Donnington le Heath Manor House

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I’d found a mention of this in Hudson’s Historic Houses. There isn’t a lot of information about it on the web apart from it being one of the oldest surviving buildings in England. Emails had produced little extra information although I did know there were no planned activities or costumed interpreters when we planned to visit. As it is free, we decided to go and investigate.

It is in rural Leicestershire and is signed off the A447. Watch out for Manor Road which goes off to the right at a right angle bend on Ashburton Road. The manor house is unsigned at this point and is a short distance down Manor Road on the left hand side.

The original house was built in the 1290s but was modernised in 1618 befitting to the status of the landed gentry of the Digby family. Downstairs storerooms were converted into a kitchen and a parlour. The upstairs rooms rooms were remodelled with larger windows and an internal staircase added.

Between 1670-1960 the house was rented out as a tenant farm and remained unchanged apart from essential maintenance and installation of a cooking range in the kitchen. It was eventually sold to a local farmer who used it as a pigsty until it was bought by Leicester County Council in 1965. They carried out a major restoration turning it into a museum showing how people lived in Medieval, Tudor and Stuart times. This includes a lot of work with schools as well as event days with activities and costumed interpreters.

It is a lovely old stone building with wood crick gables infilled with plaster. It is surrounded by grassland with a small orchard with bee hives and carefully trimmed yew hedges enclosing small herb gardens. It is built round three sides of a tiny cobbled courtyard.

Entry is into the 1618 parlour with ticket desk and a small shop. To the right is the 1618 kitchen with a big open fire place with a spit, central table and benches laid out for a meal with cloth, earthenware crockery and food. There are two other wooden tables against the walls and wooden storage chests. There is a small dresser with a display of crockery and a small wicker cradle near the fireplace.

Off this is a small room now set up as an exhibition area with display boards covering the history of the house and estate.

The rest of the house is reached through a wooden door from the reception area and across the courtyard. A wooden door leads to a ground floor exhibition room with display cabinets with artefacts from the local area. This includes everything from flint arrow heads to pieces of pottery and roof slates. There is also the remains of a medieval tomb slab with the figure of a bishop.

A new wooden staircase leads to the first floor with a series of unfurnished rooms with a display of framed photographs by the Ashby Camera Club. The structural roof beams have been preserved and walls whitewashed. An original wood frame doorway leads into a large room above reception and the kitchen. This is used for activities and has a mirror and dressing up box. Tables with carved edges have examples of medieval games. It still has its cruck beam ceiling and there is a beautifully carved large chest with sunflower patterns on the panels.

A wooden doorway with steps leads down to a small bedroom with a beautifully carved four poster bed, hung with red drapes. Even the underside of the wood canopy is carved. The headboard has insets with marquetry panels surrounded by carvings. At the base is a simple wooden chest and there is a wooden crib.

There is a small display showing how the base of the bed was constructed. A rush mat was placed on the bed ropes and formed the base. This supported the lower mattress filled with flock. The upper mattress contained goose feathers. The bed ropes needed to be kept taught otherwise the mattresses would collapse and be most uncomfortable. This is the origin of the expression ‘sleep tight’.

There is an audio guide to the house which I declined – I can’t manage stick, notebook and audio guide! There are information books with photos in the kitchen and bedroom. These are worth reading.

There isn’t a lot to see, but it is a nice old house with attractive gardens. There are footpaths around the local area and it would be easy to spend several hours here. There is a small, and very good, tea room in the barn.

The house closes at 4pm and the car park is locked by the people in the shop when they leave just after 4pm. Don’t get locked in!


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