Heights of fashion
An Invitation to View West Stow Hall reveals some tall stories
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