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Words: Stephen Wade
Photography: Stephen Wade
Featured in the October 2010 issue

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Branston, just three miles from Lincoln, is very much a place with its own unique identity, something always defined by Lord Vere Bertie’s Hall and All Saints, a church with Saxon origins. But the people connected with the buildings have their stories too.

So many places to the south of Lincoln may easily be missed by visitors to the county. Too often, they drive on towards Sleaford and miss some places of great charm, historical interest and genuine individual character. One of these places is undoubtedly Branston, pressed in close to a number of other Lincoln suburbs, but uneasy with that name, prominently filling its own geographical niche and surely keen not to be merely a fragment of the city.

This is a village which changed very little until the late nineteenth century, has much to be proud of, and at the heart of this is the story of what the clergy and aristocrats did to create the unmistakable edifices there, Branston Hall and All Saints Church. Each of these has a fascinating story to tell of social change, people’s passion for beautiful architecture and for the improvement of all members of the community.

A perfect example of this is the creation of the elementary school built as an annexe to the church in 1836 by Peregrine Curtois, rector at the time; yet that was not the only school in the village, because the Hon. A L Melville of Branston Hall had a school built in Hall Lane, attended by seventy children, and this was the village infants school until the National School arrived in 1873. The church and the Hall had acted as benefactors to all, and in 1880, a certain Miss Emma Hyde of the Plough Hotel was a minor celebrity in the press when it became known that she had attended school in Branston for ten years, and never missed a day. A photo of the Hall Lane school taken n 1895, shows the Headmistress, Miss Lucy Panton, standing proudly with her twenty-four pupils and her teacher, Miss Brown. The hall and church had achieved something special in the village.

The story of the schools represents the nature of the mainstream history of the village. Branston Hall was built for Lord Vere Bertie between 1884 and 1886, with a two-storey main block, with a panelled entrance hall. Vere Bertie was a descendant of Robert Bertie, Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven, who in turn was the son of Robert Bertie, Earl of Lindsey. Lord Vere Bertie engaged no less a person than A J Macvicar Anderson, later to become president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and who made designs for such notable buildings as Powerscourt Castle and Coutt’s Bank in The Strand.

The great doyen of British architecture, Pevsner, commented that the entrance is ‘not quite sure whether it wants to be symmetrical, with an ogee-capped turret and a big studded strapwork porte-cochere.’ But today the Hall knows exactly what it wants to be: a fine luxury hotel and spa. Set in eighty-eight acres, the hotel has a swimming pool, leisure suite and impressive amenities and arrangements for weddings and banquets. Above all, it has a reputation for first-class dining and for its beauty centre.

Branston has always been a place with a busy community and a general sense of involvement in Lincolnshire identity. Back in 1889 during the county elections, the Unionist, Mr Chaplin, held a meeting in Branston, and the turn-out was substantial. The Times reported: ‘He said he should not doubt that he would win the election, and would do it very easily too, but they had obstacles to contend with – over-confidence on the part of the supporters…’ Chaplin spoke stridently of his support for allotments and for local labourers. The crowd were happy. The story of Victorian Branston represents perfectly that social involvement and self-help so evident in the general social history of the period.

In that respect, the very core of the village, All Saints Church, and the people who have maintained and created it, stand prominently, with a solid record of public service and respect for the Christian life. In many ways, the history of this church is the history of Branston.

In the great Domesday Book of 1086 there were 350 inhabitants, and there was of course the first version of the church in the village then; but as time went on, a succession of strong characters worked to make their mark on the church. One of the most remarkable sidelights of its history is the fact that it was one of the first churches to be lit by gas, which was produced in a private gasworks, a facility that lit the hall also; two gas-holder pits and a retort house were discovered in the 1980s and that confirmed the story. As is the case with so many Lincolnshire villages through the centuries, very little changed there in terms of the general pattern of rural life, but there have been a number of characters who have transformed some parts of the village, and in the early twentieth century, notable changes came of course.

The church tower has the distinctive quality of local late Saxon features, and some interior features are thirteenth century; the windows are of several types and periods, and one of the most formative events in the history of the church, the fire of 1962, obviously led to restoration work, led by George Pace, from York. Before that, back in the 1870s. the great architect Sir Gilbert Scott was involved in the work on the north aisle extensions. Long before the fire, there was a major problem in 1937 when the tower was fragile and could have collapsed completely. The man who stepped in to save the day was Robert Godfrey, who was the architect working at the time with the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral; he used metal clamps and liquid cement to consolidate and strengthen the interior of the walls.

Inextricably involved with the history of All saints are the Curtois and Wray families. There were Curtois family members linked to the church from the rector, John, in 1680, to Peregrine, who died in 1891. A new memorial to that family was created after the fire, stating: ‘ The remarkable 211 years of service by the Curtois family to the church and parish of Branston.’ The Reverend Peregrine Curtois was a cousin of the famous Dr Willis who treated King George III for what we now know was the condition of porphyria. Peregrine was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln and in 1806 was given the freedom of the city of Lincoln. He died in 1847. Of his many children born at Branston perhaps his daughter Anne gives us the most dramatic story: she ran away with the younger brother of the man Peregrine wanted her to marry – a subaltern in the Indian army. Strangely, Anne died on the dame day as her father, 8 January, but thousands of miles away from Branston, at Masulipitam in Tamil Nadu, India.

The Wray family are hard to miss in a visit to the church, because the Wray monument stands in the church, opposite the south door entrance. Two mounted portrait busts stand at each side of the monument – those of Sir Cecil Wray (died 1736) and his wife, Mary (died in 1745). Sir Cecil’s story links to the Masons: he was Deputy Grand Master of the Honourable Society of Free and Accepted masons, and we know that they met in London at the Devil Tavern, Temple Bar in 1735. It is worth recalling that just a few miles from Branston, at Nocton, Lincolnshire also had a place forever linked with Sir Francis Dashwood, creator of the infamous Hell Fire club which met in various abbeys and halls across the land. Sir Cecil would not have approved of his controversial neighbour, although Sir Francis did not build his Dunstan Pillar until 1751.

There were other noble and illustrious Wrays, notably Cecil’s big brother, Christopher, who was a colonel in the army and fought at the Boyne for King William; he died just before leaving to fight in Spain, and Cecil, a mere captain, then became the next baronet.

The Leslie-Melvilles also have to be mentioned in relation to Branston’s story. Alexander Leslie-Melville was the youngest son of the Earl of Leven and Melville, and after being called to the Bar in Scotland, he later settled at Branston Hall and was appointed deputy-lieutenant for the county of Lincoln. After his death in 1881, his son Alexander Samuel became Sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1888. Behind these high-ranking aristocrats, there were the wives, and they had to get on with the business of running the Hall. In 1909 an advertisement in the daily papers tells us a lot about the Hall and the people in it:
‘Can any lady recommend a Head Kitchen maid for the country? Must be
Thoroughly experienced and good at still-room work. Excellent character
Indispensable. Church of England.
Hon. Mrs Leslie-Melville, Branston Hall.’

There has always been something about Branston that has attracted travellers and visitors to notice fine details, such as the rather cryptic note of Pevsner again in 1964 that ‘No-one should miss Mr Loveley’s gate piers at Branston’ which actually refers to the amazing folly of Stonefield House, and Pevsner, writing much later, explained the figures of monkeys on the piers: ‘There’ll be a good monkey in that house {meaning a mortgage] says one. Says Mr Lovely, ‘I’ll show them where the monkeys will be.’

This is on the Sleaford Road, and since 1985 has been classified by English heritage as a grade II listed building. Mr lovely’s eccentric design, as described by English Heritage, includes, ‘3 octagonal blue brick and stone stacks’ and ‘ Either side single 2-light chamfered mullioned casements with blur brick…’

Pevsner would have been delighted to know that the ‘folly’ was treasured. In fact, there is something about Branston that attracts both creative flair and workmanlike application. This combination has made it one of the most attractive and engaging communities around the city of Lincoln, with its own special qualities, its biographies of lords, clergymen and minor celebrities. Most Lincolnshire people go there to chill out, treat themselves, get married or just relish the sense of history. A closer look at its rootedness in a fascinating past surely invites us to look closer, and check out things beyond the church and the Hall, however enthralling these places are.

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