When flooded with sunlight, Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall is a heavenly jewellery box of delights. Yet the Batman-approved façade hides many historic secrets, says Natalie Marchant
With its limestone turrets and traceried windows glittering in the sun, Wollaton Hall looks like an ornate jewellery box perched incongruously on a hill. And like all precious jewellery boxes, treasures lie within its hidden compartments. Indeed, this Nottingham country house was so opulent, that a visiting Queen Adelaide, wife of King William IV, later said it should have a glass case to protect it from the elements.
Wollaton Hall is one of Britain’s finest grade I-listed Elizabethan buildings. It was built between 1580 and 1588 for landowner and industrialist Sir Francis Willoughby, who wanted a sumptuous residence in which he hoped the then monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, would stay. To show off his wealth and prestige, he engaged architect and surveyor Robert Smythson, who had already completed Longleat in Wiltshire and went on to create Derbyshire’s Hardwick Hall.
The result was one of Britain’s most eye-catching examples of English Renaissance architecture. But its construction was marred by tragedy for Sir Francis, who never lived here. He died just eight years after its completion, without a male heir and vast amounts of debt thanks to the cost of the build. Neither did Elizabeth I ever visit to see it in all its glory.
What a sight Her Majesty missed. The exuberant frontage that you see today stands as testament to his original vision, even if the interior has undergone redesigns over the years. The hall’s four corner towers and soaring top-floor Prospect Room – with the sun shining right through it, creating the illusion of a floating glasshouse, more of which later – are visible for miles.
Move closer and you’ll see dozens of busts of historical figures, including Plato, Caesar and Charles I, the latter of whom once stayed here with his mother while he was the Duke of York, incorporated into the elaborate façade. Meanwhile some rather bizarre gondola mooring rings attached to the wall hint at an Italian influence.
Film buffs may recognise Wollaton Hall from Christopher Nolan’s 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises, in which the distinctive exterior featured as Wayne Manor, the home of Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne. The setting was surprisingly appropriate – the grounds are home to nine species of bat, while the nearby village of Gotham indirectly inspired the naming of the fictional Gotham City (in medieval times, the Nottinghamshire villagers had a reputation for being fools, leading to one satirical magazine borrowing “Gotham” as a nickname for New York in the 19th century, which in turn was picked up by DC Comics).