I found Rufford Old Hall rather like nouvelle cuisine; it looked interesting, but a little over-hyped. It was good, but there should have been so much more to it and at the end I was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. I imagine the estate agent’s blurb something along the lines of:
“Well-presented one-bedroom detached house in several acres, once home to the Lords of the Manor. About six reception rooms, including a large Tudor hall suitable for entertaining about 60 people, for a time used as the village school. The building dates from around 1530, but the previous owners carried out considerable modernisation in 1661, the 1720s and again in the 1820s. The property is well presented, but appears to lack a bathroom; though it does benefit from limited public parking, public toilets and a café which could be a source of income after (or before) a penny or two has been spent.”
Rufford Old Hall is often plugged as one of the finest Tudor buildings in Lancashire – and so it is, provided you realise that the hall itself is the only surviving Tudor part of the house and will be the highlight of your visit. That said, and despite reasoning that the house must surely have more than the one bedroom you’re allowed to see (of course it does) and that there must be at least one bathtub somewhere, Rufford Old Hall is actually a little diamond. It will not tax your brain too much and it’s definitely worth calling in if you happen to be in the vicinity of Ormskirk or Chorley. And, let’s face it, someone has to be.
The village of Rufford is situated at a crossing over the River Douglas – the name literally means ‘rough ford’. Rufford Old Hall was donated to the National Trust in 1936 by Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, whose ancestor, plain Thomas Hesketh, had it built when Henry VIII was sitting on the English throne. Sadly, the spectacular timber-framed great hall, with its fine, decorated, hammer-beam roof, is all that remains of Thomas’ home. It must have been really something, originally in the shape of an H – with the hall forming the horizontal strut. The east wing has long gone; though you can see the doors at the end of the hall that would have led to it; where private apartments once stood, there is now a tasteful garden. The west wing was completely rebuilt in Jacobean style using brick in 1661. There is little of the original furnishing in the newer building, though there are some choice pieces and the National Trust has made considerable effort to kit the house out sympathetically, including with some rather good tapestries. Much of the décor is in Victorian style, and there is great attention to detail: the dining-room, for example, is ready to receive guests – complete with (I hope) imitation food laid out ready to serve. Unfortunately, it’s one of those places that gets precious about people taking their own photographs – apart from in the hall – otherwise I would have included a shot of the rather lovely, homely, salon for you. From here, there is a quatrefoil squint hole, looking down onto the hall. This provides a bird’s-eye view of the roof timbers and the carvings of angels at the ends of the timbers – if you like that kind of thing (and I know you do). The hall comes complete with some rather splendid armour, a handsome fireplace and an astonishing, unique, 16th century freestanding screen designed to hide the kitchens from diners. This is made of ancient oak, wonderfully and richly carved, with three fantastically ornate finials on the top. An intriguing little thought is that there is some evidence that a young William Shakespeare performed in the hall, as a member of a band of players sponsored by Thomas Hesketh.
The Hesketh family do not seem to have done much other than be local gentry and marry wisely in order to fund their living habits. Nice work if you can get it. At a time of religious tension, they were Roman Catholic and must have steered a careful course in order to survive. By the 18th century, they had outgrown Rufford Old Hall (probably not enough bedrooms) and in 1760 built the imaginatively named Rufford New Hall down the road (which later became a hospital and is now divided into apartments). In 1846, Sir Thomas Hesketh (they all seem to have been called Thomas) married Lady Anna Fermor, whose family owned the much grander Easton Neston property in Northamptonshire. When Lady Anna’s brother, the 5th Earl Pomfret, died in 1867, Easton Neston passed to her husband – henceforth known as Thomas Fermor-Hesketh. From then on, Easton Neston became the family seat; though the family sold it in 2005.
The 7th Baronet, Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh (1849-1924) had a 160 foot yacht built, the Lancashire Witch, and in 1879 set off on a world cruise in it. Hearing of the British defeat by the Zulus at Isandlwana, he broke off his travels to offer his services to the military in Natal and served in the Battle of Ulundi. Resuming his cruise, he met the wealthiest heiress in Nevada, Florence Emily Sharon, at a party held in his honour in San Francisco, and they married shortly after. Somehow, he found time to have an island in Alaska, Hesketh Island, named after him and, returning home, became High Sherriff of Northamptonshire. Thomas and Florence’s son, Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, 1st Baron Hesketh (1881-1944) was the one who donated Rufford Old Hall to the National Trust.
The grounds of Rufford Old Hall are not extensive, but lovely – and the National Trust has made them child-friendly. In addition to swingball behind the orchard, there is giant chess, jenga and connect4. The gardens are also known for their topiary, not least a pair of giant squirrels. The Leeds-Liverpool canal flows along one of the boundaries.
Finally, some of our readers will want to know that the place is haunted, by three spirits – not necessarily all at the same time. Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to pay the odd visit, though I don’t know why she would because, so far as I am aware, she never made it this far north. Secondly, a ‘grey lady’ sadly wanders through the grounds, apparently waiting in vain for her husband to return safely from war so that she can say goodbye to him. And finally, a man in Elizabethan clothes has been seen in the Great Hall, near the fireplace, where a secret hiding place that might have been used by Catholic priests was apparently discovered.
Any ghosts floating about on the day A Bit About Britain visited got lost amongst the mass of humanity milling around randomly in the great hall, or unsuccessfully looking for soup in the small café – which had run out, but which nevertheless conjured up an adequate sandwich. A word about the staff, who the National Trust sometimes specially train to be particularly pompous; at Rufford, they were friendly and amusing, as well as being knowledgeable. So thanks to them – they helped make the visit.
As with all managed attractions listed on A Bit About Britain, there is a link to the relevant website from the ever-growing Attraction Directory; go have a play.