WHEN I first started working in Northampton 14 years ago, I can clearly remember a reporter more long in the tooth than me giving clear instructions about correct pronunciation:
Cogenhoe was Cook-know, Duston has a silent ‘T’ and Delapre is Dela-pree, not some fancy French Dela-‘pray.’
I went on to write various articles about Delapre Abbey, including seeing the last boxfuls of the County Record Office being removed after the late Joan Wake had campaigned to move Northamptonshire’s history to the site 40 years before.
I covered horse trials there. I returned a few times as the abandoned house and gardens slowly fell into disrepair, but until last week, I hadn’t been for years.
Bored with the endless rows over money, and procrastination about the anti-traveller bund, I, like many Northamptonians, had simply driven past on the London Road, no longer able to see the park and house through the trees.
What a pleasant surprise. Not only is this the most enormous public space for the families of Northampton to enjoy – with acres of fields and woods – the walled gardens and tea rooms are a hidden delight.
Bonnie, aged three, Billy, seven, and I arrived quite late in the afternoon. The older boys had stayed at home, now at the age where “walking and looking at stuff” is of no interest.
We missed the entrance to the tearooms (after I ignored Billy pointing and telling me the correct way to go), and found ourselves wandering the perimeter of the house and finding semi-formal shrub gardens and amazing trees.
At the top entrance to the walled inner gardens, we found not only a huge thatched game larder, but a mixture of flower beds laid out in a classic council park style, a topiary hedge, herbaceous borders and historic sculptures that deserve far more recognition and visitors.
And all this is available thanks to the incredible work of volunteers, the Friends of Delapre Abbey. (See www.delapreabbey.org)
While Bill and Bonn ran around the gardens and rolled down the lawns, I was looking at the brick art of Walter Richie. Lady with Kittens, a frieze in the wall between the two Victorian glasshouses, one restored, one awaiting funds.
Billy screwed up his face at it: “You can see her boobs.”
Hidden in the corner is the upright brick column of The Lovers, while most prominent is the famous Woman with a Fish by Frank Dobson. This was once in the town centre, but apparently caused outrage and was frequently vandalised, but now sits in her own little garden. “You can see her boobs too,” muttered Billy.
The tea rooms, open daily 10am-5pm, serve home made snacks and cakes, and we sat outside with lemon cake and ice-creams, wondering why we hadn’t come before.
Back out in the fields fronting the house, the kids were delighted by the ‘giant park bench’, and Bonnie met her first horse. A girl had been galloping across the park but came over so Bonnie could have a pat and tickle the horse’s hairy nose. The boys at the same age wouldn’t have been so brave. I’ll let Bloke deal with future fruitless pleas for ponies.
Apparently work starts soon on recreating an original water feature which hopefully will further Delapre’s cause as a place of genuinely interesting and beautiful history for people to enjoy for generations to come.
Ignore the usual nay-sayers who say the money should be spent on town-centre loos instead. Delapre undoubtedly needs huge amounts of money to be invested to get visitors from further afield, but it can, and must, work. Wrest Park in Bedfordshire was similarly neglected but since English Heritage became involved just five years ago, it has opened as a major attraction.
In the meantime, take your family, your dogs, your children, and go and enjoy our own secret garden.