On Friday I had the great honour of visiting the gorgeous, great Jacobean house, Aston Hall. What is Aston Hall, and why is it important? Well, let’s start off with the introduction from the official guide book, shall we?
Aston Hall is a magnificent Grade I Listed Jacobean mansion sitting in a Grade II Listed Park…Constructed between 1618 and 1635 by Sir Thomas Holte (1571-1654), the Hall was one of the last great Jacobean houses to be built in Britain – and remains substantially unchanged since this time.
Readers of this website will know that I have been in Birmingham for a few weeks now and that I recently visited Blakesley Hall. Aston Hall, which is in a part of greater Birmingham, had been on my list of places to visit for some years now, and I was elated when I was contacted by Rosie Barker, the Community Engagement Officer, and we were able to schedule a visit.
The Hall was immediately visible from the entrance and I walked up the paved one-lane path up to it. On either side was beautiful parkland – an oasis in the extremely built-up area surrounding Aston Park. It was a glorious day – spring was in the air, the sun was shining, the birds singing beautifully, and the flowers were beginning to bloom. I knew it was going to be wonderful.
I met Rosie in a building that once was the 17th-century stables, and from there, we walked by some lovely gardens, in which we can see foundations from the 17th-century. Here, you would have found the wash house, the brew house, the bake house, a dairy, and even an ice house.
We then went inside the main building to the Great Hall, which was stunning. You can get a sense of how impressive it is in these photos:
If you notice the elephant in the ceiling photo above, that was a symbol used by James Watt Junior, the son of the important Victorian inventor James Watt – and Junior rented the house from 1819 to 1848 (his death). After this, the house fell into a state of disrepair, and it could well have been demolished, had it not been for a certain monarch. In a story remarkably similar to the fate of Kensington Palace, Queen Victoria later pushed for the Hall to be saved, and it was.
Then we made our way into the Great Parlour…
There was even more 17th-century stuff as we went into the next room, which is now just an area to display artefacts and information now. Take a look at the paintings and the 17th-century plate.
Check out this carved stone doorway:
We then had a brief look at the ornately carved wooden staircase. Yes, that’s cannon shot damage from the English Civil War! Holte was a latent Royalist, and whilst he wasn’t super-enthusiastic about this, he still got into a bit of a pickle with the Parliamentarians, who laid siege to the hall for three days.
I think it’s awesome to have such a scar in one’s house. I am very happy that they never repaired it. Then we made our way into the Great Dining Room. Again, notice the amazingly intricate ceiling decoration! This room blew me away – it was sumptuous, elegant, and fit for a king!
Rosie then began to talk about the people in the paintings on the wall. Edward, the chap on the right, was Thomas Holte’s heir, and he had a major – and irrevocable – falling out with his father when he married Elizabeth, the woman on the left.
‘So what was wrong with her?’ I asked, wondering if the lady in question was of inferior birth or perhaps did not bring enough money to the marriage.
‘Nothing,’ Rosie replied. ‘It’s simply that they did not seek Thomas’s approval first.’ Thomas wouldn’t budge on principle.
Ah, family problems. No one can get away from them! Sadly, there was no reconciliation between father and son. Edward died in the English Civil War without having made amends with his father.
I have to admit that I was very impressed with this huge painting “King Charles I and his family” by Remy van Leemput. Rosie told me about how it had looked quite different before it was restored. For example, the colour of Henrietta Maria’s dress looked brown, but then it was cleaned up to reveal a gorgeous gold that you can see above.
I apologise for the lighting in the next photo – the sun was very bright that day and so it’s hard to see the portrait of a young Charles II. Below him in the glass case is some very fine 17th-century silver which have the Holte family coat of arms.
The Lely’s – my gosh, have I mentioned the Lely’s? I almost started hyperventilating. I think they have more than three – which is pretty impressive.
I had no idea that Aston Hall possessed so many extremely good-quality paintings from the likes of Peter Lely (court favourite during the Restoration), Thomas Gainsborough. There is even a very good painting which is labelled as a ‘Rembrandt’ but probably isn’t a Rembrandt even though it does look very much like that master’s style.
Another room I really liked was the Orange Chamber – just look at that amazing bed, which is from the 17th-century!
I couldn’t resist taking this cheeky shot of a gorgeous silver mirror in the Orange Chamber. Glorious!
As you can see in the next image, the Orange Chamber still has its original 17th-century plasterwork which shows…orange trees! I’m sure William of Orange would have liked this room 😉
Speaking of William III, I had to laugh when we reached the next room, where there was a replica loo. Fans of William III’s Toilet from Hampton Court Palace are sure to smile:
Next, we entered what’s called “King Charles’s Room” which was one of the rooms King Charles I used, as he slept in Aston Hall in 18th October, 1642. You can see paintings of Charles on the left, and his wife, Henrietta Maria on the right. In the centre background is what’s called “King Charles’ Cabinet” and it was said this belonged to the king, though it was built c. 1660, and he died in 1649, so…
Then we went into the Long Gallery. There are no words.
There is a good deal of the house that is no longer as it was in the 17th-century. Obviously, lots of people lived in this house and each contributed something different to the interiors. New technologies emerged, and it’s a miracle that this place is still in existence.
The Servants Garret/North wing, and in this area there is also the Sergeant’s Attic. Rosie pointed out the strange wooden formation that sloped down under a window. This, she explained, enabled light to travel to another floor.
There was some 19th-century graffiti (I don’t like graffiti in general, but this is a heck of a lot nicer than the rubbish graffiti in most cities now).
I am indebted to Rosie for taking the time to give me such a wonderful tour. She was such a delightful guide – her warmth and enthusiasm for the history of this fine house really made my time there all the more memorable. I am certain that Aston Hall is in excellent hands with her.
For more images, please see my Instagram page.
Aston Hall should re-open on Saturday 12 April 2014. The address is: Trinity Road, Aston, Birmingham, B6 6JD Tel: +44 (0)121 675 4722
Specialist guided tours are available on most Wednesdays at 11am throughout the winter, £7, but please visit the Birmingham Museums website for more details.
I do hope that those of you who travel to Birmingham take the opportunity to visit this magnificent building – its history is tangible and very much alive. When you do, please donate generously so that future generations can enjoy this historic house as we are able to now.