Lacock Abbey is probably the strangest and coldest house we’ve visited among the National Trust properties. Doesn’t it look like something out of Wuthering Heights?
The origins of the property date from the early 13th century when an Augustinian nunnery was founded by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, widow of William Longespee who was an illegitimate son of King Henry II.
In 1540, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Sir William Sharington purchased the remains of the nunnery and built the house, adding a storey above the cloisters such that the main rooms are on the first floor.
The house a lot more attractive up close, though it’s an absolute rabbit warren of inconvenient passages, inaccessible rooms, and the aforementioned perishing cold.
It’s a hodgepodge of different architectural styles and lacks a cohesive plan. Although the four wings of the house are built above the cloister passages, the house cannot be entered from the cloisters, and the cloisters cannot be seen from inside the house. Weird, I tell you. Weird.
The National Trust was in the midst of revamping the heating system during our visit. Not before time, as it seems it was first installed in the 1870s. This revolutionary notion of central heating was the result of a bequest in the Will of the French governess, Amelina Pitt. Hmmm. Apparently, the chill made a lasting impression on its former inhabitants, too. To the point where a servant, as her dying wish, undertook to provide the house with heat. Now that’s dedication!
Prior to that, the house would have been heated with the many fireplaces, whose lovely chimneys are one of the loveliest architectural features.
The daffodils were just beautiful, nudging up against the forsythia bush.
A few more brave flowers peeked up from beneath the flying buttresses.
Hellebores, also known as Lenten or Christmas roses provided a spot of brightness.
We started the tour in the cloisters of the former nunnery.
I recently discovered that a nunnery differs from a convent in that a nunnery is a community of monastics, and a convent is a community of mendicants (traditionally, an order that has taken a vow of poverty and does not own property). In its heyday, Lacock Abbey derived its income from wool, raised on the farmland which Ela, Countess of Salisbury bequeathed to the nunnery.
The cloisters are delightfully creepy. The arches have marvellous stone carvings of animals.
I had lots of fun identifying all the different animals depicted in the carvings. I think some of them are mythical.
The Chapter House is completely intact and looks like the perfect location for a film set. Apparently, we aren’t the only ones to think so.
Harry Potter fans may recognize that caldron. Wikipedia tells us that “some interior sequences in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were filmed at Lacock, including the cloister walk where Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised and when he comes out from Professor Lockhart’s room after serving detention and hears the basilisk. Scenes from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald were also shot here.”
Lacock Abbey has also served as locations for The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, The Wolfman, starring Anthony Hopkins, the 1995 BBC/A&E production of Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice, and Wolf Hall. Quite a lineup!
I think it makes for such a great film set because, in addition to the cloisters, much of the house remains in an historic condition.
I loved this pre-Grocery Gadget grocery list. Not much call for Dentifrice, Isinglass or Whiting Stone these days, though chocolate and dog biscuits remain popular (at least in our house).
A rocking horse belonging to a child from long ago waited patiently.
From the Sharingtons, the house passed to the Talbot family, notable for one of their descendants, William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of one of the earliest types of cameras and photographic images. Thus the Talbot name on the staff communication board for the bell system.
And of course, I’m always interested in the china. That aqua colour is luscious. Though the pieces were on open shelves, I restrained myself from flipping one over to discover the manufacturer.
But back to the Talbots. Henry was both a fellow of the Royal Society and a founding member of The British Association for the Advancement of Science. He enjoyed exchanging views with similarly curious minds, likely over an extended meal with a convivial glass or two. Presumably, his guests were more amply attired than the ones in the painting over the fireplace.
The crown moulding had a peculiar pegged feature, reminding me of golf tees stuck into the ceiling.
In the centre of the room, the dining table was set with an imaginative display of plates.
Each plate described one of the dinner guests of that fateful evening in August of 1836.
Including Constance Talbot, Henry’s wife and six other guests.
Scientific discoveries aside, the dining room is a hideous shade of bilious green. What were they thinking?
A year earlier, in August of 1835, Henry had made what may be the earliest surviving photographic negative, which was an interior view of a window in the south gallery of the abbey.
The rival photographic invention at the time was the Dagguerreotype, named after Louis Daguerre, of France. Unlike Henry Talbot’s calotype or “Talbotype” paper negative process, the Dagguerreotype was a one-shot deal; it could only produce one image. Nonetheless, the superior invention did not win fame and fortune for Henry Talbot; it seems that Henry’s caution and modesty may have worked against him. There was a lot more information on photography and Henry Talbot’s contribution to its development in the museum on the site, which we visited later.
Leaving the dining room, we made our way through the door for the last part of the tour of the house.
We ended up in the great hall, which had undergone substantial renovations in the 1750s by a former Talbot, John Ivory Talbot. He seemed to favour the Gothic Revival style. The great hall has flagged stone floors and very high ceilings, with interesting painted detail. Still freezing…
You get some sense of the ceiling height from the niches containing statues, high above the door.
The arched windows contain some quite lovely stained glass.
Back outside, we made our way to adjacent Lacock Village, which looks like it’s frozen in time. Again, a fabulous venue for a film set.
We came across this four-month-old Newfoundland puppy, exhausted from his walk with his parents. They were trying to persuade him to get up and go home, but he was sprawled across the sidewalk, and while happy to be petted, was not prepared to budge. Those are very wet paws.
Down the road and into the village, we were very tempted to stop and have a nosh.
At the end of a dead-end street was a house that may be very familiar to Harry Potter fans.
This is the wooden gate through which Voldemort passes on his way to Harry’s parents’ house to kill both Lily and James, and appears in a flashback scene as Hagrid tells Harry about his parents’ fate. Spooky!
The village also has a small church, built to replace Lacock Abbey’s original church which had been dismantled in the 1500s, and the materials had been used to build the house.
Lots of interesting gravestones and tombs.
Back through the village, we sought out a pub for a bowl of soup (me) and a brew (Glenn). The Red Lion was an excellent choice!
It was very much a worthwhile visit, between the abbey, the house, the museum and the village. We would highly recommend it. But bundle up.
I’m sharing this post with Between Naps on the Porch.