You first see Houghton House from a distance: a splendid ruin that, in its lonely beauty, seems more dream than reality. Once this grand residence and the country it commands rang with the music of hounds: Houghton was built as a hunting lodge for Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and King James I was a visitor on its completion in 1621. Now, as you approach through an avenue of trees, you’ll only hear birdsong.
So fine was Houghton in its heyday that it’s said to have inspired Bedfordshire-born John Bunyan: this is the real-life ‘House Beautiful’ wherein the hero of his allegorical poem The Pilgrim’s Progress finds shelter. But Houghton, after many modifications, was dismantled in 1794. Its impressive loggias (open galleries) remain: they’re thought to be the work of architect Inigo Jones.
Take in the grounds
If, once you’ve explored the house, you’d like to stretch your legs further, try this walk in the surrounding countryside.
Turn left along the farm track before the nearby cottages. Much of this route now follows the waymarked Greensand Ridge Walk: locally quarried sandstone lends buildings along the way a tell-tale greenish tint. Cross a small pasture and continue to the right of the wood before turning right along a farm track, eventually emerging on to Limbersey Lane. Turn left, walk for a short distance, then take the footpath on your right.
Along the way, admire the octagonal Allesbury Mausoleum – built in 1656 by Thomas, Earl of Elgin, in memory of his second wife – before continuing down into Maulden: this village was noted in the Doomsday book.
Follow George Street round before taking the path, right, between gardens (signposted Greensand Ridge Walk) negotiating a series of muddy fields and footpaths until you come to the town of Ampthill.
A royal history
The name Ampthill derives from Aemethyll: Anglo-Saxon for ‘ant-infested hill’. But don’t be put off: it’s a charming place for a wander. Nearby Ampthill Park once boasted a castle that was home to Queen Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Henry’s love didn’t last and sadly neither did the castle:
it was demolished in 1649.
Take a look inside 10th-century St Andrew’s church: an American flag marks the monument to Colonel Richard Nicolls (b1624), the local man who became the first British Colonial Governor of New York.
Back outside, take the path to the left of the church and follow it on into Holly Walk,an enclosed path heavy with enchantment. You’ll emerge on to Bedford Street: turn right up the hill and follow the signs back to Houghton House.
HOW TO GET THERE
Houghton House is one mile north-east of Ampthill and eight miles south of Bedford; take the A6. There is a small car park at the end of the access road to the house. Nearest train stations are Flitwick and Stewartby (both three miles).
FIND OUT MORE
The White Hart
Ampthill Rd, Maulden, Bedfordshire MK45 2DH
01525 406 118
Recharge your batteries with a good meal and a pint at this 17th-century thatched pub.