Jonathan Foyle recounts his first visit to the Old Hall

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Lincolnshire is a large county. I discovered it’s perfectly possible to spend a childhood at one end (in my case, Market Deeping in the deep south) and to never have visited the other end.

But the opportunity to explore the north-west reaches arose in 1988, when a student at Lincoln Art College. My then girlfriend’s parents lived in Gringley-on-the-Hill. Not much happens in Gringley. A day out in Gainsborough was merely a matter of time.

The Old Hall was an utter surprise- a revelation in zebra-striped black and white timber. I recall my first reaction: how had it survived so completely? The kitchens! The hall! The brick lodging tower… and what I would come to realize are bee boles built into the walls once filled with wicker hives to satisfy the sugar-starved tastebuds of the Burgh family. (Another question was: what had been done to stop the pebbledashed, diagonal houses that surround it from leaning ever more precariously into some sort of filled-in moat? Their pet goldfish must swim upstream.)

But it’s inside that the true wonderment lies. The kitchens are utterly astonishing: the most convincing late medieval arrangement of hearths, stores, lofts and serving hatches. Even when I worked as a curator at Hampton Court eight years later, I recalled Gainsborough’s kitchens were more atmospheric. And they’re older.

The hall is a marvel of timberwork- on a scale to befit a ceremonial feast, but also volume enough to carry the magnitude of a feudal lord, and cater for a retinue day in, day out. This feels like it was a working house. It’s easy to imagine footsteps all around, servicing this, the heart of an estate.

Around ten years ago, I was invited to speak for the Friends of the Old Hall- the group who had rescued this majestic building from decay and dereliction in the 1950s. Tom Sunderland was one of those rescuers, and in his retirement had created a fund for speakers. He had clearly some experience in speaking, with a booming voice gained from his years threading telegraph cables across the country: ‘my voice had to carry across several fields’, he bellowed.

The Old Hall deserves all the friends, all the visitors, and audiences it can get. Each of them will be rewarded by a rich insight into an age much different to our own, when social structure looked toward the king; when life was shorter because of disease and war; and this pre-industrial country was brighter with flowers and birds than we now know it. The fifteenth century was a time of calamity- a virtual civil war gripped England for forty years- but people still built to last. Architecture was a huge personal investment in crafted materials that ornamented our towns- building well was a responsibility, not a route to quick profit. Until the day we can say that again, we ought to value, enjoy and look after what we’ve got. And Gainsborough Old Hall might be toward the top of anyone’s list.

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