Heights of fashion

An In­vi­ta­tion to View West Stow Hall re­veals some tall sto­ries

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS & PHO­TOS: Lind­say Want

There’s noth­ing the Gil­berts like more than shar­ing their home on the edge of Bury and the Brecks. Eileen adores mak­ing tea and home­made cakes for guests tak­ing an In­vi­ta­tion to View tour, while Andy de­lights in of­fer­ing them a plat­ter of manor-house his­tory morsels. But it’s not so strange that West Stow Hall is their pas­sion. The fas­ci­nat­ing, quirky prop­erty was de­signed to draw at­ten­tion to it­self. From its or­nate 16th cen­tury gate­house tow­ers to its clean-cut 19th cen­tury façade, it has al­ways been an out­stand­ing con­ver­sa­tion piece and highly fash­ion­able in its hey-days too.

From the out­side, it’s hard to fathom the mot­ley mish-mash of Tu­dor red brick and el­e­gant ar­cad­ing, or those finial fig­ures, double tre­foils and would-be gun-ports on the en­trance. Here it’s half-tim­bered, yet there, white brick and case­ment win­dows cel­e­brate early Vic­to­rian sym­me­try. Along­side such shows

of straight lines and up­right­ness, great chim­neys and tur­rets can’t help but seem slightly ‘on the huh’. Surely there should be a moat, but where’s the bridge, yet alone the wa­ter un­der it?

Cross the thresh­old and even guided by Andy’s il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sight, the in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­tural thread is a tricky one to fol­low. “The hall con­sists of large tim­ber frames joined by iron ties,” ex­plains the proud owner. “There are voids where the tim­ber frames don’t ac­tu­ally meet each other. Things shift over time and rub, so the build­ing is sort of grind­ing it­self away. Rev Benyon went on to par­tially face the place in brick around 1840. Fashion of the day, then. A costly busi­ness, but he was the wealth­i­est cler­gy­man in Eng­land.”

He turns back the clock with tales of John Croft, the chap who pro­cured an orig­i­nal moated manor from the last Ab­bot of Bury St Ed­munds and started build­ing a fash­ion­able court­yard­style prop­erty in the 1520s, be­fore se­cur­ing more West Stow lands from the Crown in 1540 after the Dis­so­lu­tion.

“For John, and later his grand­son, the whole house was an ex­er­cise in sta­tus, de­signed to im­press as a set of wait­ing ar­eas which built up guests’ an­tic­i­pa­tion be­fore meet­ing the im­por­tant host.” Three bays of the orig­i­nal build­ing, in­clud­ing the great re­cep­tion hall still ex­ist, all be it in dis­guise. Shrewd de­tec­tive work has also re­vealed how part of the prop­erty be­came a sum­mer­time ‘view­ing room’ in the 1580s, where a raised plat­form and shut­tered open­ings looked out upon wide park­land vis­tas and prob­a­ble El­iz­a­bethan hunt­ing par­ties. Con­tin­u­ing round the house, there are more rev­e­la­tions – the county’s sec­ond largest Bres­sumer and beams re­put­edly carved by hands which worked Laven­ham Guild­hall’s tim­bers, as well as the largest in­glenook fire­place in Suf­folk.

In the gar­den, it’s only nat­u­ral to imag­ine Sir John Croft as a 16th cen­tury hero, but this wooltowns-coun­try boy was merely a mer­chant and ‘flock­mas­ter’ – a wealthy sheep farmer and mem­ber of the nou­veau riche, look­ing to give him­self a con­vinc­ing prove­nance. Mere mut­ton dressed as lamb most likely, if it hadn’t have been for his one royal con­nec­tion. Up on the gate­house you can just spot the coat of arms of for­mer Queen of France and Duchess of Suf­folk, Mary Tu­dor. John was also ‘Master of the Horse’ to Henry VIII’s sis­ter of nearby Westhorpe. Maybe he was in Mary’s en­tourage on her vis­its to Butley Pri­ory (hunt­ing lodge) around 1515-1519 and im­pressed by its dec­o­rated gate­house? Maybe he learnt a trick or two from Lord Mar­ney’s project just over the Es­sex bor­der. Layer Mar­ney Tower is still the tallest Tu­dor gate­house in the coun­try.

In the tur­bu­lent 16th cen­tury, for cer­tain ranks of Suf­folk so­ci­ety, like Sir John, re­tain­ing royal favour and keep­ing ahead of the game was what life was all about. But per­haps his grand­son had started to take a more tongue-in-cheek view of things come the 1570s. Up in­side West Stow’s gate­house, a rare 1575 wall-paint­ing de­picts the ’Four Ages of Man’. “Thus do I all day,” says the young hunts­man. “Thus do I while I may,” says the lover. “Thus did I when I might,” says the mid­dle aged man look­ing on. “Good Lord,” ex­claims the old Suf­folk boy with a stick, “will this world last ever!”

TOP RIGHT: Layer Mar­ney Tower

RIGHT: Butley Pri­ory

ABOVE LEFT: West Stow Hall

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