In the southern part of Cumbria, there are two outstanding country houses: Levens Hall and Sizergh Castle. Both have extraordinary histories, both are Medieval in origin and both are still inhabited by owners who can date their family’s history to the early history of the house. Not only that, they are little more than a couple of miles apart, making it possible to visit both during the same day.
I arrived at Levens Hall after walking through the adjoining deer park, which was designed and laid out between 1694 – 1710 by landscape designer Guillaume Beaumont. The renowned Frenchman was also gardener to King James II. The park is lovely, but it is Beaumont’s work in the gardens of Levens Hall that is truly remarkable – as much for the fact of their survival into the 21st century, as for their beauty. Levens Hall has the oldest topiary garden in the world. Its fabulous, frivolous and fun.
The topiary garden is the ‘must see’ attraction at Levens Hall, but the other ten acres of gardens are beautiful as well. The gardens take you from one environment (orchard, herb garden, willow labyrinth) into another simply by turning a corner, or walking through an archway. The Ha Ha (a ditch creating an uninterrupted view across the countryside, and not a popular catch phrase from a Simpson’s character), is one of the oldest in the country.
The Hall itself dates from the 12th century, when a Peel Tower was built by the original owner, Norman de Hieland, founder of the de Redman family. The de Redman’s owned the Hall for over three hundred years. In the 16th century the house passed into the hands of the Bellingham family, who are largely responsible for the magnificent Elizabethan house you see today.
In 1689 the house was purchased by Colonel James Grahme, courtier to James II, after which the ownership of the estate goes a bit Brideshead Revisited. The next 324-years saw a bemusing sequence of births, deaths, marriages, inheritances and name changes largely involving the Howard family (Earls of Berkshire and Suffolk).
Having survived more political and social upheavals than you can shake a stick at, Levens Hall is still in the hands of the same family, the Bagots – that is if you consider a distant branch of a large, extended family to be the same family. This continuity, combined with good fortune and some far sighted individuals, has ensured the house has retained much of its physical history intact.
The exterior speaks for itself, but the interior has wonderful items adorning Elizabethan-era rooms. You can’t take photographs inside, but there are fireplaces with superb carved wooden mantels; exquisitely painted Spanish leather panels on the walls of the dining room; Gillow mahogany furniture illuminates the bedrooms. Remarkably, numerous items belonging to Napoleon Bonaparte, including a saddle used in his Egyptian campaign, fill the house. All the Napoleonic souvenirs are thanks to a niece of the Duke of Wellington who married into the family.
As I entered a room a young child asked a question to a member of the staff which caught my attention. “Are there any ghosts?” Apparently there are quite a few, including a ghost dog known to chase visitors up the stairs.
Further investigation resulted in the tale of the Grey Lady (they’re always grey and ladies). She is said to have placed a curse on the family: no male heir would be born until the River Kent stopped flowing and a white fawn was born. True to form, no male heirs were born until 1896 when the River Kent froze and a fawn was born. Spooky! So spooky, that the bizarre TV programme Most Haunted recorded an episode at Levens Hall. They discovered some ‘disturbing’ activity, but that may have been the £12.50 entrance fee.
All-in-all, Levens Hall is a remarkable place, and I greatly enjoyed wandering the gardens and trying not to break anything valuable inside the house.