The skies were grey, rain was threatening, but  everyone was in good spirits. Our group of 16 had arrived by mini-bus after a three and a half hour journey to Harvington (near Kidderminster), so we were ready to stretch our legs and explore the House and Garden. But before you follow us on our tour, you might find it useful to know something about the origins of this impressive Elizabethan house.

It's believed that John Pakington, a wealthy lawyer, may have initiated work on the House as we see it today, in about 1578. Just four years later the Pakingtons were known to be living at Harvington. However, at that time it was considered to be high treason for a priest to even be in England, or (let alone) to celebrate the Mass. These were dangerous times for Roman Catholic families such as the Pakingtons, but by 1588 a master builder, Nicholas Owen, had begun work on a series of ingeniously designed priest-holes at Harvington. 'Owen was servant to Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England who, during the 1590's, built up a network of houses throughout the country to which incoming priests could be directed and where they would find disguises, chapels and priest-holes.' (Harvington Hall - Michael Hodgetts). In  1603, the first incumbent priest took up residence at Harvington, and others have followed in an unbroken line right up to the present day.         

The House was to be owned by successive generations of the Pakingtons, followed by two other notable Roman Catholic families - the Yates' and the Throckmortons - until the mid-18thC, when it ceased to be a family home. After a brief career as a girls' boarding school, the only inhabitants of Harvington were chaplains and priests, whilst the House itself gradually fell into disrepair. 

By the early 1900s, the Throckmortons had completely abandoned the House and its condition rapidly deteriorated, until the roof, weighted by ivy, all but collapsed. It was in this condition when, in 1923, it was bought by Mrs. Ellen Ryan Ferris, mother of the late Lord Harvington, and generously given to the RC Arch-Diocese of Birmingham. The Hall underwent a renaissance when, in 1930-1, Archbishop Thomas Leighton Williams ordered its structural repair and opened it to the public for the first time.  

To return to our tour - here are some of the highlights!

We had received a very warm welcome on our arrival and been ushered to an indoor picnic area, since many of us had brought with them a packed lunch.  

We were also very fortunate in our guide, who was a mine of information and very amusing, making him a 'hit' with both children and adults alike. What also impressed us was the re-creation of family life in every part of the house. In the kitchen, for example, 'servants' were standing by the spit, ready to turn the 'pig' that was being roasted.

Our visit to the room of Lady Yates was quite memorable! An elegant robe lay on her four-poster bed, which was covered by a canopy and hung with rich and beautiful draperies, as was the custom. Our guide,who tested our knowledge a number of times, asked if we knew why there was a canopy over the bed. There was puzzlement all round. It was, apparently, designed to catch bird droppings that fell from the rafters. In one corner of the room, we also discovered a very early form of en-suite! 

For the children and many of the adults in the group, it was the discovery of the priest-holes that made the tour so memorable. These were all sited on the upper floor of the House, and I will leave you to discover for yourself exactly where they are to be found! As we entered each room our guide would, first of all, ask the children in the group where they thought the priest-hole might be hidden. If they didn't guess correctly, it was the turn of we adults, who tend to be a bit slower to commit ourselves. At one of the priest-holes, the children were invited to go in and hide there, in groups of three or four, when there was no shortage of volunteers! When the adults were given the opportunity, just four of us decided to have a go at easing our way in and out. Luckily, no-one became stuck! 

Whilst this was all a bit of fun, it also gave us a taste of what the grim reality must have been for a priest taking refuge there, when he could betray himself simply by the sound of his breathing or the slightest cough. There would also have been only a limited amount of food and water, which often had to last for several days. Miraculously, only one priest at Harvington was ever discovered in hiding. 

Clare, one of our group, commented on how 'we have to be grateful, as Catholics, for priests who, in those days, stood up so bravely for their Faith.'

There are two Chapels in the House; one is known as the Small Chapel, for very obvious reasons! An oak table serves as a simple altar, on which there is a plain crossand two candlesticks, fashioned in wood taken from the originaGreat Staircase. But you will find the early decoration of the wallsrevealed in relatively recent years, to be highly symbolic...  

The other Chapel, decorated in seventeenth century style, can be found close to the Nursery. On the north wall stands the altar and, again, use has been made of a 17thCtable to serve the purpose. There is also a small 'hide,' which was, of course, cunningly concealed, where vestments and sacred vessels needed for Mass are still stored to this day.

But it was in the Georgian chapel that stands in the grounds of the House where we all attended a Mass, said by Fr. Andrew. What better ending could there have been to our day?!

© MB Harvey.