Many years ago, and I’m talking decades, like, last century dude when everything was in black and white, my Uncle George convinced himself we, the Harrisons, were related to another set of Harrisons at Samlesbury Hall in Lancashire.
His proof, which probably wouldn’t hold much water in court, relied on the portrait of a man with an uncanny resemblance to Uncle Jimmy. Uncle George and Uncle Jimmy are currently occupying clouds in the same celestial vicinity as the Harrisons of Samlesbury Hall, but it makes you think.
Now, I spend my Tuesdays toiling the soil and working the earth in the grounds of a house I might have owned if my ancestors had played their cards right. But they didn’t, which means I don’t, and at the end of the day I go home to a semi in a town so appalling I’m ashamed to tell you where it is.
So why do I do it? Why do I volunteer at Samlesbury Hall? One reason is my interest in history and historical things. And Samlesbury has a lot of history. I know this because Janey the Samlesbury Witch told me two Sundays ago. In between barbed comments about fat men and soldiers who can’t function after a bit of ale, we learned all about the Hall’s 14th century origins when there was straw on the floor, a hole in the roof and a terrible smell coming from the people inside. If you’ve ever had a meal in a Weatherspoons pub you might get the picture. (Just a joke. There are no holes in the rooves of Weatherspoons pubs.)
I found myself shanghai-ed onto Janey’s tour because I had come down to see the visiting re-enactors. A small group of young men had set themselves up on the Tennis Lawn and were beating the bejesus out of people with lengths of three by two. I thought a drink might be a better option, so headed for the coffee lounge and settled down with a cappucino which had barely stopped frothing before I was swept away by Janey and her, lets say, unorthodox powers of persuasion. She actually carried my coffee for me. How many modern day witches would do that?
Samlesbury Hall is not the biggest stately home in the world. You could probably fit it into one of the cupboards at Versailles, but its existance spans one of the most turbulent periods of English history: the Reformation.
When Henry VIII decided Catherine of Aragon didn’t quite have what Ann Boleyn had and the Pope was having none of Henry’s talk of divorce, the separation of the English Church from Rome led to a social, cultural and religious upheavel that resonates to this day. In Samlesbury’s day that meant priest holes, tunnels, unannounced visitors and Protestant bother in the small hours.
Samlesbury suffered because the owners were Catholic. When I was at school, my form was named Southworth, after the Catholic martyr John Southworth who owned Samlesbury in the 16th Century before he was chopped to bits by Henry’s cronies. (And sewn back together apparently; sewn with such precision few people knew he had been dismembered in the first place.)
Think about that for a moment. I have two connections to Samlesbury; family and education. Both tenuous and still well short of allowing me to seize the deeds. Not that I’d want to. Looking after a house like this takes brass and few people have that much brass.
In 1925 Samlesbury was on the brink of demolition to make way for a housing estate. The property was rescued by local businessmen and placed in the ownership of a trust fund, the Samlesbury Hall Trust, which owns and manages the hall to this day.
Visitors now are safe from the spikey tips of Protestant weapons, but you will find goats, pigs (two enormous mud-wallowing porkers), rabbits, black bees, eco-pods, a heritage centre and ghosts, one of whom, Sir Thomas de Hoghton, haunts the gardens where I spend my Tuesdays, but I haven’t met him yet.
Come to think of it, if Unce George was not talking out of his hat, Sir Thomas might actually recognise me.
Samlesbury Hall is free to get in. Janey the Samlesbury Witch guides visitors of all shapes and sizes on Sundays at 11.30am and 1pm.
More info at Samlesbury Hall.co.uk