Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The best £20 I've spent this trip

The higgledy-piggledy Hall bent under the gallery's weight
I've handed over £20 for a lot of things on this trip. Some of them good and some of them – particularly meals in pubs that should have known better – very disappointing. But, without doubt, today's £20 was the best spend of the lot.
It bought us two tickets for Little Moreton Hall, a higgledy-piggledy Tudor masterpiece of a house that must have used most of the local oak forests in its construction 500 years ago.
It was built and gradually extended by the Moreton family, not Earls and Dukes but wealthy and successful local landowners. At least they were for the first hundred years, then they backed the wrong side in the Civil War and lost more or less the lot except for the house.
They and their relatives clung on to that over the centuries, though most of the time they were too poor to live in it and instead rented it out to tenant farmers who took to using the chapel as a coal store and lived in the only two or three rooms that didn't leak.
The coal store notion didn't please one of the final inheritors who was a nun. She – rather understandably – didn't have any immediate family to pass it on to so she found a second cousin (who she'd never met) and offered it to him, though he wasn't allowed to sell it. He started guided tours – sixpence including a cream tea – to try and cover the repair costs but finally gave up and handed it to the National Trust in 1938. Who spent the next forty odd years sorting it out.
Grouped round a central courtyard like a piece of Tudor op-art
What they got was little more than a ruin but because it had never moved out of the family and because they didn't have the money to knock it down and built a Jacobean pile or a Victorian Gothic horror it has remained in its original Tudor, oak-framed guise. Which makes it very, very rare.
All this, and more, we learned from Sue our tour guide. Did I say that the tour was included free?
Original Tudor wall painting and wallpaper were hidden
The house is fascinating; richly timbered, with an original painted and wallpapered wall discovered when later panelling was removed. (Wallpaper was made briefly fashionable by one of George Osborne's Tudor ancestors.) It grew out of an original single storey hall house, upstairs rooms and then lavish bow windows were added as well as extensions all around. The amount of window glass is remarkable: glass was very costly so the Moretons were obviously extremely well off.
Richard Dale made sure his name would last
But it's the extraordinary twists and leans of the old frame that are its charm: it looks like a gingerbread house that has been left in the sun too long.
Apart from the obvious cause – it's 500 years old and built on virtually nothing – the real cause of the problem is that a 'long gallery' was built straight on top of the south wing's roof rafters. I'm sure the carpenter must have sucked his Tudor teeth (if he had any) and warned that the roof 'cannae take it, skipper' but, these galleries were fashionable so he was likely ordered to go ahead anyway.
The knot garden – clipping the hedges takes 80 hours
And, of course, the result is that the whole south wing virtually collapsed under the load. Today it is held up by steelwork cunningly hidden by National Trust craftsmen. But the roofline looks like the aftermath of an earthquake and the floor is not somewhere to stand your snooker table.
Guide Sue told us some of those fabulous factoids which I manage to hold in my brain when everything else goes straight through. Here's one: the original table was made of three long oak boards – one remains and it's a huge single piece of oak that must be 40 x 3 feet. The head of the family sat at the top of the table and was the only one with a chair – everyone else sat on stools or benches. Hence the phrase 'the chairman of the board'. There was also a board at the side of the room for dishes - the side-board. After the meal they turned the main boards over and played, yes, board games. And when actors or musicians came and needed a stage they used the boards so the actors 'trod the boards'. As you can tell, I was not bored by this information.
After a fascinating tour and a turn round the grounds with their exquisite knot garden, we had an equally excellent lunch in the cafe. Another twenty quid very well spent.


  1. Yep...a great place, though it is a few years since last there. I did see a great TV program by Fred Dibnah where he was illustrating and showing how the craftsmen of the day managed to overcome the challenges of its construction...very obvious that some great quick creative thinking particularly by the carpenters/joiners, simple tools and a little brute force

  2. Looks fascinating. I shall hopefully be able to visit one day.