Wanderer at Large: Staunton Harold (Leicestershire)

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the Eastern Midlands including Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Huntingdonshire.

The Lake at Staunton Harold Hall by Colin Smith. CC license BY-SA 2.0

Staunton Harold

Staunton Harold Hall
The powerful Shirley family (later Earls of Ferrers) of Astwell Castle, Northants, were the dominating landowners of much of Leicestershire for centuries. The Ferrers dynasty in England goes back to 1066. Henry de Ferrers arrived in England with William the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest. Ferrers is French for iron smith (from which we get the word farrier). The horseshoe and anvil are family symbols on their coat of arms.

In 1601, Dorothy Devereaux, daughter of the Earl of Essex, inherited the Ferrers title, which included the property of Staunton Harold Hall, a Jacobean country house, and the entire Leicestershire estate. In 1611, George Shirley married Dorothy and became the First Baron Ferrers. Staunton Harold Hall was enlarged in 1700 by the seventh Baron who later became the First Earl Ferrers

Scandal hit the family in the mid-18th century. Laurence Shirley, the rakish fourth Earl, quit the family and his Oxford education to live a life of debauchery in Paris. He returned to England to marry Mary Meredith, youngest daughter of Sir William Meredith, future Lord of the Admiralty. In 1758, Mary obtained an extremely rare marriage separation on the grounds of cruelty. This was two decades before the celebrated Countess of Strathmore became the first British woman to successfully sue for divorce. The old family steward gave evidence on Mary’s behalf. Laurence ordered the steward to Staunton Harold Hall and then shot and killed him in the study. Laurence was imprisoned at the Tower of London and later hanged at Tyburn, the last member of the House of Lords to be executed in England.

The fifth Earl Washington Shirley added the Palladian east front to Staunton Harold Hall in 1763. The hall today is Grade I listed and in private ownership of the Blunt family. The grounds are open to the public.

Holy Trinity Church
In 1653, Robert Shirley founded Holy Trinity Church, Staunton Harold, in defiance of Oliver Cromwell.  It was the only Royalist church built during the Civil War. A quote over the main west doorway tells its story. Gothic in style, it could be seen as a link between medieval Gothic and the neo-Gothic of Victorian architects such as Augustus Pugin. Internally, there is wooden panelling and a painted ceiling of clouded doom. As it is Anglican royalist, the décor is mainly made up of scripture. Any images have been whitewashed. However, the chancel would have infuriated puritans with its altar screen and the placement of the altar itself back at the top of the church.

Shirley was later imprisoned in the Tower of London by Cromwell and died there. His son Seymour completed Holy Trinity Church in 1665. It is now redundant as a place of worship and a property of the National Trust. In the grounds you will find one of England’s best views, westwards across the lakes to Staunton Harold Hall.

St Mary & St Hardulph Church
St Mary & St Hardulph Church, Breedon on the Hill, has a history that goes back before Christianity itself. An Anglo-Saxon church was built on a first century BC Iron Age hill fort. It contained a large number of Byzantine style carvings and sculptures. In the following period, a Norman archway was added to the north wall of the tower. In 1122, an Augustinian Priory church was founded here with a dependent chapelry at Staunton.

In 1539, the Shirley family purchased the church during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, to use as a burial place. Unusually, it remained Catholic after the Protestant Reformation. In 1627, the Shirley family installed a private pew, dominating the seats of the lesser mortals.

Staunton Harold – truly historic, truly picturesque.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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