Tales from End to End
The Tale of the 2p Phone Call
by David Craig
Fawsley gets its name from the Saxon word ‘falepe’ – the colour of fallow deer, a herd of which still inhabit the local woods, though not in the same numbers as at the start of the 20th century when the Fawsley herd was the largest in the country.
Fawsley was owned by the Crown at the time of Domesday. It was probably a substantial estate long before that – there is evidence of a Saxon settlement here. Then at the beginning of the 14th century, it came into the hands of the Knightley family where it stayed until the baronetcy died out in 1938 (though they’d sold up the furniture from the house before the First World War).
The Dower House at Fawsley is credited with being the oldest brick building in the county, but Fawsley Hall, grander and more recognizable as an English country seat, is the product of some seven or eight hundred years of development. The Great Hall contains two columns which are believed to be part of an early Norman Great Fireplace – possibly from the early 12th century.
A sixteenth century Knightley rebuilt the Hall – in which he entertained Henry VIII (bet the deer population fell during that feast). Then later that same century, Elizabeth I stopped here – she was on her way to visit Shakespeare at the time.
In the eighteenth century another Knightley enclosed the common land around here. As part of the enclosure settlement, a plot of land at nearby Badby was due to be handed over to the villagers. As a favour, Knightley asked to be allowed to plant and harvest one last crop. The villagers agreed. But it was a cunning April Fool – Knightley planted oak, ash and elm trees.
Then in the nineteenth century, Louisa Knightley lived here. She heard about the sad story of Joseph (‘John’) Merrick – the so-called ‘Elephant Man’. Merrick had been confined to city accommodation, and kept from society, because of his ‘hideous’ appearance. Consequently, he was suffering ill-health and low morale. Merrick’s doctor wanted to take him out to the country – to ‘take him out of himself’. Unfortunately, the only offers he had came with strings attached – that Merrick couldn’t venture out by day. When Louisa heard this, she wrote to Merrick’s doctor and offered him Fawsley’s woodcutter’s cottage – and leave to come and go as he pleased.
Merrick came, and was extremely happy here – there are letters from him to London, expressing his delight at this chance to experience the beauty of nature. Merrick was but one example of Louisa’s charitable nature. When she was ill, Queen Victoria came to visit her – such was the old Queen’s respect.
It was Louisa’s death in 1911 which started the long decline of Fawsley Hall. By 1938, the Hall had been sold off, and headed towards desuetude and decrepitude. In the 1960s, the building was used as a timber factory and suffered much damage. The building which had entertained three monarchs boasted a magnificent carved wooden ceiling above the Great Hall. The timber company took a few quick snaps of it then hacked it out to solve a problem they were having (that the ceiling was being shaken to pieces by the machinery above it, and threatened to fall on someone).
In 1976, Fawsley Hall was included in a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition called ‘The Destruction of the English Country House’ – already written off as lost. But a local antique dealer called Ted Saunders heard (in a pub in Weedon) that the Hall was up for sale. He borrowed 2p, so the story goes, and phoned his solicitor with instructions to buy it. I like to think he took time to finish his pint.
Then started the massive job of restoration. By 1979, the family had moved into (fittingly) the Brew House. Over the following years, they contrived to bring Fawsley back from the dead – even managing to retrieve enough of the magnificent carved ceiling to be able to re-carve a copy, which is now in place.
Towards the end of the eighties, one of those pesky recessions put Mr. Saunders’ dream under some strain. At one point, he even put it up for sale – at £2½M. But an alternative emerged. Ted made a deal with a London company (Halcyon Hotels), and now Fawsley Hall is a luxury hotel.
David Craig (www.strum.co.uk) gave me this Tale.
He received it from a friend of a friend of a friend of a …
Imagine, then our astonishment when, on our walk, we called in at the Red Lion pub in Hellidon and, completely unplanned, we met Simon Saunders, the son of Ted Saunders who had rebuilt the Hall. Simon confirmed the gist of the Tale for us.