So I begin this year’s A-Z challenge. One letter each day and on the theme of Great Houses of Britain. Today it’s A for Athelhampton House (Dorchester, Dorset), which I visited a several years ago and has a link to a family member. More on that in a bit.
The great hall was built in 1485 by Sir William Martyn. The great part just means big as many hall houses were simply that – a large chamber where the family ate and relaxed by a big fire. With the family seated perhaps on a dais, a minstrels gallery for entertainment and the kitchen tucked away out of sight behind a screen, life revolved around this multifunctional room. Servants slept there at night on the rushes and the dogs picked up the scraps.
Originally in earlier manifestations of the great hall, a large central fireplace needed vents to extract the smoke – chimneys came later. By the 15th century, the great hall was in decline. More private chambers were added to houses, and other functional rooms such as a library and dining room, guest and servant quarters. The hall became a showroom for greeting newly arrived guests and big banquets on grand occasions, but otherwise it ceased to be the heart of the house.
This is what happened at Athelhampton – it doesn’t look very medieval these days. Constantly restored and enlarged, by the time Alfred Cart de Lafontaine bought the house in 1891 it was a truly Victorian house with walled gardens and topiary yew trees.
As well as Russian Artist Marvena, author Thomas Hardy was a regular visitor in the 20th Century. Now this is where my little titbit of family history drops in. My grandmother worked at Athelhampton as a maid. During one visit by Thomas Hardy, she waited on him as he ate dinner. He dropped a sausage on the floor and my grandmother kicked it under the table for him. It seems that was the polite thing to do – ignore it and hide the evidence of his clumsiness. He was probably quietly appreciative. My grandmother was unfazed by the visit, in fact, she only mentioned meeting Thomas Hardy quite late in her life.
Hardy wrote two poems associated with Athelhampton: The Dame of Athelhall and The Children and Sir Nameless, which is suppose to related to the Martyn tombs in the local church.
What else is Athelhampton famous for – ghosts? Supposedly one of the most haunted houses in England with seven of them. The list includes Civil War soldiers duelling, a monk or priest from the days of Catholic persecution and a cooper tapping in the wine cellar. Best of all, an ape! The pet was accidently entombed in a secret passage where he scratches the panels to make himself heard.
My grandmother never mentioned any of these things; just a sausage on the floor.