A TOUR OF STONELEIGH ABBEY
By Ann Evans
Photos: Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography
If you’ve a liking for history then exploring the stately homes, castles and abbeys of our green and pleasant land is the perfect way of spending a relaxing day. And it’s always more interesting when you discover the background and history of such places with all their mysteries, stories and scandals.
Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire is a fascinating mansion house that has links with King Charles I, Queen Victoria and novelist Jane Austen to name just a few famous people from the past. And while you can buy a ground ticket to wander the beautiful parkland, its country walks alongside the River Avon and have afternoon tea in the Orangery, if you want to learn about the house then be sure to book for a guided tour.
You’ll discover that the abbey was founded on the edge of the Forest of Arden by a silent order of white-robed Cistercian monks in 1154. The gatehouse was built in 1357 and within the archway you’ll find a 700 year old bench, where anyone wearing armour or carrying a swords would be required to deposit these things before entering.
The monastery had its share of troubles over those first few centuries with fires and vandals and eventually the monks were pensioned off and the abbey was bought by Sir Roland Hill and Thomas Leigh, Lord Mayor of London who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. Sir Thomas later married Sir Roland’s niece and heir, Alice Barker and so Stoneleigh Abbey became home to the Leigh family for four centuries. The nearby village of Stoneley became Stoneleigh, and flourished with housing, employment and education.
You’ll notice that the impressive Grade 1 listed English mansion house is comprised of two halves. Firstly the red sandstone Jacobean style house and secondly the West Wing which was designed by architect and builder Francis Smith of Warwick. He was responsible for the rebuilding of Warwick after the great fire of 1694. Between 1714 and 1726 this new palatial four-storey fifteen-bay west wing was built. The cost was originally set at £500 but with the window tax in operation, the cost more than doubled.
Exploring the inside of the house, that also is very much in two halves with a dark side and a light side. It seems that Edward Leigh inherited the property when he was only 7 years old. He decorated some walls and ceilings with beautiful rococo plasterwork but sadly it seems that he spent time in Bedlam lunatic asylum and was eventually declared insane.
The tour regales you with stories involving kings and queens and not surprisingly some ghostly tales too. You discover why a portrait of King Charles I was painted over with a picture of a vase of flowers. You see the four-poster bed where Queen Victoria slept – but almost didn’t. You get to see amazing state rooms with rich and curious furnishings and learn why occupants from the 1600s onwards kept life-sized carvings of housemaids on show.
Downstairs you walk through to the chapel which was used for prayer rather than ceremonies. The Leigh family would have taken their place up in the balcony with its red velvet cushions while the workers sat below in the pews, men on one side, women on the other. The chapel, the grounds and the buildings all proved to be inspirational to novelist Jane Austen, and you can discover the links as you explore.
And as you revel in the natural woodland walks see if you can find the pet cemetery; the massive 996 year old oak tree and the unusual rustic thatched roof garden building designed by Humphrey Repton. And finally why not treat yourself to afternoon tea or a cream tea at the Orangery. The perfect way to end the day at Stoneleigh Abbey.