The house stands rather below the summit of a hill, and thus - though when we leave the lime avenue we enter a charming room scarcely above the level of the flower garden before it - the chief or front entrance is reached by flights of very high steps; indeed, Ampthill is placed so high that it commands a fine view of the Vale of Bedford. The house has a long front with two projecting wings; there are nearly forty windows exclusive of the dormers. In the centre is an angular pediment bearing Lord Ossory's arms; and over the door a circular pediment with an antique bust.
The park is very picturesque, and is studded with beautiful groups of trees. Some of the oaks are of immense age, with a girth of ten yards each. They are very numerous, but many of them hollow and decayed from age, though preserving their picturesque beauty.
As we drive into the park we perceive to the right hand some ponds; above these, at the edge of a steep ascent, stood Ampthill Castle. It was at the back of the present mansion, and was built by Lord Fanhope at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It was a favourite resort of Henry VIII., who was often here. There are two plans in existence of the old castle, from which we find that in front was a large court, then an oblong court, on each side of which was a very small one. "Between the front and back courts were two projections like the transepts of a church. In front were two square projecting towers." On the spot where this castle stood (it was totally demolished) Lord Ossory erected, in 1773, a monument, consisting of an octagonal shaft raised on four steps and surmounted by a cross, bearing a shield with the arms of Catherine of Arragon. On a tablet inserted in the base of the cross is this inscription, written by Horace Walpole:-
At the back of this spot Lord Ossory planted a grove of firs.
Queen Catherine was residing at Ampthill - separated from her husband and daughter - when the commissioners for her divorce met at Dunstable Priory, in 1533; and here Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, pronounced sentence of divorce on May 23rd. For this Mary, Catherine's daughter, never forgave him, and at last brought him to the stake. The sentence was communicated to Catherine at Ampthill. She was offered the title of Princess Dowager, and to be treated as the king's sister; but she solemnly protested that she would never consent to give up her title of Henry's wife. She was removed from Ampthill almost by force, and was taken to Kimbolton to die.
One of the Dukes of Bedford gave to the town of Ampthill an almeda, or alameda, such as we find outside Spanish towns - a charming place for sitting, walking, or chatting, if our climate would allow us to enjoy an outdoor life; but the soil being sand, it is nearly always a dry place to walk in. Let us try to describe it. We pass from the road into an extremely wide avenue, planted with trees at each side, and turfed, with seats under the trees. Walking up it for some distance - for it is long - we reach at length a piece of land on which grows a fine grove of pine and fir trees. This is a delightful spot, with hilly rises and miniature dells; the ground under the pines is strewn thickly with their needles, and their peculiar perfume is on the air. A lovely spot for reclining on the turf in the shade on a hot summer day, and listening to the aerial music that breathes through the pine stems, as sweet and mysterious as the sound of an Aeolian harp, while from high in the heaven the lark's song falls, adding a new charm to the place. Here sometimes an out-of-doors tea is drunk; but the almeda has never been as much used by the townspeople as the donor probably hoped. At one part of this grove, which is of some extent, there is a little brooklet, and the walk by it is said to have been that on which Catherine of Arragon walked, doubtless in painful thought of how cruelly she had been betrayed by her maid-of-honour and her husband.
Ampthill has a town-hall and one or two good shops. Just past the church is Ampthill House (not Ampthill Park), a fine mansion, picturesquely situated. It is in the Italian style of architecture, with a centre bow, and the house extending on each side of it. A new portion, nearly doubling its former size, has been added to it of late years. It has a wonderfully fine magnolia, and a wisteria climbing all over the front, and stands on a hill commanding an extensive and beautiful view. A wide terrace lies below the front windows, with a tennis ground at one end, and lovely flower beds gemming the lawn, which is over-shadowed by a very fine old oak and other trees. There is a walk round it, and below, meadows stretching in green beauty down the hill, with a picturesque tree-shadowed pond in them. The walk takes us by the margin of a much finer and larger pond, however, in the grounds, flower-edged and full of lovely water-lilies, and then to the hot-houses of all kinds, and the kitchen-garden and stables. It is all pastoral and sweet; and seen in May, with the meadows a sheet of gold and the tender green of the trees still at its freshest, there cannot be imagined a more picturesque and truly English home. The approach to the house is by an avenue of splendid sycamores. There used to be a very long elmwalk at the back of the house; but as the elms are apt to decay unseen when old, and from falling suddenly are dangerous, it has been partially removed. The elms met overhead, and a glimpse through their long perspective of the meadow-land and part of the town and sometimes of the sunset, was highly picturesque. The flowers in the green houses and conservatory are very beautiful.
At the end of the grounds near the lodge the son of the owner has erected a reading-room for the young men of the town, where they find fire and light in winter, and books, newspapers, chess, and bagatelle boards, etc. It is highly appreciated by the town, and must be a means of good. Art has been greatly cultivated amongst the young men and boys of Ampthill by a fair daughter of the house, and the wood-carving done there is of the highest beauty.
Bedfordshire is a rich and pastoral county, and escaped wonderfully from the ravages of the civil war of the Roses, from the fact of its not possessing any strongholds; all its castles, except Bedford and Ampthill, having been destroyed in the reign of John. From the same cause not many important events occurred here during the civil war of the seventeenth century.