A house with a dramatic history

The man who built Otley Hall in Suffolk founded Jamestown and inspired 'The Tempest'. Its present owner tells Penny Jackson why his magnificent home remains true to its Tudor roots

Wednesday 27 August 2003 00:00 BST

In all likelihood the actors performing at the Globe Theatre in London this summer will have a picture of Otley Hall, a Tudor house in Suffolk, in mind as they battle it out in Richard II or follow the twists and turns of The Taming of the Shrew. It was during Shakespeare's lifetime that Otley Hall took shape, and to this day remains so remarkably true to its Tudor roots that time spent there enhances his plays for the actors who when on stage can recall the experience of a sword-fight in a ploughed field or wandering through a garden perfect in its historical detail.

Nicholas Hagger , historian and author and owner of Otley Hall, often found himself caught up in the mood. "We would improvise, filling in those bits that Shakespeare didn't write. I stood in the summerhouse at night dressed in a priest's garb for Hamlet and acted as standard-bearer for a duel in Julius Caesar. Four casts of the Globe spent a few days here and afterwards they found that during certain scenes images of the house and grounds would come to mind."

But it is the exploits of the first occupants of Otley Hall that are of particular historical significance. Bartholomew Gosnold, whose first voyage in 1602 is thought to have inspired The Tempest, left England in 1606 and established a crucial settlement in Virginia, known today as Jamestown. "The journey was terrible and took far longer than Gosnold had planned, but the settlement was successful even though he died three months later from dysentry and swamp fever. This was 13 years before the Mayflower," explains Hagger.

At least four rooms at Otley Hall are unchanged since Gosnold's time. Candle burns on the wood are clearly visible and it is a small leap of the imagination to picture him planning his epic voyage. "We have had all the panels dated which involved 17 experts," explains Hagger. "This is the first house in the UK to be exclusively dated from the wood, and it shows there to be nothing earlier than 1510 and nothing later than 1588." This method of tree-ring dating (dendrochronology) eliminated any doubt that the house was witness to the preparations of these early colonisers of the new world.

"It is wonderful late at night because I can imagine Gosnold preparing for his voyage. He did much of the recruiting and planning for both voyages in the Great Hall and one can envisage long evenings spent talking by candlelight. It is inspirational to be involved in such specific events by association," says Hagger.

When he and his wife Ann bought Otley Hall nine years ago, the gardens were like a jungle. "We even found a thatched cottage hidden in the undergrowth that not even the gardener knew existed," he recalls. The couple set about meticulously recreating a Tudor garden under the direction of Sylvia Landsberg, author of The Medieval Garden, who designed a vine- and-rose tunnel, knot garden, herber and even such detail as the planting of periwinkle on a brick seat to act as a cushion. All this sits within nearly 10 acres of grounds with mown meadows, wilflower gardens and woodland.

But the condition of house itself was a testimony to the skills of the 16th-century craftsman. "They knew how to build then - the beam construction is remarkable. They also treated the timbers with a special recipe that has been lost over the years and so there are no signs of woodworm." Nicholas Hagger explained that the construction of the moat, which was reduced as a punishment after the Civil War, provided stable foundations as well as security.

The Gosnold family, who sold the house in 1674, were well-educated lawyers with links to Cardinal Wolsey. The exceptional panelling in the Linenfold Parlour is thought to have come from Wolsey's chambers at Hampton Court Palace. The integrity of Otley Hall is in large part due to its years in the hands of tenant farmers. Where well-to-do resident owners might have been tempted to alter the house in line with fashion, its most radical changes have been the creation of a top floor within the original structure, the addition of some windows and the repositioning of doorways when the back of the house became the front. Plans for its refurbishment in the early 1900s came to a halt during the First World War.

The hall, which earned Otley Hall the description by Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the most interesting 15th and early 16th-century houses in Suffolk, is timber-framed with brick infill and has five reception rooms on the ground floor, five bedrooms and four bathrooms, plus further bedrooms and staff accommodation.

Although the Haggers have enjoyed sharing its history with the public, Otley is essentially still a family home. "Even though we seem to live in the huge kitchen the Great Hall is wonderfully cosy in the evening with low lighting. It is a house with a very special atmosphere," says Hagger.

After years spent researching the history of Otley, and particularly the settlement of Virginia by Bartholomew Gosnold, Hagger feels it is time to move on. Links between America and the hall are expected to be of special interest to buyers. The United States is preparing its 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, with arrangements already underway for celebrations in 2007. It was clues from Nicholas Hagger that led to the discovery of Bartholomew Gosnold's skeleton in Jamestown this year.

There had been some spectacular failures to settle the new lands before Gosnold's 1607 expedition. He was also responsible for the naming of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard during his first voyage when he failed to establish a settlement. Otley Hall's place in history is unique, says Nicholas Hagger: "The United States was founded out of Jamestown."

Otley Hall is for sale at a guide price of £1.75m through FPDSavills (01473 234800)

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