It is hard to realise that this magnificent Palladian mansion on the western edge of the Peak District is within a stone’s throw of Greater Manchester. Brian Spencer enjoyed a day there recently.
A narrow road off the A6 beyond Disley winds its way through Lyme Park for about a mile. Suddenly the hall reveals itself in a sheltered hollow within a backcloth of forest and moorland. For over six centuries this was the home of the Legh family, later ennobled as the Lords Newton, who used it as a sporting estate for stag hunting and country pursuits. Even now descendants of the red deer can be found gently grazing below the surrounding moors.
In 1398 the estate was given to Piers Legh by King Richard II somewhat belatedly in recognition of Legh’s wife Margaret’s grandfather Sir Thomas Danyers’ heroic deeds at the Battle of Crécy. The Leghs seem to have spent the next two centuries fighting in various wars and stag hunting in their spare time. It was during this time that Lyme Hall began to develop, each successive generation adding more than a little bit here and there. Some of the earlier building works were subsequently destroyed in order to make way for yet more grandiose extensions. Of all the long list of Leghs who worked on improving Lyme, it was Sir Piers Legh VIII and his successor, Sir Peter IX who in the early 17th century began to turn the hall from an Elizabethan mansion into the magnificent Palladian mini-palace we see today. In this their work was later extended by Richard Legh and his son Peter XII in the late 1600s. Down the centuries the owners of Lyme not only spent time and money making the hall even grander, but many turned their attention to its gardens. However, it was Thomas Legh and his nephew William John Legh, later to become the First Lord Newton in 1892, who created the garden very much as we see it today.
Like many titled estates, Lyme’s wealth was based on landowning, in particular those lands sitting on top of vast reserves of Lancashire coal. Despite a zenith in the estate’s fortunes during the early part of the 20th century, changes brought about by altering social conditions during and after two world wars, made the upkeep of Lyme more and more difficult. As a result the 3rd Lord Newton gave the hall and its surrounding 1400 acres of park and moorland to the National Trust in 1946. Unfortunately such was the parlous state of the family finances that the transfer was made without any form of endowment. To ease this burden Stockport Corporation (later Metropolitan Borough Council), leased the property, and until 1994 became responsible for its maintenance. Stockport MBC continue to give financial assistance, but the day to day management of the hall and its estate is now directly under the control of the National Trust.
If you had come to Lyme in its heyday, the view of the house as you approached would be much the same as today, a balanced spread of three-storied linked extensions on either side of the Elizabethan entrance arch. No doubt the gates would be closed, but sentries standing in the cramped pill-boxes on either side of the gate would announce your arrival with blasts on their hunting horns. Once admitted your carriage would make its way through the narrow entrance arch and into the courtyard with its Italian Renaissance marble well head. If the date was after 1738 you would descend on to the pink and white chequered paving and then be led up the formal steps and into the comfortable formality of the Entrance Hall. Today the entrance is very much as it was planned by the architect Leoni who managed to fit it into the confines of the then Elizabethan Great Hall, the main living space as it then was. This was the sort of place designed to both impress and also make the visitor welcome. Opulent settees and easy chairs are set about on a lush scarlet carpet beneath a ceiling supported by stately Corinthian columns; in cold weather there would no doubt, be a cheerful fire blazing in the marble, underneath the portraits of ancestors gazing approvingly from the walls.
For some unknown reason, Lyme’s floor plan is slightly irregular, being wider on the east side than the west, with the south front angling away to the south-eastern corner. Here the extra space has been used to create a series of attractive bays, one on top of the other. With the exception of the Entrance Hall and Long Gallery, none of the rooms are particularly large and as a result can be quite cosy. Both the Drawing Room and Library are rooms made for comfort and relaxation. Although it was somewhat over romanticised, a nineteenth century coloured lithograph by Joseph Nash shows the Drawing Room as it might have been in Elizabethan times. The Library’s bay is just perfect for bookworms to while away the odd hour or so.
Favoured guests would be received in the chandelier-lit Saloon where they were entertained by one of the Legh family playing on the walnut harpsichord. Dating from the mid-1700s, it is one of the earliest made by the master craftsman John Hitchcock. Grinling Gibbons was also commissioned to help decorate the room and several of his exquisite limewood carvings adorn the Saloon walls. Long delicate, intricate pieces represent the Seasons, Music and the Arts and Science – all carved by hands so skilled that it is hard to believe the pieces are carved from wood.
All gracious mansions have their Grand Staircases, but whilst that at Lyme is made to impress, it does seem to have been tucked away almost as an afterthought in a corner beyond the Entrance Hall. It fills the space once occupied by its 17th-century predecessor, up which fourteen Dutch troopers rushed in July 1694 in order to arrest Peter Legh XII on the charge of being involved in the Jacobite ‘Lancashire Plot’. The stairs lead to a series of small bedrooms and also the Long Gallery. Designed for gentle exercise in bad weather, this is where the family tradition of Christmas plays took place.
Running a house on the scale of Lyme would require a staff almost the size of a small army. Overseeing it would be the butler who had the closest contact with the family and a housekeeper responsible for the day to day running of the hall and working closely with the head chef. Pantries still with silver dishes waiting to be polished fit nicely alongside the butler’s office. Close by the south entrance it is where he would keep meticulous records of all the finances while keeping a careful eye on the stocks of fine wines – and no doubt as tradition seems to have dictated, helping himself to the odd glass or two of his lordship’s finest port.
Not on the scale of say Chatsworth, nevertheless you will have to go a long way to find anything more attractive than the garden at Lyme. From records of payment for things like ‘arbours’ where couples could bill and coo away from prying eyes, or the first detail of work on what became the Reflecting Lake, work on the garden dates back as at least 1609. Various Leghs put their stamp on the layout, but like many such places, it suffered badly from neglect during the Second World War. Fortunately all the glory has been restored, mostly through the tireless work of a devoted team of gardeners, helped by donations from the National Gardens Scheme.
Leaving the South Entrance, a wide gravel path leads to the west terrace created to buttress the south-west corner of the house. Below it is one of Lyme’s everlasting attractions, the Dutch Garden where dwarf clipped hedges scroll around massed beds of tulips every spring. Continuing, the path follows the shape of the lake and its famous mirrored reflection of the house. At its head are massed rhododendrons leading to the formal beds set amongst the Orangery Terrace.
Practically all the 1400 acres of park and moorland are free to wander at will. To the east of the hall Lantern Wood hides the tower of that name and wild deer roam the rest of the park. Paths radiate from the car park, one goes past the pond where the dashing Mister Darcy aka Colin Firth emerged in sexily clinging shirt. This path leads up on to the open moor, past the enigmatic Bowstones. In the other direction, Lyme Cage, a one-time hunting tower stands high above the Cheshire Plain. A gift shop and café cleverly make use of the estate’s saw mill and timber yard.