Exton, Rutland

Rutland is the smallest county in England: fifteen miles by fifteen. Over the decades, various government bureaucrats have tried to wipe it and its history off the face of the map by merging it with one of its larger neighbours, but  Rutlanders have always fought hard to keep their independence. They are rightly proud of their county, the star of the Midlands. Its villages and towns are built in varying shades of golden marlstone or  sheep-grey limestone and its undulating farmland is criss-crossed with ash tree sprinkled quickset hedges and stone walls. Some lie drowned, together with the village of Nether Hambleton beneath the gigantic sheet of Rutland Water, created in the 1960’s as a reservoir.

Exton is a beautiful place. If you approach it from Empingham along wide verged lanes, the signs of generations of well heeled landowners begin along the dead straight Barnsfield Avenue. Thick plantings of beech, birch, chestnut and sycamore line the way and later spill over the seemingly  endless  wall of honey coloured stone which encompasses Exton Park.

The village suddenly appears around a bend all built of the same honeyed stone and settled into the landscape. Thatched cottages and pretty houses are perfectly grouped on all sides of the village green which is shaded by towering sycamores.  The Fox and Hounds Pub stretches along one side of the green and a trout stream runs through the bottom of its garden behind. The main street winds on past an elegant circular pavilion on brick piers which once housed the village pump, towards the gates of Exton Hall a Victorian Jacobean pile well-hidden in its private Arcadia beside a sinuous lake. The village is surrounded by legendary hunting country.  The oldest and most famous hunt of all, the Cottesmore was first established at Exton by the Gainsborough family in the 1730s and the hunt has continued to  meet on the village green ever since.

Exton: St Peter and St Paul - monument to Robert Kelwey, d. 1580

Exton: St Peter and St Paul – monument to Robert Kelwey, d. 1580

The church of St Peter and St Paul appears stranded, half a mile away across the ancient park  but secreted beside it are the romantically  overgrown  ruins of the  original 17th century  Old Hall, abandoned by the Gainsboroughs in 1810 after a disastrous fire. On the outside, the church looks forbidding and unfriendly but inside, it literally takes your breath away. Triple-aisled and  flooded with light through clear glass windows, it houses the most spectacular collection of  monuments. As you enter the south door a grand table tomb displays the stiff recumbent figures of John and Alice Harrington who lived at Exton in the early 1600s. In the South transept an elaborate show of marble obelisks, cherubs, Corinthian columns and a chicken topped coat of arms frame the pious figure of ‘Robert Keylwey a distinguished esquire amongst civilians’. His daughter and her husband, who commissioned the monument, kneel at his bedside with their daughter Lucy. Nollekens has depicted eighteenth century members of the Gainsborough family, but the most astounding monument of all is in the north transept, dramatically side lit by a clear glass window. The florid swagger and preposterous scale of it beggar belief:  baroque to the hilt, the white marble figures of the first Earl of Gainsborough and his fourth wife Elizabeth  stand casually either side of a garden urn, their clothes draped artistically around them in Roman fashion. White marble swags of material are held above them by two black marble urns which in turn stand on top of beautifully decorated columns set with medallions of finely carved oak leaves and acorns. It’s no wonder that Grinling Gibbons charged £1000 in 1683 to produce the monument. Below the couple are two relief panels packed with former wives with their herds of children all got up in Roman togas. The inscription beneath is a terrible catalogue of stillborn babies, death in infancy and mothers dying in childbirth.

Photo  © Copyright John Sutton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence









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