06 October 2014

England: Speke Hall and Garden

When the opportunity arose, I just couldn't resist visiting one more black-and-white stately home before leaving the North West of England so off we went to Speke Hall, a rare Tudor timber-framed manor house.  

Speke Hall sits on the edge of the River Mersey, right next to John Lennon Airport – and I do mean right next to it – the sound of the planes taking off and landing seemed very incongruous during our stroll around the grounds. As rain was forecast for later in the day and it was already spitting when we arrived, we decided to explore the grounds before heading inside the house.

The Coastal Reserve pathway leads down to the river, directly past the end of the current airport runway onto a concrete taxiway that once connected the previous airport on the other side of Speke Hall to the new one. A red line leads walkers along this concrete wasteland then off to the left onto a pathway that runs along the top of the low coastal cliff. Looking along the Mersey to the left, you can see a long metal gangway running out into the water – that’s actually a lighting gantry that helps to guide planes in to land. Apparently, it’s also a favourite perching place for local cormorants but we saw none the day we visited.

We continued along the path to the yacht club, then retraced out steps back to the house. As there was no signpost, we didn’t realise we could actually continue inland and return to the house by a slightly different route, but I don’t think we missed anything much. It was a grey day and the view – across the Mersey to factories and large industry – was rather bleak.

Fortunately, the house itself was superb. Built in stages between 1530 and 1598 by the Catholic Norris family, Speke Hall has had a long and interesting history. At one stage, it was even being used as a cow shed! Luckily, the hall was restored and renovated in the 19th century, so much of what you might think is original Tudor is actually the Victorian interpretation of Tudor, with a heavy mix of Arts and Crafts influences. Don’t let that description put you off – it is still amazing.

The hall’s layout is, in many ways, similar to that of Little Moreton Hall, built around a central courtyard – with two ancient yew trees estimated to be 500 years old, with a Great Hall in the same position but without Moreton Hall’s wonderful Long Gallery and its rollercoaster-ride flooring. 

The house is heavy with dark-wood panelling and ornately carved dark wooden furniture which has lots of little heads and figures incorporated in the designs. The predominance of dark wood made some rooms seem rather gloomy but was relieved in several by the amazing Jacobean ceilings of white plaster, richly decorated with roses, lilies, pomegranates and vines.

Though no spectral images appear in my photographs, Speke Hall has a reputation for being haunted. Dark shadows have been seen gliding through the rooms, visitors have supposedly heard footsteps and children crying, and an ‘overwhelming sense of oppression’ has been reported, though I wonder if that can be attributed to the decoration. 

As with most other National Trust properties, Speke Hall has excellent facilities. There are two eateries – you can enjoy light snacks in the Stables Tea Room or, like us, enjoy lunch in the main restaurant. I tried a local Liverpool speciality, appropriately enough called Scouse, which was basically just a beef casserole but very tasty. As we visited during the school holidays, there were lots of families with screaming, uncontrolled kids, both in the restaurants and in the house – not my favourite sightseeing scenario.

Luckily, the rain held off so we escaped the noise by walking along some of the woodland trails close to the hall and checked out the pretty gardens, which give some wonderful views of the outside of the house. It is such a photogenic place that I have gone rather overboard on the photos I’ve included here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed my day at Speke Hall.

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