A 15th century house with many stories to tell has recently had a new lease of life.

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A medieval masterpiece?

Ayscoughfee Hall, on the banks of the River Welland in the Lincolnshire fenland town of Spalding, looks Victorian. With its gothic facade and extensive gardens, the house had a 19th century makeover, and a 21st century tweak, but its heart lies in the Middle Ages. From these origins it became the home of the founder of one of the oldest learned societies in the country, then a school, local government buildings and, finally, a museum.

Who built it?

Records are sketchy, and historians cant quite agree, but it seems it was wool merchant Sir Richard Aldwyn in about 1450. His family was not famous, but the trade in which it was engaged was the bedrock of the English economy. Wool was exported from East Anglia, via the Norfolk ports, to the Netherlands our closest trading partners and throughout Europe. An inland town such as Spalding was served by its river, navigable to The Wash. Its bankside wharves were a hive of activity from the medieval to Georgian periods. The halls name is a mystery. Ayscough was the name of a Lincolnshire knight, but there is no evidence any of this family lived there; speculation is that the name is a corruption of two words, Ayscough and Fee, the latter word being an area of land given to a knight by the king. Perhaps the families were related, perhaps the building of this grand hall was a joint venture we dont know. Unlike their contemporaries, the Norfolk Pastons, the Aldwyns left no surviving letters for later generations to investigate. Todays historians have had to become house detectives, sifting carefully through layers of subsequent activity to uncover the complex story of the hall and its occupants.

What kind of house was it?

The original building has survived beneath the later alterations. It was originally constructed in an H shape with two wings and a central hall, complete with minstrels gallery. Intriguingly it had a fish pond (which still survives in the modern grounds) characteristic of medieval monasteries, which were famous for farming their own fish. Could the house have been linked to Spalding priory, which existed on the other side of the river before the Dissolution a century after Ayscoughfee was built? The family lived in one wing. A spiral staircase, still in existence, linked the masters and mistresss rooms and the undercroft in which precious possessions were stored. In the other wings lay the business end of the house, the kitchen with guest apartments above. A brick, vaulted staircase provided access. Everyone would have congregated in the main hall, heated by an open fire in the centre of the floor. The smoke rose up to a hole in the roof, which blackened the decorated roof timbers. The grounds were extensive but exactly when the current gardens took shape is unknown before they were mapped in the 18th century.

What happened to the Aldwyns?

In the way of prestigious properties, Ayscoughfee was passed on, possibly via a family connection, to the Wimberley and Evington families. During the Civil War, Spalding was a Puritan stronghold. It may have been the then owner, Dymoke Walpole, or Oliver Cromwells troopers who were passing by en route to besiege royalist Crowland who destroyed some small statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints which had been housed on the outer walls. Again, the historical record is silent, leaving only educated guesswork. If these earlier owners had been overly reticent in recording their activities, by the early 18th century the hall would be held by a man who left many records of the past indeed, it was his passion.

A historian?

The Johnsons emerged from the neighbouring town of Pinchbeck, and bought the hall from puritan Walpoles son in 1658. Rising through the law, they had wealth and learning and, by the early 1700s, the leisure to enjoy it. Maurice Johnson II, the second in a line of six Johnsons bearing the same Christian name to own Ayscoughfee, made an indelible mark. This Inner Temple barrister was a fervent antiquarian. His interest in all things historical led him to found the Spalding Gentlemens Society in 1710. Acknowledged as the countrys second oldest learned body only Oxfords Ashmolean is older it still thrives. Distinguished early members included poet Alexander Pope and Sir Isaac Newton. A museum of infinite variety, debating and lecture society, it carries on Maurice Johnsons devotion to intellectual enterprise although politics and religion are still off the menu in deference to his original rules.

Did he alter the house much?

Certainly his tenure saw the gardens greatly altered, following the Italian fashions favoured during this period. By 1790 its characteristic yew trees were already in evidence. Not that everyone was impressed. A Colonel Torrington, who visited in that year, wrote that the hall was very ancient but in disorder and decay, like the owner. He was not invited back. The 19th century Johnsons gave the hall its Gothic appearance, disguising its medieval origins on the outside. Following the death of the sixth Maurice Johnson (1864) the hall was leased to tenants. It could have fallen into decline but, in 1898, local citizens banded together to buy the house and grounds. For more than a century it has been in public ownership, the house as a museum, council offices and private school, the grounds as recreation ground for generations of Spaldonians. Its bowling green, tennis courts and zoo are as popular as ever look out also for an ice house, a form of 19th century refrigerator, in the grounds.

And its new lease of life?

Last year, following lengthy renovation, the museum reopened. Its modern displays feature recreations of medieval life, the halls library as it was in Maurice Johnsons 18th century heyday, and depictions of life in the fens and the impact of significant local people.

Ayscoughfee Hall is in Churchgate, Spalding, and admission is free to the public.
Telephone 01775 764555 or log on to www.ayscoughfee.org

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