Chapter 1: Visiting
Houghton House, Ampthill, should not to be confused with either the palatial Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, or the rather more modest, but nearby, Houghton Hall at Houghton Regis, also in Bedfordshire.
Not many people have heard of this romantic and evocative ruin, high up on the Greensands Ridge, giving fabulous views over the Bedfordshire countryside. Its prominent position and elegant proportions make it a candidate for John Bunyan’s Palace Beautiful in 'The Pilgrim’s Progress'.
As you turn off the main B660 onto a concrete, single track carriageway, you could be forgiven for thinking that the sign is misleading. There is no sign of a house for nearly a mile. Passing bays are dotted along the carriageway, and at the end of it you will see a sign enjoining you to park in a bay large enough for about 10 cars for Houghton. From there, you must proceed on foot. It is an easy walk of perhaps quarter of a mile.
By this point, you will be intrigued as there is still no sign of anything but a small gaggle of 1950s terraced houses and a corrugated tin shed with farmyard noises emanating from it. But persist – you are on the right track.
Leaving the car park, continue through the gate and keep a look out to your left. Suddenly, the ruins of Houghton House will come into view. Continue another 100 yards and then take the path to your left which is leads beneath a really lovely avenue to the grass-plat in front of the house.
Houghton House is a ruin, but it is easy to see the layout. It is was built in the traditional E-shape of Elizabethan and Jacobean houses, oriented east-west with the entrance in the southern façade. Construction is of red brick with stone ornamentation.
The avenue leads straight to the central front door, from which what was once a corridor leads directly out of the north façade. Turning back, you can see that the north façade was originally intended as the more impressive side, with a typical Elizabethan loggia, imitating the Italianate style, across the middle section of it. There was once a frieze above the loggia, with heraldic devices relating to the Sidney and Dudley families, but it has worn away with time.
As well as the loggia on the northern façade, there is also a classically-inspired colonnade on the western face, which would have enabled the non-hunting house guests to watch events unfold in the deer-park below.
The ruins are not extensive – fifteen or twenty minutes will suffice to explore both House and grounds. If it is a fine day, it is well worth bringing a picnic and enjoying the splendid view.