Harvington Hall, Worcestershire

I’m currently pulling some of my blogging threads together, so I hope you’ll bear with me if for a while I post at Dreaming In Stitches and reblog history related posts here. This post is about my latest visit to Harvington Hall in Worcestershire.

Dreaming In Stitches

A house of secrets…

One very hot afternoon last week, I headed up to Worcestershire to carry out a couple of family errands and to reward myself with a visit to my all-time-favourite historic house – Harvington Hall.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about it. After a Christmas trip I wrote a post for Mists of Time explaining some of the historic background – which in essence is: Elizabethan moated manor, incorporating older hall section. Famous for having at least seven priest hiding holes, created by NIcholas Owen, none of which ever gave up their secrets during the time they were being used.

Oddly enough, in all the many years I’ve been going to Harvington, I don’t remember going before on a sunny day. I wondered how it would affect the atmosphere, because although I’ve always loved it, you couldn’t really call it a particularly warm house. The…

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Claydon, Buckinghamshire

In which we visit the West Wing…

I sneaked out earlier this week for an afternoon at Claydon. The sun was shining and I felt like a gentle stroll around and the attraction of the second-hand book shop clinched it for me (I am sooooo happy to find these at more and more National Trust properties).

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the view across Buckinghamshire from the front of Claydon

the view across Buckinghamshire from the front of Claydon

Claydon is one of the closest properties to our house, so I’ve been there a number of times over the years, but I’m sitting here now having trouble deciding how to describe it. The thing about Claydon for me, is that it’s almost more about what you can’t see than what you can.

The obvious thing you can’t see (oh dear, am I sounding a bit Donald Rumsfeld here…), is the rest of the building that once stood with the bit that’s left. The building we see now is only a fragment of the original eighteenth century mansion, the West Wing, built for one of the Sir Ralph Verney’s in the 1750s. Poor Sir Ralph had a dreadful case of the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ definitely a problem when your neighbour was the owner of Stowe.

Sadly for Sir Ralph, his finances didn’t keep up with his aspirations and not long after his death, the house was reduced to its current size.

The back of Claydon - the bookshop is hiding behind one of those doors.

The back of Claydon – the bookshop is hiding behind one of those doors.

Not that I think you’d complain if what’s left was your own country pad. Think rococo interiors gone wild and you’ll just about be on the right track – (you’ll have to take my word on this though, or Google Claydon images or look up Claydon on Pinterest, because the National Trust won’t let you take pictures).

You have to see the interior – it’s magnificent. You want to dress up in your posh Georgian gear and swagger about – no really, you do.

But then things start to get, what shall we say… eclectic?

I don’t know, this is where it begins to confuse me. The thing is, once you venture upstairs at Claydon, it’s a bit like entering a historical pic ‘n’ mix.

At the moment you get some lovely memorabilia about weddings, including wonderful seventeenth century letters from the Verney family and the wedding suit from 1662 of Sir Edmund ‘Mun’ Verney. But the next room contains all sorts of ‘stuff’, largely collected by a pirate Verney (oh yes) – you could spend quite some time in that room alone – and then what do you expect? You’ll never guess, no you won’t…

You get Florence Nightingales’s bedroom – there, you didn’t guess did you.

And then, just when you thought things couldn’t get any more odd, you walk through into two simply breathtaking chinoiserie-style rooms, the second of which will have you gasping.

(This would definitely be better with pictures – go away now and Google)…

Anyway, whilst you’re visiting, you’ll probably have taken in – even if on a subconscious level, the faces of quite a lot of Verney’s. This is something I adore, for me, it’s just so much more interesting if I can put a face to a name, and with so much family history on show, that makes a big difference.

The face I most want to be able to go back and talk to is that of Sir Edmund Verney, standard-bearer at the Battle of Edgehill to Charles I.

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This poor chap, who looks such a nice, if rather worried fellow from his portrait, deserved so much better. He was the father of ten surviving children (I’d like to write a whole book about his wife), who worked tirelessly for the king, and then when the Civil War broke out, despite disagreeing with Charles on substantial matters, remained loyal to the king.

He was killed at the battle, still holding the royal standard. His body they say, was never recovered, just the hand that had been severed, so the standard could be taken.

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You’ll see and hear a lot about him in the house, but of course he never knew this house because it wasn’t built until 100 years after his death. He would have known the previous Jacobean building of which we see nothing at all. This worries me, not least because I somehow want to see him in that interior and also because he is said to haunt the current building, which must be extremely confusing for him too.

The best place to see the Verney’s though isn’t the house at all. It’s in the church.

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Here at last you do get a sense of continuity. After all, the house may be eighteenth century, but the Verney’s have lived at Claydon for over 400 years, the church then, is the one connection they all share.

They must have been a close family too, there are some simply amazing memorials. The best of which of course is to brave Sir Edmund.

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While I’ve been writing this, I think I’ve worked out what it is that I like most about Claydon – it’s the people. Some places you visit, you enjoy and then forget about, but at Claydon you leave wanting to know more, and more, and more, and more…

For more information…

This is the link to the National Trust visitor page for Claydon – do make sure to check it out especially if you’re planning a visit. Lots of pictures and loads more history there too.

As I mentioned, there’s a little book shop at the back of the house (actually in the part where the present day Verney’s still live) – don’t miss it.

And out in the courtyard are a variety of shops and places to eat – oh and you can pay extra to visit the garden.

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

In which we didn’t quite freeze…

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I think these may have been the only other visitors while we were there, sorry but my editing abilities fall far short of deleting this couple…

It’s confession time. Baddesley Clinton has to be one the National Trust’s most photogenic properties, but a combination of extreme cold and having so much fun chatting to the room guides, means that I didn’t take a lot of photos on our recent visit. In all the following, I just want you to imagine what it would be like to use your camera in a dark freezer …

And so, Baddesley Clinton, what can I say…

Well, I’ve been several times before (although not for some years), and never on such a cold afternoon. But without doubt, despite the temperature, this was my favourite visit – not because of the house, which as I suppose we’d all hope, hadn’t changed much, but because of the wonderfully enthusiastic and dare I say it, mildly eccentric room guides we met (eccentricity in the best possible tradition).

Right from the start, we found ourselves involved in a series of conversations which were somehow both informative and simultaneously quirky. I’ve been visiting historic houses since they built the Ark, but I’ve never before met so many characters in one place, who in their individual ways engaged with us.

Perhaps the cold was encouraging all of us to be more chatty than normal, or maybe it was because there weren’t a lot of people walking around and in a small house it feels impolite to ignore someone standing inches away from you – whatever the reason, by the time I came away, I felt that we’d well and truly enjoyed ourselves.

I can’t really recreate that experience here, so instead I’ll show you the pictures that I did actually take and just say that if you’re ever near Baddesley Clinton on a Wednesday afternoon – go!

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I really do feel that any home should have a jolly big sword hanging on the wall of the gatehouse, don’t you…

Once you walk through, you find yourself in this delightful area.

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Not what you imagine from the outside.

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Inside looking out from those windows.

Sorry, my interior shots were pretty terrible, I’m no good in low light at the best of times.

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The fireplaces are impressive at Baddesley Clinton. I hope you can see from this picture that it has a wonderfully live-in-able quality.

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I forgot to ask about this… Cromwellian armour with an alarming hole in the breastplate, but pictures of men who were Royalists? intriguing…

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Jacobean paintwork. I adore this mantlepiece and would have loved to have sat and stared at it for hours.

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Spot the bloodstain in front of the fireplace? Legend says it was here that Nicholas Brome killed the local priest for tickling his wife in around 1480… Sadly apparently tests say it’s actually pig’s blood, I have to say I’m going to carry on believing it to be the priest’s.

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You might be wondering why this is here, but we had to do a double take – I have that same tea-service, it was my grandmother’s wedding present.

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Who wouldn’t love to be able to stare out of that window across the moat to the trees – sublime.

What of the house’s history?

The part that captivates my heart most of all, is the connection to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Baddesley Clinton was rented in the 1590s by the Vaux sisters, who were recusants, providing safe hiding places for Catholic priests at a time when they were forbidden to practice their faith. There are three priest-holes at Baddesley Clinton, purportedly built by Nicholas Owen at the behest of Anne Vaux, who was particularly attached to Father Henry Garnet, one of the most famous Catholic priests of that era. The house was raided while priests were present, but the hiding places did their job and they weren’t found. I like to imagine the atmosphere inside the house on that morning, what was it like to be woken by frantic pounding, to quickly have to hide the priests and all their paraphernalia, to turn warm mattresses so that they wouldn’t give away the presence of other people, and then to act super cool while your home is ripped apart, all the time knowing that men’s lives depended on you.

Anne Vaux is suspected by some people of being responsible for the Monteagle letter which warned William Parker not to attend Parliament on 5th November, and thereby eventually tipping off the authorities that the Plot was afoot. Whatever the truth, Anne Vaux lived to see the demise of the priests she harboured. A sad end in so many ways.

So much of the Elizabethan and Jacobean fabric of Baddesley Clinton remains, that it is easy to recreate it in your mind’s eye. I do wish the National Trust hadn’t Victorianised the Great Parlour, it was such a wonderful space, grand and airy, that re-creating the overdone interior of the Victorian owners seems to stifle the life out of it. But then, I’m no great fan of things Victorian in general, and I suppose it will appeal to some people. Just try to see beyond the stuff if you go and imagine it as the builder intended.

 

There’s so much more to see and enjoy at Baddesley Clinton – especially if you go an a warm day. The tiny church which is just a little walk from the house is also worth a visit. But based on our experience, I’d try very hard to make sure you go on a Wednesday afternoon!

For more information…

For visitor information, go here to the National Trust page for Baddesley Clinton

Packwood House is also owned by The National Trust and is only a few miles from Baddesley Clinton, if you have time, go to both.

My favourite book about the Gunpowder Plot is by Antonia Fraser:  The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605. You can pick it up second-hand from a couple of £s on Abe books etc.

Another house with an incredible collection of priest-holes, is Harvington Hall, Worcestershire (one of my top ever houses, but for very quirky personal reasons). Let me know if you get the same feelings from there.

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Packwood House, Warwickshire.

In which I have a bit of a revelation…

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I am a happy woman! Yesterday, thanks to the NUT*, Number Two Daughter and I managed to sneak a mid-week visit to Packwood House, which is hidden away in rural Warwickshire.

Do you ever go into a historic house and think ‘oh yes, I could live here’… Well Packwood is one of those for me. Ever since my first visit way back in the 1970s, I’ve loved it.

It isn’t particularly big, just your average Tudor manor house, and it isn’t what you could call altogether authentic – a sizeable section was added when a barn was converted into a hall last century. But none of that matters, because it has the most enticing atmosphere. It feels like a very sociable family home. The sort of place you’d love to invite your friends to for weekends and parties and lounging around in the garden in the summer.

Of course all this is just fantasy, because even if it wasn’t already owned by the National Trust, it’s evident that Packwood has all the problems you’d associate with a building entering its fifth century, and I dread to think what it would cost to keep it warm enough to live in, ah but in my dreams…

So yesterday we braved the arctic wind and occasional hail showers for a visit. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t one my side so far as taking pictures was concerned. Outside was just toooooooo cold – finger freezing temperatures, so I only managed a few snaps before we headed off to the new cafe to warm up, and inside was really too dark for my poor phone to cope. I’ve done what I could to brighten the pictures, but you know how it is.

Just don’t let any of that put you off going. I know it looks gloomy, but it really isn’t, it’s actually a fabulous place, warm in spirit if not in temperature!

Now, as you’ll know if you read my other blog, Dreaming In Stitches, I have a thing about tapestries and all things stitchy. I’ve been obsessed with it for as long as I can remember. But yesterday at Packwood, I had a funny moment (no, not the sort we ladies of a certain age are famous for)…

I was struck by the thought that perhaps it was visiting Packwood all those years ago that inspired the love of stitchiness. Because let’s face it, Packwood does do tapestry…

Pity the light was so poor, or I’d still be there photographing the needlework and woven tapestries.

Well, I shall continue to have a very soft spot for Packwood. It may have far more Bargello than is good for you, but who’s complaining.

The gardens and the yew trees are really worthy of a post all of their own, but I was far too cold and it was too early in the season to do that yesterday – so yes, I’ll just have to go back again in the summer!

* the girls’ school was on partial shutdown due to the one day strike yesterday by members of the NUT.

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For more information…

The National Trust pages for Packwood are here. Do check the opening times if you’re planning a visit.

 

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