Thursday, January 1, 2009

Haddon Hall: The Hall That Made a Man Into a Hero

I confess. I stole Haddon Hall. I whisked it away, stone by stone and beam by rafter, and moved it to a setting of my own, nestled in the crook of a river that looks suspiciously like the River Wye. Yes, I hoped to hide my crime by moving a few walls and making them taller. I moved the kitchen and added odd staircases and privies, and a portcullis. I even gave it a new name, Steynes Hall, and a new owner, Thomas Steynes, Viscount Savoury, whose ancestors I also invented. But I could not disguise it enough, as I discovered when I went to England.

If it weren't for Haddon Hall, I probably wouldn't have made the trip. True, there were hundreds of places in England I have always wanted to see, but that was the real problem. Too many places, and no way to decide which ones I was willing to pass up. But when I began to write LADY WICKED, a Golden Heart winning story, I discovered Haddon Hall as a possible model setting. And the more I learned, the more I was fascinated. It became the one place I had to see. It became the place that would change my hero from an aimless rake to a man with purpose, destiny and love.

Before we left, my friend Margo, who went with me, read my manuscript to see Steynes Hall first in her imagination, and then go to Haddon Hall to see for herself if I got it right. My son Andy, our companion and driver, had also read parts of the book and probably wanted to know why his mom could get so excited about old buildings. I wanted to know both if I "got it right" and if the old buildings were as wonderful as I believed, but also if my alterations were really possible.

I'm not going to take you into the history of the hall, nor show most of its most famous sites. For that you can go to the official Web site, And on my website,, I have posted some more pictures and an account of the story behind the pages of LADY WICKED.

Now, come and cross with me the busy road from the car park (taking your life in your hands) to the entrance gate. Once past the gate, we enter a different world, a pastoral world with sheep grazing alongside a tiny, shallow river. Beside the river on the left, I had hoped to see a small stone cottage that once stood there, the one that would have been Davina's home that she rented from my hero. But it is gone now. Or it may be that the artist who did the engraving placed the still-standing cottage below the stables in a slightly different location. Back then, artists often re-arranged scenes for artistic purposes. Standing on the ancient stone bridge, we look up on the hill ahead to the gray stone of the walled manor that is Haddon Hall. It seems to me my hero had a steeper climb when he left his sweetheart's cottage to return to his hall.

I gave his hall an ancient, rusting portcullis that he had to tie up to keep it from falling on people. Haddon Hall has no such gate, but instead has two wooden gates, the outer one with a small door within one of the bigger doors, that would admit only one person at a time. I like my portcullis and try to imagine where it would have been.

Once past the gate passage, we come to a row of uneven, worn, stone steps set at right angles to the building, and leading to the sloping, paved courtyard. There's the lantern tower where Savoury would go to look out over his land, but I see immediately that the artist who gave it that name was wrong. It's a bell tower for the chapel. We sit inside the tiny chapel, surrounded by quiet serenity, and try to picture the color that must have enlivened the tracery and paintings on the walls. The bell chimes the noon hour. It is a warm, mellow, welcoming sound, like open arms set to music.

Now, here's a surprise that's not in the story. See Margo standing in the stone doorway? She's all of five foot nothing tall. It's commonly thought men of Medieval times were pretty small compared to today, so does that explain the really low lintel? Well, first, they weren't all that small after all, at least not the upper class of Norman descent. And second, most of the passageways and doors are at least as high as modern doorways, or considerably higher (especially where horses or wagons might have to pass). Why this one so low, then? I didn't know until I got home and looked through my research. This outer range of rooms lying on the downhill slope was there before the courtyard was paved. At first it was just a wall, and then chambers built along it. The very steep slope had to be filled in before the stone paving could be laid, but it couldn't be completely leveled or the windows and doors would be buried, and there is no access outside tha walls. So they compromised, ending up with very low entrances and more gently sloping courtyard. It's very weird walking on sloping pavers, but it's a marvelous example of Medieval practical engineering. And although I didn't write this little doorway into my story, I did try hard to capture the essence of the four hundred years of building and evolving architecture.

The hall to the left of the entrance is so dramatic, we can't help but go there. That's Margo on the left. And here's an old engraving showing how it would have looked to Savoury when he walked with Davina in the courtyard in the moonlight.

My next surprise is inside the Great Hall. I had pictured a huge, cavernous place like a cathedral. But it isn't that big. And the ringing footsteps I imagined are muted instead, the sound absorbed by wood-paneled walls and a grasscloth-like carpet to protect the floor. In the hall's dim light, I can't tell if the floor is stone or wood, but I anxiously hurry on, to see as much as I can in the short time we have here. So I don't really get much of a picture of Savoury and his Davina when they almost kissed in the dark shadows of the hall.

In the far corner, steps worn by the passage of thousands of footfalls over time take us up to the Great Chamber, and on to the breathtaking Long Gallery. But before we go there, take a look at the gates at the base of the stairs. Dog gates, to keep the dogs downstairs. Fewer fleas in the beds that way. There is no dog in my story until the last chapter. But see the missing slats in the lattice? I can see Daisy as just the kind of dog who would have seen to their demise in order to get to her people.

Up the stairs, now, and to the left to the Long Gallery. You can see this bright, beautiful, long room on the Haddon Hall Web site. I'm choosing instead to show you one of the lovely small bays. Savoury's Elizabethan ancestors would have spent many a dreary winter day walking here, with ambient light pouring through the many windows on each side. Here he hung the paintings he and Davina treasured. Some of the glass in this lovely square bay is only 4 mm thick. Several windows in the house have some stained glass, especially in the chapel, and many rooms have glass set in intricate patterns. The hall is also known for its wonderful collection of tapestries, but these are difficult to photograph because they must be kept in low light environments to help preserve them.

Now, a quick dash back through the hall, back to the kitchen on its far side. This is where you roast an ox whole! But for Savoury, it was the bane of his existence, for nothing he could do could make the kitchen chimneys draw. He built a new kitchen, much as the real owners of Haddon Hall turned the stable into their modern kitchen and arranged a tram-like device to carry the food up the hill to their dining chamber.

In his efforts to make his hall livable, Savoury found an ancient, very narrow passage (near these stone stairs) hidden between two stone walls, and in cleaning it out, he found a single small shoe, and he began to think of the generations who had lived in this house before him. They had never mattered before. Now they began to walk with him in the mists of night, and he began to feel for the first time that he belonged to them and this hall, the place he wanted to share with his love.

Now we go out to the gardens where Savoury and his love walked and made love in the moonlight. Savoury had the advantage of the more modern gardens you see here, for Davina had a knack for growing things. The fountain is 20th century, but it seems so much a part of the hall, it's hard to believe it hasn't been there for a few hundred years.

Last, look over the garden wall with me, down the valley at Dorothy Vernon's Bridge, where that famous ancestor of the Manners family is said to have passed when she eloped with her love, John Manners. Maybe, maybe not. But she seems sort of like the shades of Savoury's ancestors who walked with him in the moonlight, who taught him about heritage and belonging, as did his marvelous, frustrating hall that demanded so much of him but gave him everything he really needed in return, including his love.

So now I've seen where Savoury and Davina walked, lived and loved. And along with his home, purloined though it was, I have a newer, deeper appreciation of my hero. Someday I'll go back to England in search of more heroes and their places. But I doubt if there will ever be any in my mind to equal the sense of being I found at Haddon Hall.

Yes, that's the heroine on my imaginary cover, standing before Dorothy Vernon's Bridge, and yes, the title refers to a woman. But like so many romances, the story is really the hero's story because Lord Savoury is the one who finds himself, his home, his place in the world, and his love. Though their story is still unpublished, I believe someday it will find its home where everyone can read it.

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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.