Thursday, 10 November 2016

My real life Northanger Abbey adventure: one night, alone, in Wilderhope manor house

“There’s only supposed to be one ghost there” he said, really selling the idea to me, “And that one’s only a horse.”

Which is how I came to accept James's offer of spending the night in a 16th century manor house in the middle of nowhere.

An empty 16th century manor house in the middle of nowhere that is. Let’s not forget the empty, uninhabited, no one else around, me and him as Lord and Lady of the Elizabethan manor, part.

The manor in question was Wilderhope Manor House in Much Wenlock, Shropshire: 
Wilderhope. Wilder. Hope. Such a great romantic name. Beats Rochester's Thornfield Hall and Heathcliff's Thrushcross Grange any day.  
But then again, I'm a Jane Austenite rather than either a Charlotte or Emily Brontephile and, trust me, the plot of Austen's Northanger Abbey - where the young heroine, carried away after reading gothic novels, ends up sneaking about the old house looking for proof that her host murdered his wife -  was never far from my mind while I was packing for the trip. 

So much so that I took my copy with me:
That said, it was more in true Bronte's Jane Eyre style, that we were visiting Wilderhope: as paid workers and not as a well to do guest (well, James was being paid - I came along for the experience and the story I could spin afterwards. This story.) We were less Lord and Lady of the manor and more 'two servants left behind to look after the place over winter'.
We stayed in a room on this side of the building. We know our place.
Although, thankfully, unlike Bronte's plucky little governess ... I didn't have my sleep disturbed by the mad woman in the attic ... nor, as it turns out, by the ghost of any horse.

Ah yes, about that horse ... 

The story goes that during the English Civil War the owner of the manor at that time, royalist Major Thomas Smallman who was carrying important documents, was fleeing some of Cromwell's troops and, rather than allow himself to be cornered by them, he galloped his horse, and indeed himself, straight off Wenlock Edge and while he survived the 200ft drop by grabbing on to something ... the horse didn't. And frankly, after that, who'd blame the horse for coming back to haunt him?

The place where it all went down (sorry about the pun dear ghost horse) is now known as Major's Leap and it wasn't until we'd chosen a room in which to spend the night that I noticed we'd picked the one next to it's namesake. Which was ... comforting ... :
A room which, by the way, was accessed via an original spiral staircase, with original 1580s steps of solid wood. A staircase which I could hardly ever climb without hearing a line from a song about the ghost of Anne Boleyn my Grandma used to sing "With her head tucked underneath her arm, she walked the bloody tower". Now just you sing that to yourself while you play this:

So, why were we there walking up 430 year old staircases and trying not to think of ghosts in the first place? 

Well, like I say, it wasn't because James rented out the entire place in order to satisfy any Jane Austen heroine fantasies I might have. Rather James's company was hired to carry out some repair work in the building (which actually now runs as a Youth Hostel - rather than a fancy manor house hotel) and, after seeing online images of the stunning location ...
.. and idyllic setting:
... he decided that he'd leave behind the office job for a few days and tackle the work himself rather than delegate to someone else. So, before you get too jealous of the amazing opportunity we had, here are some of the behind-the-scenes realities ...

There was real, unromantic, work to be done (for one of us at least, although I did do my fair share of tidying and assisting): 
And then there were the rubber covered mattresses (no judgement here if that's your kind of thing) which we later covered with the bed linen given to us by the employee who was working there during the day; luminous green bedding or, as James put it, "the colour they thought was least likely to get stolen."

Our room was called the Wren's Nest and was fittingly small and cosy enough for just the two of us. There was no way I could have slept in any of the larger dormitories ... too much open space tricking my mind into seeing things that weren't there or, worse still, that were there! 

If you're feeling brave, how about I give you a tour of the manor? 
I'm pretty sure there weren't any ghosts there (but if you spot one in my photos, just keep that information to yourself!) Right then, here we go ... 

While James was working, I sat in the dining room: 
Where I could admire its original plaster work ceilings:
When I wasn't tidying up or making tea for the worker here's where I sat.
I nestled myself in the corner, on my own, with a novel to read and a notebook to scribble in: 
But it was hard to keep looking down at those when I could so easily look out and try to imagine all the other women over centuries, who've looked out over the same landscape, through the same stone window casement:

I wonder how they were spending their days while their menfolk went about their business?

As the afternoon drew on, the sky darkened (goodness you don't realise how dark 'dark' is until you're away from ubiquitous street-lighting do you), James finished up one of his tasks, and the building's employee finished her shift, gave us the door code ...

... and then we were left alone. Entirely alone.
To be honest I was more afraid of a living human dropping by, disturbing our peace, than I was encountering anything more spectral. My mind raced as to what we'd do if someone came knocking, what if some cold, stranded, traveller like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights wanted us to let him in? (Over-active imagination? Who? Me? I told you I felt kinship to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey!).

Once all the work was finally complete we put on some atmospheric lighting and ate tea in the dining room:
Not quite an Elizabethan banquet but our Ye Olde Microwave Ready Meal filled a gap:
And, fortified by food and drink (a strong cuppa ... we weren't drunk in charge of a manor house) we investigated more of the building including the 'bridal suite' at the very top of the house ... and even the basement at the very bottom:
Forgive the blurry photo either the camera was struggling with the light levels ... or I was just really nervous.

And after all that excitement, and after a long, long, day of driving and working we were ready for bed (note the luminous green bedding James is holding here):
But before we turned in we each nipped outside (taking turns to hold the door so we didn't get locked out!) to look at the stars twinkling their whiteness against the silky black sheet of the sky. We headed up the servant's stairs to the Wren's Nest, read a few chapters of our books and slipped into sleep.

At 7am the next morning the gifts of this location kept on giving:
We woke up, just the two of us, in an Elizabethan manor house. An Elizabethan manor house bathed in the glow of a beautiful pink-burnished morning:
A pink-burnished morning with frost-dusted fields and chattering pheasants.
Some experiences money can't buy and, in this case, it hadn't even tried to. This experience was simply the gift of providence, of good fortune, of being in the right place talking to the right people at the right time. Of being willing to embrace an idea, to go, to do, to stay for under 24 hours and then to turn around and come home again. 

But, as brief as our stay may have been, there's no taking away from the fact that for one night in its 431 year history ... James and I were the sole residents of Wilderhope Manor. 

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If you enjoyed your visit with me and the manor today I'd love to hear from you. 

Let's chat all things Austen / Bronte / spooky / over active imagination-related either here in the comments, over on Instagram, my Facebook page or on Twitter

Julie :-)

9 comments:

  1. Dear Julie
    I went through a phase of loving the Brontes, but as I have matured(?!), the cruelty in all of the books has become more obvious and disturbing to me and I read them less, although Anne is my favourite. I am definitely an Austen fan - not that there isn't cruelty on her books too, but it is mainly mental cruelty, and on the whole, the cruel characters don't end up particularly well.
    I think you deserve serious commendation for staying there all by yourselves as my imagination would have been working overtime and I wouldn't have slept a wink. I think I could outdo Catherine Morland once I get going! It is a beautiful place and that sunrise was absolutely stunning.
    Best wishes
    Ellie

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  2. My Mum used to sing the Anne Boleyn song too.

    But..wow! of course you have my historical imagination working overtime now. This from the girl who, when she visited Hampton Court as a 9 year old, insisted that her friend helped her remain in character as Anne Boleyn throughout the guided tour. Staying here overnight might have blown my mind! Thank goodness you are more than equal to the task of conjuring it up for me :)

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  3. So exciting! is it possible to have manor house envy? I was never a Bronte fan........ or, for that matter an Austen fan either. I like my reading to be straight forward with no frills or flowery language. I suppose that's why D H Lawrence never made it with me. I just can't be doing with a three page description of the scenery when it doesn't push the plot...... You do make me think deeply sometimes young lady! keep doing it!

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  4. Sounds like a fantastic opportunity- I am not sure I would have slept as well as you did though! Too much of an over active imagination.

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  5. Oh Julie, I'm so happy that you got to have this experience [and yet I'm envious as well! lol] My dream is to just be able to go through a castle someday, I'd never thought of being able to stay in one but that would be so awesome too. Love all the pics of your time there!

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    1. I just realized you called it a Manor but oh well, close enough to a castle for me. LOL

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  6. Hello from Blogtacular :) This is absolutely brilliant! I love it! Total Austenite here too :)

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  7. Sometimes, when I get behind on my blog reading, I start going through my reader and deleting posts that I think I just won't be able to make time for. I don't ever delete yours because even two (or three, or four...) weeks late your stories are always fantastic, and I'm ALWAYS glad I didn't pass them over without reading. Thanks for sharing another great one! =)

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  8. oh wow, how did I miss this post!! I am so glad I read today's (16th December, see how late I am!) and followed your link. what a brilliant place to stay and what a sunrise!!

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