Home of the month: Amwellbury, Great Amwell
PUBLISHED: 10:00 25 February 2016
The country house and estate of Amwellbury in Great Amwell has roots going back to King Harold. Pat Bramley recounts the history researched by the property’s latest owner
The country house called Amwellbury and the land that surrounds it in the village of Great Amwell near Ware have been owned by the Crown, the church and some of the best-connected families in the land over the past 500 years. The saga of the different characters who have come and gone over the centuries would easily keep the nation rooted in front of the telly on Sunday evenings.
The present owners, Dr David Preston and his wife Antonia, arrived in 1996. They and their four children moved here from Lincolnshire to be near to the Princess Hospital in Harlow, where Pearson was taking up a consultancy post in gastro-enterology.
Two years ago, after an outpouring of creativity, the doctor made a life-changing decision to give up medicine and become a composer and songwriter The number of songs he has written now exceeds 200 and with the help of professional musicians he has recorded three albums (see davidprestonmusic.org.uk).
Due largely to the new rhythm of his life, he has also developed an interest in local history, in particular the history of his house.
The results of his in-depth two-year search for documentary evidence of who owned the land and how the dwelling on the site has changed in size, shape and even orientation would fill a hefty book.
Here are just some of the landmark events that have marked the passage through time of what is now a Grade II-listed six-bedroom country home standing in almost 12 acres.
Pre-1066: The land at Great Amwell is owned by Earl Harold, later to be crowned king of England and to die at the Battle of Hastings.
1086: The manor of Amwell is described in the Domesday Book as Emmewell, possibly derived from Emma’s Well – a natural spring in the village. At this time, the lord of the manor was Ralf de Limesi. The estate remains in his family for more than 150 years.
1252: A Limesi descendant is given permission by the Prior of Hertford to build a free chapel in his ‘court’ at Amwell. The manor is ‘given or sold’ to Richard of Ware, Abbot of Westminster. During this period, tenants on the estate include the Trinitarian Friars of Hertford. ‘They are still believed to haunt us,’ says Preston. ‘According to legend they can be heard chanting in our woods when there’s snow. I’m still listening. ‘I’ve never heard them yet.’
1289: A hall house stands where Amwellbury is now. In 1398, it needs extensive repairs due to storm damage.
1539: After the Reformation, the abbey lands are surrendered to the crown. Amwell is given to Sir Anthony Denny, Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool (a favourite courtier of the king). In return for his services, Denny receives a right royal reward: 17,000 acres, mainly in Norfolk but also a good few acres in Herts to add to those he already owns with his house in Cheshunt.
1666: During the intervening years, Denny’s descendants have built a new house of considerable size. By 1666, when a hearth tax is introduced, Amwellbury has eight fireplaces making it by far the largest house in the parish. The average for other houses in the area is two. ‘All that remains of the Elizabethan house,’ says Preston, ‘are some large beams on both floors and a fireplace in the centre of the house.’
The house is owned by a lawyer, Thomas Hobbes, whose daughter Susan marries Colonel John Fiennes, third son of Viscount Saye and Sele – widely known as Old Subtlety. Old Subtlety is the forebear not only of the present day explorer Ranulph Fiennes but also Celia Fiennes, the 17th-century English traveller and memoirist. Riding on horseback accross the country she stayed at Amwellbury– the home of her cousin – in 1697 and 1698. It’s the only country house she visited that is still privately owned.
1790: The house is listed in The Great Houses of Hertfordshire. The current owner, Thomas Burford, a Cambridge scholar, has the house largely rebuilt, creating the Georgian house which forms most of the present building. As Preston points out: ‘It was common practice then to pull down the outer walls of the house and rebuild on the same site.’
Early 1800s: In the reign of George IV, Amwellbury is bought by Colonel Henry Browne, whose name frequently appears in newspaper society columns. He has a London house in Portman Square and builds a vast three-storey extension to treble the size of his country seat. By the time he has finished, Amwellbury has become a 50-room mansion.
1836: Following the colonel’s death, Amwellbury passes to his son, Charles, whose son Henry has a daughter. In turn, she inherits the property, then marries the MP Spencer Charrington.
1916: After a further change of ownership, the house is bought by Colonel Robert Richardson. In this era, the estate extends to 250 acres. A hut is erected on the main road through Amwell selling freshly-roasted coffee beans from the family estate in Kenya.
As the years roll by, the Richardsons move to a smaller farmhouse. Amwellbury, with its 50 rooms, is too big not only for them but other families and it is let to a school run by a headmistress who believes children should be free spirits and attend only the lessons which take their fancy. Preston says ‘streams of interesting creative people’ – some well known – have made return visits to a place that ‘they remember with affection’.
Mid-1950s: The Richardsons demolish all but the Georgian wing. By then, they’ve also changed the orientation of the house. What remains is later bought by Sir John Hanbury of Allen and Hanbury, the drug company with a main factory in Ware. Lady Hanbury, a keen gardener, landscapes the grounds, one of the main features of Amwellbury today.
1996: David and Antonia Preston become the owners. In the course of their stewardship, they restore the house to its Georgian proportions, update the mod cons and continue Lady Hanbury’s master-plan for the grounds, creating a knot garden behind a 300-year-old yew hedge.
2016: Amwellbury is on the market through Strutt and Parker in St Albans with a guide price of £1.75m. Now with six bedrooms, three bathrooms including the master suite, four fine reception rooms including a music room/library and glorious grounds, the house is waiting for new owners. Like those before them, no doubt future residents will consider it a privilege to be custodians of a property that has contributed greatly to the history of the county.