There wasn't a particular theme to the houses that I chose. They don't all date from the Georgian or Regency periods, for example. I picked them because they sounded interesting. But as it turned out, two of the houses were linked - by debt, ruin and ambitious owners living beyond their means. Although some of my older relatives mutter that young people today are extravagant and spend money they don't have, and that it never happened in their day, I discovered on this trip that it did happen on a grand scale in 1605 and 1771.
So to the first of my houses and this was my Top Pick of the trip (a tough choice!) Atmospheric ruins really inspire me and Lyveden New Bield is the most extraordinary place. Lyveden was built by Sir Thomas Tresham, a devout Catholic, to a design full of religious symbolism. The building is shaped like a Greek cross and based around the numbers 3, 5 and 9. Tresham was a rich man whose fortune derived from wool but when work started on Lyveden he was already £11,000 pounds in debt because of the fines levied on him for his adherence to the Catholic faith. The New Bield, as the house was called, was never intended to be his principal seat. His manor house Lyveden Old Bield was just down the road! This house was a fun palace, set in pleasure grounds with moats to sail on, spiral mounds to admire the view, terraces for strolling along and extensive orchards and flower meadows. Lyveden New Bield did have bedrooms and a kitchen and bakehouse, so it could have been a "secret house," a place where the family could retire for a few days whilst their main property was being cleaned. Or it might simply have been intended for fun, a sort of playhouse and gardens on a grand scale!
Whatever the case, fun - and money - was in short supply at Lyveden New Bield when Sir Thomas Tresham died in 1605. Work on the house stopped because the workmen realised that Sir Thomas had been deep in debt, had over-reached himself on his designs and they were never going to see their money! The ruin stood untouched for over 400 years. Sir Thomas's son Francis inherited his estates but later in 1605 was arrested for treason with his cousins Catesby and Wintour for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. He died in the Tower of London. The downfall of the Treshams was complete with the inheritance of the spendthrift Lewis Tresham who lost all the family's remaining money.
It was a very grey day when we visited Lyveden New Bield and against the lowering sky the ruin looked particularly ancient and intriguing. We wandered amongst the grazing sheep in the pleasure grounds, climbed the spiral mounds to view the estate and walked through the flower meadows. We climbed the stair to what is left of the first floor bedroom, with it's views to the east (so that the Catholic Sir Thomas could watch for the Protestants coming to arrest him!) It was a stunning place with a palpable atmosphere but it did make me sad that Sir Thomas Tresham's plans were grander than his budget and that in the end the house stood an empty ruin for hundreds of years.
Click here to visit the National Trust Lyveden New Bield Photo Gallery for some beautiful pictures!
Next on the blog... The historic house where Georgian design went mad!