Little Moreton Hall is an extravagant puzzle of Tudor timber framing near Congleton in Cheshire. Like a child’s drawing, it sits higgledy-piggledy, the horizontals and verticals not quite making the grade. It really could be the crooked house that belonged to the crooked man in the nursery rhyme. That black and white colour scheme that everyone finds so attractive, incidentally, was a Victorian fashion; originally, the timbers would have been left to age naturally and the infill would have had a warmer, ochre, shade.
You approach Little Moreton Hall in a semi-rural setting beside the A34. On the day of our visit, the car park was packed, sheep grazed peacefully in the verdant field behind us and lambs gambolled about happily. The first view of the house suggested it wasn’t quite real, as though it had been knocked together for a movie or a theme park. Only the top-heavy appearance created by an astonishing long gallery, glazed like a lace workshop and seemingly dumped unceremoniously on top of the house, makes you realise that no set designer would have created something that clumsy. Still, it’s hard to believe when you cross the sandstone bridge over the 30 foot wide moat that you are entering what was once somebody’s home; not that it feels in any way unreal – it’s simply so completely over the top. And it was only then that I realised I’d forgotten to bring a spirit level.
The Moreton family that lived at Little Moreton Hall were descended from Lettice de Moreton, who married Sir Gralam de Lostock in 1216. There is a village of Lostock Gralam nearby, which is presumably where Sir Gralam once lived. The de Lostocks took on the Moreton name and prospered, growing the estate through marriage and opportunism. There is no trace of the building, or buildings, these earlier Moretons occupied. The present Hall, though medieval in design, is a creation of the Tudor period and dates from around 1504 when Henry VII, the first Tudor king, ruled England. It was extended later that century and the long gallery was added in the 1560s. Unfortunately for the Moretons, they lost out by backing the Royalists against Parliament in the Civil War and the Hall was used to billet troops. Despite having the property returned to them after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Moretons’ fortunes never recovered. By the 1670s, they could no longer afford to live in the Hall. It was rented out, but fell into disrepair and by the mid 19th century was in a very poor state. It was saved from oblivion by Elizabeth Moreton (a nun, in case you’re interested – and I know you are) who inherited the property in 1892, and by her cousin Charles Abraham (the Bishop of Derby), to whom Elizabeth bequeathed the estate in 1912. Abraham gave it to the National Trust in 1938 and the Trust has carried out much renovation and preservation work.
Once over the bridge and through the gatehouse, you find yourself engulfed in an extraordinary black and white courtyard experience. Admittedly, it is open to the garden on one side, but apart from that you are surrounded by Tudor timber framing. I believe the only parts of the building made of brick or stone are the chimneys. Houses of this period had no proper foundations as we know them either, so the fact that the place hasn’t collapsed ages ago is a tribute to the design of the frame – even if it has buckled a tad over the years and had a few pins inserted. I feel that way myself, some mornings. The timber is highly decorative too – keep an open eye for carved figures and other little surprises. It almost seems ungrateful to single out any particular features, but the two bay windows facing into the courtyard from the great hall and withdrawing room are breathtaking. Both of those rooms are beautiful – the welcoming withdrawing room has an impressive fireplace – and a round table designed to house a warming pan at floor level, so that guests could toast their toes whilst eating. The refectory table in the hall is 16th century and the little parlour contains original Tudor painted wall decoration, including Biblical scenes, exposed when Georgian panelling was removed.
The long gallery, all 68 feet (21m) of it, runs the entire length of the front of the house. This is the little tinker that’s caused most of the stress to the rest of the building, assisted by heavy stone roof tiles. Long galleries were popular features of wealthy Tudor homes, used for exercise when the weather was bad, dances, general entertaining and games – including tennis. The long gallery at Little Moreton Hall is glazed along both sides – which is gorgeous and would have been very expensive. I just love the idea of ball games being played with all that glass about; and do you suppose Tudor tennis players grunted when they served? Perhaps they merely yelled something like “Gadzooks, here it comes!”
There are some interesting decorations in the long gallery, including a hexagram over the doorway leading to an ante room, and plaster representations of destiny and fortune at either end of the hall with useful pieces of advice – “The speare of destiny, whose rule is knowledge,” and “The wheel of fortune, whose rule is ignorance.” Of course, the long gallery is reputed to be haunted – in this instance by the ubiquitous grey lady; but I’m fairly sure we’ve already got one of those at home.
You don’t visit Little Moreton Hall for the gardens, but it is worth mentioning that the National Trust has created a very pretty knot garden in Tudor style. This must have taken some time and effort – so make sure you see it when you go.
The one drawback to Little Moreton Hall is that it really cannot cope with too many people. Or perhaps I can’t cope with too many people; but bear in mind that it’s a relatively small place and quite popular.