Original Elizabethan kitchen is revealed at Athelhampton House

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The kitchen’s open! A beautiful Elizabethan kitchen has been revealed at Athelhampton House, hidden and forgotten despite the room’s continuous use for half a millennia.

The revealed Elizabethan kitchen range at Athelhampton House. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

Giles Keating, owner of Athelhampton, today invited Chris Loder MP to formally open the ‘new’ kitchen in the famous Tudor house. It is believed to be one of the oldest kitchens in the country in continuous use — for the last 500 years. Over time the Elizabethan origins were hidden behind thick white paint, substantial brickwork and plaster, and a range of rough modern cabinets.

How the Athelhampton kitchen looked until recently, with the top of the filled-in arch apparent. Image: Giles Keating

“The ‘cabinets’ were awful – when we took off the rather nice doors we revealed a really rough DIY 3”x2” framework, clearly homemade, with barely a shelf inside!” said Giles “We knew there was probably something there because we could see the shape of it. But of course, we had no idea what sort of condition it was in, or what was underneath. So we stripped off the modern surfacing, and revealed that beautiful arch. But there was also a vast amount of more modern brickwork which had been used to fill it in, almost entirely, with just a central space left for the Aga, and a gap to one side. We’re not sure why that was left, possibly because the builders were aware of the presence of the bread oven behind, and left access to it.
“We were keen to find the fireplace behind all the brickwork, but we were genuinely worried the whole building would fall down! So we had to put structural underpinning in place first, and then knock out the modern brickwork piece by piece.”

“They used the biggest drill bit I had ever seen!” Giles described the work to support the wide Elizabethan arch. “Originally the arch would have been self-supporting, of course, but at that time there weren’t two floors above it. We presume it was filled in and supported at the time those extra floors were created. Removing those supports would have been dangerous without the structural engineering work”
Matthew Ellis, head of Ellis & Co, specialists in conserving and repairing historic buildings, explained “The arch had been supported by brick pillars, so we needed to use cintec anchors: a long hole was drilled through the arch itself from the outside walls on each end, filled with a special ‘sock’ (a porous fabric sleeve) into which non-shrink cementitious grout was injected under controlled pressure. The result is invisible from inside the kitchen, but provides the necessary arch support and allowed the more modern ‘filler’ brickwork to be removed”

This bread oven had been entirely covered and hidden by a sink – forgotten and unknown to the Athelhampton team until the restoration works began. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

The team slowly revealed a stunning Elizabethan fireplace and bread oven, complete with soot-blackened bricks. The removal of the modern kitchen units and sink also revealed an unkown bread oven hidden in the wall – now revealed and restored, too.

The archway is wide enough for perhaps a dozen cooks to work at simultaneously (provided the outside ones ducked their heads!), and on the opposite wall is ‘an Elizabethan hob’ – a stone platform with holes to allow pots to be placed over the fires beneath; effectively allowing Tudor ‘hob cooking’ away from the naked flame in the main fireplace under the arch. With an eye on modern standards, however, there are now electric hotplates hidden inside the stonework – a testament to Athelhampton’s drive towards the removal of all fossil fuels on site, and the estate’s aim to become carbon neutral.

Chris Loder MP and Athelhampton owner Giles Keating celebrate the cutting of the ribbon and the official opening of the kitchen. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

Athelhampton House and its 29 acres of formal and informal gardens was built by the Martyn family – the ending of the Martyn male line in 1596 is marked by a tombstone in the Athelhampton chapel of St Mary Magdalene at Puddletown, in an inscription of brutal – but amusing – honesty: ‘Nicholas the First and Martyn the Last,/Good night, Nicholas!’

Thomas Hardy, who lived at nearby Bockhampton, loved Athelhampton, and thinly disguised it as Athelhall in his short story The Waiting Supper, and in the poems The Dame of Athelhall and The Children and Sir Nameless.

From L-R Matthew Ellis, head of Ellis & Co in charge of the restoration project, with his foreman, Chris Loder MP, Giles Keating owner of Athelhampton, project surveyor Stefan Pitman of SPASE Design, Owen Davies, head of the commercial team at Athelhampton and Claire Poulter, specialist decorator

The Tudor kitchens have not been open to visitors previously, as they were part of the private living apartments within the house; Giles Keating in fact still uses them to enjoy his breakfast. However he explained that they will now form an essential part of the visitor experience, with regular demonstrations, and a large living history re-enactment already planned for October.

Both Giles Keating and Chris Loder were quick to praise the team of craftsmen who have removed all trace of the modern facings and revealed the beautiful Tudor bones of the building.

The panelling restoration – of the two biggest panels above, the left hand one is original oak, the one on the right is a more modern pine replacement, painted by Claire Poulter. Around the window itself, work is still underway. Image: Laura Hitchcock

Thanks to Ellis & Co, Claire Poulter has also been working to restore the panelling in the adjacent dining room “Honestly, I’ve even been dreaming in squares for months. There are over 1,100 of them in here – and I’ve sanded back every single one!”
Claire has worked to repair the original oak panelling, and when the stripping revealed that some of the panels were in fact pine and marine ply, she used her specialist decorator skills to paint it – “It’s a bit like stage dressing – hopefully a casual visitor would be hard-pressed to spot the difference.”

The complete Elizabethan cooking range under the arch, complete with a new spit from a local blacksmith

MP Chris Loder, cutting the ribbon at the official opening ceremony, explained why he was keen to be part of the project:
“It’s no secret that the economy of rural Dorset has a huge dependency on tourism. The work Giles has done at Athelhampton brings people into the area and money into the local economy, which is absolutely vital. I’ve been coming to Athelhampton for over eight years. I have actually eaten in this very kitchen – not realising that behind the aga was this wonderful arch, which is so beautiful to see.”

The revealed Elizabethan range, with serving hatch through to the dining room where the panelling has also been restored. Juliet Ferguson is a living historian with a specialism in the Tudor period. Image: Courtenay Hitchcock

He added
“We have recently had an issue with Thomas Hardy being removed from University syllabus. I am aware that Nadim Zahawi – former education secretary, now chancellor – perhaps wants to be Prime Minister. I shall be very clear that I’m open to negotiation, and if he wants my support then we’ll have to sort out the Thomas Hardy issue …
“I’d like to congratulate the whole team who have achieved this today – it’s terrific to see the work come to fruition. Thank you all.”

Athelhampton House & Gardens has summer opening hours until 8th October:
10am to 5pm, Sunday-Friday (CLOSED on Saturdays).

The House opens 11am daily, last admissions at 4pm

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