It was a complete gift. We knew nothing about it; on a whim decided to chance it, and then just fell head-over-heels in love with it.
Poetry in stone. A beech-hedged drive. A sixteenth-century dovecote. A bridge over the river Wye. Turrets and battlements playing hide-and-seek with tree tops and the hall sitting on it’s limestone bluff above us. Past the Elizabethan stables, through the North-West Tower into the lower courtyard, and finally there was the hall itself. A higgeldy-piggeldy house, with porches, chimneys and battlements jostling for space. But it was the stone and the roses that killed me. Mellow yellows and slate grey, large stones and small bricks – a hotch-potch of centuries of building, and almost entirely engulfed by rambling roses; so that the stone seemed to live and breathe. It was a hall with a cottagey feeling. A stately pile that felt like a home.
And a home it has been to the Vernon and Manners families and their countless servants since the late twelfth century. With a twist. When Sir John Manners was made a duke by Queen Anne in 1703, the family decamped to Belvoir Castle, and Haddon was left, unoccupied, unloved. This was her saving. Suspended in time, timeless, she inhabits all time.
Parts of the chapel date from the mid twelfth century. In the midst of Norman pillars and arches, seventeenth-century servant pews in the south aisle overlook a marble effigy of Robert Charles John Manners. As the eldest son of the eighth duke he would have inherited but died at the age of nine in 1894. People, past and present, are felt so easily at Haddon.
The kitchens are Tudor, built in the fourteenth century. The step leading to the bakery worn into a deep hollow by countless steps of servants rushing to prepare banquets. The great slabs of wooden counters worn literally to bowl shaped holes by the mind numbing chopping of thousands of vegetables. Scorch marks on the timber walls show that much of this work was done by candlelight.
In the butchery, the fifteenth-century salting trough – hollowed out of a single oak – stands where it’s always stood. A servant known as ‘the powderer’ would crush the salt needed to preserve the meat. As I stand there, I feel the heat, smell the blood, and hear the noise.
The banqueting hall was modernised in the fifteenth century! Hooked to a lat of a Gothic tracery screen, an iron manacle and lock indicates the punishment given to any man (or woman) who ‘did not drink fayre’ – less than his alloted quota of ale (no-one drank water – it was too filthy). His arm held in the manacle, the rest of his ale would be poured down his sleeve. In days when clothes and skin were washed once or twice a year, this was quite a deterrent. The seventeenth-century dog gates barring access to the upper floor suggest that the Vernons loved dogs but didn’t want them shedding hairs and scratching furniture in the Long Gallery.
Centuries past. But many small everyday objects, lost or thrown away, and found during the early twentieth-century restoration of the Hall, evoke the lives of past inhabitants and suggest in fundamental ways that they weren’t so different from ours. Brass and beechwood washing tallies used to keep a record of items of clothing. A shilling coin from the reign of Edward VI (found in the chapel) representing a workman’s wage for three days of thatching. A child’s book made of horn inscribed with the alphabet and a prayer. Whatever time we live in, whatever age, we’re all busy with the day-to-day of living. Struggling, surviving, dying and loving. For always and eternity.
Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire. http://www.haddonhall.co.uk/