In a recent TV adaptation of the life of Queen Victoria, Harlaxton Manor was portrayed as a French royal palace for an encounter between the young queen and her wily French counterpart. With its imposing entrance, ornate classical architecture and sumptuous stonework, the stately home looked remarkably convincing. In reality, however, construction of the manor house commenced in 1837 - the very year that Queen Victoria came to the throne - and was completed eight years later, in 1845.
The house was constructed by a wealthy minor aristocrat - Gregory Gregory - who inherited a fortune and lavished much of it on the creation of a fine stately home with the aim of emulating or even surpassing the splendour of nearby Belvoir Castle. The house was designed by a famous architect, Anthony Salvin, who incorporated elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles, though the interior was the work of William Burn.
No expense was spared on the building materials and a local quarry was purchased to provide the finest quality stonework that still impresses today’s visitors. A wrought iron and glass ten-bay conservatory was incorporated in the structure and the interior of the house was also fitted out and furnished in the same lavish style. The ceiling at the top of the grand staircase is particularly eye-catching.
Although the house was designed and built as a family home, complete with nursery, so much of Gregory’s time and energy was expended on building the house that he never married and so lived there in lonely splendour with a small retinue of servants until he died nine years after its completion.
A remarkable and almost certainly unique addition to the house was the inclusion of a small domestic railway track that enters the house some 30 feet above ground level. Once inside the structure, the single track was enclosed from view in a brick tunnel, which was used to bring in heavy supplies such as building stone during the construction phase, and later coal, using gravity to propel the wagons. And presumably it was also used to discreetly remove any domestic waste from the property. Although seldom seen by today’s visitors, the tunnel itself remains in place, together with sections of the narrow-gauge tracks, though sadly the wagons or “butties” no longer survive.
The house and its grounds fell into disrepair during the twentieth century before being rescued by an industrial heiress who renamed the property “Grantham Castle”. The property was then requisitioned by the RAF during the second world war and was used as an officers’ mess in the period leading up to the battle of Arnhem.
The property is currently owned by an American university and is used as a campus for those of its students who wish to take courses in British studies Consequently, the site is not generally open to the public, though very occasionally open days or group visits are arranged in conjunction with the college authorities.
If you do get the chance to visit this architectural wonder, you should not hesitate to do so. The long entrance drive through the surrounding parkland provides a sense of mounting anticipation as it crosses a stone bridge over a lake before passing through an imposing gatehouse and eventually arriving at the wrought iron entrance gates.
The manor house is set amidst extensive formal gardens whose seven terraces provide wonderful opportunities for photographing the exterior of the hall. Although they are not as elaborately tended as in the heyday of the manor house, the full-time gardening staff of three manage to keep the grounds looking well-kempt for the most part, though the Dutch-style canal is looking a bit neglected. Numerous statues, pergolas and gazebos lend additional interest to the somewhat minimalist planting.
Once inside the hall, the large TV screens charting the various outings for the students look a bit incongruous in such an old building, which has now lost most of its original artwork, fittings and furniture. There is still plenty to interest visitors inside the building, however, particularly the great hall and the magnificent cedar staircase with its cleverly designed ceiling giving the impression of two additional storeys.
We enjoyed our visit immensely and appreciated the knowledgeable commentary provided by the college staff and volunteer guides.
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