by TIM MATTHEWS
Harvington Hall and its eight hiding holes for priests
There can be few places where time stands so very still as at Harvington Hall, near Kidderminster, in Worcestershire.
In a small upstairs room, decorated with alternate rows of red and white tears representing the blood of Christ's Passion, wax from altar-candles still adheres to the walls — from the days when Mass was said here in secret during the days of Persecution.
Recently, broken kitchenware has been discovered in the moat which surrounds Harvington — possibly thrown out by servants as long ago as 1342 when it is likely that Mass was already being :said in this house.
You come across Harvington Hall quite suddenly as you drive
along the narrow Worcestershire lanes. As you turn a final corner, its rich Tudor brickwork vaults up from the moat ahead of you, across the small footbridge which leads from a small triangle of open space known as the Old Bowling Green.
In 1930 Harvington was in danger of total collapse. The moat was choked by debris, the roof sagged under the weight of ivy. rain and rot and vandals were completing the job of destruction. It was the property of the Archdiocese of Birmingham which had received it as a gift some years earlier.
By 1931, as the situation had deteriorated, Archbishop Williams had placed the hall in the care of a committee of management. Thankfully, since that time Harvington Hall has been reprieved and restored.
A medieval manor house forms the core of the present Elizabethan house which passed through many hands until the Throckmorton family acquired it in the late 17th century.
They did not live there, but kept a number of rooms open for occasional use and maintained a priest there until 1888. And so it happened that as the house stood untouched, time stood still at Harvington Hall until the 20th century.
In the second half of the 16th century, when persecution against the Church was moun ting, Worcestershire was largely in the pastoral care of the Jesuits, whose superior, Henry
Garnet, had a remarkable servant by the name of Nicholas
Owen. Upon him fell the job of devising and constructing, across the country, places of hiding for his fellow-Jesuits.
Initially, places of concealment had been simple and un sophisticated. Often they were . in obvious places towards the outside of a house and it took Pursuivants only a little time to learn to walk round taking measurements to pinpoint the most likely places. Owen, however, had the ability to select the most improbable locations, usually at the very heart of the house. He also had the ability to think three-dimensionally to confuse a searcher's sense of direction.
It is almost certain that most of the remarkable hiding holes at Harvington were built by Owen during an "enlargement" of the hall.
Humphrey Pakington, who owned the hall in 1588, was known to be a recusant and a "deare frynd" of Thomas Hab hington of nearby Hindlip Hall — "the most famous house in England for the entertainment of priests" — where there were 11 hides, some of which were certainly built by Owen.
There are eight hiding holes at Harvington, the neatest of which is in a room known as Dr Dodd's Library. What looks like an upright, supporting timber in a cupboard at the end of the room is, in fact, a door.
On being pressed, the timber swings out on a pivot allowing enough space for a man to squeeze into a small chamber behind it. It was rediscovered. accidentally, in 1897.
Another most ingenious hiding place is beneath some steps in a corridor. The "hole" is a small room formed by lowering the ceiling of a butler's pantry on the floor below. Even after I had examined it, it was difficult to understand how it had been incorporated into the fabric of the house.
It is likely that there was a feeding-tube into this chamber so that "caudles, broths and other warm drink" might be passed through.
Lack of food in such places could be quite a problem, es pecially during a long siege — at Hindlip there was a 12-day search. In his Memoirs, John Gerard recalls being trapped in a hiding place in Essex with nothing more than a quince jel ly and two biscuits. _ The physical discomfort could be acute. Henry Garnet, who had been discovered dur ing the Hindlip search, wrote about it five weeks later (in orange juice) in a letter smuggl ed out of the Tower of London. "After we had bene in the hoale seven days and seven nights and some odd hours, every man may well think we were well wearyd, and so in
deed it was. . . we had our
legges so straitened that we could not find sitting place for them, so that we were both in continuall paine, and both our legges, especially mine, were much swollen. , ."
Though no priest was ever found in hiding at Harvington, persecution flared up in the neighbourhood with a vengeance in 1679. A Fran ciscan missionary, John Wall, was then serving the area from the Hall. He was arrested and hanged at Worcester. St John Wall was one of the last English Martyrs.
Mass was said at Harvington Hall, in fear and joy, in a small room leading off the nursery,
whose windows formed a useful look-out. There's a small hiding place for Mass equipment
"Popish trash and Popish trumperie" — near the altar, and nearby a hiding-place for the priest himself. The room is still maintained as a chapel and Mass is said there regularly, thus maintaining a tradition which is now probably over 600 years old. Harvington Hall is open to the public all year round.