How to Build a Stately Home

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HIGHFIELD HALL

The Joy of Creation

One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can create your own versions of real places.

And you can give your characters the abilities, relationships and possessions that you would rather like yourself.  Just as Dorothy L Sayers admitted that she gave her creation Lord Peter Wimsey the car and carpets that she couldn’t afford when she was an embryonic author, I have also delighted in giving my fictional characters the adventures and acquisitions that are beyond me.  Like Sayers I too have created my own Oxford colleges and lordly piles for my characters to inhabit.  I suspect it’s more fun than owning the real things – you have a lot of the enjoyment with none of the responsibility.  As I face the reality of cleaning and repairs in my own little house, it’s fantastic to be able to conjure up my own equivalents of Sayers’ Shrewsbury College in Oxford or Duke’s Denver in the Fens.

But here I want to introduce you to more about this process of fictive creation, with the specific example of how I went about ‘building’ the ancient mansion and estate of Highfield Hall in north Nottinghamshire for Emma-Jane Austin and her book club to visit in ‘Night and Mr Knightley’.  Her reading group, called the Rotics (Ro-man-tics without the ‘man’!), needed to enjoy a glamorous regency ball and I needed a luxurious location that was suitably grade-listed and gothic for the main murder of the story to take place.

I like to use real places wherever possible in my Oxford and Nottingham murder mysteries.  But sometimes for the murder itself it can be less stressful to create one’s own setting, either because the murder has specific requirements that aren’t easily available in reality, or because as an author you don’t want the owners or managers of a real place on your case!  I did check with the librarians at Bromley House Library in Nottingham that it was OK to have a body in their august library for ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, the first Rotic Club mystery.  But ideally I wanted a large stately home in Nottinghamshire in which to stage the first death in the sequel.

Thoresby Hall

I searched the web for Nottinghamshire stately homes and the most suitable for my purposes seemed to be Thoresby Hall in Budby, near Ollerton.  It won on both Location and History.  I changed to name to ‘Highfield Hall’, taken from the eighteenth century Highfields House in Beeston which is now part of the University of Nottingham campus, but which was too small and in the wrong location for my purposes.  But I had a sentimental attachment to the name, as “going on Highfields” when I was a child meant a trip to the beautiful park that surrounds the university buildings – playing in the Lido or taking a boat out on the lake and feeding the ducks, surrounded by swaying trees and rhododendrons in every possible colour. 

But back to Thoresby Hall. 

As with most stately homes in the UK, Thoresby Hall has had many incarnations over the centuries.  The current building was built in 1864-71 by Anthony Salvin for Sydney Pierrepont, third Earl Manvers.  It’s in the area of north Nottinghamsire known as ‘the Dukeries’ as it’s one of four grade-listed mansions all owned at some point by Dukes.  The first member of the Pierrepont family to own the Thoresby lands was Robert, first Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull back in 1633, but he died in the Civil War in the 1640s.  His son the second Earl built a large house around 1670 and the park was created by enclosing land from Sherwood Forest.

As with many stately homes, it was destroyed by fire, this time in 1746.  The new build was about twenty five years later and the park was landscaped by no less than Humphrey Repton.

But some people are never satisfied.  The third Earl Manvers tore this house down and paid Salvin to build the new one in Elizabethan Revival style, slightly to the north of the original.

And in this story of a typical English stately home, the inevitable happened when the sixth Earl died without a male heir and the title became extinct in 1955, and the house became a hotel.  It is now owned by Warner Leisure and has 200 rooms and a spa.

I was immediately attracted by some photos online of the house lit up at night, which made me think of Halloween, the night of the regency ball in my novel.  It gave me the idea of having eerie green, orange and purple lighting with black spiders’ webs projected onto the front of the building to greet the guests as they arrived.

I also liked the idea of a balcony or minstrels’ gallery in the ballroom and a patio with steps onto the lawns at the back with french window leading into the ballroom – all ready for a zombie invasion at midnight!

Research

Using a website like www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk means that you can learn a lot of architectural terms referring to your chosen building.  For example, Thoresby Hall has decorative iron cresting, a chamfered plinth, and quoins with chamfered rustication, mullioned casements, gabled dormers, obelisk finials, and corner cupolas.  You don’t have to include these in your story, as it’s unlikely Emma-Jane or one of her friends would suddenly exclaim: ‘Wow, look at that chamfered plinth!’  But it’s nice to know.  Apparently the Hall also has a “deep frieze”, but obviously not the sort in which you can store a body!

Making a Map

There was a useful map of the grounds of Thoresby Hall on its website. But I needed to landscape my own grounds, with appropriate maze and woods and summer houses, for the murder plot to work.  So I drew a rough map of the grounds around my version of the hall with handy reminders, such as where I wanted the security cameras situated.

I decided to call the various rooms that the guests would be using after the names of colours, eg. the Purple Room, the Blue Breakfast Room, etc.  This was before I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Red Masque’ in which he does the same thing, although his are arguably more scary!  In my story, the grand house has already been converted by the mega-wealthy Fairford family into a hotel-cum-spa, apart from their own private apartments of course.  A pity that the ‘Curse of the Fairfords’ means they might not enjoy it for long…

Conclusion

Using a real building and its grounds as my inspiration certainly gave me confidence in setting out the basic description and boundaries of my own design.  It meant I had something ‘concrete’ in my mind all the time (even though Thoresby Hall is made from “rock-faced ashlar” – finely dressed stone), and there was a sense of realism as I had my characters moving around the place and having their adventures.  It was particularly useful for keeping the timeline of the murder on track and all the alibis as I could look at my map of Highfield Hall and visualise very easily where everyone was supposed to be at any particular moment.  I would definitely recommend drawing your own map even if you are using a real building or place with no alterations, as you can add your own details and timings to it that can easily get forgotten or confused as you write your book over several months.  There were crucial details over the location of bushes and security cameras for ‘Night and Mr Knightley’ that would have been disastrous if I had muddled them up!

So I hope the original architects of Thoresby Hall don’t mind me borrowing details from their beautiful building.  I really enjoyed adding my own fountains and statues and flowerbeds and spending time at my very own regency masked ball, even if I also then had to invent the murder that made the Halloween theme become a bit too real for Emma-Jane and her Mr Knightley…

To explore Highfield Hall with Emma-Jane Austin and the Rotic Club, you can go to:


Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

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Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

The main character in my novel Murder and Mr Rochester works at Bromley House Library in the centre of Nottingham. Although Emma-Jane Austin is fictional, the library most definitely is not. It is a Regency gem on Angel Row, next to the Council House and the main Market Square. 2016 has been the library’s 200th birthday.

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Here are some photos so you can appreciate more fully the beauty of the building where E-J is privileged to work, and also see the setting for the terrible crime that takes place there in the story.  (There are some hints here to help you solve the murder too!)

In Murder and Mr Rochester I mention that many people do not even know of the library’s existence. All you can see at first is a mysterious doorway in between the usual sort of city centre shops.  The entrance sits discretely between Barnardo’s and a newsagent’s. But if you ignore the traffic, erase the shops and look up you can begin to imagine the size and grandeur of the house itself.

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Once inside, you are in a hallway that leads either to the back of the house

Doorway to garden

Doorway to garden

and a walled garden

View of garden from upstairs window

View of garden from upstairs window

or up the stairs to the main desk and reading room.

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Of course, the most intriguing feature that strikes you as you enter the main part of the library is the spiral staircase.

Spiral staircase from side

Spiral staircase from side

It was not part of the original structure of the house when it was built for George Smith of the famous banking family in 1752 but was added along with the gallery.

Gallery above main reading room

Gallery above main reading room

Let’s follow Emma-Jane on her journey on that terrible afternoon of the (fictional) murder in the Library…

She is in the George Green Room sorting out books for the library’s Charlotte Brontë exhibition. (The room is named after the Nottingham mill owner and pioneering mathematician.)

Door of George Green Room

Door of George Green Room

After switching off the lights, she walks towards the gallery that runs around the main reading room.

Left hand side of gallery

Left hand side of gallery

She turns to the right and walks along the middle section of the gallery,

View of right hand side of gallery

View of right hand side of gallery

but then witnesses the ghastly ‘accident’ on the stairs to her left.

View of stairs from right side of gallery

View of stairs from right side of gallery

Here is a close-up of the brown wooden stairs (the colour is significant!)

Wooden stairs

Wooden stairs

and the stone hearth around the fireplace. (The modern radiators in the library are necessary to control the heat and humidity more accurately than a gas or real fire.)

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

There is a gap between the bottom of the spiral staircase and the fireplace that will be of significance…

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Here is the longcase clock that chimes loudly early one morning and scares Emma-Jane when she is in the library on her own, trying to solve the mystery.

Longcase clock

Longcase clock

Bromley House Library really did have a display of Charlotte Brontë’s books in the Spring of 2016 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, which is featured in the novel.

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

And for the 200th birthday of the library itself in April 2016, which in the story Emma-Jane is looking forward to, the real librarians held a birthday party in regency costume!

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

You can be a member of the library even if you don’t live in Nottingham – a ‘Country Member’ pays half the usual subscription fee.

Do have a look at the Bromley House website at www.bromleyhouse.com. It has more photos and some short films that really give you a feel of the place. There are many more beautiful rooms, old and new, to explore.

No wonder Emma-Jane Austin in my story feels very lucky to work there – apart from the murder, of course!

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy Murder and Mr Rochester by Jeanette Sears on Kindle at www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com.


Emma-Jane Austin and The Tunnel

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Tunnel

In my novel Murder and Mr Rochester, the heroine Emma-Jane Austin discovers a shortcut in the centre of Nottingham called ‘The Tunnel’.  It is one of the most interesting architectural features of Nottingham but is now largely hidden from view.

Access to hidden Tunnel

Access to hidden Tunnel

It is tends to just be called The Tunnel, or if one wishes to be more helpful and accurate, The Park Tunnel.

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

It echoes the days when Victorian engineers were blasting great big holes through anything that stood in the way of modern transport. This time it was in 1855 and was a way to gain a shortcut from Derby Road in the centre of Nottingham through to the new residential Park Estate owned by the fifth Duke of Newcastle.

It provides another fascinating revelation of the huge area of sandstone rock and caves that form the foundation of the centre of the city.

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

The Dukes of Newcastle were no strangers to this geological formation as their castle stood on the highest section of sandstone which was pockmarked with entrances to strange tunnels and caves beneath.

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

The job of designing the man-made tunnel and much of the new estate was given to the fifth Duke’s surveyor, Thomas Chambers Hine (1813-1899).

Thomas Chambers Hine

Thomas Chambers Hine

He also designed the layout of the roads and many of the magnificent houses, as well as having approval of other intended house plans in order to maintain the estate’s architectural integrity. Unfortunately the Tunnel was obsolete almost as soon as it was built. The gradient was slightly too difficult for horse-drawn carriages. Also other roads were built at around the same time that meant the Tunnel was no longer necessary.

Steps in central part of Tunnel

Steps in central part of Tunnel

But it remains an eccentric and hidden part of Nottingham’s history. And, despite electric lighting and an opening for natural light in the middle,

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

it can still be scary at night, as Emma-Jane Austin finds out in my murder mystery novel Murder and Mr Rochester.  Not a place where you want to bump into strangers in the dark…

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s home!

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Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s Home!

The heroine of my murder mystery, Emma-Jane Austin, gets to live in her dream house. It is the beautiful Regency building that she has loved since childhood, that she used to call the Big Doll’s House. And you can see why.

Regency House

Regency House

It is a perfect example of a Regency style house right in the middle of Nottingham city centre, Grade II listed and standing at Canning Circus since 1820 on the outer perimeter of the very grand Park Estate.  This was land that used to be owned by the mega-wealthy Dukes of Newcastle when it was indeed just grassy parkland for the Dukes’ deer. Now called the ‘Beverly Hills of Nottingham’, the area is full of stunning Regency and Neo-Gothic homes in a gated community (although, fortunately for the rest of us, most of the gates are left open so we can explore).

Welcome to Park Estate

Welcome to Park Estate

One of the unusual things about the Park Estate is that it still has gas lighting.

Gas light on Park Estate

Gas light on Park Estate

Until 2015, a man in a vintage car used to light the lamps each evening, but now it is done automatically by an electronic trigger in each lamp.

Gas lamp on Park estate

Gas lamp on Park estate

But every two weeks or so a man has to come and reset the automatic triggers – not quite as romantic, but great that they are still gas lamps as in their Victorian heyday.

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

The light they give is whiter and paler than modern neon lights and doesn’t radiate as far, which does mean the Park can look rather Dickensian and creepy at night – though ideal for murder mysteries!

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

I too loved this house when I was a child, which I could see out of the bus window on the way into town each week.

Regency house at Canning Circus

Regency house at Canning Circus

Even though it was a dirty cream colour then and looked rather run down, it still stood out from the grottier modern buildings around it on a historic street called The Ropewalk. Now the house is a cool pale green with gold relief work on the plaster angels and wreath on the central pediment and is divided into flats. I have given Emma-Jane a room at the top on the left hand side at the back of the building.

Back of Regency House from road below

Back of Regency House from road below

Below her room is a large stone-flagged terrace above two garages where she and her flatmates can sit outside in sunny weather.

Patio

Patio

From her bedroom window she can see across the Park to Nottingham Castle on its sandstone rock.

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

In my novel the flat covers the top three floors on the right of the building and is owned by Penelope Galthorpe-Brown, who owns several florist shops throughout the Midlands. Another tenant is Jennifer Wright who owns a restaurant in town and is a successful chocolatier.

Top flat

Top flat

The flat provides a beautiful and cosy backdrop for the meetings of Emma-Jane’s reading group, especially as this architectural gem contains many of its original features, including a functioning fireplace in the main drawing room. In ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ they are of course studying Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ together.

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

In future books they will be delving into the works of Jane Austen, for which this stunning Regency house will be even more appropriate. But of course the novel is not just about women reading classic romantic novels together. The fact that Emma-Jane’s house was also next to a (very small) police station (before it closed in April 2016) is going to become somewhat appropriate as well…

Canning Circus police station

Canning Circus police station

Police station sign

Police station sign