Harvington Hall, Worcestershire.
Nestling deep in the Worcestershire countryside, is one of England’s hidden gems – Harvington Hall.
This is not the sort of historic house where you go in and immediately wish you owned the place. You don’t wonder around the rooms thinking about where you’d put the t.v. or which bedroom you’d keep for yourself.
No, because when you visit Harvington Hall, the veil between the twenty-first century and the sixteenth century feels very thin – so thin that it takes practically no imagination, to think yourself back into late Elizabethan times.
And if you were indeed to find yourself at Harvington in the 1590s, you’d have been living a more than usually dangerous life, because this was a recusant home – a house where Catholics practiced their faith, at a time when it was illegal to do so.
Catholic priests toured the recusant houses, but to harbour a priest was a serious crime, one punishable by heavy fines and loss of property. For a priest discovered in a home, it meant death.
Catholics like Humphrey Packington, who built Harvington Hall in the 1580s, had secret hiding places incorporated into the fabric of their houses – hiding places where it was hoped, the priest and his utensils, could be safely hidden away if the Elizabethan law enforcers came searching for them.
Harvington Hall has at least seven of these hides (perhaps it’s still keeping others secret). And they certainly worked, because no priest was ever discovered at Harvington, although just a few miles away, at Hindlip, several priests and conspirators associated with the Gunpowder Plot, were found and later executed.
Something of the constant fear this must have caused seems to live on in the house – not that it feels especially sad or scared, more that it feels watchful, as if it is on guard, carefully keeping it’s secrets safe.
It’s easy to fall through time with your senses at Harvington. It smells of wood smoke, yeasty ale and age, it creaks as you walk across wonky wooden floors, you find yourself expecting to see a pig roasting over a roaring fire in the hearth.
But overwhelmingly, and more than at any other house I’ve visited, there’s a compulsion not to pass any window without looking out, your eyes searching anxiously across the ploughed Worcestershire fields, for what? For hostile horsemen, riding hard towards the Hall?
My mind conjures images of frantic running, cries up the staircases, the rapid movement of furniture, a grab for whatever food is close at hand, and then a quick pretence of calm quiet.
Return your gaze to the room, and it’s as if you’ve stepped back four hundred years, and you have to tap the mobile in your pocket, to remind yourself it’s the twenty-first century.
Harvington Hall – a house of history and mystery – it doesn’t get much better than that.