A look around Turton Tower

Turton Tower is a property of mediaeval origin situated between Bolton and Darwen in Lancashire. It’s made up of three distinct and originally separate buildings, the stone tower being the oldest dating back to the 16th century. In later times, the other buildings were added and eventually all three were consolidated, with the newer additions constructed in the older Tudor style for an homogenous and perhaps more grandiose appearance.

In the 1920s, the property was given to the local council for the benefit of the local community and it’s run by a professional, knowledgeable and friendly team of volunteers, on hand to provide guided tours and a wealth of information. The American lady in the reception area/ gift shop revealed that she hailed from Detroit, where a couple of my granddad’s older brothers had emigrated in the 1930s to find work in the Ford car factory. Years ago, when I was seriously into genealogical research, I sourced the documents which outlined their initial passages from Southampton and Liverpool respectively as they set sail for their new lives. I could happily have chatted for longer to find out more about Detroit but more customers arrived and our tour guide invited us to start our exploration.

Look closely at the sizeable front door to spot a much smaller door within, a clever way to prevent ill-intentioned callers from entering unhindered and wielding their swords, possibly like the fine example displayed below.

What old English country house would be compete without a suit of armour or two? A less than discreet design feature allowed for the call of nature to be answered.

Most of the artefacts, whilst totally authentic and in keeping with the various periods of its occupation, do not belong to Turton Tower but are on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum. There are some splendid examples.

A grand if not very comfy-looking seat
ornate engraved cabinet
Early 18th century engraved box
A child’s bed engraved with sea creatures and mermaids, themes that can be found in other houses of the same era
Some of the most interesting exhibits were a variety of chairs, including
An amusing engraving
This exotic looking example
This intriguing ‘reading chair’, designed for men to sit facing towards the back, leaning on the arm rests to enhance the reading experience. The back of the chair, at crotch level, contains a little door, obviously essential for reading

All of the rooms were well presented and, perhaps because the exhibits were on loan and carefully chosen, there wasn’t that over-stuffed feel that I’ve encountered at some similar historic houses where much of what was on show seemed superfluous and untidy.

The drawing room with furniture from different eras
Top floor of the tower which provided a perfect lookout for approaching enemies, wattle and daub wall section exposed

One of my favourite objects was not one of the oldest but this gorgeous clock which shows the phases and faces of the moon peering out as if from behind the clouds . I’d never seen a clock like it, but our guide, Margaret, remembered her granny owning one and thinks they were probably not uncommon. I would love to see this charming timepiece in working order.

It was time for a cup of tea in the sunshine, so off we went to the little outdoor cafe, to enjoy the fresh air and the daffodils on a perfect spring day.

A tour of Smithills Hall

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Smithills Hall is a grade 1 listed manor house near Bolton, Lancashire, close to the West Pennine Moors. Last Sunday I took a tour to find out more.

 

First things first. The popular tea room makes tasty soup and sandwiches which were just what we needed before the hour-long exploration began.

 

According to Dorothy, our excellent guide, when the Anglo Saxons settled in the area in the 7th century, they described the surrounding hylls as smeƥe, or smooth. By 1300s, Smeƥe hylls had evolved into Smythell as noted in the earliest records which mention a manor house in that location.  In 1335, house and land were bought by the powerful Radcliffe family who built the oldest parts of the present great hall from timber frames and stone.

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Dorothy, our tour guide

 

Original features are still present; my favourites are the alms windows where bread would be left in the loaf-shaped openings for collection by the beggars of the parish, so that physical contact with them could be avoided.

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After the last of the Radcliffes died heirless in 1485, Smithills (as it was by then known)  passed into the possession of the Bartons, wealthy gentlemen farmers who held onto it for two centuries. There are some wonderful features from this period including examples of carved wood.

 

 

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The Bartons were enthusiastic recyclers, repurposing the solid oak planks of decommissioned ships which happened to make splendid beams and joists.

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The Tudor period was one of great turmoil in England. Henry VIII had brought religious reformation in the 1530s  when he declared himself Head of the Church of England and severed ties with the Pope and Rome. After Henry’s death in 1547, his son, Edward, became King, but died after just six years. The new monarch, Queen Mary, re-established Catholicism.  She became known as Bloody Mary due to her persecution of Protestants and the gruesome burnings which she ordered to be carried out on Protestant clergy who would not recant their faith.

George marsh

In 1554, George Marsh, a preacher from Bolton, was interrogated or ‘examined’ in what is known as the ‘green room’ at Smithills Hall before he was eventually burned at Chester. The ‘green room’, with its incredibly uneven and creaky floor, can normally only be viewed on special tours such as the heritage event we were attending……and ghost tours.

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The green room where George Marsh was interrogated

All old English houses have their stories of ‘things that go bump in the night’ and Smithills is no exception. After his interrogation, George Marsh is said to have stamped on a flagstone, leaving a strange supernatural footprint which is now under a glass cover for protection. It was impossible to take a decent photo due to poor lighting and visitors walking past so here’s one I found online.

Marsh

An original private chapel was thought to have been established in the 8th century with the present chapel (still in use), being built in 1520 by the Bartons and later refurbished and extended.

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I particularly liked the splendid stained-glass windows and the wooden panels, some of which are engraved with Masonic-looking symbols which also appear elsewhere in the Hall. Another member of the tour group asked about these but was told that they’d been checked out by the Freemasons who denied the images were associated with their secret society.

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The Ainsworth family took ownership in 1801. They were ‘new money’, owning a very successful bleaching business and a family fortune which demanded a residence to match their status.

The different wings converge around a courtyard, now turned into an herb garden. Formal gardens surround the Hall and the wider grounds include extensive woodland and lawns.

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The west wing was the last part to be added in the Victorian era. Mr and Mrs Ainsworth’s separate sitting rooms have been set out authentically with some original features.

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Mr Ainsworth’s room containing some unpleasant taxidermy

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Gorgeous Delft pottery tiles

 

I was delighted to find his and hers fireplaces decorated with gorgeous tiles; his in a Delft design and hers created by my favourite ceramic artist, William de Morgan (read my blog post about him  here  ).

 

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William deMorgan tiles in Mrs A’s fireplace

Although I’m not a great fan of Victoriana in general, I found it interesting to compare the different sections and styles of this somewhat disjointed house.

After Smithills was sold to Bolton Corporation in 1938 it was put to various uses including as a home for elderly ladies; hopefully they were accommodated in the warmer west wing and not in the mediaeval grand hall…

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