A very special relationship
As Britain again stands ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with its transatlantic ally, Hugh Massingberd visits Otley Hall, where in effect, he says, America was founded
House of Tudor: Otley Hall in Suffolk
Historic graffitti: names and dates scratched into a window pane to mark an engagement
The knot garden
12:01AM BST 14 Sep 2002
Despite all the talk of Britain’s “special relationship” with America – and in these troubled times, there is a great deal of it about – our grasp of the early historical links between the two countries tends to be rather hazy. How many of us, for instance, are familiar with the name of Bartholomew Gosnold? Very few, I suspect. But Gosnold was a true English hero, the founding father of the Jamestown Colony, the first English-speaking settlement in America, and he hailed from Otley Hall in Suffolk, an enchanting medieval, moated manor house.
Yet across the Atlantic this week, the finishing touches were being applied to lavish celebrations due to be held yesterday at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in honour of the 400th anniversary of Gosnold’s pioneering voyage to the New World in 1602. This expedition resulted in the naming of Cape Cod and of the Vineyard itself – after Gosnold’s daughter, Martha. The voyage is also said to have inspired The Tempest, and advocates of the (admittedly slightly controversial) theory that “Shakespeare” was really a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, take pleasure in pointing out that Gosnold was both a cousin and neighbour of the playwright earl.
Five years later, Gosnold was the “prime mover” of the Virginia Expedition, which led to the founding of the fledgling colony of Jamestown in 1607 – 13 years, let it be stressed, before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail aboard the Mayflower. (The 400th anniversary celebrations in 2007 promise to be a major event in which Otley should surely play a key role.) One of Gosnold’s companions, Captain John Smith, is celebrated in the legend of Pocahontas: it was at Jamestown
that the captain claimed he had been saved by the Indian Princess. As one stands in Otley’s principal interior, the Great Hall, a handsomely panelled Tudor room, it is thrilling to think that those epic adventures were planned around the manorial hearth. In effect, one feels, America was founded here.
That alone would be enough to guarantee Otley an honourable place in history. But dig a little deeper and there is much more about the place to delight and intrigue.
In his magisterial Buildings of England series, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, never one to resort to purple prose, described Otley as “one of the most interesting 15th- and early 16th-century houses in Suffolk.” Yet he hardly did it justice. For it is a magical house of haunting beauty with an air of timeless, soothing tranquillity. Reflected in its moat, Otley, like all the best English manor houses, resembles an illuminated page of history, a romantic distillation of the past. One populates the place in one’s imagination with ruffled and bearded Elizabethans and Jacobeans, and conjures up images of exuberantly playful jollification.
Thanks to the wonders of modern science, the manor’s complicated structural history is exceptionally well documented. The panelling in the Great Hall – and, indeed, throughout the house – has been scientifically dated by dendrochronology (or “tree-ring dating”), a complex procedure that has broken new ground at Otley under the supervision of Dr Ian Tyers, of Sheffield University. Before 1999, when Otley’s present owner, Nicholas Hagger, commissioned a team of experts in this field, a mere seven panels had been tree-ring dated in the whole of Suffolk. Now, at Otley alone, some 70 have benefited from this revealing new technique.
Although the present house dates from the 15th century, the Great Hall turns out largely to be a rebuilding of 1512. The linenfold panelling in the parlour next door has been dated to the 1520s, and may have come from Hampton Court, the palace of Cardinal Wolsey, that over-ambitious Ipswich butcher’s boy, who certainly owned land in Otley. The Renaissance detail of the intricate panelling in this room is outstanding: pens, paintbrushes, flutes, scrolls, scalpels and crosses symbolise literature, art, music, the law, medicine and the Church.
Upstairs, there are intriguing fragments of uncovered wall paintings in the Banqueting Room, which has been dated to 1588 (the year of the Spanish Armada). The figures depicted include a lubricious-looking Wild Man of the Woods, or Green Man, a typical fertility symbol of the period. And the Oak Room contains evidence of chronology of a less scientific variety: the windows overlooking the moat contain panes of glass upon which various names and late 18th-century dates have been scratched with rings – what one might describe as Georgian graffiti, the equivalent, perhaps, of today’s spray-painted “Tracy loves Darren”.
Documents and dendrochronology have their points, but it is the lyrical quality of Otley that lingers in the memory. As I savoured its idyllic prospect, bathed in the soft, early autumnal light that only Suffolk can dispense, I confess that my overriding emotion was regret – not to say shame – that I had failed to include it in English Manor Houses, a picture book I published last year. Some mistake, surely.
Otley’s history follows a pattern familiar to students of English manor houses. The Gosnolds, who began as tenants hereabouts in the early 15th century and reached their zenith as lawyers and fixers in Tudor times, eventually came unstuck through their support for the Earl of Essex’s Rebellion in 1601. Broken, like so many Cavalier squires, by the Civil War, they finally sold up in 1674.
Subsequently, Otley entered the “Sleeping Beauty” phase so essential to the survival of unspoilt manor houses, whereby absentee owners let it out to tenant farmers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Then it was happily “rediscovered” in the early 20th century, that golden age of the Manorial Revival. The Edwardian architect, Morley Horder, carried out a thorough restoration for the new owner, Dorothy Sherston, whose husband was killed in action in 1915. There is, however, a less endearing twist to the Otley saga, as Mrs Sherston developed fascist sympathies and was eventually interned under the Defence Regulations during the Second World War. Anecdotal folklore relates that one of her guests at Otley, Sir Oswald Mosley, groped a chambermaid in the Banqueting Room.
Such associations have doubtless been exorcised by Mr Hagger, a visionary educationalist, poet and philosopher, whose works include The Fire and the Stones, a comparative study of 25 civilisations throughout history, and a four-volume epic poem, Overlord, set in the last year of the Second World War. Besides sympathetically conserving the house, Mr Hagger and his wife, Ann, have greatly improved the gardens, which are notable for being the only private commission undertaken by Sylvia Landsberg, author of The Medieval Garden.
The ingenious historical recreations of medieval and Tudor features include a herber, a vine-and-rose tunnel and a knot garden based on the endless knot on the cover of the future Queen Elizabeth I’s prayer book of 1544. The H-shaped canal was executed to the original design of the Edwardian landscape gardener, Francis Inigo Thomas, whose work was commissioned by Mrs Sherston but not previously implemented.
Today, the 10-acre Otley gardens proudly display 75 varieties of rose, 40 varieties of aster, 103 varieties of hosta and 75 varieties of holly. Indeed, the Haggers seem so much in harmony with Otley and have achieved such a remarkable amount there since they arrived in 1997, that it prompts the question: why are they selling up? “We are trying to restructure our lives,” explains Mr Hagger. “We need to be closer to our family in Essex and to the three schools we own there – and, approaching 64, I want to concentrate my energies on writing some more books.”
As it goes on the market with Cluttons, for offers in excess of £2.5 million, one can’t help feeling a tremor of fear for its future. Such a delicate creation, complete with its dedicated staff, now cries out for a new owner sensitive to its historical significance. Although there is no requirement to open this Grade I-listed gem to the public (as it has been for the past 20 years), it would be a pity to see the place disappear off the map as a City commuter’s private retreat. And that could well be its fate: Ipswich, the nearest town, is little more than an hour away from Liverpool Street by train.
The unobtrusive conference and hospitality centre in the grounds lends support to Mr Hagger’s belief that an ideal solution would be for Otley to be acquired by an Anglo-American trust – a possibility that can only have been enhanced by yesterday’s party in Martha’s Vineyard. As Eric Sandon, author of the standard work, Suffolk Houses, wrote, Otley is “always an inspiration”. Let’s hope it remains so.