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Here is Washington Old Hall – a pleasant, but fairly unremarkable looking, old manor house in the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear (say ‘Wee-ah’). Predominantly 17th century, it has pretty Jacobean-style formal gardens, an orchard and a nuttery. Washington Old Hall is situated in the village of Washington, itself an oasis of charm, and you will not be surprised to hear that it is a bit of a tourist magnet. The clue is in the name – for this was the place that the Washingtons, ancestors of George (first President of the United States of America) once called home.
First, though, we need to go back in time to get some context. A Sir William de Hertburn (or Hertbourne) acquired the manor of Washington in the 12th century and adopted the name of his new domain – a common practice – calling himself ‘de Wessyngton’ The name is derived from Anglo-Saxon Hwaessa-ing-tun – ‘Wassa’s farm or estate’. Thus, the capital of the USA came to be named after some long-forgotten hairy Saxon in the – what? – probably anytime between the 6th and 10th centuries. But imagine if de Hertburn had settled somewhere with a more exotic handle – Scunthorpe, for instance. Or he could have chosen Broadbottom (Cheshire), Great Cockup (Cumbria) or even Shitterton (Devon). Fate hangs on such slender threads.
I digress. Incidentally, you’ll be wondering where de Hertburn came from: it was probably a place called Hertburn, just down the road from Washington. Beyond that, I’m confident that someone will have traced de Hertburn’s ancestors even further back – possibly as far as the Lost Kings of Atlantis – but don’t quote me on that.
Washington Old Hall remained in the Washington family until 1613, when a descendent of William’s sold it to the Bishop of Durham. But former President Washington’s direct ancestors had done a bunk long before that, heading west across the Pennines to Westmorland in the 13th century and ending up in the parish of Warton, before travelling south to Northamptonshire about 300 years later. George’s great-grandfather, Colonel John Washington, was actually born in Purleigh, Essex and left England in 1659.
Washington Old Hall was largely rebuilt after it was sold in the 17th century. Very little remains of the medieval house of the Washingtons – parts of the foundations, walls and the arches between the hall and the kitchen. It continued as a family home for the next 200 years or so. But from the second half of the 19th century until 1933, Washington Old Hall was a tenement building, housing up to 9 families at any one time, usually in appalling conditions. Each family lived in one or two rooms – one lived in a tin hut outside. There was no gas or electricity, and just one cold water tap which everyone shared. The house today features one such family, the Bones, in a recreated upstairs room. William and Annie Bone lived there for more than 20 years before 1933 and had 16 children, 9 of which survived into adulthood. Some of the furniture and fittings on display have been donated by past residents. By the 1930s, the building was in a dreadful state of disrepair. It was saved by the actions of a local group, spearheaded by schoolmaster Fred Hill, who restored it and gave it to the National Trust in 1955.
These days, you enter Washington Old Hall into what was the great hall, flanked by the old kitchen and a wonderful, panelled, drawing room. It is set out as a reasonably affluent 17th century home, with some lovely carved oak furniture. It’s when you get to the staircase that you spot what we might call, ‘the Transatlantic connection’. There, and up into the ‘Liberty Room’, a beautiful space decorated in the style of a small conference facility, it’s stacked out with what the National Trust, in a barely unpronounceable distortion of English, refers to as ‘Washingtonabilia’. Perhaps George Bush advised their copy writers. Anyway, there are lots of things with stars and stripes on them, letters, photographs, busts of Washington – and so on. I’m guessing that many of these objects were gifts from kind visitors. There’s a mannequin in the uniform of an 18th century American soldier on the stairway. A couple of silver spades, used by US President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Jim Callaghan (my more mature readers will remember them) to plant trees in 1977, is on proud display – as is a letter from Carter, in which ‘Tyne and Wear’ is spelt ‘Tyne and Whar’; you’d think the Whyte House would check these things, wouldn’t you?
Upstairs, there’s even a sign for ‘washroom’ – a euphemism for what us more basic Brits would call a toilet – amongst other things. (Let us be clear: nobody washes more than their hands in these places; not in Britain at any rate. And don’t get me started on our plumbing.)
BUT – we should put Washington Old Hall in perspective. To be blunt, the President’s genes left the building a very long time ago – about eight centuries, give or take. So, whilst I’m all for tracing family roots and all that, and derive great joy from sniffing round places where famous people once lived and great events took place, please forgive me asking whether the George Washington connection is a tad over-played in this instance. Could it be viewed as milking the special relationship a wee bit? Is it rather like getting excited about standing next to someone who knows someone who knows someone else etc etc – who once shook hands with Eric Clapton?
I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly. This place is certainly part of America’s DNA. Britain and the US share a common heritage – and much, much more besides. We also obviously welcome visitors – especially good friends. Washington Old Hall should definitely be firmly on the tourist map; provided you know that George himself was never there and had probably never heard of the place. I think they should invite his great-great-nephew over – you know, that nice Denzel chap.
They celebrate American festivals like Thanksgiving and 4th July Independence Day at Washington Old Hall. And this despite the fact that GW was, well – a rebel. That was a long time ago, though; we shouldn’t have fallen out over something as vulgar as tax, or as trivial as universal suffrage, should we? I suggest in these post-Imperial, arguably post-European, times, the Special Relationship might be entering a new and interesting phase (discuss).
Anyway, you’ll enjoy Washington Old Hall. There’s a lot to take in and a lot of variety. The downstairs is lovely and the upstairs is fascinating, if a little overwhelming. The garden is charming – though past its best when I was there – and the Nuttery obviously suited me a treat. I spent awhile in it, enjoying the wild flowers and insects – I really did. My one criticism is that the place could benefit from having a simple single-page guide; the only information available when I visited was a limited number of print-outs.