Picture a busy motorway cutting through surrounding countryside. Traffic races relentlessly for most of the day, and the locomotive hum is carried across adjacent fields and the ancient pathways beyond. The motorway is the M6 in the heart of Lancashire; junction 31 to be exact. Our destination is near in distance, but far away in time.
Just a short drive away along Preston New Road sits Samlesbury Hall, one of Lancashire’s most interesting historic houses, whose foundations stretch back to the 12th century. You could drive straight past if you (or the sat nav) didn’t know what you were looking for, as unlike many other manors of ancient aristocracy, Samlesbury Hall is not set in vast grounds and is partially screened from the main road by a wall of trees. The Hall is situated so close to the road it is hard to imagine how different the setting would have been in centuries gone by.
The building is wonderful, no architectural masterpiece, but true and honest and visually engaging. The Hall has been extended, modernised in parts and spruced up over the years, but the oldest part of the present (other structures had preceded it ) wattle and daub building still proudly boasts its timber frame in the traditional black and white colours. Part of the Hall’s charm for me is its original features in all their imperfection. Within the slightly skewed window frames, twisted beams and creaky floorboards is imbued a certain old world magic which has hung on across the ages and become part of the structure.
Samlesbury is steeped in history and is dripping with stories of religious conflict, treason, kings, priests and witches. It even boasts a saint – and several reputed ghosts. Its rich and fascinating history is a big pull for visitors, and it’s great to see that the charity which now keeps the Hall open to the public has used history and lore to create an excellent visitor experience. The ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Janey the witch’ tours are both crowd-pullers and highly entertaining.
A much more recent and popular addition to Samlesbury is the tempting aroma of the delicious cuisine which is served daily in the Hall’s attractive restaurant. An impressive menu incorporating locally sourced ingredients has not only put the restaurant on the map, but is one of the reasons why the Hall provides a venue for many weddings and corporate events. I was happy to see that since my last visit the Hall has further diversified and now hosts art exhibitions and has developed its antique sales. That being said, it was lovely to see that the said antiques no longer occupied part of the long gallery.
Recent modernisations and adaptations necessary to meet 21st century multi-purposes have not led to the Hall’s many quirky features being overshadowed or side-lined. There is a curious mix of new functionality and heritage.
During the 16th and early 17th centuries, Lancashire was in the thick of the religious turmoil of the times. The county was well known for the high number of its population which remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church; recusants who refused to convert to the new protestant religion often paid a heavy price through loss of property or even life. The Southworth family of Samlesbury Hall were devout Catholics at a time when practising their faith was both illegal and potentially deadly. St John Southworth, beatified by the Pope in 1929, was a member of the Samlesbury Hall family, born there in 1592 and hanged, drawn and quartered on Tyburn Hill in 1564. His remains lie in Westminster Cathedral. Like many Catholic houses of the time, Samlesbury Hall has its secret priest hole. Clergy who were visiting or even residing within the Hall might celebrate mass in secret; priest holes were concealed in the walls, cellars or roof spaces as a means of escape from the King’s men when they came looking for illegal Catholic worship taking place. Three skeletons have been found in the walls at Samlesbury, possibly unfortunate Catholics who met their ends in hiding from their persecutors. Their ghosts are said to walk at night. Ultimately, it was through the heavy anti-Catholic taxation of the times (a fine was imposed on those who refused to attend Anglican church services) that the Southworth family’s fortunes took a down turn, leading in the end to them having to sell Samlesbury in the 17th century.
On the other side of the religious coin, one Southworth heir, Thomas, converted to the Anglican faith and is recorded as overseeing the dissolution of the local Abbey at Whalley on behalf of Thomas Cromwell. Another protestant family member, Jane Southworth, was implicated in the Lancashire witch trials, maliciously it would appear. Happily, she was not executed.
Walking along the impressive long gallery and sitting in the (now deconsecrated) chapel – currently a popular wedding venue – it’s hard for the 21st century mind to grasp the power of the religious fervour which rent families apart and which led to such fear and destruction. Four hundred years isn’t all that long ago.
Samlesbury Hall was bought and sold a number of times after the departure of the last of the Southworths in 1678, and was put to many uses such as a boarding school for girls and industrial units for hand loom weavers. One room at the house displays a time line showing the Hall’s history, including its hitting rock bottom in 1924 when it faced demolition. It’s sad to see the slow decline of Samlesbury from its elevated status as the seat of mediaeval lords to its almost destruction by bulldozer.
The Samlesbury Hall story is a bitter-sweet one. It is believed to contain many restless spirits, and there are plenty visitors who will swear to having seen or sensed them making their presence felt in dark corners or on quiet landings, or perhaps amongst the trees in the garden, the scene of another murder resulting from sectarian divisions. I’d like to think that any Samlesbury spectres might, like the delighted visitors to the house, be able to enjoy celebration of a home that has lived on and flourished in new times and in new ways, whilst still firmly rooted in the distant past.