bedroom is a rare ceiling, decorated with hexagons and pentagons in the Italian renaissance style, but without the decorative Tudor roses and acorns that came into fashion after the split from Rome as the English upper classes strove to show how patriotic and definitely not Italian or Papist they were.  So said our hostess, and I am inclined to believe her.  Before marrying the heir to Layer Marney Towers she took a degree in art history at Manchester.

The tower commands a clear view towards the mouth of the river Blackwater, Bradwell power station, St Peter's chapel and all.  According to our guide this is not accidental.  Following the Norman invasion of 1066 a whole string of manorships along the ridge north of the river were granted to loyal Norman knights, so that centuries later you still see their names in the names of the villages strung out along the line of the hill, Layer Marney, Layer Breton, Layer de la Haye, Tolleshunt Knights and Tolleshunt D'Arcy.  I had never thought about why there was this localised outbreak of French sounding names among the more usual Thorpes and Wicks of Essex, so I am quite prepared to believe the theory.

Some of the stories were more personal.  When the first generation of Charringtons to live at Layer Marney Tower decided to move out and hand the tower on to the next generation they took enough furniture with them to fill their new house and split what was left among their four children, leaving the heirs to Layer Marney with nineteen rooms and nine chairs in total.  A while later Charrington senior was visiting his club and discovered that it was being refurbished.  He rang his son and told him, I've got you some chairs but you have to come and get them now.  And so it was that Sheila Charrington found herself in Pall Mall outside the Athenaeum taking dining chairs out of a skip and loading them into a livestock trailer.

The village church is close to the house, and although it was and remains part of the Church of England and not the property of the Layer Marney estate, it was still reclad in matching brick and extended when the hall was being built.  There are tombs for the first Lord Marney and his son, the father's effigy being notably more finely carved.  At the time of the visit I didn't understand why it should have been made out of black Cornish granite, but looking the family up afterwards on Wikipedia I saw that an ancestor married a Cornish heiress.  There is a medieval wall painting of St Christopher, gently and inexorably peeling off the limestone plaster.  According to Sheila Charrington the wall paintings in churches would have been repainted many times to keep them going, but since the convention switched from restoration to conservation the practice has stopped, and since no method of conservation has been found that can cope with the inexorable movement of water through lime plaster, in another two or three hundred years they will all have vanished.

A highly sociable and agreeable ginger cat accompanied the tour, strolling into the hall as we assembled there and following our group into every room, lounging on the large spare bedroom bed, reclining on the billiard table in the tower, and finally popping up in the tea room where perhaps it hoped to be allowed to lick out a dish of cream from the cream teas.

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