Every historic house has its fair share of hidden secrets – but Harvington Hall really tops them all.
As well as being a true hidden gem (seriously, how isn’t this place more well known?!) Harvington is FULL of priest holes – secret hiding places where Catholic priests would have hidden from Elizabeth I’s officers. In fact, it has SEVEN of them – the most of any house in England.
I’ve been very fortunate to visit several places in the Midlands associated with Tudor history, including Kenilworth Castle and beautiful Hardwick Hall. Harvington Hall has been on my to-visit list for a very long time after readying about it in A Visitor’s Companion To Tudor England by Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. I’m glad to say that as the summer came to a close I had a chance to do a detour and finally visit!
How old is Harvington Hall?
Like the more well-known Baddesley Clinton, Harvington is a moated medieval manor house at its core. The estate was once owned by a Chancellor of the Exchequer named Adam de Harvington, hence the name.
Harvington Hall as we now see it was built around 1580 by Humphrey Pakington, who remodelled the earlier medieval house.
Despite being a courtier under Elizabeth I, Humphrey was a Catholic. It was he who ordered the priest holes be built into the house. It is likely several of these holes were built by Nicholas Owen, an English Jesuit who was the principal builder of priest holes at this time.
During the Civil War, the manor was sacked by Parliamentary troops, and in 1696 it passed to the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court. They had little use of the house and stripped it of some its original features, like the great staircase, for use in their other homes. However, this neglect also meant the house escaped ‘modernisation’ and retained a lot of its original Elizabethan features.
It remained in the hands of the Throckmortons until 1923, when it was purchased for the Archdiocese of Birmingham. Restoration began in 1930.
What are the highlights of Harvington Hall?
I love every historic place that I visit, but there are some I come away from with a massive, big smile on my face because every aspect of my visit was truly special – Harvington Hall is one of those places.
Harvington Hall is famous for having more priest holes than any other house in England. They are hidden in the most ingenious of places, and its great fun trying to guess where they are as you take your guided tour around the house. Harvington Hall really is a house of secrets!
I don’t want to give away where all the secret hiding places are, just in case you decided to visit, but as part of the guided tour you are given the opportunity to try the secret hide in Dr Dodd’s library.
Its called the swinging beam hide as you have to push what looks like a timber in the wall (but really its a beam on a pivot) to reveal the entrance. It is almost certainly the handiwork of Nicholas Owen and wasn’t rediscovered until 1894.
The hide is 8ft long, 3ft wide and 5ft high, although the entrance is barely a foot wide. I jumped at the chance to try get in but, despite my best yoga poses, it wasn’t happening. Nevertheless I was still very excited about the fact I got the bottom half of my body in a genuine Tudor priest hole (I’m going to use this as an excuse to loose weight and go back to Harvington again).
Elizabethan Wall paintings
Another jewel in the crown of Harvington Hall is it’s collection of rare, original Elizabethan wall paintings. The best of these can be found in Mermaid’s Passage, with its black and white arabesque paintings.
Then upstairs on the top floor you find the Nine Worthies Passage, so-called because images of the Nine Worthies (figures from the Bible and classical history) line the walls. Think Hercules, Samsom and David and Goliath.
The whole visitor experience
From the moment I stepped across the moat, there was nothing I could fault about my visit to Harvington Hall. From the extremely warm welcome to the the enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers to the oh-so-picturesque setting to the top-notch cafe, the wonderful experience I had at Harvington left me with a massive smile on my face. I’ve really missed visiting historical places during the pandemic, but Harvington Hall more than made up for it.
At present, you can visit Harvington Hall by booking onto a guided tour. They run at regular intervals during opening hours and last for approx. 75 mins, costing only £10 an adult. You are guided through the house by the volunteers who are obviously so passionate about the place.
You start on the ground floor exploring servant’s rooms like the kitchen and the brew house, before making your way up to the first floor and the rooms where the family would have lived. On the top floor you will find several rooms including the nursery and two chapels, and a small exhibition about the Roman Catholic history related to the house.
I was lucky in that I was on a tour with only two other people, so we got to ask our tour guide a lot of questions and ended up having a joke as we went around. No stuffy formalities here!
After the tour I naturally had to refuel. The café is housed in the original Elizabethan Malt House (a cottage core dream!). The counter was FULL of fresh, homemade quiches, salads and cakes. It was honestly one of the best cafes I have ever visited on my historical travels (and I’ve visited a lot).
You can eat in the historic building or sit outside on one of the picnic benches while families of ducks waddle around your feed or sleep in the sun. All this in a picturesque moated setting. It really was idyllic.
I didn’t want to leave. But I’m already planning to go back and have another shot at getting in that priest hole!
Like this post? Then check out this post about another bit of hidden Tudor history, Bacton Church in Herefordshire.