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Literary Locations #80: Thrumpton Hall

John Baird
Sun 1 Nov, 2020

The small village of Thrumpton, originally called Turmodeston, is known for its grand English country house on the south bank of the Trent. This week's literary location.

A turreted gatehouse and long driveway lead to the mansion, constructed with rosy bricks and crowned with curved stone gables; a place that Miranda Seymour calls home. The author was two years old when her parents moved into Thrumpton Hall, her father, George FitzRoy Seymour, the 10th Lord Byron's nephew, had embarked on a lifelong obsession with the house some twenty-five years earlier, growing up at Thrumpton and spending the war years there with his aunt and uncle.

Miranda Seymour first wrote novels in her 20s, often featuring grand residences. After her father’s death, she realised that he too had written stories of beautiful homes, finding them unpublished and assembled in a file. Discovering her father’s diaries and many letters, Miranda decided to write a family memoir, ‘In My Father’s House’, charting her eccentric father’s life which, in his later years, saw him take up the riding of motorbikes around the countryside, clad in black leather and in the company of a young male friend. The book was published in America as ‘Thrumpton Hall’, winning the 2008 Pen Ackerley Prize for Memoir of the Year.

“I can never hope to banish my father’s presence from the house that possessed his heart. I can make my peace by trying to understand what made him the man he was,” writes Miranda Seymour in ‘In My Father’s House’, dedicated to her husband Ted Lynch who lives with her at Thrumpton.

Miranda has written many successful biographies - Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mary Shelley, Robert Graves, and a portrait of Henry James’ English circle - as well as children’s books and several historical novels, including ‘Count Manfred’, which weaves together Byron’s life with the story of the Notts riots. The poet Lord Byron has had a presence in the life of Thrumpton, too.

The actor Dennis Price, when playing Lord Byron in the film ‘The Bad Lord Byron’, visited Thrumpton Hall in 1948. Between shoots at Newstead Abbey, Price was sent to appease Thrumpton’s owner, the 78-year-old Revd. Lord Byron, who was unhappy with the film’s title. It was arranged that the vicar would watch a ‘rough’ copy of the film, and discuss the title with its director Sydney Box, only Revd. Lord Byron was too ill. “It was in this year that I was born,” says Miranda, “and apparently I had the honour of spending a few minutes lying in Mr Price's arms.”

Dennis Price may be the first esteemed guest whose company Miranda shared but he’s not the last. Many writers became familiar with Thrumpton, as Miranda built up a large circle of literary friends. When she was Visiting Professor at Nottingham Trent University, she arranged for many of them to speak at events there. Writers received at Thrumpton Hall include several associated with the Booker Prize: Pat Barker (‘The Ghost Road’, Booker prize winner 1995), Alan Hollinghurst (‘The Line of Beauty’, Booker prize winner 2004), Michael Frayn (‘Headlong’, shortlisted 1999), Alan Judd (‘A Breed of Heroes’, shortlisted 1981), and Michèle Roberts (‘Daughters of the House', shortlisted 1992).

Miranda also welcomed fellow biographers Michael Holroyd (‘Bernard Shaw’), Kathryn Hughes (‘George Eliot: The Last Victorian’), Claire Tomalin (‘Charles Dickens: A Life’) and Fiona MacCarthy (‘Byron: Life and Legend’), as well as the novelist Paul Mendez, poet Alan Jenkins, critic and satirist Craig Brown, novelist and screenwriter Deborah Moggach, and a certain Alan Sillitoe, who was another to give talks at the University.

Sillitoe often visited Thrumpton Hall with his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, both being long-term friends of Miranda’s, who tells us, “Alan was adoring of Thrumpton. He often talked to me about his cycle rides along the roads over Barton Moor, soon to become a new town, and what a huge inspiration it was to him. That was back in the days when he worked at the Raleigh factory. He gave me a map from Russia that showed Nottinghamshire when they planned to bomb the county's industrial sites during the cold war.”

Over a century before Sillitoe set eyes on Thrumpton, another of our most celebrated writers was here, Ada, Countess Lovelace. The mathematician and pioneering computer programmer - and the poet Byron's daughter - visited her relations at Thrumpton Hall from her mother's home at Kirkby Mallory.

Miranda wrote about Ada and Lady Byron (Anne Isabella Milbanke) in her 2018 award-winning double-biography, ‘In Byron’s Wake’. The book reveals the ways in which Byron, long after his death, continued to shape the turbulent lives and reputations both of his wife and his daughter. In researching the book, Miranda uncovered some personal connections, telling us, “I was fascinated to discover that Ada visited Thrumpton in 1850, while paying her first ever visit to Newstead. Ada's favourite cousin George (later the 8th Lord Byron) had married a family friend, Lucy Wescomb, with whose family he and his brother had travelled out to Geneva, to see where Frankenstein had been conceived and where Byron had lived in 1816. Ada's visit resulted in the bringing of a sprig of the famous Byron oak to Thrumpton (planted by Byron when he first came to Newstead).”

“As it fares, so will fare my fortunes,” wrote a young Byron of his oak tree, later to find it faring badly, and writing a poem about it.

The sprig, planted by Ada at Thrumpton, has fared much better, the classic oak tree a duplicate of the one from which it came. “I'm about to send a cutting out to Euboea,” says Miranda, “where Ada's relatives still live on land bought by Lady Byron in the 1830s for her young cousin Edward Noel, in a tribute to her husband's Greek connection.”

A tree from the Newstead acorn is impressive enough but there are many more Byron related gems inside the property. As Miranda explains, “We have a box of Byron treasures which were given by Ada to her cousin. These include a fragment of the hanging from Byron's bed at Newstead, and a bit of the hangings from his honeymoon bed at Halnaby (a house belonging to his wife's family). We also have a strand of Byron's hair and a pair of Ada's court gloves in white kid.”

There’s also an inscribed first copy of Byron’s poem, ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’; a fragment of the flag which he famously carried on his journey to fight in Greece; and Byron’s signet ring. “The ring is by far my favourite,” says Miranda. “It’s the first ring ever made for Byron that carries the Byron crest and motto (Crede Byron). He had many rings but this was for his hand as a boy, so it's tiny. I often wear it.”

Thrumpton Hall’s library contains original reviews of Byron’s poetry among its 5,000 volumes, including the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood's, in bound copies dating back to the 1780s. The library and Baronial Hall are two of the most impressive rooms at Thrumpton but it is its famous staircase that attracts the most interest. Carved in wood from the estate, and supervised by John Webb, a pupil of Inigo Jones, the sweeping cantilever Jacobean staircase is a standout structure.

More of Thrumpton’s glory is found in its spectacular landscaped gardens, part of which dates back to the seventeenth century. The house itself goes back a century earlier, when it belonged to the Powdrills, a Roman Catholic family. The Powdrills forfeited the house and the land after being involved in the Babington Plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and put her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The plot is named after the young man that hatched it, Anthony Babington, the Powdrills’ neighbour.

Following the fall of the Powdrills, the socially ambitious and politically amoral Pigotts took over. The second Gervase Pigott used his wife’s fortune to transform the house, removing much of the interior, and creating the magnificent staircase and a reception room overlooking a formal garden. Ambition ruined the Pigotts. Unable to maintain the mortgage payments to their lawyer, Mr Emerton, they sold the estate to him in 1685.

By 1820, Thrumpton was held by the last of its Emertons, John, a bachelor, said to be the most handsome man in Nottinghamshire, whose lavish improvements included the creation of the library, the lake in front of the house, and the landscaped park. It was his 17-year-old niece, Lucy Wescomb, that became heir to the estate in 1840, inheriting it three years later. She married George, the 8th Lord Byron and, whilst they had no children, the estate was to remain in the hands of the Byron family for over a hundred years. Lucy may have refused to allow the village to have a pub – still missing to this day - but she did oversee the period in its history that brought most of the fascinating Byron relics to the house and welcomed Ada Lovelace on her visits to Nottinghamshire.

As George, the 9th Lord Byron, had no children, the estate passed sideways to his brother Frederick, a vicar, the 10th Lord Byron, in 1917. The novelist Cecil Roberts visited Lord Byron at Thrumpton Hall when the reverend was sixty. Roberts said of him that, “He was the only man I ever knew who could approach a peacock, stroke its head and cause it to expand its gorgeous tail feathers.” Thrumpton’s peacocks were later known to scratch at their reflections in the polished side panels of cars, with guests’ black Rolls Royces being a prime target.

Nearly thirty years after his visit, Roberts returned to open a church garden fete. He met a young couple now living there, striving to keep the place going by opening it up to visitors. That couple were Miranda Seymour’s parents. The 10th Lord Byron had married Anna, who became Lady Anna FitzRoy. Their nephew was the Thrumpton obsessed George Fitzroy Seymour, but the house was due to be sold, leaving George heartbroken. Thrumpton Hall was taken off the market for a year in 1945, as a solution was sought. Might the house even be left to a Byron cousin? George was frantic. “I’d do anything to save Thrumpton,” he wrote. “I realise now that it means more to me than anything else in the world.”

At this point, the 10th Lord Byon dies, and George’s devout aunt Anna offers the gift of life tenancy, if George can find £50,000 for the decrepit mansion. Bachelor George’s luck is in when he meets Rosemary Scott-Ellis, a potential suitor and daughter of the wealthy Lord Howard de Walden. You might think he pursued her for the money, but his letters show otherwise. This was a love story. And what luck, his new wife shared his love of Thrumpton.

George and Rosemary secured the house in 1949, a year after their first child, Miranda, was born. In 1950, they moved in, spending half a century restoring and preserving the near-derelict property. It was George’s vision. His house.

George reached for a grander life than they could afford. With no household staff, parties had George offering his guests a drink then disappearing upstairs to arrange the rooms, with Rosemary doing the cooking and washing up. It was a real team effort. Rosemary lived at Thrumpton for seventy years and for many of those she looked after a four-acre garden singlehandedly. She was just Rosemary to everyone. Very kind, very beloved. She died in 2018 and is buried in Thrumpton’s churchyard.

Miranda Seymour became the owner of Thrumpton after her father’s death in 1994. Back in 1950 George Seymour had begun opening up the house and gardens to raise money through the National Garden Scheme (NGS), for Macmillan and Marie Curie, and Miranda maintains these fundraising efforts to this day, despite Covid. Over the years she has had help from a range of sources, including Alan Sillitoe.

Miranda has increasingly taken on her father’s causes, and weddings have provided a welcome income for the house. This autumn, the wedding business is closing - for good. Other changes are also afoot, with Miranda’s son taking over the administration and Thrumpton Hall now being run as a family collective.

The estate owns thirteen beautiful old properties in the village, all lovingly curated. The old village schoolroom and separate schoolhouse were designed and paid for by Ada Lovelace's cousin and his wife. Miranda and her father both attended the village school and she tells us, “My dad's last wish was that we would return these lovely Victorian buildings to their old form, with the schoolroom entrance back in place, and bury the disgraceful past.”

That “disgraceful past” refers to back to the 1970s when a local photographer lived in the old schoolhouse and opened up the deserted schoolroom as a photographic studio for “naughty pix” as Miranda calls them. “Everybody knew,” she says, “including my dad, who was rather excited by it all.”

In this restricted year, and as a last contribution as owner before her son took over, Miranda honoured her father’s dying wish and oversaw the restoration of the schoolhouse, returning the two buildings to their separate former state.

Thrumpton continues to hold tours of the estate and charitable events, in addition to hosting yoga, painting and writing retreats. But it’s not all rosy. “Currently, our greatest fear is that the lack of flood protection will make the house unsustainable,” says Miranda. “The levels are rising due to the lack of protection on the river banks and to the erosion of the old banks in the area near to the railway.”

As one of Nottinghamshire finest historic homes, let’s hope Thrumpton Hall can remain a thriving location for centuries to come.


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Miranda Seymour

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