You could very easily miss Haddon Hall. There’s a signposted car park, then you are directed over the road and past an unassuming little shop and ticket office towards a turn in the path, a bridge, and the hall on the hill above you.
Everything about it is understated. When we arrived, the woman on the door advised us as to the best route to take. Please do take the time to visit the chapel before going into the house, she said. It’s worth a look.
Having seen the 2011 version of Jane Eyre a couple of times, I was familiar with the front of the hall, its wide stone steps leading down into the courtyard. I had a good sense of the grounds, with the trees and river and low bridge straddling it. I could picture the steep slope that Jane half-runs, half-tumbles down at the very start of the film. And I was prepared for beautiful panelling in so many of the rooms, and a large, sunken kitchen.
What I was not prepared for was the chapel. Worth a look turned out to be the understatement of the month. Inside the tiny house of worship was an reredos of mesmerising detail and beauty. I captured only one tiny part of Christ’s journey to the cross. The walls, whitewashed during the reformation, had been restored to their frescoed glory, with wonderfully imagined depictions of the garden of Eden, the ship of fools and three skeletons stirring a cauldron as just some of the highlights. There was a marble tomb of a small boy, his little form preserved in Victorian memorium. Wooden choir stalls flanked the chancel; the font stood waiting in the baptistry; the pews were still in place.
I found the children in the kitchen, making wands of sticks, rosemary and twine in the midst of ancient sinks and steps so deeply worn they looked like drainage. There was a tray of herbs and spices and a great heavy pestle and mortar to grind and blend them before tying the witchy concoctions into scented muslin sachets. The great hall was so inviting, with its three piece suite arranged around a massive fire, that we stopped and sat a little before heading up the stairs and through the other rooms.
There aren’t many big houses that are so hands off in their stewardship, or so simply displayed. Really, we were free to wander at will through room after panelled room, each offering up its own surprise in the form of stucco or furniture or views. I adored the long gallery, with its thousands of tiny panes of glass ushering the light in on the coldest and wettest of days. Like everywhere else, decoration was confined to a vase of flowers, dried seedpods, or leaves, and it was beautifully done. The garden itself was as unfussy as the rest of the hall, relying on the vista to please the eye as much as the planning and planting.
When we got back to York, we spent a quiet afternoon rewatching Jane Eyre in front of the fire. I know that many, many other films have been shot in that house, but this was the film in which it first caught my eye. We kept picking out spots we now knew: the wedding in the chapel, the scene in the kitchen when the servants are all preparing for the arrival of a large party, panelled rooms through whose windows Jane longs for the world. Ilse jumped when she saw Rochester shooting across the landscape from the very three stone steps that she had declared her favourite spot in the place. Something about the informality of our visit made us feel that we knew it in a way that we didn’t know other, fussier great houses. When you’ve seen as many grand homes as I have, they can begin to blend into one, with all their fine furniture and cordons and wardens in every room. Haddon Hall really was something quite out of the ordinary. When I mentioned our visit to a friend, she agreed with me at once. In fact, we decided that it wasn’t just out of the ordinary, but that it was really quite extraordinary in its quiet and peaceful way.
Have you visited anywhere recently that really surprised (and delighted) you? Any recommendations for days out? Do tell!