Stately house, part I: Wollaton Hall

Inspired by a recent article about how to fund a British stately home or manor house in modern times, I thought I would write about how this has been handled by my three favorite houses.  First up: Wollaton Hall.

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham

Wollaton Hall was built in Nottingham between 1580 and 1588 for Sir Francis Willoughby.  The building was designed and built by master mason Robert Smythson, who remained in the Willoughby family employ for the rest of his life, settling in Wollaton Village and eventually acting as the bailiff for Sir Francis and his heirs.


The Willoughby's no longer live at Wollaton and have not done so since 1881. The descendents of the original Sir Francis Willoughby now live in Birdsall House in North Yorkshire. 

In fact, Wollaton Hall has not been used as a private residence for much of it's 430 year history.  Upon completion of the new Hall and until his death, Sir Francis remained living at Wollaton Old Hall, using the new building only for special occassions.  His heir and son-in-law preferred the family residence at Middleton.  Another Sir Francis Willoughby, the great-great grandson of the builder decided to live at Wollaton upon receiving the title and inheritance, only to die two years later.  

Much of what we know of the early history of Wollaton can be traced to the writings of this Sir Francis's sister, Cassandra Willoughby, later the Duchess of Chandros.  She lived at Wollaton from 1686 until 1713 and spent her time transcribing documents and writing a family history.

Cassandra and Francis's brother Thomas inherited the estate after Francis' death and was elevated to Baron Middleton in 1711 or 1712.  Eventually, in 1781, Thomas's grandson, Henry, inherited the title of 5th Baron Middleton from his Uncle.  Henry's parents were Thomas Willoughby, younger son of the 1st Baron Middleton and Elizabeth Sotheby of Birdsall Manor in Yorkshire (yes, connected to those Sothebys).  At this point, the Willoughby holdings consisted of  Wollaton Hall, Middleton Hall, in Staffordshire, and Birdsall House.

By 1881, Birdsall was the preferred residence for the Willoughby family and Wollaton Hall remained vacant.  In the 1920s, facing heavy death duties, or inheritance taxes, the 10th Baron agreed to sell the Wollaton estate to Nottingham Corporation.  The sale became final under the auspices of the 11th Baron for the sum of 200,000 pounds.  The following year the Corporation sold off part of the estate to housing developments, keeping the Hall and immediate grounds for public use.

Wollaton Hall, now the Nottingham Natural History Museum

In 1926 Wollaton Hall reopened its doors as a National History Museum and has remained that ever since.  Parts of the building can be toured as a historical building, along side the natural history exhibits.  Builder Sir Francis's great grandson was a well known naturalist, and I think he would have been pleased with this turn of events.  The original Sir Francis? I'm not so sure.  

Elizabethan Great Hall ceiling with dinosaur


When we visited, we shared the space with a special exhibit of the Dinosaurs from China. What would the original builder, that proud and eccentric man, have thought of the huge skeletons of ancient beasts standing in his Great Hall? 




The Willoughby family retains ownership and residence in Birdsall House, which, like others in the original article is available for private hire for weddings and other events.  Middleton Hall was sold in the 1920s as well, first to a private owner and later to a corporation.  It is currently owned by a charitable trust.  Middleton Hall has it's own rich history and is open for visitors and events.

In summary, the Willoughby family is associated with three great houses.  Only one of them is still lived in and privately owned.  All three are open to the public in some manner, whether for private event hire or a general visit.  Stay tuned for the story of Longleat and Hardwick.



Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family, by Pamela Marshall, Nottingham Civic Society, 1999

The Middleton Collection at the University of Nottingham, 

Wollaton website

Birdsall House website

Middleton Hall website

Posted in England, Robert Smythson, Wollaton Hall | 1 Comment

A day apart

On Saturday I joined a group of about fifteen writers for a writers’ retreat.  A day to join others of my tribe for a day of quiet focused work in a beautiful serene setting without the normal interruptions and distractions.  We were encouraged to work in unplugged silence, gathering only at set times of the day.

It was one of the best days ever!  That morning I had my quiet time, working through Romans Ch 3.  My Bible study asked me to define Faith, and read the great hall of the faithful in Hebrews ch 11.  This is what I came up with, what I felt God place on my heart:

Faith is showing up to do your share of the work, trusting God to do show up and do His.  Faith is Noah building the ark, Abraham moving to an unknown place, and David standing in front of Goliath.  Faith is my showing up at the page, at the retreat, trusting that God will meet me there.

As I entered the morning session of quiet work, I prayed for God to meet me there with words, images, and pictures.  I prayed for knots to unravel, paths to straighten and for mountains to move to clear sightlines.  And then I got to work.  I showed up and did my part.  And trusted that God would do his.  He did.

The retreat center had a religious affiliation; the group of writers did not.  The center had a labyrinth, and I walked it, as did many of my co-retreaters.  A sign suggested the walk to the center involve consciously emptying your mind, releasing worries or problems, then pausing in the center to receive what God had for you, before making your way back out focusing on integrating what you have received into your life.

Labyrinth at Still Waters Retreat Center, Austin, TX.

I walked the labyrinth with a specific question in mind and felt a clear answer given to me.  I found myself tempted to look ahead along the path several times, to follow the path with my eyes quickly before my feet reached it slowly.  Each time, God pulled my attention back to my feet.  I just want to know where I’m going, I said.  Trust me, trust the path, He replied. 

I walked slowly, observing the pebbles and small stones that covered the surface, like all the people who cover the Earth and walk in the way of God.  Some are bigger than other and make themselves more noticeable.  Others are small and nestle in with other stones, seemingly content to be one among many.  All take up space and serve a valuable purpose. 

Grasses sprouted up, tickling my ankles, making their presence known.  Walk on, I felt I was being told.  Sometimes we must stop and clear the path of these distractions, but many times we can walk past, noticing them, but not allowing them to hinder our progress.  Weeds grow and they, too, are part of God’s Kingdom, and can co-exist without hindering.

For the most part, I spent my day with my own words.  Just once, I opened a book I had brought and took a peek.  Among the first words I read were “writing is an act of faith.”  Message received, I went back to my own words.

At the end of the retreat, we all came back together and shared what the day had meant to us.  Several of the participants mentioned the labyrinth and the solutions it had brought or the peace it had shared with them.  One writer wondered aloud about the mystery of this place.  A non-believer, she was experiencing the peace of God without knowing what or who it was.

The day brought me peace and clarity.  I was reminded to put one foot in front of the other and walk in faith, not worrying or trying to look ahead.  Trust the one whose path it is.  He will guide you home. 

Show up.  Do your share of the work.  Have faith and trust God to do His part.

Thanks be to God for His bountiful gifts.


Posted in Faith, Writing | Leave a comment

Falling into Productivity

It’s almost time…….

I love the start of the school year, the kids returning to a full-time schedule of being somewhere else, the long hours alone in the quiet house, just me and the cat begging for food.  After the mad morning scramble of getting everyone out the door with a packed lunch and the 40-minute walk to the lake and back, it’s time to settle in and wrestle with words.

It’s an exciting time of year for us writers.  As soon as September starts, we start getting antsy for November.  NaNoWriMo is coming and we’re ready.  Ready for the long hours of typing, the write-ins, the comradery, the victory of completing a 50,000 word original piece of writing.

I have spent the past several weeks pingponging between two projects.  I’m plotting and prepping for this year’s NaNo, doing character sketches and outlining.  This year, I’ve been part of a group that’s been following the book 90 Day Novel by Alan Watt.

I’m also hard at work on my other work-in-progress, which I started during last year’s NaNo.  As amazing as this summer was, I got very little writing done.  In the spring I polished and reworked the first half of this manuscript, but the second half needed a lot of work.  I’m in the middle of that work now.  Almost every day I am improving it, slowly making it better.  It’s good to have a deadline.  However far I get by October 31st is the end of the 2nd draft.  On November 1st I will be switching gears and writing furiously on the new project.

I’ve recently taken some steps to increase my commitment to my writing.  Tomorrow, I’ll be attending a full day writer’s retreat.  It feels selfish and wrong to give up a Saturday to pursue something for myself, and leave the chauffeuring and homework managing to my hubby.  I’m doing it anyway.

Other projects intrude, some welcome like fixing up the kids’ bathroom, others not so welcome.  The days the writing goes well are some of the best days, and I love to string a few of them together.  There is still a lot of work to do, but each time I do the work, I make it better.  One step at a time.

Write on…..


Posted in NaNoWriMo, Writing | Leave a comment

Story Magic

Several months ago, I sat in a writing workshop put on by the wonderful Writer’s League of Texas, and the instructor had us do some quick writing using the skills we were learning about. I wrote about a mailman who fell in love with a woman to whom he delivered mail.  At first he admired her from afar. Then he began reading her mail to learn more about her.  Then he began sending her mail.  There was a boyfriend involved, the mailman grew jealous, the writing exercise ended before I found the ending.  There were a lot of descriptions of her clothing, all of it yellow.  I don’t know why.

I thought no more about these people until last week when I was browsing the stacks of the local library and came across this book:  The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Theriault, translated by Liedewy Hawke.  The back of the book told me it was a story of a mailman who reads people’s mail and falls in love with one of the people whose letter’s he delivers. I was intrigued.  I was hooked.  I checked it out.

What followed was a lovely story about a man’s obsession with a woman through the poetry she writes and sends to one of the people on the postman’s route.  In an effort to continue his relationship with the woman, he takes greater and greater risks, makes wild choices and sees his life unravel because of them.  It is a fun story with a poignant and thought-provoking ending.  It is a far better than the one I began to write in that workshop, and I am grateful that fate brought it to me.

So, the idea so similar to mine.  What’s that all about?  Elizabeth Gilbert writes about it in Big Magic.  Gilbert tells of a story idea that leapt from her mind to that of Ann Patchett when the two met and exchanged a kiss.  She continues to say that instead of assuming or accusing Patchett of stealing her idea, she believes “that ideas are alive, that ideas do seek the most available human collaborator, that ideas do have a conscious will, that ideas do move from soul to soul” looking for a conduit to expression.

Now, I’m not saying that I had the same idea as Theriault, because his book existed prior to my writing exercise, but I do believe there is some magic out there that gets books into our hands the moment we most need them, at the time when they will have their biggest impact.  I believe in synchronicity in the stacks.  I love the idea of ideas having lives of their own, of their searching for someone to bring them into being, a partnership as it were. 

What is this story trying to tell me?  I don’t know.  Yet.  That’s the magic of words, stories, and reading.  They sit with you and continue to work on your soul, teaching you long after you’ve closed the pages.  Perhaps it was a call to interact with more poetry, or to go back and look at old writing exercises.  Perhaps it was a call to discover a new writer.  I think it may have been a call to be more daring in my writing, to take more risks, to make worse things happen to my characters.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Okay, let that happen.  Then what?  Push the boundaries of what’s possible. 

Next time you close a book, ask yourself what it shared with you and why.  And if you’re looking for a good, short read, try The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. 

Posted in Book Review, Creativity, Reading, Writing | Leave a comment

How hard can it be?


I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.  When I can master this shift in thought pattern, the rest of life seems to fall in place.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  My mind seems to go to a negative place or outlook far easier than it does a positive one.  I can “worst-case-scenario” like a pro.  I rehearse failure with as much tenacity as a would-be Broadway star.  When I do, it just leads to a mess, otherwise known as a self-fulfilling prophesy.  But even more than that, it’s main effect is to stop me time and time again from chasing my dreams.  I stop before I get started, before disaster can come a courting.  It’s easier, safer, not to risk.

And yet.

When I can turn this around, when I can focus on the possibility of success, I can be unstoppable.  I came across this question the other day: What is your life moto?  Without hesitation, I thought “How hard can it be?”  When I can get myself into this framework, where I ask myself how hard can something be, when I can capture and hold onto the cocky, confident girl that lives inside me, I can accomplish almost anything.

This summer, I was faced with a similar situation.  While planning a trip to England, my first in over 20 years, I was excited.  But as the reality of how difficult it could be weighed on me, I grew hesitant and fearful.  To see what I wanted to see in England, I would need to have a car.  I got lost in self-doubt, paralyzed with fear.  How could I possibly drive in England, where everything is on the wrong side?  I would get into a wreck, I would total the car, I would kill someone and end up in jail.  My life would be over.  It was better to just stay home and stay safe. I got so bogged down in imagined fears and catastrophes that I did not want to go on the trip and almost cancelled the whole thing. 

Then something happened.  One day I was sitting with my journal in an unexpected hour of quiet, and previous accomplishments marched one by one into my memory.  My Master’s degree earned with a 4.0 GPA while working full-time, my successful cross-country move to attend another graduate program before they had even accepted me (because who would not want me?), spearheading my church’s VBS program despite having little to no experience with such a thing, staining cabinets just days before putting a house on the market with absolutely no experience.  Armed with YouTube videos and a kick-ass attitude, I asked myself How Hard Can It Be? And did it.

To make an already long story short, because y’all have better things to do and your own goals to get out and achieve, I did take the trip.  I recaptured the “how hard can it be” attitude and attacked the issue of driving.  Again, it was YouTube videos to the rescue.  So, for the most remote part of our trip, I did rent and drive a car and yes, everything was on the wrong side.  And, yes, I did have an accident, but it was not the worst-case scenario I had rehearsed.  I scraped up the car trying to pass another car on a ridiculously narrow country lane.  The irony of the act that I scratched the car along a stone wall while trying to find the home of my stone-mason is not lost on me.  But, I did avoid hitting the other car and we had gotten all the available damage waivers, so nobody got hurt and I did not go to jail.  It could have been a lot worse.

So, how hard can it be?  Far stupider people than I have done it.  These are the things I tell myself.  I read badly written books and think, if they got published than surely, I can too, right?  These things are easier said than done sometimes.  I know that better than anyone.  I’ve fought my share of battles against depression, anxiety, and negativity.  I fight them almost every day.

But today, I encourage you to look on the bright side.  Rehearse for success, not failure.  I’ll keep reminding you if you’ll keep reminding me.  Instead of asking, what could go wrong, let’s ask what could go right?  Who knows what we could all accomplish if we could sustain belief in ourselves.  And check YouTube.  There’s probably a helpful video for you.

Write on.  I know I’m going to.


Posted in England, Travel | Leave a comment