Tuesday, 5 January 2010

I'm Dreaming of a White.......

What a Difference A Day Makes!

Woke up this morning in Worcester Travel Lodge, switched on the news and discovered there was a severe weather warning in place. Looked out of the window and it was a bright blue sky.

Having started to head south, I’m determined to get to Somerset this week, I had hardly gone any distance - actually I was still on the Travel Lodge Car Park -when I realised I still hadn’t visited Hampton Court (did you know there‘s one in Herefordshire?), Harvington Hall and Hanbury House.

Since Harvington Hall was the one furthest away I tapped its postcode into the sat nav and Emily woke up with her usual morning greeting of “please drive to highlighted area.”

As it happened there was a B and Q en route to the "highlighted area," so I stopped off to buy a wind up torch and a spade (every paranormal investigator should have one), because I’d heard on the news that motorists were being advised to have a spade, blanket, torch and flask of warm water with them just in case.

Armed and ready, I drove to the "highlighted area" and headed off into a slightly overcast but otherwise pleasant January morning.

And then.

It started on the M5 with just a few flutters of snow. But, by the time I’d turned off the motorway, and was heading along some A road or another en route to Harvington Hall, the snow had become a veritable swirling mass of white.

Traffic was reduced to a crawl as the conditions became atrocious. “At least the road’s flat” I thought, counting my blessings I wasn’t up in Cumbria.

And then.

Why do hills turn up when you least expect them?

Rounding a bend, I was confronted by a steep hill. Crawling up it I experienced the first of many slides, but at least I made the summit. Actually that’s a bit grandiose, summit is probably a bit of an exaggeration , as it wasn’t that much of a hill - it just seemed like it.

I’d crept along at about 10 miles an hour in a line of traffic and achieved an amazing 15 miles in 40 minutes, when Emily woke up and told me to “take the next right.” A quick glance at the turn, and the deep snow that blanketed the road, and I made the executive decision not to risk it and to ignore Emily‘s order. “Recalculating,” she snarled.

But there on the left was a pub car park, so I slid off the road and parked up. “I don’t know why I f*****g bother, why can‘t men follow simple directions” snapped Emily. She didn’t really, but I know she was thinking it in whatever satellite she is looking down from. I have an image of her as one of those Greek Gods you see in the films looking at the fickle human species beneath in a golden bowl (geez what did they put in my coffee at breakfast?)

Once out of the car, I locked up and set off down the road that Emily had told me to turn right along.

I passed a couple who were out walking their dogs, a greyhound and a ferocious looking bull dog. I nodded that non-commital "goodmorning" that you feel obliged to nod when encountering others as nutty as you to be out on a day like this, and headed up a track that was signed 'Harvington Hall'.

Then it suddenly dawned on me that I’d left Emily on the windscreen, still switched on and in full few. Ok, our relatonship isn't what it was, we're arguing a lot about which direction our relationship should be taking, but I'd hate to lose her, or at least hate to return to a smashed side window, so I decided to do the decent thing and gallop to her rescue.

Heading back to the car I saw the couple and their dog approaching. So, being a polite sort of person, I proceeded to manoeuvre around them.

And then.

The road dipped sharply left at that point, which I hadn’t notice because of the snow. Suddenly, the world turned upside down and I was flat on my back with a slobbering bull dog nuzzling my face. The couple helped me up and luckily only my pride was injured.

Back at the car, I hid Emily away.

Then it was off up the lane, and in about ten minutes I caught my first glimpse of Harvington Hall through the trees.

It looked fantastic. Its roof was draped with a thick covering of fresh snow. Its red brick exterior, punctured by a myriad of dark windows, looked like something off a Christmas card. The trees and bushes around it were likewise covered in snow. I've said this before, and I'll no doubt say it again, but - what can I say - WOW.

The whole place looked truly magical. I photographed it from all angles, even trying a few arty shots, framing it with snow clad branches or trying to snap it through the icicles that clung tenaciously to the branches of the trees. It was fantastic.

There wasn’t a living soul around.

In fact, there wasn’t any kind of soul around as, despite a thorough search, I failed to catch a glimpse of Mistress Hicks who is reputed to haunt the grounds of Harvington Hall.

Perhaps she too had ignored whatever type of sat nav ghosts have and had decided to stay on the gritted ghostly paths or roads?

I love visiting houses like this when there is no one else around. Admittedly, that means coming to them when they are closed so I can’t actually get inside them. But I really believe that all old houses have an atmosphere, or if you like a spirit, and that that spirit exudes from every pore and crevice of abodes such as this.

But I also find that that ambiance just doesn’t come through in “the season” when hundreds of visitors are traipsing through these old houses. I like to view them out of season, sense their atmosphere and then, should it really captivate me, return during normal opening months.

Harvington Hall pulsates with atmosphere and spirit, so I’ll most certainly be back in early March and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Opposite the Hall there is a delightful little church which I snuck into and sat down inside. One of the curious fixtures was a stained glass window about which I could find no information, but which showed a group of people, and behind them was a depiction of Harvington Hall. I really must find out a little bit more abou this window, although I suspect it is depicting something to do with the Elizabethan persecutions of Catholic priests, as Harvington Hall has numerous Priest holes, where priests would hide to avoid the authorites in the reign of Elizabeth 1st.

Walking back to the pub car park I noticed a lovely black and white timbered house, which looked particularly picturesque so I snapped a few photos and then headed back to the car.

Hanbury House is about 20 minutes from Harvington Hall, so I decided to head over there next and arrived about three hours later!

The roads were abysmal. Cars were slipping and sliding all over the place. At one stage I sat in a traffic queue for over an hour before discovering that cars were actually holding back before launching at a steep, snow and ice covered, hill. The trafic quite simply wasn't moving, but the usual impatience that drivers show in this kind of circumstance was strangely absent. People were getting out of their cars and chatting. It's amazing how these sort of adverse weather conditions bring out the old community spirit that we once had in the days before reality TV.

Still, there was one consolation. We recently decorated our front room and, being a total snob when it comes to sloshing on a coat of B and Q mix and match, I had chosen what I was assured were the finest paint brushes available. These were made by Harris.

Thoughts of home, and our newly spruced up front room, swept over me as I found myself sitting outside the Harris manufacturing premises for over 60 minutes.

When it finally came to my turn to attempt the hill I took one look at the cars that were slipping and sliding at all manner of strange angles and decided it wasn’t a good idea.

So I did a perfectly executed U turn (actually I just hit the brake pedal and the snow did it for me) and told Emily to take me down to Somerset.

But, as I arrived at the turn off for the M5, I saw a sign for Hanbury Hall that pointed along a road that looked particularly clear of snow.

So off I went. “Are you trying to p*** me off on purpose,” spat Emily from the windscreen sat nav. “Well find your own way, I quit.” Ok I made that bit up, what she actually said was “recalculating.”

But the upshot was that I made it to Hanbury Hall.

I had to scramble over a gate and trudge across a snow covered field, but the red brick walls of the Hall looked magical surrounded, as they were, with a field of pure white snow.

Alas, 18th century society beauty Emma Vernon, who left her husband for the local curate, and who has since been condemned to wander the house and grounds as a ghost till hell freezes over, was conspicuous by her absence.

Mind you, it was so cold that hell may well have frozen over, so that may account for why I failed to make her acquaintance.

From there I drove over to Hampton Court, the one in Herefordshire, but found the gates locked and no way of getting a peek at the Castle itself.

So, as darkness began to fall, I decided to head for one of my old favourites, the Skirrid Mountain Inn, as a night at one of the most atmospheric haunted inns in Britain, with one of the cosiest and warmest log fires to sit by, really would make the perfect end to a perfect day in which I encountered the perfect snow storm.

Alas, a thick fog suddenly engulfed the entire landscape and, just past Hereford, the sight of a Travel Lodge proved too tempting and I decided that I’d done enough for one day.

So I’m writing this in a nice old beamed pub, called the Grafton, on the road just outside Hereford. It's a lovely place, good food, and lovely friendly staff who can't do enough for you.

It’s snowing again (according to the forecast we’re due 16 inches by tomorrow), but, with a nice rump steak and a glass of Merlot in front of me, I find myself able to cope.

So, until next time, - good hauntings.

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