Harlaxton’s splendid mansion
‘Harlaxton has to be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not easy to believe it,’ wrote Mark Girouard in The Victorian Country House. It is a statement with which Jane Keightley agreed as she drove up the mile-long drive – more so once she had explored the rooms inside.
Harlaxton Manor from the outside is a fusion of Baroque, Elizabethan and Jacobean styles and Pevsner in his book Buildings of Lincolnshire says that it is without any doubt the wildest and most fanciful building of the 1830s.
I had always wanted to visit this magnificent building and I was thrilled to be able find out more about its occupants and their stories.
There had been an Old Manor in Harlaxton village but the current Manor was purpose-built for its own site, outside the village on the hill. The present day building was built by a gentleman called Gregory Gregory, who had inherited the land and the Old Manor. He was a wealthy man with several other properties but he decided that he would make his home at Harlaxton. After travelling widely and collecting art treasures from many different countries he decided to settle down. The Stamford Mercury in March 1831 announced that he was about to ‘commence the erection of a splendid mansion at Harlaxton’.
Although he was a bachelor with no family he was determined to build a huge mansion. An article by JC Loudon in The Gardener’s Magazine published in May 1840 described how he had visited Harlaxton and had many conversations with Gregory. He said that Gregory had settled upon building a house in the Tudor and Jacobean style. He also said that as there were no books on the subject he would tour round all the houses in Britain that were built in that style to give himself ideas. Gregory certainly did this. Hardwick Hall and Longleat were just two of many he visited on his long tour round the country.
It has been suggested that Gregory was trying to outdo his neighbour the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle. The Manor was built on a central line across the Vale of Belvoir to the spire of the Duke’s church at Bottesford. Harlaxton is also said to have one more room than Belvoir just to make a point, but who really knows?
Gregory commissioned Anthony Salvin to design the new building but a few years later the responsibility for the work passed to William Burn, an architect from Edinburgh. Nobody seems to know why this happened but Burn finished the work to Gregory’s satisfaction.
After all this effort and hard work Gregory only got to live in his new home for a few years. He had been crippled with gout and only able to live in the downstairs rooms for a lot of the time. He finally died of ‘gout exhaustion’ and the estate passed to a cousin and then in 1860 to a more distant relation who assumed the name John Sherwin Gregory.
Gregory Gregory’s will had said that if John Sherwin Gregory should die without an heir, the estate would pass to his neighbour and distant relative, Sir Glynne Earle Welby of Denton and he did end up with the major portion of the contents of Harlaxton Manor, which his heir William decided to sell. A special Act of Parliament, The Gregory Heirlooms Act 1877 was passed to enable him to proceed with the sale which took place the following year. John Sherwin Gregory’s widow Catherine carried on living at Harlaxton for twenty-three years after her husband’s death and became very popular in the local community.
In 1892 the property passed to another distant relative, Thomas Sherwin Pearson, who like the others before him added the Gregory name to his own. He became a typical country squire, but certainly didn’t believe in progress. There was only one bathroom in the whole house and he would not introduce electricity or the telephone and the place was lit by candles and oil lamps. The only exception was when he hosted the Grantham Ball when electricity was put in for the night but taken out the day after. When World War One started he lent the Manor for use as a trench warfare and artillery school. When he died, for the first time in its history, Harlaxton passed from father to son. Philip Pearson Gregory lived at Harlaxton on occasion but in 1937 he decided to sell the village houses and farms and the house was scheduled for demolition. Thankfully this did not come to pass as advertisments in The Times and Country Life calling for somebody to save it were seen by Mrs Violet Van der Elst and she came to its rescue.
Violet Van der Elst was an eccentric and colourful figure. She had made her fortune inventing beauty preparations and the first brushless shaving cream but her passion was campaigning against capital punishment. Much of her time and her fortune was used to further this cause and she lived to see capital punishment abolished in 1965. During her tenure of Harlaxton Manor, she made many improvements and she bought the beautiful chandelier in the Great Hall. She also bought the stone lions that are in the grounds and finally introduced electricity and numerous bathrooms to the house. She was a big believer in séances and spiritualism and regularly tried to contact her late husband. She renamed the Manor Grantham Castle.
When World War Two started RAF Harlaxton was reactivated as a relief Landing Ground. Aircraft that were too badly damaged to land at their own airfields were sent here to make an emergency landing. It was fortified by a machine gun turret which is still nearby today.
In 1948 Mrs Van der Elst decided to sell the Manor to the Society of Jesus. They made a few alterations to the interior and converted the Great Hall into a chapel. It soon became evident that the Manor was not suitable for their needs and they leased the property to Stanford University of California for their new study abroad programme. They remained at Harlaxton for four years before eventually moving to Oxford.
The Jesuits decided to sell the Manor and an advertisement was placed in Country Life magazine. Dr Wallace Graves, president of the University of Evansville, USA saw it and decided that it would be a great place for a study centre for their students and that was the start of a story that goes on to this day at Harlaxton. Initially the University rented the house from the Jesuits but in 1978 a university trustee Dr William Ridgway purchased it and eventually gave the Manor as a gift to the University. Much restoration followed, including the conservatory and the gardens supported by private donors and grants from Historic England and today the Manor and its gardens are a joy to visit.
The college runs two 16-week programmes for about 150 students per term as well as a summer term for about 75 students.
Because students are in residence the majority of the time, Harlaxton is only open to the public once a year when they flock there to marvel at the ornate interiors and beautiful gardens. The Manor’s next Open House is on Sunday 28th July and it is possible to book private tours for small groups to look around too.
During the summer the college hosts summer schools, short courses and conferences, but the Manor remains a year-round setting for stunning weddings, conferences and other events. A series of lectures take place every month in the magnificent Gold Room given by visiting professors and academics. These are free and open to the public. In the spring, Harlaxton offers Bluebell Walks through their woods.
Having found out about all the various occupants of the Manor, I was keen to explore. It is a popular venue for filming and I could see why.
The house was designed with the State Rooms on the first floor so they got a better view over the Vale of Belvoir but with access to the gardens from the rear and side of the house. This was done by building the house into the side of the hill thus enabling the servant’s quarters to be underneath. The entrance Hall is dark and full of stone shields and weapons. Climb up the stairs and you find the Great Hall which has an open timbered roof modelled on the one at Audley End in Essex, a huge ornamental fireplace and a stained glass window depicting the heraldic devices of the Gregory family. The chandelier bought by Mrs Van der Elst hangs in here too and dominates the room.
Enter the Gold Room and you are dazzled by the many mirrors and the profusion of cherubs. Gregory Gregory had visited Paris and was passionate about the French style of Louis XV in which he decorated this room. The beautiful Long Gallery originally housed Gregory Gregory’s library and Beauvais tapestry collection. It has a wonderful cloud effect ceiling. However when reaching the Cedar Staircase you realise that it was all preparation for the most extravagant show of Baroque decoration that you have ever seen. Cherubs and cockleshells and bronzes are everywhere and all the drapes that appear to be cloth are actually plaster and the ropes appearing to be plaster are actually rope dipped in gypsum, sand and water, with animal hair used as a binding agent.
If you can drag yourself away from the extravagant splendour of the house the gardens are well worth exploring too. They are thought to have been designed as a ‘walk around Europe’. The 110 acres of grounds consist of woodlands, French style terraces, an Italian garden and a Dutch Ornamental Canal. The Lions of Harlaxton were all bought by Mrs Van der Elst and are big favourites with visitors.
One aspect of Harlaxton Manor is very unusual. It has its own service tramway behind the scenes that delivered coal to various parts of the house. It is now used by hibernating bats so during this period visitors are not allowed to visit the tunnel.
The last place I visited was the Pegasus Courtyard where there is a memorial to the First Airborne Division who were housed at Harlaxton during World War Two.
It is wonderful that Harlaxton is not just a stately home to be viewed and enjoyed but is in use every day. It is home to so many students each year and gives them an experience that they will never forget.