Ipswich Icons: The history of Otley Hall
PUBLISHED: 16:53 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 16:53 19 June 2018
If you have an odd £2.5m or so, you could make a bid for a hall with history. John Norman tells its story.
In the past, this series of articles has covered the majority of the larger country houses within striking distance of Ipswich.
However, there have been a couple of notable exceptions. One of the most significant is Otley Hall, a Tudor house some eight miles north of the town centre.
Otley Hall was built in the early sixteenth century on a site that had almost certainly been occupied for the previous 400 years. At some stage during those four centuries the Gosnolds arrived in Otley and rented land, established a base and by 1440 had a foot in the door of the hall.
The building we see today was started by the Gosnolds in 1512, with the east (or moat) wing built between 1565 and 1591 and the ‘Playhouse’ wing added in 1588.
These dates have been established by dendrochronology (tree ring dating). That is, the comparison of the size of adjacent growth rings on the end grain of timbers used in the building with known patterns from that period. Trees’ rings grow to different thicknesses depending on the prevalent weather. Some dry summers produce narrow rings; wet summers much more prolific growth.
Otley Hall is one of the relatively few manor houses in Suffolk to be listed Grade I and is generally accepted as the best example open to the public. The first-edition Ordnance Survey shows an avenue of trees from the crossroads in the village but today the land surrounding the hall is reduced to 10 acres of magnificent gardens.
Pevsner describes Otley Hall as “one of the most interesting houses of its date in Suffolk”, probably because of its association with the Gosnolds and in particular Bartholomew Gosnold, who sailed from Ipswich in 1606 to establish Jamestown, the first English-speaking colony in America. This was 13 years before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail aboard the Mayflower. Bartholomew, a privateer and adventurer, had previously crossed the Atlantic in 1602, exploring the coast of New England, where he named both Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. The purpose of the voyages was to establish colonies in America and thus be able to claim the natural wealth of the land as British.
No suitable site was found in 1602; thus a destination further south was planned for the 1606/07 expedition.
Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James became King (James VI of Scotland, James I of England). James issued a directive allowing the Virginia Company to establish a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay. The planning for this expedition took place around the fire in Otley Hall.
The expedition was initially successful and Jamestown was established, named in honour of King James. Unfortunately, the settlers had chosen a site too close to the river and within three months Gosnold was dead, dying of dysentery and swamp fever.
In 1674, after more than 250 years of occupation by the Gosnolds, the hall was sold, but it went on to enjoy long-term residency by the few successive owners, none of whom made any significant alterations or changes. Thus four of the rooms in Otley Hall are as they were in the early 17th century, particularly the panelling in the Linenfold Parlour which probably came from Hampton Court when Wolsey was Chancellor.
The Linenfold Parlour is in the west wing (Otley is an unequal cruciform shape on plan) adjacent to the Grand Hall where Gosnold planned his expeditions in the company of other members of the Virginia Company.
Externally the most noticeable features are the enormous chimney stacks built in soft Suffolk red bricks, clay roof tiles and, below, walls of exposed timbers infilled with diagonally-laid brick noggins. In places the walls are softly rendered with decorative pargetting which includes a band of vine-trail ornamentation.
Otley is an inspiration, both inside and out: an unspoilt gem of English country manor house with gardens to match. Otley is occasionally open to the public and I recommend a visit.