FEATURE: New life for Delapre Abbey

Delapre Abbey
Delapre Abbey

Two open days took place at the weekend for visitors to see the restoration work at historic Delapre Abbey in Northampton, which will turn it into a major tourist attraction. Ruth Supple went along to see the progress so far...

In the heart of Northampton stands a derelict house which has witnessed 900 years of major historical events, if not more, and is now facing a fresh future thanks to a £6.3 million restoration project which will save it for the nation and put it firmly on the tourist attraction map.

Delapre Abbey dates back to medieval times, when it started life as a nunnery in 1145,, although recently discovered Roman artefacts, including a perfectly preserved glass vial, suggest it has a much earlier history than previously thought. In those days Northampton was one of the most important places in the country, so much so that Queen Eleanor’s body spent a night in the Abbey when her funeral cortege, led by her grief-stricken husband, King Edward II, stopped there in 1290. Two centuries later, in 1460, King Henry VI was taken prisoner at the Battle of Northampton - a key turning point of the War of the Roses - fought on Delapre’s land.

The Reformation saw the dissolution of Delapre as a nunnery and it became private property in Tudor times, passing through generations of the Tate and Bouverie families, before being requistioned by the War Office in 1940. Along with many alterations and extensions, Delapre Abbey has undergone many changes in its fortune and, after being sold to the council after the Second World War, it faced demolition on a couple of occasions.

Now though, its history and stories can be remembered and re-told for future generations as a restored Delapre Abbey prepares to open to the public later on this year.

And on Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15, visitors were able to see progress that has been made so far when two open days are being held.

Vikki Pearson, community engagement officer of the Delapre Abbey Conservation Trust, said: “We received £3.6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £2.5 million from Northampton Borough Council and need to raise another £800,000 to complete the restoration project. We are in the process of recruiting volunteers to help once we are up and running, which is likely to be fully in February 2017.

“We have already had more than 100 people expressing interest in being volunteers. We need to ensure we are a sustainable business and engage the community at the same time.”

As well as offering people a glimpse into Delapre Abbey’s history, the historic venue will become a place for conferences, weddings and educational activities to ensure its survival.

“We hope the first wedding will be staged here in 2018, which will be very special to see,” added Vikki. “The whole abbey will be licensed for weddings so couples can choose whether they want to be married in the Tudor kitchen or one of the other rooms. The first floor rooms in the south facing part of the house will be available for conference and meetings hire.

“In the 18th century, Delapre was quite glittering on the social circle and by Victorian times, it was very much a country house retreat and we are bringing the south side with its library, salon, drawing room and dining room back to their glory. There are nine rooms being restored and within them there will be vignettes of people’s stories and scandals that happened here.”

Evidence of that past can be particularly seen in that south wing, where beautifully painted ceilings commissioned by John Augustus Sheil Bouverie with portraits of his wife and five daughters are being painstakingly restored.

“There was a lot of controversy about John Augustus inheriting Delapre and I like to say he had to stamp his mark with his monogram to say ‘I was here’,” explained Vikki. “Restorers have said the ceilings he commissioned are some of the finest they have ever seen.”

He also converted the orangery into a billiards room, which had state-of-the-art underfloor heating to keep the baize on the table at the perfect temperature, as well as a specially constructed roof, which ensured light was perfectly angled down to the game.

A gap between the house and the billiards room is being closed with a new conservatory, which will become a restaurant, while the billiards room is being turned into a cafe.

Stable blocks and the coach house will be turned into the entrance for visitors and is set to house a shop, plus a community and learning space.

“It is very much going to be a flexible space for things like adult education and yoga,” said Vikki.

The phased development work being undertaken is immense and photographer Kirsty Edmonds and I don hard hats and high-res vests to wander around what is a building site with scaffolding, diggers, ladders, cabling and materials everywhere. New windows and doors have been installed, lichen has been removed from the ironstone bricks, walls have been re-papered and painted in historically accurate shades and the eerie underground vaulted cellars - used by famous Northampton writer, Alan Moore, for the backdrop for a series of short films - have been cleared of rubble blocking them and opened up.

Delapre Abbey is a maze of rooms - no-one seems to know exactly how many there are - with fascinating glimpses and echoes of the past on every level.

The original nunnery is thought to have stood somewhere around the large courtyard, but the only remnants from its medieval religious past are lantern holders positioned on the ground floor corridors for candles to light people’s way. Evidence that people were much shorter in the past can also be seen with the small arched doorways and, in true Downton Abbey-style, the gap between rich and poor is illustrated by a long corridor that was for servants use only. It meant they could travel from their quarters to the main house without being seen (or heard) by the wealthy.

Now Delapre will be open for everyone to enjoy and because it was in such a state, its treasures like paintings and furniture had all long gone. So the restoration will allow people to sit on the replica couches installed and imagine themselves being part of the history.

“People will really be able to engage with history by touching and learning about Delapre’s past,” said Vikki. “We won’t have to cordon parts of rooms off with ropes. This is very much our Delapre and we want people to come along and enjoy it.”

Cllr Tim Hadland, Northampton Borough Council cabinet member for regeneration, enterprise and planning, said: “Delapre Abbey is set to become a major attraction for Northampton.

“It has a long and varied heritage, offering enough to fascinate any history buff, but it will also become one of the county’s premier wedding and conference venues.

“None of this would have been possible without a huge contribution from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the borough council meeting most of the remaining costs.”