A Glorious Old Place

In which I discover a hidden gem in the Essex countryside…

Ingatestone Hall is a medieval Manor House in the Essex countryside. Unusually for a house of this status, it retains many of its original features. Because this was built before the separation of servants from the main family areas, it has a many of the rooms enjoy a double aspect, giving them a light appearance despite the heavy oak panelling. It has an extensive collection of art and sits in ten acres of gardens, comprising parkland and more formal gardens. Although still a family home, it is open to the public on some days and, late last summer, I went to visit because of a unique literary connection

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, born in 1835 was an immensely popular novelist during the Victorian era, with a life as outrageously sensational as her novels. She was raised alone by her mother, who had left Mary’s father because of his frequent infidelities. A separation was still an unusual event at the time. After school she befriended Clara and Adelaide Biddle, sisters who had been well known as child actors and were now making their way through the profession, playing minor roles throughout the country’s theatres. Mary joined them and realised her childhood dream of acting. In 1860, Mary met the publisher John Maxwell, the two began an affair and moved in together, although Maxwell was married at the time. His wife had been admitted to a mental asylum and Mary acted as stepmother to their five children. Maxwell’s wife died in 1874, enabling he and Mary to marry; they had six children together.

Mary was a hugely prolific writer, with over 70 (some sources say close to 90) novels and a number of plays attributed to her; most of these are supernatural thrillers and Ghost stories. She became know for sensation novels: a genre that combined melodrama and the gothic and challenged societal norms. By far her best known book is Lady Audley’s Secret, which became a bestseller and made her a small fortune. The novel, about a young woman who marries a rich widower, is set in Ingatestone Hall, in which Mary had recently been a guest.

A glorious old place. A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water. A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenues…

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret
The Gatehouse, Ingatestone Hall

Following her lead, I gathered the team and we headed South to Essex one Sunday afternoon late last summer. It’s in a rural setting and we had to wind through country lanes through farmland to get there. It’s difficult to imagine that it is so close to Ingatestone and the A12 corridor; just 7 miles from London.

You enter the property through a distinctive arched gatehouse, half timbered with a clock tower above. The clock has a single hand that slowly counts out the hours and bears the message “Sans Dieu Rien”: without God nothing. The hall itself was once a closed quad with a courtyard within. It now only occupies three sides of the square,

The ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’ information board

There were restrictions in place because of Covid, but the staff were friendly, chatty and helpful, guiding us through with ease and filling in the details as we went round. Rooms of note are the Dining Room, lined with tapestries, and the Gallery with portraits and artefacts of the Petre family, who still occupy the hall to this day. We were particularly keen on the smaller rooms, like a lovely little book-lined study. There are also some secret places tucked away. Many old houses have a Priest’s hole, where the family pastor could be hidden during an unexpected visit from the (protestant) authorities. This house has two, one of which is quite large and must have made a surprisingly comfortable retreat for a hunted clergyman. There isn’t much information about Braddon, unfortunately. There is a notice-board covered with fading magazine and newspaper articles but these are more concerned with the film adaptations that have been set at the hall, rather than the novel.

The common cormorant or shag; lays its eggs in a paper bag

As most places last summer, they were struggling to comply with Covid restrictions and some facilities, such as the restaurant, were closed. We had to make do with Ploughman’s lunches and ginger beer, served outside in the garden. It was simple fare but really excellent; we all enjoyed them immensely. We spent the afternoon wandering around the grounds, chatting and enjoying being outside in the late summer sunshine. There are sculptures, vast fish ponds, where Mrs. P spotted a cormorant, and some secluded woodland walks alongside the more formal gardens. Lots of little hidden corners where we could get lost.

Our visit over, we still had a couple of hours to kill, so headed past Colchester to Paper Mill Lock for tea. A popular leisure area and there were many people around, mostly loading up their cars and heading home after a long day out. We staked our place in the tearoom and enjoyed the lowering afternoon sun over tea and cake. The stretch of river between here and the sea was well known to the nature writer, JA Baker.

The River Chelmer at Paper Mill Lock

JA Baker was a reclusive chap. He lived in Chelmsford and spent all of his spare time cycling along the lanes of the Chelmer valley and observing the wildlife. In his best book, The Peregrine, he describes the landscape and the lives of the birds he pursues throughout the Essex countryside. It is an interesting read, having no narrative to follow, but is fascinating nonetheless. Baker has an intriguing way of describing the natural world and the book is absolutely captivating. There is an audiobook version narrated by David Attenborough which is really worth seeking out. Baker would sometimes stop at Paper Mill Lock for refreshment on his bird watching journey and it was nice to for us to do the same.

We said goodbye to our friends here, who hurried off home but Mrs. P and I stayed to enjoy the autumn evening sun. We drove to the nearby village of Ulting, where Baker would cycle in pursuit of his beloved peregrines. Mrs. P collected blackberries from the hedgerows, while I went for a walk along the towpath, walking upstream back towards Paper Mill Lock as I wanted to see Ulting church from the opposite bank: a particularly beautiful setting. I just managed to get there for the last of the evening light.

All Saints’ Ulting from across the Chelmer

It was a lovely September evening, some of my favourite times of the year. The hedgerows are loaded with fruit, the evenings are still and golden. It is still warm but the sun is starting to lower and the days shorten, with the promise of cosy firesides to come,

I didn’t see any peregrines though.

2 thoughts on “A Glorious Old Place

  1. Dear Literary Britain,
    This is just to say that I really enjoyed your recent post on Coventry. I live in Coventry, and it is great to find its literary connections celebrated. I thought your photographs were very good, and well chosen. (& I agree that it is a shame that Bird Grove, George Eliot’s former house, does not even have a board explaining Coventry’s technological pioneers, like Frank Whittle, are – rightly- celebrated, its literary giants, less so.
    I have been exploring your website, and have found your piece on Ingatestone Hall – your post on it is delightful. I love the glorious red brickwork of the Hall.
    & I have been exploring & I am pleased that you mention J.A.Baker, author of The Peregrine. I am afraid I have not read it, only about it. I was brought up in Essex and it is the county that I love most of all, though I don’t imagine I will return there now.
    Yours Sincerely,
    Rosemary Hall
    P S One of the (very) few people who bought the Brontes volume of poems came from Warwick.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Rosemary. It’s nice to know you’re enjoying the blog.
      I thoroughly recommend JA Baker’s The Peregrine. He has a wonderful way of describing nature and rejects all rules of narrative construction, which makes it challenging. I have rediscovered Essex recently and am very impressed by the county. Look out for a future post on Colchester, Mersea and Maldon.

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