A first glance tells you Speke Hall in Liverpool is not the stately stone pile that comes to mind when you think of the properties owned by Britain’s National Trust. It's clearly a Tudor building, and its complex timbers and white spaces make it seem almost like 'op art.'
In fact, aside from all the black oak timbers, it’s built of mud and hay—that's what 'wattle and daub' is. The oak frame sits on a sandstone foundation, and the spaces between the timbers are filled with the mixture, and then white-washed. Cheap, effective, and now you know why there are so many timbers that don't appear to be weight-bearing.
Built by a family with large landholdings, and with large families (the second owner had 19 children), it sprawls across some of the most beautiful gardens you’re likely to find—and it has enough history to keep your attention throughout a tour.
You may have seen it here before: It was featured in this Gumbo Picture of the Day earlier this year.
Although it was ‘way out in the country’ when it was built in the 16th Century, it’s now part of Liverpool, and surrounded by heavy industry and shipping businesses—none of which shows from the estate. By bus, it’s 45 minutes from the center of Liverpool.
The Norris family started the building in 1530, and for nearly 70 years they kept adding wings and rooms and extensions until the original house formed a rough square around a courtyard (above). Henry Norris started it, William Norris, the father of the 19 continued it, and Edward Norris, one of the 19, finished it, and noted the fact over the door.
The building remained a home for nearly 400 years, until 1921, and was turned over to the National Trust in 1944. While it was occupied, the owners left the building pretty much alone, but updated the furnishings and fixtures, so that today it is an oddity: A genuine Tudor building filled with mostly Victorian furniture!
The Norris family fortunes hit some rocky times, especially in that first century, because the family remained staunchly Catholic at a time when the King demanded loyalty to the new Church of England. Catholic worship was banned and Catholics were subject to punishment.
On the other hand, in the Liverpool area, many Catholics remained, and weren’t bothered too much, as long as they stayed private and avoided conflict with royal officials who were responsible for enforcement.
For that reason, the house has some unusual features. In the wall of one of the fireplaces, there is a hidden stairway that leads to upstairs rooms; when necessary, this “priest hole” allowed the family priest to slip away. When the officials entered, the priest would appear to be a household servant, in appropriate livery.
You may note the many beautiful wallpapers in some of the pictures. Speke has one of the best collections of William Morris wallpapers. So not Tudor!
To provide time for everyone to scramble, especially if services were being held, a small opening was built into a wall facing the road; through it, it was possible to see a long way into the distance and spot any unfamiliar visitors.
Above the front door, under the eaves of the house, there was an ‘eavesdrop,’ a small space with an open hole that allowed someone to listen to the conversation of visitors at the doorstep, and determine whether they were friend or foe.
The house was surrounded by a moat, but that wasn’t meant to keep Protestant officials out, and after a couple of centuries it was drained and became part of the gardens, although its shape can still be seen.
In all the 400 years as a residence, only three families owned it: The Norrises, whose last heiress married into the Beauclerk family and eventually left it to her husband’s family, and the Watt family that bought it in 1795.
A true oddity: Much too old for the house, and much too new for the decor
Amelia Watt inherited the estate at 21 in 1878, and redeveloped the lands as working farms. When she died in 1921, her butler stayed on and maintained the house until it was given to the National Trust. Lands that once belonged to Speke were sold in the 1920s to build Liverpool’s airport.
If you visit, be sure to allow enough time not only for the approximately one-hour house tour, but also to wander in the beautiful grounds, and to take a walk on the trail that leads down to the banks of the River Mersey. We'll have a Gumbo visit to the gardens in a few weeks
Food demonstrations and discussion are available in the kitchen, along with a varitey of recipes. If you want an actual meal, or copies of the cookbooks, a little away from the house, in the Home Farm building, there’s a decent café for lunch, and a gift shop.
As the table might have looked in Amelia Watt's time.
A house on this scale needed a full staff of servants, a la Downton Abbey, complete with the table in the servants' hall and the bells to call them.
As a 19th-century home, Speke Hall was fitted out with indoor plumbing, including a running-water tub to replace the old ones, and a "thunderbox" toilet.
And, below, some more views of the Victorian furniture. The 'slideshow' section below has a few more pictures not seen in the blog.