There’s a collection of giggles coming from the wall above the bed, had there been silence nobody would have suspected anything.
“Are you ready to come out now” a lady wearing a Tudor styled muffin hat asks in a hushed tone to the wall.
The lady raises a timber beam from the wall and holds it up as three excited children emerge. This room was Dr Charles Dodd’s Library. The back wall is aligned with books and the high window allows the light to shine through. Dodd served as Chaplain here at Harvington Hall and wrote his book ‘The Church history of England’.
The hide is one of many at Harvington Hall, the majority of the hides are supposedly created by a man named Nicholas Owen. He created the hide during a time when it was an act of treason to protect a Catholic Priest, anybody caught hiding a priest or them themselves to be a priest would be executed. The room is overcrowded with the influx of visitors visiting the house, which is said to have the most priest hides in England. The hide in this particular room was found 300 years after it was built. It was discovered by two playing children in 1897, a small table that was used for the priests was still hidden in the hide.
Early on during my visit, a drawbridge upon the main house welcomed me into the grounds. The gardens to the left are created with colours of basil, parakeet, and fern. The cobbled stones unbalance the soles of my shoes as I enter the tunnel of Harvington Hall. The Medieval manor house dates back to the late 14th century, it was then rebuilt in the Elizabethan period and again in the 18th century.
A warming smile from the lady at the front desk, a £8 admission fee and I’m hurried onto the tour which has already begun in the kitchen. A large wooden table is the first object on display and a feast of plastic foods are on exhibit. In the corner of the room our guide reveals a well, masked by a large wooden box. The attendant unlocks the padlock and teaches us how to get the water from the well.
“This house is very privileged”, she says in a theatrical manner. “Not many people would be as lucky as us to have a well in our kitchen, some people have to walk outside to fetch the water”.
“I’ve got something to show you”, she tells us in an excited demeanor.
Our guide goes into the next room and reveals a shoulder yolk, which was used by young boys to transfer the water from the well.
“Come on children, who would like a go?”
The three children hurry over to the yolk taking it in turns holding it.
Before the tour of the kitchen is over, Ann holds out a loaf of plastic bread.
“Because we would most likely have been poor, we wouldn’t have this bread. Our bread would have been made from rye, whereas the posh people upstairs would have had white or wholemeal bread”.
Ann informed us that because of the style of ovens the bottom half of the loaf would tend to burn, so they would cut the top half off and give it to the wealthy above. This is where the saying ‘Upper crust’ is said to derive from.
Our guide then lights a candle from lashing flint on steel in the tinderbox.
“What we used to do is have a candle horizontal and burn it at both ends”.
The parents of the group “ooh” together, realising the meaning behind the well-known saying.
Ann firstly leads us to the washroom where the first hide is shown above the bread-oven within the chimneystack. To access the hide, the trap door is located on the floor. The second room was Lady Yates Chamber. The floor creaks with my movements and a slope to the room catches me off balance. I’ve been told that the furniture here are replicas and unfortunately not the original. The Throckmortons, who later owned the house along with their other properties during the nineteenth century, sold the furniture and caused the house to become derelict.
The bedroom is coated in wooden paneling and accompanied by a carved four-poster bed. Mary Yates is the daughter of the builder Humphry Packington and following her father’s and then husband’s death, she used the house as a dower house. I examine the detailed embroidery of the bedclothes and look to the eyes of the portraits on the wall.
“Shall we move on?”
Our guide interrupts my examination of the period furniture in the room.
She leads us to the great hall where visitors would have been entertained. This room too is decorated with restored paneling and stained glass windows. The portraits of the influencers of Harvington Hall are hung on the one wall, greeting its visitors as you enter.
I follow the tour group up the winding stairs to the attic past Mr Dodd’s library, with each step abruptly followed by a squeak in the floorboards. The staircase is narrow and I cling to the sides whilst exploring the walls marked with unearthed Elizabethan wall paintings. A whitewashed paint masks the detailed painting of a mermaid for centuries but has since been rediscovered etching through the walls.
On the top floor lies the Catholic chapel that could be concealed by whichever priest was in the residence at that period. Whilst mass took place, three lookouts would stand guard by the windows in the nursery room just outside the chapel. A hidden storage department located under the floorboards could have easily concealed the utensils for Catholic Mass. The priests would then scatter into one of the many hides in the house.
It is believed that Nicholas Owen who produced many safe houses to hide priests in the early 1590’s constructed these hides. Shortly after the failed Gunpowder plot, Owen was discovered leaving a hide and was tortured and later died in the Tower of London. Despite being tortured he never revealed the locations of the hides and he later became Patron Saint of escapologists and illusionists.
We head to one of the priest’s rooms in the house. A waxwork kneels to an altar as we flutter past the small chapel. The priest’s room is basic and the desk is presented at the front, overlaid with letters and feather quills.
“During this time many letters that were sent and sealed would have been read by spies. A lot of the priests would have had to use codes or in some cases lemon juice, so the words could stay concealed”. Anne informed us with a theatrical smile.
The base of the bed is a sheet of material that has been tied together, as she lifts the covers the straw bedding is revealed. Ann looks to the eager children of the group.
“Have you heard of the phrase, Sleep tight don’t let the bed bugs bite?” she asks.
The children nod enthusiastically towards Ann. Our guide tells the group excitedly that the phrase was used to describe the ropes on the bed.
“They should be pulled tight to have a well-sprung bed and the bed bugs would have been living in the hay where you sleep”, she continued to tell us.
As the tour comes to an end we walk down the main stairs of the house. The staircase had been reconstructed to create a hide in the house, traces of the old banister are still present on the walls. The guide carefully opens the hatch that mimics the cluster of stairs. Hiding beneath is a manikin of a priest. The hide looks quite big and the children gasp with amazement as the adults struggle to see over their heads. The two steps are linked by a hinge for an easy access and concealed by a safe. Even if the hide were uncovered, they would only see the safe in front. No priests were ever found at Harvington Hall.
Harvington Hall is located in Harvington, Worcestershire. It’s not only renowned as a magnificent manor or even celebrated for the Malthouse or gardens. But it’s also appreciated for the many secret chambers hidden in the house and remembered for the sacrifice of the Devoted Catholics that lived and visited the Hall.