Well-presented one-bedroom detached house in several acres. About six reception rooms, including a large Tudor hall suitable for entertaining about 60 people, and once used as the village school. The building dates from around 1530, but the original owners carried out considerable modernisation in 1661, the 1720s and again in the 1820s. The property is well presented, but appears to lack a bathroom; though it does benefit from public toilets and a café which could be a source of income after (or before) a penny or two has been spent.
Despite the feeling that it must have more than one bedroom (and there’s surely a bathtub somewhere) it’s a little diamond, is Rufford Old Hall. Allegedly one of the finest Tudor houses in Lancashire, it will not tax your brain too much and it’s definitely worth calling in if you happen to be in the vicinity of Ormskirk or Chorley. It was donated to the National Trust in 1936 by Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, whose ancestor, plain Thomas Hesketh, had it built when Henry VIII was sitting on the English throne. The spectacular timber-framed great hall with its hammer-beam roof is all that remains of this original house, which would have been in the shape of an H – with the hall being the horizontal strut. The east wing has long gone – though you can see the doors at the end of the hall that would have led to it – and the west wing was completely rebuilt in Jacobean style using brick in 1661. There is little of the original furnishings in the building, though there are some choice pieces (as well as some impressive armour), but great effort has been made to kit the house out sympathetically, including with some rather good tapestries. Much of the décor is in Victorian style, and there is great attention to detail: the dining-room, for example, is ready to receive guests – complete with (I hope) imitation food laid out ready to serve. Unfortunately, it’s one of those places that gets precious about people taking their own photographs – apart from in the hall – otherwise I would have included a shot of the really lovely salon for you. From here, there is quatrefoil squint hole, looking down onto the hall. This gives a good view of the roof timbers and the carvings of angels at the ends of the timbers – if you like that kind of thing; and I know you do. There are two other things to tell you about the hall. Firstly, there is an amazing 16th century freestanding screen made of ancient oak, wonderfully carved, which was designed to hide the kitchens from the diners and which is thought to be unique. Secondly, it is thought that a young William Shakespeare performed in it, as a member of a band of players sponsored by Thomas Hesketh.
I don’t know too much about the Hesketh family, who do not seem to have done much other than marry wisely in order to fund their living habits. Nice work if you can get it. Traditionally, they seem to have been Catholic and must have steered a careful course in order to survive. By the 18th century, they had outgrown Rufford Old Hall (probably not enough bedrooms) and in 1760 built the imaginatively named Rufford New Hall down the road. In 1846, Sir Thomas Hesketh (they all seem to have been called Thomas) married Lady Anna Fermor, whose family owned the much grander Easton Neston property in Northamptonshire. When Lady Anna’s brother, the 5th Earl Pomfret, died in 1867, Easton Neston passed to her husband – henceforth known as Thomas Fermor-Hesketh. The family sold Easton Neston in 2005.
Back to ROH. The grounds are not extensive, but lovely – and child-friendly. In addition to swingball behind the orchard, there is giant chess, jenga and connect4. The gardens are also known for their topiary, not least a pair of giant squirrels.
It also seems that the place is haunted, by three spirits – not necessarily all at the same time. Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to pay the odd visit, though I don’t know why she would. A ‘grey lady’ wanders the grounds, apparently waiting in vain for her husband to return safely from war so that she can say goodbye to him. And finally, a man in Elizabethan clothes has been seen in the Great Hall, near the fireplace, where a secret hiding place that might have been used by Catholic priests was apparently found.
Any ghosts floating about on the day we visited got lost amongst the mass of humanity milling around vaguely in the great hall, or unsuccessfully looking for soup in the café – which had run out, but which conjured up an adequate sandwich. A word about the staff, who can be a little pompous at some National Trust properties; at Rufford, we found them friendly and amusing, as well as being knowledgeable. So thanks to them – they were great.
Rufford Old Hall is on the A59 about 10 miles west of Chorley, 6 miles north-east of Ormskirk and 12 south of Preston. Take junction 27 or 28 from the M6.