Travel Diaries: Northampton Tour – Unwrapping layers of history at Kirby Hall

Kirby Hall is a mirage. Outwardly, it looks like smoke should be swirling up from the vast ornate chimney pots. The inside is hollowed out. Time has mercilessly swept through and taken the walls, paintings, furniture and the inhabitants, leaving just a whisper of its former glory.

Do not despair. It is this time capsuled shell that makes it such a joy to visit. Especially if, like us, you arrive at 3.45pm in the off-season on a weekday and find yourselves the only people there. The absence of crowds, pushchairs and picnics really did feel as if we could have been stepping into another century.

This was once a long gallery, filled with artwork and promenading Elizabethans. I imagine the space bathed in light, and how the long shadows would have altered the dynamics of the rooms throughout the day. The fireplaces can still be seen in the mossy walls; the furnaces that fed those great chimneys.

Here and there, the rafters remain … not so different to the roof of our own, modern home. The peeling layers reveal every generation’s personal stamp of ownership, every design decision and repair. Plaster over older lime preservatives, which in turn cover up wooden beams and pale stonework.

The still-intact state rooms give glimpses of the “cutwork” garden, whilst allowing a close up view of the fine windows and curved architecture. Surely guests would have once been encouraged to stand here, at the perfect vantage point. It has the same beguiling effect on our children, who are all asking if we can go down to see the maze-like pathways.

We all smile at the politeness of this old warning to would-be defacers. An “earnest request” on behalf of the owner that visitors do not write their names on the wall.

We make our way outside. The illusion of completeness is back. The gardens have been tended with such care.

We turn a corner and explore the kitchens … and my children can never resist exploring an open doorway to some unknown place.

We find a little underground cellar-like space, which has a chill feel to it. The boys enjoy leaping back and forth through the crumbled wall.

My daughter is out of her carrier now and gently ambling after peacocks about the grounds who keep easily out of her reach.

It turns out the gravel is incredibly tricky to navigate if your feet are very tiny. It takes her four minutes (she was insistent that she would do it on her own) to reach the grass you can see on the left hand side.

The boys find a gentle slope to run down. Many, many races take place between our five children, including our daughter who only makes it half way up the little hill before they all are all running back down again. She realises she is now in front and holds her arms up in the air, calling out “I win!”

It is closing time now and we are ready to go. My daughter wrinkles her face when I tell her we only have five minutes and that is a lot of gravel.

This may take some time 🙂

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Travel Diaries: Following ancient footsteps up to spectacular views at Kenilworth Castle

When the sky is a near-cloudless blue, we feel the urge to climb and see rolling green fields stretching out for miles. It does not always have to be a mountain … an ancient tower will do just fine.

Kenilworth has undertaken a huge renovation since our last visit a few years before. A vast tower that we once stood below and peered up at, as the floors and staircases had centuries ago collapsed … is again fully climbable once more.

You can now gaze out of the deep arching windows in the even thicker walls, at the wide rural landscape of Warwickshire. I had my baby daughter in her carrier and she was fascinated by the cold stone walls, reaching out with her tiny fingers to touch them.

The moss and lichen in the windowsills looked like a miniature version of the hills beyond.

A second set of stairs, this time wooden and so beautifully weathered that it felt like they had long been part of the castle, took us upwards again for a view so clear the you can almost rebuild the panoramic before you with your imagination. The vast walls of local red sandstone represent Sir Robert Dudley’s now-permanent love letter to Elizabeth I, who stayed here for nineteen days of festivities in 1575.

The scene below is a family favourite … my children’s ancestors grew up in one of the cottages to the right of the picture and many of our family still live in Kenilworth today. The castle featured heavily in my mother-in-law’s childhood here, from summer events to candlelit carols at Christmas.

We explored to the grassy slopes beyond. This is the perfect place for our two autistic sons, usually completely reliant on reigns, to have freedom to roam – the castle outer walls keep them safe from wandering too far.

The Gatehouse was all prepared for Halloween … they had done such a fantastic job – one of our sons crept around every corner.

A family friend painted Kenilworth for my in-laws and my husband recalls the painting hanging on the dining room wall all through his childhood – and he was delighted to completely frame the castle in the photograph below, just as he remembers it.

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