Chapter 1: Infatuation
The moment Brian saw a magazine advertisement for the sale of Biddulph Old Hall, he was gripped by foreboding. He felt sure that if I were ever to catch sight of the photograph of the gaunt stone tower rising out of a cluster of mournful ruins, a calamitous chain of events would be set in motion. It was an uncannily wise and perceptive worry, which led him to hide the magazine and not mention it for two or three days. Then his own curiosity got the better of him and he slipped it, open, on to my desk.
I glanced at the picture and began to read. The text described the remnants of a great Elizabethan mansion on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands which had been attacked in the English Civil War and brought to ruin. Alongside, in fact built in to them, was a seventeenth-century inhabited stone farmhouse.
‘What do you think?’ Brian asked nonchalantly. I slowly took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes.
‘We’ll have to buy it, obviously.’ Ten minutes later we had made an appointment to view it the following day. Worse still, an hour after that we had set off to find it.
Brian and I run a design business restoring period houses for clients, and for years had been searching for one special project to renovate ourselves. We had recently borrowed a lot of money to buy Bletchley Manor, a ruinous manor house in North Shropshire. It was desperately in need of major surgery if the disintegration of its timber frame was to be halted before it reached the point of collapse, and demolition. We had drawn up plans and got listed building consent for a radical restoration of the building from a sad collection of bedsits to the important historic house it really was. Work had begun with a drastic strip-out so that its deep-seated structural problems could be assessed, and a programme for tackling them put in hand. So what were we doing, meandering about the back lanes of Staffordshire on a rain-sodden January evening searching for yet another decrepit manor house?
We arrived at two low stone piers supporting a fractured iron gate, newly painted brilliant white over its pitted, corroded surface to try to disguise its decay. The gate was standing open and in the car headlights we could see a rutted drive disappearing steeply downhill between dripping, leafless beech trees. Without warning, a light flicked on – and a surreal apparition emerged from the impenetrable void. It was a building so incomprehensible in shape, mass and texture that we could not begin to decipher it. Facades from moorland farmhouses were juxtaposed with reticent ashlar elements which in turn collided with mighty, castle-like, sandstone blocks. Above all this, a cacophony of anarchic twisted roofs straddled their way upwards till they were crowned by an octagonal tower, the ogee dome of which provided a climax of ghoulish melodrama to the whole fantastic edifice. It utterly defied classification. Some parts were symmetrically arranged, but they made no attempt to conform to italianate ideals of harmony. Equally, there was no hint of the contrived, spiky disorder of Victorian medievalism.
As suddenly as we had been admitted to this startling world, it vanished when the security light went off. We had been initiated into the mystical world of Biddulph old Hall and we knew that, despite our better judgement, we would be back the next morning to view it. The following day the rain was replaced by pallid January sun. The clash of discordant fragments of masonry was no less peculiar than it had been the night before, but now the cumulative effect was more gently eccentric than monstrously assertive. The tower and the highest chimney stacks were revealed as being of a different stone, which at least made them understandable as distinct phases of construction.
The undisturbed quality of the hall and its setting seemed even more unusual in daylight than it had when the surrounding countryside was lost in darkness. The land fell away into a gentle valley beyond the building, made up of a series of hedged or stone-walled fields interspersed with copses and larger patches of woodland. There were glimpses of a river in the valley bottom, beyond which the land rose to a long ridge, sparsely dotted by sandstone farmsteads with long tracks snaking up to them. Even though it was January, there was only a single gap in the trees bordering the river far below, through which we could catch a glimpse of traffic. The whole pattern of the land was lyrically evocative of an age before intensive farming or ribbon housing development. The tower and its cluster of supporting structures lay in a context of enduring repose that was so improbable near Stoke-on-Trent that it was difficult to believe it had not been deliberately contrived for effect.
The car came to a halt in oozing mud and we sat in silence, absorbed by the still presence of the old house in its remote hiding place, apparently oblivious to the neurotic world around it. Far away across the Cheshire plain the weak sun shone through a slight haze on to the great white dish of the Jodrell Bank telescope.
We had just remarked on the comparatively conventional character of the house’s back elevation when the door opened and a slim woman emerged.
‘The mud comes free, you’ll be glad to hear!’ she called as we got out of the car and squelched our way towards her. She stepped back into the house as we approached, revealing a step down from the threshold, over which two alarming little rivulets of water were flowing.
We shook her proffered hand. Mrs Smith was about sixty, with the manner of a slightly acerbic schoolmistress taking in hand two dawdling nine-year-olds. Brian and I gazed along a narrow passage with steep stairs rising along its left-hand wall. There were two poor-quality flush doors with plastic handles to left and right. The absolute predictability of the layout gave us the feeling of having walked into a conventional semi-detached house of the 1930s. The space felt mean, dark and dismayingly commonplace. How could this meagre corridor be the first experience of being enveloped by the hidden tower house we had driven up to? Every part of what we were looking at was a banal travesty, ruthlessly imposed upon the ancient fabric of the house.
Even then, in that first moment of engagement, we had a sense of outrage that something so inherently unique and precious, all the more valuable for being difficult to comprehend, had been deliberately suppressed and tamed. Before we had regained our equilibrium, Mrs Smith was chivvying us through the door on the right to her kitchen. After the hall, it was at least animated by the cluttered chaos of everyday use. Indeed, such a density of necessities and bric-a-brac had been compressed into one low, dimly lit space that it had acquired the all-embracing claustrophobia of a caravan or canal barge. The confrontation of decorative idioms, working one against the other, and all, to varying degrees, in conflict with the underlying character of the building, was eclectic to the point of exhaustion. The walls at the far end of the room had been clad in varnished pine boards, and fitted with starkly simple white melamine units. However, the reticent intent of this ensemble had been completely submerged beneath a conglomeration of wine racks, sieves, painted plates, trivets, microwave cookers, abstract drawings, Greek peasant jars, cacti, ferns and scented candles. In the centre of the room this homely hotch-potch collided with the stern mass of a great corbelled chimney breast, obscured beneath an ill-fitting skin of woodchip wallpaper above a venerable cream aga.
‘So that’s the kitchen – no doubt as designers you think it very passé!’ she led the way out into the hall.
‘Not that I’m out of sympathy with that! if I’d not got bogged down here who knows what subversive innovations might not have sheltered me. After all, I’m a modernist at heart!‘ as she spoke she reached the end of the hall and opened a door into another world. it was a disturbing place, with an atmosphere as distinct as it was possible to get from the banality of the hall and kitchen. It rode roughshod over the contrived ordinariness of those spaces.
Brian and I literally gasped as we stepped across the stone-flagged threshold of the room. never in all our years of working with period houses, in every stage of dereliction or cosseted preservation, had we walked into a space that so vividly and brutally conveyed a sense of the remote past.