Northern Male uses his time machine to go back to Calverley Old Hall

Doctor Who is not the only owner of a Time Machine. I have one and I can pull the lever – but before I do let’s set the scene.

It’s 2021 and I’m in my local supermarket. I don’t normally buy The Guardian but like many ex-journalists I’ll not nail my colours to any particular media mast and so dip sample them. This can be translated as speed-reading. I spy a piece by their North of England correspondent Mark Brown which ensured I took it to the till.

It appears a major historical discovery of incredibly rare Tudor wall paintings has been made right under my nose. Historians have described it as “jaw-dropping”. Scraping away at the plaster on the wall of a small bedroom, specialists have uncovered – Tudor wallpaper.

We’re not talking Laura Ashley here or even Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s a bunch of long dead artists we will never know. Had these remarkable medieval paintings been whitewashed over with lime the damage would have been total. But someone in the past saw their beauty and decided to use plaster – and so preserve them for posterity. 

I’m guilty of not appreciating the places near to me. Perhaps because they’ve always been there I don’t bother going. I drive by. Being born and raised in a West Yorkshire village between Leeds and Bradford, I became used to Calverley Old Hall as being part of the furniture. After all it was on the same road as my parent’s home.

I’d yawned at the ghost stories and ancient tales about Sir Walter Calverley and would walk past it without a second glance as it was just always there. In my teenage eyes, this crumbling Tudor building was just a place in my youth that was history. How wrong could I be?

In 1977, the 17C lodging block caught fire and, with the cottages in such a dilapidated state, Thornhill Estates who owned it put the Hall up for sale. In 1981 it was bought by The Landmark Trust who began the long haul in restoring this dilapidated but unique medieval home. This building conservation charity was founded in 1965 by Sir John and Lady Smith. It rescues buildings of historic importance and makes them available for holiday rental. If you want to read more about their work on this amazing place, go here.

With staycations remaining so popular, this is helping our UK historic buildings and economy. Personally I love staying in unusual places and the Landmark Trust are benefitting from our love of supporting history.

Unfortunately, due to the discoveries at Calverley, the Old Hall is off-limits to stay now – which is understandable. However, I’ve volunteered to help as indeed you can too at any of their properties on their website.

But let’s jump into my time machine.

It’s April 1605. I arrive on a cold early morning and walk across the garden grass crisp with frost to the window of Calverley Hall. I rub the leaded glass. Overwhelmed by debt and doubting his wife’s faithfulness, Walter Calverley has his hands on the table and makes a decision.

He takes his sword from its scabbard hanging under his cloak on the wall, walks up the stairs and murders his two small sons, William and Walter. He then runs his wife through too but she is saved by her steel corset. He brushes past me and jumps onto his horse galloping off – and is caught. At York he is unrepentant and refuses to enter a plea. If he agrees to be pressed to death, his family will inherit his estate. If he is hanged they will not. Walter was executed. Pressed to death under heavy stones.

Northern Male uses his time machine to go back to Calverley Hall

The murders were dramatised as A Yorkshire Tragedy, performed by the King’s Men at The Globe and originally attributed to William Shakespeare, but now considered the work of Thomas Middleton. The son who survived the tragedy, Henry, was a poignant figure who was dogged by ill luck in youth and later burdened by a huge fine imposed by Parliament for being a Royalist.

I wander through the house. It looks impressive and in much better condition but the sadness it holds permeates the walls. I return to my own time and walk out to see it looking shabby and still feeling unsettled.

Decades ago I wandered through it. I’ve stood in the chapel and the garden. Seen the one remaining resident before she died and wondered why the place remained unloved.

I was given a tour by Ted Garnett before he died. He was the recognised historian of the village in the 1960’s and 70’s. He was a friend of my father and I would sing in the Church choir when Ted preferred Evensong. There were fewer people, it was subdued and we could sing with the organ in a quiet way a song which struck a chord with him called the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel”.

I’m no longer religious but when those words are set to music and played in the setting I sang them in for so many years they have given people hope and have done throughout the centuries. Much as they did in medieval times.

Like most villages, Calverley today has lost most of the local shops which gave it identity to the supermarket down the road. Those services which survive are the ones folk most need. A chippy, a chemist and a library providing food, medicine and a good book. But it also has a House and within it a Chapel.

I’m going to set my co-ordinates for 5th April 1530. It’s a Sunday about 8am. I’m going to need an assistant who likes painting and can sing.

Are you coming?

You can read more of Northern Male’s articles here