We were fortunate to find the Canons Ashby site fully open when we visited on a weekday in early February. It had been closed during January for maintenance and apparently in previous years the house itself did not open until Easter. Many heritage properties are subject to winter closures – see below for details.
The house is basically an Elizabethan manor house, but much modified over the centuries. The National Trust site also includes St Mary’s Church, which is all that remains of an extensive priory established by a group of Augustinian canons in 1147. The priory was dissolved by Henry VIIIth in 1537, with some of the remains being used to build the manor house.
We spent about three hours at Canons Ashby. After touring the house, we wandered around the terraced gardens, before crossing the road to the church. Finally we took a short walk in the parkland. The Stables Tearoom provided a pleasant refreshment break half way through our visit.
It should be noted that wheelchair access is limited in the house and gardens. A visitor buggy is available to carry less agile visitors from the car park to the house.
Canons Ashby house was the ancestral home of the Dryden family from when it was built in about 1550 until it was handed to the National Trust in 1981. By that time the house and gardens were fairly derelict.
The restoration of the house and its contents reflects the times of Sir Henry Dryden, who was master of the house between 1837 and 1899. A keen historian and archaeologist, he made it his life’s work to repair the house, priory church and estate buildings, whilst acquiring many items to furnish and decorate the house.
Entry to the house is via the Pebble Court. It was interesting looking around the court to see the mixture of architectural styles.
Rooms can be visited on both the ground and first floors, with a landing in between. The staircases are quite narrow and uneven, and some of the doorways are low, particularly in the servants’ areas of the house.
The tapestries, panelling, ceilings and wall paintings around the house are a mixture of styles including Tudor, Jacobean and Baroque.
The tour of the house starts in the Great Hall and moves around the ground floor before ascending to the first floor rooms. It concludes in the servants’ rooms situated on the landing and back on the ground floor.
Our highlights of the tour were:
• The Book Room, which was Sir Henry’s library, and has an unusual double-sided desk, known as a partner desk.
• The Dining Room, set up for dinner for just four people.
• The Drawing Room with its impressive fireplace and decorative 17th Century domed ceiling.
• Spenser’s Room (named after the poet Edmund Spenser, a relative of the family), which was the best guest bedroom with a four-poster bed. Some fine Elizabethan wall paintings were discovered in the 1980s under the 18th Century panelling in this room.
• The simple Maid’s Room and Cook’s Room on the landing.
• The Great Kitchen with its Edwardian range.
A curiosity of the house is that it has no bathrooms and water was carried up by the servants when required for washing.
We found well-informed volunteers in each of the rooms on the tour to explain the many points of interest.
Canons Ashby Gardens
The main gardens consist of a series of terraces sloping down from the house.
However they are not at the best at this time of the year with just a few clumps of snowdrops. We will revisit in spring or summer.
The Green Court to the side of the house has a border with 31 different types of fern and opposite is a pear border. This court used to be the main entrance to the house.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church is built in the local dark-orange ironstone (as is much of the house itself). From the front it looks as if it could be a cathedral, and indeed it was built as such in 1250 as part of the Augustinian priory. But on entering, there is no long towering nave in front of you, but simply a wall with a stained glass window where the nave would have been.
The interior is simple in decoration as maybe to be expected of what became the Dryden’s private family church in 1551. There are several Dryden memorial plaques and tombs inside the church and a large memorial cross on the grave of Sir Henry Dryden outside the church.
Walks at Canons Ashby
There are four National Trust designated walks around Canons Ashby, varying in length from 1 to 5.8 miles. On this occasion we opted for the 1 mile Parkland Walk along a grass path (quite boggy in one area) giving great views back to the house and church.
The route drops down to the lakes, which were dug over 800 years ago to supply fish to the Augustian canons, and passes a mysterious mound with giant redwoods. The final part of the walk is through the remains of the medieval village of Ashby.
Joining the National Trust
If you visit heritage sites regularly, then Annual Membership of the National Trust can save you a lot of money. See my article: English Heritage versus National Trust – Which to join?
With regard to Winter Openings, see: English Heritage and the National Trust – Winter Openings
See our other articles on National Trust Sites.
Additional Photographs of Canons Ashby
POSTED 25th FEBRUARY 2020 by STEVE HANSON. The photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.