Part 2: The History
Ettington Park is a brooding neo-Gothic mansion and has been the home of the Shirley family for over a thousand years. It’s easy to understand why Robert Wise chose the house in 1963 as the setting for his classic ghost film ‘The Haunting.’ With its stately towers and turrets it seems like the perfect setting for any horror story.” ~ Michael G. M. Kenny, Night Manager (Retired)
Although it was Ettington Park’s brush with fame as the infamous Hill House from the original version of The Haunting that brought me to its doors, I was delighted to discover that its intrigue didn’t end there. After checking in and being shown to my room, as I bubbled with excitement at the idea of actually being at the location where parts of my favorite movie had been filmed, I happened upon the guest directory sitting on the desk. It was thicker than the average binder one typically finds in a hotel room, so I decided to investigate.
It contained the usual tidbits of information—fire exit routes, checkout time, pool hours—but it also included a detailed history of the grounds, the political and social history of the family that’s owned the property since at least 1086, and a section devoted to ghosts that ranged from a philosophical reflection on whether or not ghosts exist at all, to brief eyewitness accounts of supposed supernatural occurrences in the building.
This was an Ettington Park aficionado’s dream come true!
I settled into a chair and hungrily began to consume the material without realizing how long and occasionally tedious (mostly the “political and social history” part) it was. I ended up having to take a break in the middle in order to digest what I’d read. I already possessed some of the knowledge contained in the binder thanks to a friend and her husband who had driven me to the hotel and shown me around a bit. I had also spent three hours walking the grounds before I was able to check in (circumstances beyond my control resulted in my arriving several hours before check-in time), so I’d come across some of the features mentioned. After a quick phone call home to share my experience thus far with my mom, the woman who introduced me to The Haunting in the first place, in addition to assuring her that I was still alive (my mother, like all mothers, is a professional worrier), I returned to the typed, single-spaced, A4-sized pages and finished perusing their contents.
I’ll pause here for a moment, as you might also be in need of a momentary respite from my own loquaciousness. Here’s a photograph of the side/back of the building. If you read the first part of this series and already saw images of the front, this is the view you’d see if you walked around the right side of the house:
And now, back to business. For this article I’ve chosen several of the more tantalizing historical factoids I learned to share with you. All of the following information was either verbally provided by hotel staff or was obtained from The History of Ettington Park and the Shirley Family, the article found in the guest directory. A hard copy of this article was presented to me by the hotel porter after he took me on a tour of the hotel and its grounds (another unique amenity listed in the pages of the magical binder). Unfortunately it appears that this particular piece of writing doesn’t exist online, so I’m unable to provide you with a link to it. Any quotes below are taken directly from this source.
The earliest evidence of human habitation of the area dates back at least 2,000 years, demonstrated by the presence of Roman coins, brass ornaments, and pottery. It’s also located relatively close to one of the original Roman roads, which makes it a prime location for a settlement of some sort.
For some background on the name “Ettington,” I defer to the article mentioned above:
“The name Ettington, originally spelt Eatendon and later Eatingdon is derived from the old English or Anglo-Saxon word, “Ea” meaning water and “Don” meaning ascending ground or meadow. The name itself gives us a very precise description of the site as “ascending ground or meadow near a river.” E.P. Shirley is responsible for the present day spelling of Ettington.”
The Doomsday Book of 1086 contains the first written record of the property, which included the manor house, “a church, a mill, 1,700 acres of land and the village adjacent to the manor house.” The family Saswalo or Sewallis owned the manor house, and it was passed down uninterrupted through male descendants until the present day, though the family name has changed (now known as the Shirley family).
In 1795, England’s Inclosure Acts were used by the Shirley family (conveniently, one of them was a Member of Parliament) to take possession of the entire estate. As a result, the villagers were forced to move to a new location a few miles down the road while their homes and the mill were completely destroyed. The church was only partially demolished for some strange reason (I’ve been told the Shirleys thought it would be a nice touch to have the ruins of a church on their property, but I’m not sure if that’s true), with only a small chapel containing the family mausoleum left entirely intact, along with the remnants of the tower and portions of the walls of the nave. The original town cross and several graves also remain on the grounds. (For more information about the Shirley family and the original village, I highly recommend checking out the Ettington in ages past section of Ettington parish’s community website.)
Here’s the view of what’s left of the church from the front:
And from the side, the partial walls of the nave:
From the back, looking towards the tower (you can see part of the intact chapel’s exterior to the left of the wall):
I had strolled around the church ruins prior to checking in, so at the time I took these pictures I was unaware of the existence of the chapel. On a whim, after taking the picture below, I decided to try the door—and found it was unlocked:
I cautiously ventured inside, then hesitatingly flipped what I suspected was a light switch. I held my breath for a few seconds, frozen in place, waiting for some kind of alarm to sound or hotel staff to rush in and drag me out. Thankfully no such event occurred and I spent some time examining the interior of the chapel:
The tombs on the left of this image contain a husband and wife:
This picture gives you a better look at the carving located on the right side of the image above:
And here’s the fourth and final wall (including the door I entered through):
This is what the chapel looks like from the outside:
The tiny graveyard is located adjacent to the chapel:
A close-up of one of the legible gravestones:
And finally, here’s the remnants of the town cross. You can see the side of the intact chapel to the right and church tower is peeking out from behind the tree. A little further back you can also see a bit of the hotel:
The manor itself has gone through a number of renovations throughout the years for various reasons. In the 1600s the manor was mostly demolished and rebuilt into a smaller house, and from then on there were a number of additions made to the building (like the library, the oddly juxtaposing round and square turrets in the front, and the private chapel). Major external work was performed from 1858 to 1862 which resulted in more-or-less the building we have today. It was designed in the French and Italian Gothic style and the walls are composed of “layers of contrasting stone—yellow limestone from Gloucestershire, ironstone from Edge Hill, blue lias from Wilmcote and white lias quarried locally.” This is also when the exquisite carved stone friezes depicting some of the significant moments in the Shirley family’s history were added to the outer walls.
Here are some shots of the exterior of the private chapel, which is attached to the rest of the manor house:
Two verses from the 145th Psalm are etched along the outer walls of the chapel, though some are easier to make out than others. Here’s one from the middle of the Psalm:
And the end:
Below is a sampling of the carved friezes located on the outer walls of the building; although I’ve read several descriptions of what some of the carvings depict, I’ve been unable to ascertain which description goes with which image. Here’s one:
While on my tour of the building, the porter pointed out the “Romeo and Juliet balcony,” complete with its own Shakespeare-related carving. Apparently the Bard had been a guest at the house several times and even included Sir Hugh Shirley’s death during the Battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV, Part 1:
This is a close-up of the carving over the balcony. According to the porter, the upside down horseshoe beneath it signifies that Shakespeare had run out of luck (he had already died when the carving was made):
Arguably my favorite bit of Ettington Park history has to do with one of its smallest and supposedly longest living inhabitants. I can’t possibly describe the odd occurrence any better than the article in the guest directory did, so I’ll have to repeat it word for word:
“The Toad of Ettington: In August 1859, workmen dismantling an outer wall overlooking the garden made an unusual discovery. They found a live toad in a cavity within the wall. There was no access from the outside, or anyway [sic] air could penetrate. They concluded that the toad must have gained entry during previous building work that had taken place in 1740 and was unnoticed when it was accidentally sealed in. The toad had survived being entombed for 119 years!”
The toad was kept in a large glass bottle. However, it refused all food. Three months later it was dead.
The workmen commemorated the incident at the time by the carving of a toad in stone. The carved stone was then placed in the new wall near the place where the toad was first discovered and where it can still be seen today.”
It’s a fun, if unlikely, story. I know some animals can survive harsh conditions by going into a kind of suspended animation (like the North American Wood Frog or the impressively tough tardigrade which can survive just about anything including freezing, boiling, and a vacuum), but regrettably my research has led me to the conclusion that entombed animals that have supposedly survived long periods of time without food and water are a myth.
In any case, our little toad friend, real or not, has been properly memorialized on the back of the building facing the garden. You can see him near the top center of this image:
And here’s a closer view:
My final historical gem has to do with the secret passage I stumbled upon during my pre-check-in wanderings. With several hours to kill and a substantial amount of land to survey, I made it a point of exploring every single path I came across, including some phantom paths (ones that initially appeared to be paths but ended unexpectedly in dead ends). In any case, my trek across the grounds eventually led me to this mysterious sight:
I returned to the same location the next day during my tour of the hotel/grounds and feigned surprise when the porter presented it to me (he was so excited to share this particular site that I didn’t want to disappoint him by admitting that I had already found it on my own). He told me that it was one of many secret passages that led from the grounds to the house. To my knowledge it’s the only exit/entrance they currently know the whereabouts of, but I’m under the impression that there are (or were) others. Passages like this would allow spies to enter or leave the manor unseen, an especially important feature that allowed the area’s key religious figures to eavesdrop on conversations between prominent guests.
Though the house was primarily used as a private residence for most of its existence, Ettington Park has played several other roles over the past century:
“In 1935 it became a nursing home and during the Second World War a prisoner of war camp for Italian prisoners. For a brief time Ettington Park was the venue for a night club/disco. Unfortunately, in 1979 a fire did severe damage to the house. It remained locked up and left to deteriorate for three years. However, in 1983 the house and forty acres of land were leased to the Isis Hotel Company and after a multimillion-pound restoration programme, Ettington Park opened as a luxury hotel.”
That brings us to the present day, where it’s run by Hand Picked Hotels Ltd. Members of the Shirley family are frequent patrons of the hotel and still own some of the surrounding land.
I hope you’ve found this brief foray into Ettington’s Park history entertaining—there’s much more to it, of course, but I made an effort to sift through the minutiae and glean the most enticing bits and pieces for your reading pleasure. I trust you’ll join me for the final part of my trilogy, where I’ll describe what it was like to be a guest in the hotel. My interactions with the wonderfully friendly hotel staff, my room with an unexpectedly charming view, and my experience in its refined Oak Room Restaurant will all be covered, along with a dash of additional historical information and a pinch more about the grounds.
One last parting shot before I go—a view of the side of the manor and the church ruins with the intact chapel jutting out towards us…