A BIT OF BACKGROUND:
It was the summer of 1970, Mungo Jerry was at the top of the hit parade and we were about to move house. But not to any old house – to a 70 roomed mansion in 20 acres of grounds! For years my dad had collected antiques, ever since he was a young boy of 12, and it was his dream to own a large house where he could put them on show to the general public. In the 1970s he owned the largest private collection of arms and armour in the country and his dream was about to be realised; but little did we know what a nightmare would unfold before us.
Hoar Cross Hall was the home of the Meynell Ingram family who originated from Leicestershire. Hugo Meynell of Quorndon was the High Sheriff of Staffordshire and Member of Parliament for Lichfield and the family owned considerable property in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire. He bought the Hoar Cross estate in 1793 and built a hunting lodge there known as Old Hall and founded the Meynell Hunt. It seemed the family lived here for many years until Hugo’s grandson, also Hugo, got married in 1863 and decided to build the present Hall for him and his wife, Emily Charlotte.
The house took nine years to build and was eventually finished in 1871. Hugo and Emily had already moved in, but their new life together was soon to be cut short by a tragic accident. Fourteen months earlier at Birch Wood on their estate Hugo had a horse riding accident and had been bed-ridden ever since – he died in May of that year. They had no children and Emily built The Church of the Holy Angels in the grounds of the hall in memory of her husband. This is the church that I got married in many years later. On Hugo’s death Emily inherited many large estates and they say she was a double millionairess – which in those days was a huge amount of money! And so we moved to this house with all its history and tragedies in the summer of 1970.
My family consisted of my dad and mum, William and Gwynyth, descendents of an old Derbyshire family and from the Prices of Meirionydd, and two younger brothers, Gavin and Piers and the five of us were about to take on a stately home in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me! It was actually in the middle of Staffordshire but in an incredibly small village, more like a hamlet, with a church, a school, a few cottages and a village pub. The local bus service had just come to an end the month we moved in so there was no public transport either or a village shop! Of course, to us three kids it seemed really exciting moving to this huge house with all those rooms to play hide and seek in. The gardens were vast and we couldn’t wait to climb trees and make dens in the yew hedges. Pathways led to sunken gardens and ponds with stepping stones and a ha-ha wall bordered the grounds.
My parents were keen members of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and Monuments and had decided to restore Hoar Cross Hall to some of its former grandeur. The house had been empty for nearly 20 years as the Meynell family who owned it back then had moved out to a smaller house in the neighbouring village of Newborough. A caretaker had been installed and he and his family lived in a couple of rooms on the first floor. Their daughter was the same age as me and we soon became firm friends as we explored the house together.
The main house had a Long Gallery, a Ballroom, a Drawing Room, a Chapel and a Library with secret doors! How I loved it – I was a big fan of The Famous Five in those days and it really did feel like I was in the middle of one of their mysteries! There were about 15 basement rooms some of which had had the floors removed due to damp rot but the main passageway was made of flagstones so you could still walk through it – this was where a lot of the male servants had slept and it was also where the wine cellars were along with linen storage space.
In the attic a similar number of rooms were bare and empty and had once housed all the female servants. Two spiral staircases joined all the floors together, one at each end of the house. All the bedrooms for the family were on the first floor and were named after whichever town they faced i.e. Derby, Lichfield, Needwood, etc. It was fascinating stuff – there was also a West Wing and an East Wing to the house; the East Wing had been the nursery rooms for the younger members of the Meynell family and their nursemaids. Back down in the basement were all the old kitchens including the Boot Boy’s room, laundry room, pantries and sculleries. Along the wall of the passageway was a row of bells and the names of the rooms to which they belonged – these were here so that the servants could be summoned to do their master’s bidding – they were also used in a prank by myself and my brother when we were visited by a team of professional ghost hunters - but that’s another story which will be featured in a later blog!