On Harvington Hall
My friend Julia knows how I love ruinous things. Every time I visit her in Herefordshire, she has a plan, and this time, when she picked me up at Worcester Shrub Hill Station, she had decided that I needed to see Harvington Hall. The house is part medieval, part Elizabethan, a wandering brick construction of wings and ells surrounded by a moat and reached by crossing a drawbridge. We parked in the lot in front of St. Mary’s Church and its attendant graveyard, and approached the bridge along a path guarded by carefully sculpted trees. When we paused on the bridge so I could play a bit with my new camera, a woman was working on the garden below, next to the water. Pulling up the brambles, she told Julia, who asked (Julia asks about everything). They’re taking over. They were, too, beneath the drawbridge–I could see them. A horrid job; but the afternoon was beautiful, sunny and warm, a good day for it. When we left her to pass through the gate into the hall’s courtyard, I found a black and white cat twining around my ankles.
It was a good day for tea, too. Harvington Hall has a lovely tearoom, and it was about the time when Julia was thinking about cake (Julia always thinks ahead about cake; she keeps emergency cake in her car). We ordered sustenance, and the tea lady carried our tray out into the yard where we settled at a rough-hewn picnic table. The cat appeared and rubbed against my shins, but apparently, not caring for scones and tea, decided to meander away toward the sun.
Harvington Hall was built at a time when the Pakington family, who were recusants, had to hide their religious practices from agents of the Elizabethan government. The house, Julia told me, is famous for its cleverly hidden priest holes. Because she’s so familiar with the place, we did not wait around for the tour, but wandered on our own. We started with the chapel at the far end of the yard, but then entered the main house, visiting the kitchen–full of small schoolchildren donning aprons, cloaks, and hats–before heading up into Lady Yate’s private chambers. Here the cat reappeared; despite the signage warning visitors away from the garderobe unless accompanied by a member of staff, he found a perch at the edge of the deep hole and spent quite a bit of time studying its darkness intently. Julia and I were more interested in the bed hangings and embroidered coverlet. When we passed through the great chamber where the children were being introduced to Elizabethan dress and manners by a re-enactor (What do you think? Is my dress that of a higher or lower class person?), the cat was summarily shooed away: the steward obviously did not recognize the superior nature of our feline tour guide.
Julia, with her background in architecture, was intent upon showing me the clever priest hide in the library. When we entered the narrow room, there was a raised area to the right of the door, shoulder height, which would have housed an enclosed cabinet (it’s open now), where one of the great beams in the wall wasn’t a supporting beam at all: it swiveled out and up on an iron bar. In an emergency, the priest might pull himself into the cabinet, close the doors behind, and have time to flip the beam up, shelter in the space behind it, and pull it into place after him. Further along the hallway, in what’s called the Marble room, there’s a fireplace with a false chimney where the priest could pull himself up and hide. Finally we made our way to the very top of the house where a tiny chapel bore the original wall paintings of drops of water and blood, and where a panel hid a place to stow the paraphernalia of Mass, should an inspection by government agents appear imminent. Throughout the house, the floors were uneven, the walls skewed by time; photo exhibits showed before and after pictures–the rooms derelict when the house had been abandoned for years; the rooms restored once the Birmingham Diocese assumed ownership and recognized the house’s historical importance. One shocking picture showed the collapse of a wing when, in the process of restoration, the clinging ivy was removed: the ivy itself had become such an integral part of the structure that the wing could not stand without it. Wow.
Once we’d made our way back along the house at the end of our self-tour, we came down a magnificent grand central staircase. According to the exhibits, the original staircase was built around 1600; it too hid a priest hole, where two attached stairs lifted on a hinge. Since during a search by agents, guards would stand on the steps to prevent escapes, this might have been the safest hide of all. The staircase we came down was a replica, the original having been removed to nearby Coughton Court at some point. On the walls surrounding the staircase, though, were magnificent shadow paintings of the rails–the way the enormous chandelier would have cast those shadows when it was lit.
It was surprisingly warm outside when we finally left the house. We’d lost our guide cat at some point, but there he was, sunning himself on the cobbles. He did not deign to look up when we left.
On our arrival at Harvington, we had the added pleasure of watching a driver park his coach in a really tight spot. “Be careful,” he warned us when he alighted to have a smoke. “Place is full of schoolkids.” In conversation with Julia, who speaks to everyone, he told us he was 19, and that his bosses at NN Cresswell were the best people to work for. He also explained all the testing he had to get through to be licensed to drive that coach in the EU. He was really quite proud of his work: his bosses, he informed us, never had to check his rig at the end of the day–he kept it clean. “They make you guys young these days,” Julia said. The tour cat liked him.