Speke Hall is a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house in a most unusual setting on the banks of the River Mersey. Restored and brought back to life in the 19th century, it is a unique and beautiful mixture of Tudor simplicity and Victorian Arts and Crafts' aesthetics.Heritage My accent is confusing. Despite having been born in Liverpool, I haven't ever really developed a very strong local accent, the scouse accent. More often than not is settles somewhere in generic Northern but not enough so when strangers often ask were I'm from, or are completely baffled to the point of making random guesses. A taxi driver asked if I was from Oxford the other night and didn't seem very convinced when I told him the truth. There's no particular reason why. About ten years ago, a linguistic expert from the University told me that it was because I didn't really see myself as being from Liverpool but the world, which is partially true, but after forty years of living, breathing and working in this city you'd think I would have picked up some inflections, especially since sixteen of those years were spent in Speke which has one of the strongest Liverpool accents of them all.
Built by the devout Catholic Norris family - keen to impress visitors with the grandeur of their home and in particular the magnificent Great Hall - this beautiful building has witnessed more than 400 years of turbulent history. From the Tudor period when a secret priest hole was an essential feature, to years of neglect and decay in the 18th and 19th centuries (including a spell when it was used as a cow shed) and then being dragged into the Victorian era of improvement and technology, the Hall has seen it all.
In the 21st century, Speke Hall and its surrounding estate now provide a real oasis from the hurly burly of modern life. As you come through the gates, relax, take a breath and enjoy all that this wonderful place has to offer. The Hall is surrounded by beautiful restored gardens and protected by a collar of woodland.
Attending Speke Hall in that case should be something of a homecoming, but the surrounding area has changed a lot in the meantime. Over the intervening decades, the fields in which I used to play and on one occasion hosted the final 1FM roadshow at the Mersey front have been replaced with the Estuary Industrial Park, a conglomeration of massive warehouses, an area which resembles the industrial zone glimpsed in the opening sequences of the film Blade Runner. Most are anonymous, although discount chain B&M seems to have built their own country within its borders. Construction continues and as the 80A bus winds through its streets, its almost impossible to believe that one of the National Trusts Tudor properties could be found anywhere between this maze of grey boxes and the John Lennon Airport. As the vehicle stopped outside one of these boxes, if couple of retirees hadn't asked the driver if this was the right place for Speke Hall, I might missed it completely.
It's this couple I walked to the Hall with, up to the roundabout as directed by the driver and left into the reassuringly named Speke Hall Road. A little further and we were in the Hall's grounds and the contrast couldn't be greater, industrialisation giving way to a long pathway framed on either side by rows and rows of daffodils, the sounds of vehicles falling into the distance replaced by birdsong. Yesterday must have been the hottest this year and for a few moments I simply looked to the sky with its single shade of light blue in awe. No clouds. Even in Sefton Park, you're constantly aware that you're on the edge of the city, and although Speke certainly isn't that, more like the outskirts, if it wasn't for the jumbo jets flying overhead, you could almost imagine that you've stepped through a magic portal into part of the Lake District or the Cotswolds.
No wonder my parents brought me to the grounds so often as a child. At least once a month we'd visit the gardens of Speke Hall when the grounds were still free to visit. I would have been very young so my memory isn't that strong, but there were picnics, many picnics, in Tupperware pots on gingham blankets. Philadelphia cheese and tomato baps. Barrs Cream Soda. Only once did I ever visit the house, as part of a school trip although again the memories aren't strong enough for me to remember anything now, a marble table is familiar. Much of everything which happened to me as a pre-teen has dislodged itself, which is probably why I tend to feel more like a child of the 80s even though I was born in 1974. The evening in the late 90s when the school choir visited to sing for visitors at is much clearer, stood in the front of one of the cafes amid Christmas trees, candles and mince pies.
The house itself hasn't been able to retain its own memories well either due to its many changes of ownership. Permission to build a mansion in this spot was originally granted to the Norris family as early as 1314, and through a series of, as the guild book alliterates, "additions, adaptations and accompanying losses" the house was constructed across ensuing decades until it largely reached its present form by the late 1500s. The Norris's kept ownership until the 1730s when Mary Norris entered a contracted marriage with Lord Sidney Beauclerk, the grandson of the actor Nell Gwyn. He did not live at Speke Hall much and which is when the house fell into dereliction and related papers were lost so everything known about the house before then is through local research and comparative study. Ask the volunteers about many of the earliest features and they simply don't know or have to resort to conjecture.
That's when the most damage was done to the earlier state of the house with the grounds keepers using the ground floor of the house as a place to store livestock and it's the Watt family to whom the Hall was sold in 1795, although it remained empty until 1856, when Richard Watt V took possession and it him we have to thank for renovating the property and largely putting it in the state it is now. As part of the renovation process he purchased a large amount of heavy oak furniture in a Tudor style which were designated as heirlooms which is why they remain in the house now. On his death Speke Hall passed to Watt's daughter Adelaide who leased the house to Frederick Leyland, the shipping line owner and art collector, with J.A.M. Whistler and D.G. Rossetti being notable visitors. He made further adjustments to the shape of the house, knocking a few walls through, which must have been quite strange for Adelaide when she later decided to move back in after the lease expired in 1877.
She remained there until her death in 1921. During the ensuing Trusteeship, the connected surrounding farmland became an aerodrome, with old buildings turned into hangars and the farmhouse becoming the terminal. The Hall itself passed to the National Trust in 1943, but due to a lack of finances it was then leased to Liverpool City Council who opened it to the public. The guide book says, that between 1976 and 1986 it fell under the Merseyside Corporation which will have been when I originally visited. They fixed the roof and so forth. When the Corporation closed, the National Trust began full time management and although it is a full Trust property (despite continued funding from National Museums Liverpool), there is a sense that they're still dealing with decision taken during the intervening custody including parts of the art collection which the volunteers indicated are now within the collections of the art galleries which should still be within the house.
Despite having visited before, my lack of memory meant I could treat is as a new destination which was unsettling and not helped by being greeted on entry by one of the volunteers from The Hardman House last week, who remembered me. But "unsettling" is the best description of the place in general. Walking around you're very aware that although the house has a Tudor shell, the interiors are very much a mix of Victorian tastes and a Victorian attempt to fill the house with furniture from the earlier period so nothing looks quite right. In one section, the Great Hall, the oldest part of the house gives way to The Blue Dining Room, the newest addition filled with Louis XV style furniture which was likened by Leyland when he saw to "a French plum box". Between that and the billiard room, you're forever on your toes and surprised by what you might see next. But I think the Trust have been right to keep the house in the state it is, rather like an old book filled with marginal notes, unlinings and crossings out.
For years I wondered why Speke Hall wasn't included in the arts collections survey and now I know. When Leyland was a tenant, the walls were apparently covered with great works, pre-Raphaelites and French Impressionists. But as it stands what's there is unremarkable. Art UK (the successor to the BBC's Your Paintings) has just twenty-three oils and they mainly copies, apart from some romanticised images of the the Hall itself. The bedrooms have a few nice tapestries and they're especially proud of a Mortlake tapestry depicting Diogenes and Alexander from c.1700. Mainly the houses is lauded for its unusual architectural features, notably corridors, which is very rare for a Tudor house and suggests if Speke Hall wasn't a Trust property it could quite easily work as a hotel with the reception in the Great Hall (although given that it's a Grade I listed building that's unlikely).
Something I have learnt on this occasion is that in some of these properties you really do need a guide book in order to make the most of the visit. Reading back through the Speke Hall volume, there's plenty which I missed so that's something I'll definitely consider in the future depending on the price. Having gained the massive discount inherent in just paying a fiver a month for membership, adding £4.95 to the cost of the visit seems counterproductive although obviously not if it makes the visit all the richer. That's an internal discussion for another time. None of which is to say I won't be returning to Speke Hall. After visiting the house, I didn't have time for the gardens, including a maze, which are massive, so I thought, given that this is one my locals, it would be best to leave them for another afternoon. Even if I don't have the accent, my homeland keeps drawing me back.