History of Stevington Manor
The site of the Old Manor of Stevington dates back to the mid 1200s when a hospitium or guest house was erected to house pilgrims who came to visit the nearby Holy Well down beneath the Church.
The Duke of Bedford's Estate papers for 1876 report that 'Perhaps the best farm house and set of farm office buildings upon the Estate were completed during the year at Stevington Manor Farm (a recent purchase from Crewe Alston). Mr Clutton prepared the Plans for the house, which retains in a happy way, the lines of the old Manor House. The Plans for the farm Premises were prepared at Park Farm by my instructions. The total cost is not yet ascertained as Balances are to be paid to the contractor but it will reach a sum including New Roads and Iron fencing of about £6000 or a trifle over £10 per acre'. The purchase price had been £19,446 14s 8d so in all it was a considerable investment.
The Duke leased it to the existing tenant Mr James Robinson who also had extra lands in Bromham. The Manor Farm in 1877 had 387 acres. A detailed schedule of land exists for 1882 mentioning 'The Vineyard ' 3acres 3 rood, 3 perch, The Manor House, Farm, garden, yards, buildings 2acres. The rent was £508.
The Oakley estate was sold in October 1918 and with it, the Manor Farm at Stevington purchased by Samuel Prentice. He and then his son John farmed until the 1974 when the house was sold privately to Dr and Mr Puddifoot. They put in a new drive to the south, built a solardome and a large ornamental fishpond. They planted the orchard. John retained the extensive barns and the farmland. Simon and Kathy purchased the house in 1987, extended the garden by buying extra land, and in 2006 created an extension to the drive which swept round to the south of the house. They first opened the garden under the National Garden Scheme in 1996.
After the Reformation in the mid sixteenth century, the Hospitium lands came in private ownership. In the early 1600s several schedules were written referring to the Manor House and its lands. There was still mention of the dovecote. Also the vineyard which was rented at a different price to the other land. By the seventeenth century, this hosue and land was owned by the Alston family who had their seat at nearby Odell Castle. In 1851 the lease changed hands from Mr Pike to Mr James Robinson and again reference was made to the Dove House. In 1874 Crewe Alston sold it, then 246 acres for £19,446 14s 8d, to the Duke of Bedford who also owned the neighbouring Oakley House Estate as part of his Woburn Abbey Estate.
The Manor House, Stevington 2008 now a private house, divorced from the farmland with new drive to the south from Church Road.
The Manor House, Stevington 1960s whilst still a farmhouse. The drive swept behind the house to the north with the main entrance to the rear of this photo, near the farm buildings.
The Church, Saxon in origin, was built on a limestone outcrop, and where the limestone rock hit the local clay, several springs emerge. see A and B on the 19C drawing. The largest of them A comes from beneath the northern chapel and has never been known to dry up. It emerges as a small stream of crystal clear water. It was thought to have healing properties especially for eyes. The photo the right shows it today, just besides the footpath beneath the church wall.
The hospitium was looked after by nuns from nearby Harold Priory who were on the site from 1149. In 1264 there are references to them of having a garden and vineyard, probably about 2 acres initially, in all they had 10 acres of land. But we know that by the time of the Black Death in the 1340s, it was reported that the vineyard, garden and dovecote were no more; such was the havoc wrought on this small community.
Evidence then, that there has been a garden on the site 750 years ago and possibly nearer 850 years. Although a vineyard was probably not in exsitence for all this time the name persisted through out the centuries being described as 6,4 and 3 acres in the 1600s, and on the sale document of the farm in 1874 it is described as 3 acres.
The Old Manor House was demolished soon after the Duke's purchase. Some say it burnt down, but in any event it was deemed in a ruinous state. The Duke asked the distinguished architect Henry Clutton of 9 New Burlington Street, London W to design a new farmhouse. Henry Clutton had trained under Edward Blore and was responsible for many notable country houses of the mid nineteenth century including Hoar Cross Hall in Staffordshire, Ruthin Castle in Wales, Minley Manor, Hampshire. Several RC Churches were also designed by him as well as Westminster Cathedral. In Bedfordshire he was responsible for Sandy Lodge, 1868-72 described as a modest country house, now HQ of the RSPB. He designed the new Woburn Church for the Duke as well as various estate buildings, notably at Milton Bryan in 1876 and at Stevington and in 1875-6. Here Clutton had the chance to build a new house but was able to take into consideration the ancient architecture of the old building, possibly of fifteenth or sixteenth century or even earlier. He was reknowned for his love of the vernacular and this project would have appealed to him. He built a stone house with mullion windows, with the same high gable end and tall chimneys. It is remarkably like the house he built at Sandy just a few years earlier though significantly smaller; see photo to right. Henry Clutton designed the farm house and supervised the building of it. The builder was Mr Foster of Kempston.
Etching by Harvey about 1860 from the south east
See similarity of gable end with its pitch and mullion windows to the drawing by Fisher prior to 1835.
Etching by Harvey about 1860 from the south west
See similarity of roofline, porch and chimney of house in 1835
Maybe Fisher drew the Ancient Hospitium stripped of its garden and with the old windows or else improvement took place pre 1860. Maybe Alston wanted to sell and he thought it would market better if improved.
A local antiquarian called Thomas Fisher visited the village in 1811 and had a conversation with the vicar the Rev Orlebar Marsh. This was subsequently reported with drawings in the Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1812. He described the scene:
Very near to the Church, on the south side, stands a long range of low buildings, designed for separate inhabitation; each apartment opening under a small pointed arch to the area in front, and no internal communication existing between any two of them. A gatehouse or porter’s lodge , and an unroofed chapel, were also attending there within the memory of man, of which the foundations may still be traced. The old chapel of Stevington, which contained a piscine stood across the yard, nearly opposite the porch of the Manor House. Mr Alston used to keep his dogs in it. It was about 9 yards long and thirty yards wide.
Thomas Fisher's drawing seen here of 'The Ancient Hospice' was made between 1811 and 1835
Did the nuns then bring the pilgrims down to the water or did they collect it and take it up to the hospitium. Perhaps for the very infirm they did the latter. Local legend has always connected the well with healing eyes. Pure, cool water would certainly smooth any pain and clean infected eyes, but is there another healing property close at hand.
Today there is a vast area of butterbur Petasites hybridus which grows like giant rhubarb along the shady streams which emanate from the wells. It has long been associated with healing migraine, headaches and asthma. Regarded as a British native, was it here anyway or did the nuns introduce it?