Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Mains Event

History groans and bulges and creaks from the walls, nooks, crannies, crevices, tunnels and priest holes of Mains Hall in Little Singleton, as Fiona, Michelle and myself discovered when we were given a personal tour of the building recently. (A personal tour! Us? How excellent is that?)
And when I write ‘creaks’ and ‘groans’ and ‘bulges’ I mean it quite literally. Flags were removed from the floor of one particular section recently, and it was discovered that the ground below consisted of nothing more substantial than plain old earth. No foundations, no floating rafts; just good old-fashioned soil bearing the weight of this centuries old manor house.
Even more disturbing perhaps, in other places, load-bearing walls had been shored up with clay bricks, such as the one in the photograph below.

When we say clay, it was more like a dehydrated block of turf, to be honest; fragile and crumbling and not the sort of hardcore you’d expect to be supporting this labyrinthine building.
Add to this the fact that some misguided burk in a previous ownership decided that the cross beams in the attic were hindering head space and so decided to hack them out, leaving the roof with no reasonable means of support, and it’s a wonder the building’s still upright.
All in all it’s a good job that Adele Yeomans is the hall’s historically inclined current owner who, through her obvious devotion to the place, is, even as I type, renovating the ancient pile.

And it’s certainly worth renovating. It’d be hard to find a more fascinating, more traditionally haunted, more complexly designed and yet more homely ancestral seat than Mains, the rooms being surprisingly small and sensibly sized with mullioned windows and grand old fireplaces and the layout of the building being bewildering to say the least.
Let’s talk about the alterations. It seems that every period of the hall’s great history, from the Banastres, through the Stanleys and the Heskeths, has added to, knocked through, twisted, convoluted and rearranged the place so much that nowadays even Lewis Carroll (working on the assumption that he was still alive of course) couldn’t have created such a puzzle box. Warped mezzanines gaze down into rooms with arched Tudor windows now presenting views into Victorian additions where once open vistas would have stood. Priest holes and hatches that lead into recesses abound (the latter one sounds like an anchorite’s cell to me), walls constructed from wooden joists and Tudor bricks mixed with Georgian bricks and Victorian bricks and, who knows (because we’re not brick experts after all) perhaps even Roman bricks, rooms that nobody can find the entrance to, wattle and daub walls, Jacobean staircases, legends of tunnels, blocked off doors that mysteriously float halfway up the walls leading to sheer drops outside because some wing or other has been removed or supplanted…the list is endless. An architectural illustrator would have a field day…or possibly a fit, depending on how much he enjoyed a challenge.

Over the centuries the hall has, metaphorically speaking, been flipped on its back, the front becoming the rear and visa versa, adding to the general confusion for people like me who lose their way trying to navigate the aisles at Sainsburies.
There are fabulous carvings on the wood panelling in the entrance hall. There’s an ancient mediaeval door against which, it’s reported, a monk, in times long gone, was tortured to death in the Victorian wing. Adele showed us musket balls most likely related to the two known visitations to Mains by the Jacobites on their way to help Bonny Prince Charlie. There was the ‘witches stick’ (another enigma that’s going to take some research) and the bayonet (the date of which we’re not even going to hazard a guess at). There’s even the recent addition of a stone circle to the grounds, which Adele hopes will annoy the hell out of smart-arses like us who think they know it all in generations to come.
Then there’s the moat (now divided into a couple of fish ponds) to the south and the peculiar embankment (which might be connected to the hall itself or might even date back to an earlier period…we need to investigate this one further as well) to the north. The embankment itself lays claim to the legend of twelve monks who died of the plague and were buried beneath the trees now cresting its spine…although even Adele raised an eyebrow at this one seeing as the trees don’t appear to be much older than a century at most. (You can see the rather grand and historical dovecote beyond said embankment in the photograph below.)

But that’s what’s excellent about Mains Hall, the mystery of its history! (How corny did that sound?) There are so many unanswered questions, puzzles, legends and ghosts surrounding the place that, for a group of fossilized antiquarians like ourselves, it has the same lure as a pheromone trap to a lonely moth. Which is why we’re going back, because we still need to pin down the original whereabouts of the Domesday manor and possibly even uncover any pre-Domesday secrets that might lurk in the grounds. It’s going to take a while to sort this lot out (there’s so much history here it’s impossible, surely, for one head to contain it all) but we reckon it’s worth it.
So, thanks to Adele for allowing us access and showing us round and, yes, we will be returning in the not distant future with our trowels and our notebooks.

5 comments:

John said...

That's totally cool, Brian. I might even go as far as saying totally awesome, but I don't want you thinking I'm some surfer dude stuck in the 80's. :0)

Still, I know for a fact that you didn't cover everything, and I know for a fact that you only briefly skimmed the points you did make. Mains is definitely worth at least a 3 parter, so we all hope for more about this fascinating place in the near future.

Also, I'd love to hear more about those priest holes and anchorite cells. I know you covered them briefly in your book, but it really is a fascinating subject.

And what's this about a 'recent addition' of a stone circle? SOunds like what I'm planning for my studio some day. :0)

Oh yeah... pictures. More pictures, and then some. Four photos of this place is just a tease.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...

John,

You're quite right. This is just the trailer. The Mains Feature (there's just so many of these 'Mains' puns to go at) will be 'Coming Soon'.

We're waiting on the analysis of some fascinating fragments of glass that were dug up from the new moat at the moment...and, knowing how quickly the museum services work, we'll probably still be waiting at Christmas.

But, not to worry...there will be another section to this on-going theme, with more photographs of course, soon.

Now...it's very early in the morning here and I need coffee and toast.

Ann O'Dyne said...

re Adele Yeoman's renovation - I've seen people doing similar on that TV show where the architect and the builder look at the 200 year old barn and give a cost and a time-frame which turn out to be about 10% of the actual cost and time ... so my prayers are with you Adele.
Just don't get one of those literary builders who think a Girder wrote Faust and a Joist wrote Ulysses.

Bwca said...

Glass in the moat ?

Flung there no doubt by those medieval rabblerousers walking home from the pub in the early hours of a sunday morning.

Brian Hughes said...

Had word from the Museum Services yesterday. Apparently our glass fragments are actually Victorian. Total bummer, eh? Obviously the trench wasn't deep enough. Well, we can't win 'em all and we've still got a few more antiquities to excavate/analyse...so stay tuned.