The National Trust
Gunby Hall - Tennyson’s Haunt of Ancient Peace
Set in 45 acres of glorious parkland at the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Gunby Hall is a modest but beautiful example of a late 17-century brick-built Baroque house in the style of Wren. Built at the turn of the 18th century (a keystone bears the date 1700) for Sir William Massingberd, the Hall is surrounded by a small formal garden and set in expansive parkland. Just to the south lies a series of earthworks associated with the former medieval village of Gunby, which once occupied the site, and all across the surrounding pasture stretches the sinuous curves of the old ridge-and-furrow.
Sir William moved to Gunby from Bartoft, which lies approximately 1.5km to the south and had been the home of the Massingberd family since the early 15th century. The remains of a medieval moated manor site and associated deserted medieval village (DMV) can still clearly be seen to the north of the present village, indicating that the settlement was once somewhat larger. Fragments of the ridge and furrow cultivation, which once sustained the Bartoft households, can also be seen preserved in the nearby fields, although not as extensive as at Gunby, with much having been destroyed by the recent intensification of arable production.
Today, the 1,423-acre estate is owned by the National Trust, including the gardens, park and Hall, although the latter is leased out to a private tenant and only open to the public at certain times of the year (see the National Trust for further details). Bequeathed to the nation by Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd in 1944, Gunby was actually one of the first properties to be owned by the Trust. At this time the garden and splendid trees of the park were under threat of destruction by the Air Ministry, who wanted to build an aerodrome extension nearby, but thanks to the Field Marshal’s fierce campaigning the site was saved.
Gunby has a long and interesting history and has been associated with some important figures, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, Dr Johnson, Charles Darwin, the Wedgewoods, the Pre-Raphaelites, Kipling, Edward Lear, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Vaughan Williams and, of course, Tennyson, who often visited the Hall and apparently had Gunby in mind when he wrote these lines in his poem ‘The Palace of Art’, written in 1833:
And one, an English home--gray twilight pour'd
On dewy pastures, dewy trees,
Softer than sleep--all things in order stored,
A haunt of ancient Peace.
Tennyson, like many visitors to the Hall today, was particularly moved by Gunby’s majestic trees, resplendent in a myriad of different shades and hues of green, peppered across with reds and yellows. The Massingberd family had a sustained interest in tree planting that is documented back to the mid-17th century and detailed in the ‘Gunby Tree Book’, which is still preserved in the Trust archive at Clumber.
However, although a great deal is known about the later residents and management of the estate, very little is understood about the early history of Gunby prior to William Massingberd’s construction of the Hall. There is believed to have formerly been a manor house on the site—probably under the present building—but little is known about the origins, development and final abandonment of the medieval settlement, or about that at nearby Bartoft. It has always been assumed that the village was yet another victim of the Black Death, which swept across Lincolnshire in the 14th century, but this may not necessarily be the case.
Working together with Debois Landscape, NAA undertook a Parkland Management Plan for Gunby, which informed subsequent Higher Level Stewardship agreements with Natural England. As part of the project, NAA undertook an archaeological survey of the estate, bringing together a range of information to understand more about the pre-1700 development of the area. This included looking at the nature and form of settlement, particularly the Gunby and Bartoft DMV, but also the various farmsteads and hamlets scattered across the estate. Related to this we looked for evidence of early surviving boundaries, in particular, the Park Pale, which is thought to have enclosed the deer parks at both Gunby and at Bartoft. In addition to the visible, above ground, features we also explored the potential for the survival of any below-ground deposits to inform the future management of the site.
The field survey conducted by NAA was combined with information prepared by Debois on the parkland landscape and later history of the site. Together, these provided a comprehensive understanding of the development of the estate and identified gaps in our knowledge that might need further work. During the survey, NAA also undertook a conditions assessment of the extant heritage features, in particular, the surviving ridge and furrow. This was compared with historic aerial photographs taken just after WWII in order to get some idea about how much of this resource has been lost.
Once the various desk-based and field surveys were collected together and assessed, an archaeological map was produced that clearly show all areas of surviving archaeology on the estate, as well as areas where there is a high potential for the survival of sub-surface remains. This could then be used to inform a series of management recommendations and proposals to help the Trust conserve and protect the archaeology of Gunby into the future.