NOT MANY VILLAGE boys have had the run of what was once an abbey grange, later enlarged into an Elizabethan mansion, richly panelled, big windowed, many chimneyed and gabled, and not only containing an
original water-closet, designed by the great Sir Thomas Crapp himself, but also an ingenious priest's hiding hole, contrived behind the shelves of a cupboard and almost certainly constructed by Nicholas Owen, the Jesuit lay-brother.
I and my three brothers could race, skip, play and admire, all at will, for fifteen whole years until the death of the sole occupant and caretaker, Sarah Law (Aunt Sally), my godmother.
Salford Hall, in the village of Abbots Salford, on the Evesham to Stratford-onAvon road, lies back from the road and is approached via a break in the stone wall perimeter surmounted by two round granite balls, known as the "Nunnery Knobs". The entrance continues through a stone and halftimbered gateway, on the inner side of which lies an ancient sundial, which 'Would still keep good time if they didn't keep putting them clocks back and then forward.",
We'd spend some time arguing about the time and waiting for the big clock of St Matthew's in our village of Salford Priors to chime or strike the hour, so that we could compare the two.
The dank and dark twoseater privy hidden behind the huge lime trees always called forth ribald comments, as did the three-seater plus "junior" in the corner of the walled garden we'd visit later.
We would stand before the studded heavy oak door of "our" mansion, built by the monks of Evesham in the 15th century to serve as a place of rest and study, then confiscated by Henry VIII and presented to a Philip Hobby, thence to the Alderford family who, in 1602, added a new building in the shape of the letter `E' in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. The carved date over the door says 1662 and many were the stories of who? when? why? was the letter '0' changed to a '6'? It returned to Catholic hands with the ownership of the Stanford family, the ground floor of the NE range being converted into a chapel. It was there that the four of us were christened and attended Mass, kneeling opposite the Adam fireplace and poked in the back by Mother when attention wandered to the garden outside or giggles sprang up at the croaking solos of the old singer-organist, Mrs Foote.
The stone-flagged banqueting hall, with its high ceiling, minstrels' gallery and rich heraldic glass, always had a salutary effect on any incipient ribaldry or horseplay. I was always drawn to the huge fireplace, where one could bend and look right up the chimney to the blue sky, way above. Awe was marred by the knowledge that the partprotruding bricks that one could see all the way up conjured up a vision of the boy chimney-sweeps clawing their way up the still hot brickwork, brush in hand, urged on by an uncharitable or even sadistic employer.
Such sadness soon passed as we streaked up the panelled main staircase, galloping from state room to state room, richly furnished and carpeted, the portraits on walls all more or less looking like Mary Queen of Scots or Sir Francis Drake. The four-poster beds seemed luxurious until tested, then we preferred our feathered variety at home.
We checked different views and landmarks, tested the water-closet by heaving on the handle set in the marble "throne" until a faint gurgling sound indicated that water was indeed at hand, before racing to the dormitory, the topmost floor with views N, E and S. It had a boarded, polished floor, over which we'd slide and skate, recalling why the place came to be called "The Nunnery".
Between 1727 and 1808, the chapel was served by Benedictine monks from Evesham, and it was then that the owner, Mrs Stannford, offered the Hall as a shelter to a community of English Benedictine nuns, from Cambrai, in France, driven
out by the French Revolution. They opened a school for young ladies, which only lasted for 30 years, but the name stuck and was even adopted by the "Warwickshire Photographic Survey".
The dormitory led to the most exciting part, the labyrinthine, rat-holed corridors and rooms heading, more by luck than judgement, to the priests' "hidey-hole". We would push the shelves back and peer into the gloomy, draughty recess revealed, desperate to gauge its size and imagine the possibility of squatting in there for days on end. Once we lit a match to get a better look, dropped it and fled in terror, expecting "our castle" to burst into flames. Aunt Sally's rooms in the older west section introduced me to Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture and to a strange piano called a "Spinet" on which I tinkled at will. I had visions of owning my own Chippendale armchair as I was a beneficiary in her will, but, alas, debts swallowed up everything.
There was an ancient cheese press in the back courtyard and rows of giant copper pans in the huge flagstoned kitchen. Beehives in the lovely walled garden made picking the prolific Albertine roses that covered the walls a hazardous task.
Alas, though still extremely beautiful within, "The Nunnery" became woefully dilapidated, due more to deliberate spoliation rather than time. When sold in the late 1940s, most of the fine panelling and other woodwork was torn down for separate sale. The big staircase we raced up was saved and some heraldic glass, but the rest was gutted.
We grew up, the war came and the place changed hands again . The chapel moved to another site and we no longer had any right there.
Many years later I went back. "The Nunnery" was once again "Salford Hall", now featured in brochures as a country hotel of outstanding beauty, restored to its original grandeur. It boasts three AA and RAC stars, plus two AA rosettes for its food. The present management offers rooms from £75 to £120 a night.
This time I paid to spend the night there and reminisce. The old gateway and sundial were well in evidence, the 1662 was still over the door, but the interior bore little resemblance to my own vivid memories. I sat near the Adam finplace, in the restaurant, drinking gin and tonic and listening to soft music and other residents' badinage, but imagining Mrs Foote at the organ and expecting a poke in the the back at an upsurge of giggles. The watercloset, dormitory and priest's hiding hole seemed out of place in their new surroundings.
I slept in a bedroom with en-suite bathroom, TV and coffee and tea facilities, in the room in which Aunt Sally had died. I should have said "half" the aforesaid room. She had the two leaded, mullioned windows to light the panelling, ornate ceiling, heavy mahogany furniture and large four-poster bed, sheltering two large, ornate chamber pots. I last saw her there, a frail, little, deaf godmother to whom we owed the wonderful privilege of once temporarily owning a mansion.
I'm sorry I went back.