Belton House is a country house near Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. The mansion is surrounded by formal gardens and a series of avenues leading to follies within a greater wooded park. Belton has been described as a compilation of all that is the finest of Carolean architecture, the only truly vernacular style of architecture that England had produced since the time of the Tudors. The house has also been described as the most complete example of a typical English country house; the claim has even been made that Belton’s principal facade was the inspiration for the modern British motorway signs which give directions to a stately home. Only Brympton d’Evercy has been similarly lauded as the perfect English country house.
For three hundred years, Belton House was the seat of the Brownlow and Cust family, who had first acquired land in the area in the late 16th century. Between 1685 and 1688 the young Sir John Brownlow and his wife had the present mansion built. Despite great wealth, they chose to build a modest country house rather than a grand contemporary Baroque palace. The contemporary, if provincial, Carolean style was the selected choice of design. However, the new house was fitted with the latest innovations such as sash windows for the principal rooms, and more importantly completely separate areas for the staff. As the Brownlows rose from baronets to barons upward to earls and then once again became barons, successive generations made changes to the interior of the house which reflected their changing social position and tastes, yet the fabric and design of the house changed little.
Following World War I (a period when the Machine Gun Corps was based in the park), the Brownlows, like many of their peers, were faced with mounting financial problems. In 1984 they gave the house away — complete with most of its contents. The recipients of their gift, the National Trust, today fully opens Belton to the public. It is in a good state of repair and visited by many thousands of tourists each year.
The Brownlow family, a dynasty of lawyers, began accumulating land in the Belton area from approximately 1598. In 1609 they acquired the reversion of the manor of Belton itself from the Pakenham family, who finally sold the manor house to Sir John Brownlow I in 1617. The old house was situated near the church in the garden of the present house and remained largely unoccupied since the family preferred their other houses elsewhere. John Brownlow had married an heiress but was childless; he was attached to his only two blood relations, a great-nephew, also called John Brownlow, and a great-niece, Alice Sherard. The two cousins married in 1676; three years later, the couple inherited the Brownlow estates from their great uncle together with an income of £9,000 per annum and £20,000 in cash. They immediately bought a townhouse in the newly fashionable Southampton Square in Bloomsbury and decided to build a new country house at Belton.
Work on the new house began in 1685. The architect thought to have been responsible for the initial design is William Winde, although the house has also been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, while others believe the design to be so similar to Roger Pratt’s Clarendon House, London, that it could have been the work of any talented draughtsman. The assumption popular today, that Winde was the architect, is based on the stylistic similarity between the completed Belton and Coombe Abbey by Winde. Further evidence is a letter dated 1690, in which Winde recommends a plasterer and gives advice about the completion of the interiors.
Whoever the architect, Belton follows closely the design of Clarendon House, completed in 1647. This great London townhouse (demolished circa 1683) has been one of the most admired buildings of its era due to “its elegant symmetry and confident and commonsensical design”. Sir John Summerson has described Clarendon House as “the most influential house of its time among those who aimed at the grand manner” and Belton as “much the finest surviving example of its class.” It is known that John and Alice Brownlow assembled one of the finest teams of craftsmen available at the time to work on the project. This dream team was headed by the master mason William Stanton who oversaw the project. His second in command John Thompson had worked with Sir Christopher Wren on several of the latter’s London churches, while the chief joiner John Sturges had worked at Chatsworth under William Talman. The wrought-ironworker John Warren worked under Stanton at Denham Place, Buckinghamshire, and the fine wrought iron gates and overthrow at Belton may be his. So competent were the builders of Belton that Winde may have done little more than provide the original plans and drawings, leaving the interpretation to the on-site craftsmen. This theory is further demonstrated by the external appearance of the adjoining stable block. More provincial, and less masterful in proportion, it is known to have been entirely the work of Stanton.
Hauntings at Belton house
The house is reputedly haunted by a number of apparitions. These include a lady in black, the “Bright Lady” (a spectre surrounded by a glowing ball of light); a man dressed in a black hat and cape; a male dressed in grey; and that of a former female housekeeper.
Sadly I wasn’t allowed upstairs on this visit, however, I will return