On a ridge of rolling hills deep in the Northamptonshire countryside sits a strange spinney (small cluster of trees). Too round to be natural, too wild to be tended, it crowns the fields of oilseed rape, of waving wheat and black-faced sheep.
A footpath leads down from Butchers Lane, in the bucolic village Boughton, long beyond vehicular access, over a boiling brook, past the stiles of a footpath crossroads before, on the left, another stile. Climb over, minding the mud, then follow the hedge along to the corner, then up, towards the curious spinney at the top.
A five-bar gate, behind which the little copse sits on the remains of a ha ha. This must once have been an eye-catcher visible for miles. Now tree-roots work their way through dry-stone walls, shrouding the mysteries within.
Behind the gate runs a small path worn by the (few) visitors to this quiet spot. Follow it inside. This wood cannot be more than fifty yards across but there’s still a shiver as an odd little stone shelter comes into view. Covered in wildflowers – marsh marigolds, primroses, nettle-bloom, it’s a simple, half-hemisphere with a jagged, open front. The walls inside are also jagged: local limestone, rough-hewn, but still good after nearly 250 years.
Running from it is a little stream; the hood of the grotto is a well-head for a natural spring.
Of all William Wentworh, second Earl of Stratford’s many follies from the mid 1770s, this has to be the most magical, not least because it’s so hidden. The Boughton follies aren’t exactly on the ‘most-famous’ list to start with – though the Spectacles, Hawking Tower (which looks suspiciously like a church tower) obelisk and sundry castellated farm buildings are splendid examples of the oeuvre.
In the 1770s, on inheriting Boughton Hall, William Wentworth reworked his father’s early 18th Century pleasure gardens around the estate in the Landscape style of Capability Brown; a smaller version of the overblown Stowe a few miles down the road.
A great friend of Horace Walpole (of Strawberry Hill fame), Wentworth also had a place overlooking Eel Pie Island, not far from Strawberry Hill,. Like most young aristocratic men of the time, he’d been on the Grand Tour and wanted to recreate beauty at Boughton, both classical and, bang up to date, gothic. It sounds as though he did it pretty impressively – Walpole, not a man to dole out compliments on a regular basis, said ‘Nobody has better taste than this lord.’
Wentworth died without issue, so Boughton passed to his sister, Lady Lucy Wentworth. The estate stayed (sort of) in the family until the 1920s when it was broken up, but it was never again as splendid as it was during William’s watch.
The grand house was pretty much levelled in 1808, and it’s hard to see the present, Victorian house without an invitation, but the follies can be accessed if you’re prepared to trudge a little.
As a landscape garden, there are quite a few spinneys, often including unusual trees, designed for viewing from afar. Some are 19th Century additions, and some 18th century buildings have been lost – I’d have paid money to see ‘the temple’, now missing, apparently the victim of an internment camp plonked on the site during WWII. I guess they had other things on their minds, but it was probably on its very last legs anyway, given it was constructed of linen on lathe so it could be moved around.
Grotto Spinney is a survivor. I’ve read it’s supposed to be an ancient Pagan site, but I can’t find any evidence of it, save that all springs seem to have been sacred in ancient times.
I can’t find an online map to find this strange little place; but the OS co-ordinates are:
OS Grid Reference: SP7549766735
OS Grid Coordinates: 475497, 266735
Latitude/Longitude: 52.2936, -0.8944
If you don’t have a map, drive to Boughton Village, park somewhere sensible, and walk down Butchers’ Lane as far as it goes. It will turn to dirt track, then footpath. Cross the stream, but DON’T climb the first stile (I did, it was a very muddy track with no legal way of getting into the right field…) instead climb the second stile on the left, by the gate that is chained. Walk along the field to the end, then climb the hill to the spinney; the five-bar-gate is at the end of the field.