Revealing Canons Ashby: Historic Building Recording uncovers complex development of Elizabethan mansion

Amir Bassir

We’ve recently completed a programme of historic building recording at Canons Ashby House in Northamptonshire. Hear from Historic Buildings Officer, Amir Bassir, about the fascinating discoveries being made there...

We’ve recently completed a programme of historic building recording at Canons Ashby House in Northamptonshire. During that time it continued to surprise and intrigue us, and the collage of rooms and building fabrics provided interesting puzzles as we attempted to piece together the story of this unique house.

In order to produce a comprehensive record of the house we utilised traditional recording techniques and consulted our dedicated team of specialists. Alongside this we used cutting edge technology such as laser survey, photogrammetry and drone photography. Our hand held laser survey allowed us to fully map the interior and exterior of the house to better understand the three-dimensional relationship and interaction of the rooms. Unlike traditional laser survey methods, the hand-held scanner allowed us to very rapidly scan all available spaces in continuous succession and could be taken into tight roof spaces which would be very difficult and time consuming to carry out with fixed scanners. The entire survey was undertaken in less than two days. Take a closer look at the scans here:

We know from records that the building started out as a 16th century farmhouse and was expanded by successive members of the Dryden family, but how did it grow from farmhouse to stately home?

So far, we know that the first addition in the mid to late 16th century was a tower house, a building type quite alien to Northamptonshire. Its design was a nod to the Cumberland heritage of the owner, John Dryden, who was used to the more defensive houses required in the lawless northern regions.

However, we continue to speculate about how we can identify the form of the early farmhouse. The Servants’ Hall, an intriguing room with painted panelling discovered during National Trust’s restoration works, has been identified as a later addition to the farmhouse. It was created from two smaller rooms and clad with panelling from another part of the house, probably John Dryden’s tower house. Examination of the panelling by our timber specialist Damian Goodburn revealed that these are made from atypical material for such work and is suggestive of imported wood used for fine furniture, such as walnut or fruitwood.

This room was subject to both laser survey and 3d photogrammetry which allowed us to visualise it in relation to the surrounding rooms. Our investigation has even allowed us to solve the mystery of a hidden cupboard space. Its true function has been the subject of years of debate and theories even include a secret masonic chamber. Our interpretation is perhaps less romantic: we think it represents the remnants of the former room arrangements and the space became trapped by the creation of the larger room and a new staircase adjacent to it.

Explore the space for yourself in this 3d model:

Re-use of building materials is a key feature throughout the house. We’ve been able to distinguish where successive builders didn’t have the budget to fully realise their grand ambitions, allowing for the partial survival of earlier parts of the building. This means that we are now faced with a fascinating tapestry of work by different craftsmen.

The mystery continues up into the roof, where we’ve discovered a series of shaped roof trusses for a decorative ceiling and the rare survival of red ochre pigment called ‘ruddle’ or ‘raddle’, used by the 16th century carpenters to create set-out lines to aid in the cutting and assembly of roofing timbers. This is really exciting as survival of such temporary guidelines is very rare for this period, though a few later examples do survive, for example at The Vyne, in Hampshire. 

The final part of our recording was a drone survey which captured the exterior of the building with high resolution overlapping photographs. Now that recording is complete, we’re building an accurate 3d model of the building which we look forward to sharing soon. Find out more about the project on the Canons Ashby website, follow the progress and contribute your images on Twitter with #CArevealed.

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