Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ufton Court

Ufton Court Educational Trust

Last Sunday I traveled down to Ufton Court, an educational trust based in an Elizabethan Manor House, which grew out of an earlier medieval property. I was telling stories at their annual open day which combines historical entertainment with educational and commercial stalls.

There was all sorts going on. Some school children were demonstrating the complexities of maypole dancing; the fact that its customary moves are now lost to us was made all the more apparent when the adults spectators were asked to join in and got into all kinds of knots! There were also two separate and very different theater groups on site performing very different plays. First there were the 'Pantaloons' who reduced many of Shakespeare's plays to very short but very funny songs and secondly the 'Melford's Men', a re-enactment group based at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk who gave us a bit of Chaucer performed in home made costumes and in a bawdy form that the original builders of Ufton Court would have known and enjoyed!

The children making the maypole dancing look diceptively easy!

The house itself is an odd, but wonderful mixture and is reflected in its layout. The House hosts Weddings, both in the various fine rooms of the manor house itself or in the incredible tithe barns with much of its medieval timber roof intact. It also hosts corporate events and there are lots of activities set within its sixteen acres of grounds-from canoeing to mountain biking and nature walks. But what interests me most is its role as an educational trust. There are many school visits, both for the day and residential stays. The children can get involved in sessions covering a number of different subjects, from geography and science to team building and art.

Interior of the tithe barn

But the house really lends itself to the study of Tudor history. Kids get to wear Tudor costume and have a go at early dancing, enjoy an Elizabethan banquet and have a go at traditional crafts including hurdle making (Making fences) They also have a go at being history detectives, exploring the house looking for clues to its earlier plan and Ufton is excellent for this! Unlike many period houses Ufton is not frozen in time. There are no signs saying 'do not touch' and rope barriers fencing off dry and dusty rooms set up as they would have been five hundred years ago. There are doors say 'private' and 'no entry', but that's because Ufton court is a living, working place. As you walk through the house you come across modern dormitory's and bathrooms , reception rooms and the like all built into the old structure to accommodate schools and corporate events. But behind theses modern conversions are some real hidden gems.... In the mens loos there are dark stones stairs leading down. They are just calling out be explored, although you would need the obligatory flaming torch, nerves of steel and the sense of adventure of the hero from many a medieval tale to go there! They lead to what I assume was the original stone under-croft set beneath the original Medieval Hall. Certainly the archways and doors to the medieval pantry and buttery where food and drink passed through are still extant at the low status end of the hall although the main hall itself has been lost under later eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century decoration. Just as the original hall itself has been absorbed into the later Tudor remodeling which as with many other houses of the time involved adding great wings either side of the earlier hall. These wings became the main focus of the house; subjugating the once important hall where people once lived, slept, ate and enjoyed all sorts of entertainment into nothing more than the mere entrance hall that you can see in many houses today. And there are many more clues to the houses earliest layout; in one of the dormitory's upstairs there are the huge cruck timber frames of the hall, hidden now by inserted floors, but as with most medieval halls once open from ground to roof. And just off from this room a nursery which was once the Solar of the Lord who lived here and one of the few private rooms there was in medieval times.

One of the many nooks and crannies at Ufton

But as well as the medieval clues, there are also hidden treasures from the Tudor conversion now buried beneath eighteenth century paneling and later conversions. In one room the later paneling opens up to expose the sixteenth/seventeenth century painted paneling. Most people imagine earlier buildings to be nothing but dark oak beams, but in actual fact many were painted in bright colours and would have appeared gaudy to our eyes. . The panels on display include the initials MR which I think stand for 'Mary Regina' (Catholic Queen Mary) and give an insight into the history of the Perkins family, who lived here in Tudor and Stuart times. They were devout catholics who were raided by the protestant authorities on at least two occasions, looking for hidden priests. They didn't find any, but they did find the priest holes where they hid. But they didn't find all of them for Ufton had four and there are also the remains of an escape tunnel! You can still look in these priest holes today, all cleverly hidden and one I think I'm right in saying rediscovered with a four hundred year old ladder still in place for the priest to climb down. These were not comfortable spaces; little more than small cramped holes set behind exposed wattle and daub walls. They are untouched, undecorated places that you were never supposed to see, and looking at them now you really get a true feel for the past! Especially since you still reach these hidden rooms via creaky seventeenth century staircases and even even creakier and very big sixteenth and seventeenth century floor boards roughly hewn from great chunks of oak (You should be able to tell by now that I really love sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings! and anything crafted from oak!)

There is so much more I could write of here; from the small but beautifully painted paneled room which served as a confessional for the devout catholic family who were willing to risk all for their faith. To the reconstructed Elizabethan Knot garden and other gardens filled with herbs from the time. It's one of the trusts future plans to develop this further as well as to reinstate to earlier medieval fish ponds that provided fish for the table. Also to to provide holidays for disadvantaged children as well. They have big plans and the building itself still requires a lot of work, although I like it as it is. We can all be history detectives whilst walking around Ufton Court!

Traditional hurdles fencing off herb and knot gardens

That's it except to say that once again Kim came with me and found out a few interesting facts...
Firstly the grounds are covered in oak trees and there is one that is datable to c. 1350. It was pollarded in the past which means that the young branches were regularly harvested at a certain height for many uses; from production of fire wood to staves used in the production of hurdles and wattling for in-filling walls. And secondly the Tudor conversion was carried out by Lady Marvyn who brought carved beams from her old house to incorporate into the new build (This could be simply because she liked them or because she was trying to save money-Grand Tudor houses were just as much about pretension to greatness as they were about actual wealth) It is also said that once Lady Marvyn got lost in the woods nearby and was only found with the help of local people and that she was so grateful that she instituted an annual dole of linen and corn for the local poor. The dole is still handed out to this day and the current landlord can be found every Maundy Thursday handing out bread and sheets to the parishioners of nearby Ufton Nervet. There are some that still say a curse will come upon the first owner of Ufton Court to break the tradition. I'm not certain that many believe that now but it think its a great way to end this blog; for who am I to let truth get in the way of a good story!

Many thanks to Mary, Karen and all the other staff and volunteers at Ufton Court

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