A fine Tudor building, the home for stories of romance, wealth and 500 years of Hesketh family history.Heritage Sitting on my desk right now, next to this laptop, is a small brown cardboard box with the words My National Trust embossed into the lid with a logo containing the silhouette of an oak leaf above. Everything about it is making me smile. Becoming a member of the National Trust wasn't something I set out to do today. But after surprising myself with a visit to Rufford Old Hall having only discovered its existence yesterday, and realising at the entrance gate that the fiver per month membership fee by direct debit was wholly affordable and cheaper than the average entrance fee (having previously looked at the lump sum approach of old and shivered), I handed over my Visa Debit details and was given in return a copy of the 2015 handbook. The membership card will be in the post by the end of next month.
Be wowed by the Tudor Great Hall with its fantastic furniture, arms, armour, tapestries and the carved oak screen, a rare survivor from the 1500s. History springs to life in the Hesketh's dining room, its food-laden table, lit candles and 'fire in the hearth' waiting to welcome the family's dinner guests.
And did Shakespeare spend a short time here in his youth? There’s reasonable evidence to suggest that he could once have known Rufford’s Great Hall for a few months whilst still in his teens. Ask us about the evidence and decide for yourself!
Then relax as you stroll through Rufford's Victorian and Edwardian gardens - and remember you're only a few feet (or metres) above sea level - making Rufford one of the lowest lying National Trust gardens in England. [source]
After completing the North West Art Collections project, I've been a bit of a loose end wanting to try something else. Various ideas have been researched and rejected. After watching the funeral of Richard III, I considered seeing the tombs of all the British monarchs. But that's messy geographically, plus it felt like more of a box ticking exercise and the only proper way to do it would be chronologically and frankly, yes but no. Another was to work through the remaining art collections in Your Paintings but many of them are in official buildings ill equipped for visits by members of the public so there'd never be a case of simply just turning up. I almost decided to try and see everything by a particular artist but then there was the process of choosing the artist and it was inevitably going to be someone with lots of work in private collections.
The National Trust, in the end, was inevitable. For one thing I've already visited a couple of the properties for the purposes of the other project as you'll see if you click the new tag at the bottom of this post. Plus there's a decent iProduct app with a structure that shows properties closest to you so there's a fairly logical approach to fanning out from home into the country. But there's also the fact that although there's a relatively finite amount of destinations, there are enough that I'm unlikely to run out ever. So it's a project which feels like it has the potential for completion but really doesn't and also has the added bonus of forcing me to visit properties even further afield in places I wouldn't otherwise have a reason to visit, just like the other project (although just like the other project everything is public transport and cost permitting).
Rufford Old Hall, then. The origins of the house are messy. A property has stood on the land since the 14th century, but a version of the current building was erected in 1530 (of which great hall (pictured) is the only surviving element), possibly by Thomas Hesketh after a series of inheritances of the kind which tended to happen then because women weren't allowed to keep hold of the money which we'd now deem quite rightly as being theirs. The house then stayed in the family for centuries who made a series of changes including the current extensions, although the main family subsequently moved to a Rufford New Hall which led to this building getting its name. As well as the family, it also attracted numerous tennants including a school who used the main hall during one of the periods of building work.
The entry on Your Paintings, the Wikipedia and this old local guide book transcript have versions of the story which somewhat contradict one another and even having also heard it described by one of the volunteer guides in the house, I'm still unclear as to the chronology and who these people were. Perhaps I should have bought a guide book. Perhaps the National Trust's own website should be more detailed. Ultimately the house itself has resolved itself into two periods, the Tudor section of the great hall and the rest of the house which since being gifted to the Trust in 1936 has largely been regressed back to how it would have looked in the Victorian era when the majority of the fixtures and fittings were originally installed. A lot of these had been moved to the family's eventual regular home at Easton Neston but then bought back when the contents of that property were sold in 2004.
It's at time like this I remember wistfully the more linear philanthropic development of regional art collections. On entering the house my first question, just to make sure, was whether there was any particularly distinguished paintings and the first answer was no but after exploring and chatting to the various volunteers this turned out to be not quite right. The majority of the collection is production line family portraits and in some of these you can actually see how the body and background had been prepared by one artist ready for another to paint in the face of the given subject. But in the dressing room upstairs there's a massive collection of flower watercolours by Ellen Stevens which had been bought by the Trust who decided they'd be best presented at Rufford. Minutely detailed and observed, they're almost worth the visit to the house by themselves.
The best oil painting in the house is the utterly thrilling An Extensive Landscape with Exotic Flowers, Fruit and Vegetables and a 'Noli me Tangere' in the Garden Beyond by the obscure Flemish painter Gommaert van der Gracht. Glancing towards the surrealism four hundred odd years before Dali and Magritte, Gracht combines a landscape, still life, animal painting with a religious scene. Superbly detailed fruit fill almost half the composition, with a goat representing Adam eating fruit from a tree on which vines represent a serpent. Meanwhile in the background, a resurrected Jesus visits Mary Magdalene, the allegorical message being that we're seeing the original sin being forgiven. Here's an image though the postage stamp you're looking at fails the capture the grandeur of this canvas which fills half a wall in the dining room.
As you can see from the above quote from the Trust website, Rufford's other claim to fame is a Shakespeare connection, the idea being that the playwright spent part of the missing years here both as a player in a tour company and assistant teacher in around 1585. The only potential documentary evidence appears to be a will by Alexander Houghton of Lea Hall near Preston which states:
"Item. It is my mind and will that the said Thomas Hoghton of Brynescoules my brother shall have all my instruments belonging to music, and all manner of play clothes if he be minded to keep and do keep players.Shakeshafte being Shakespeare in this instance. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare is cynical, noting that Shakespeare has to be back in Stratford two years later to marry Anne Hathaway and that although Shakeshaft was a common name in the area at the time, there's no evidence of it having been used interchangeably in Shakespeare's family. In other words, as is so often the case with the man, we simply don't know. But there are some related books, including the RSC Complete Works in the gift shop just in case.
"And if he will not keep and maintain players then it is my mind and will that Sir Thomas Hesketh knight shall have the same instruments and play clothes.
"And I most heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fluke Gyllome and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me and either to take them into his service or else to help them to some good master as my trust is he will."
Although it's only a relatively small house, the visit filled about three and a half hours including a Lancashire cheese sandwich in the cafe which has been set up in the house's original kitchens. The rest of the visitors were of retirement age and plenty of them seemed to buzz around within about half an hour (apart from one gentleman who was admirably thorough with his questions of the volunteers, right down to how the cutlery was arranged in the dining room). But I tended to sit in each of the rooms flicking through the large visitor guides provided and enjoying being in the space mostly because I know what 2015 is like and something you just want to get away from it as much as possible. Becoming a National Trust member genuinely feels like the next best thing to being handed the keys to a TARDIS.