The heavy hand of history - Brian Johnson-Thomas

At once both poignant and tragic the tale of Mary, Queen of Scots, is deeply ingrained in the history of these islands. Recently we had the pleasure of staying close to where she spent her last days and, indeed, walked down the very staircase she is supposed to have descended to her execution. That’s because Fotheringay Castle, the scene of her demise, has since been so demolished as to be almost invisible with the fabric being utilised in a wide range of other local buildings. Thus it seems that the staircase, along with a mediaeval window, now form part of an old coaching Inn called the Talbot in the Northamptonshire town of Oundle. Although it’s been around for a very long time the accommodation is comfortable and stylishly modern and the food and drink on offer are similarly acceptable. A double room with breakfast costs around £90 a night this month, see www.talbothotel.co.uk for details.

The town itself is only a few hours’ drive away and offers a pleasant base from which to visit this lesser known part of England. As well as the famous public school the town has several attractive streets with some nice quirky shops and several alternative eating options. It’s also close to the larger town of Stamford in Lincolnshire which is also well worth a day’s exploration. More importantly, to me anyway, the area is also home to two other crucial examples of Elizabethan history in the shapes of Kirby Hall and Lyveden, operated respectively by English Heritage and the National Trust. Kirby Hall is a monument to the egocentricity of Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chancellor, one Christopher Hatton, who allegedly built it in 1575 in the hope that it would attract a visit by his Sovereign – but, alas, she never came by. Partly ruined, it still possesses rich decorations in some of the staterooms whilst the gardens, one described as ‘ye finest garden in England’, still have much to offer as well as space to picnic – if you can save your sandwiches from the persuasive peacock and peahens! The Hall has also had a moment of recent cinematic history since it stood in for Mansfield Park in the 1999 film version of Jane Austen’s novel. So, worth a visit, whether your taste runs to well-cut breeches or well cut grass.... Lyveden is an altogether more esoteric experience. Begun by another Elizabethan notable, Sir Thomas Tresham, in 1595, mainly remembered today as the father of one of the Gunpowder Plotters, but never completed, the house stands as a testament to his Catholic faith, for which he was repeatedly persecuted. He sought solace is the creation of this remarkable garden, which has to be visited to be appreciated.

Not far away is his other remarkable achievement, the Rushton Triangular Lodge, which is a real testament to his zeal for symbolism for everything is in threes, thus drawing attention to the Holy Trinity (of Father, Son and Holy Spirit). There are three floors, trefoil windows and three sides, each one thirty three and a third feet long, with three gables. Inscribed over the door is ‘Tres Testimonium Dant’ (there are three that bear witness), a Biblical reference to the Trinity. It’s also a pun on his name, his wife apparently called him “good Tres” and ‘tres’ is the Latin for ‘three’.( One point to bear in mind, though, is that this English Heritage site is only open on weekends from Easter to the end of October). Browse all the English Heritage and National Trust sites at www.english-heritage.org.uk, and at www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

However, I just have to end with the news that the Nene Valley Railway has now reopened, albeit with the usual Covid restrictions. This heritage railway, unique in the UK, specialises in collecting international locomotives and rolling stock, so that you can travel along the line in an old Swedish railcar, for example. Even if that’s too esoteric for you, then the ride is through pleasant pastoral scenery and terminates just a few minutes’ walk from the shops and attractions of the city of Peterborough. See www.nvr.org.uk for details of weekend services this month