Camping at Barrells Hall 1940s/1950s – Brian Henderson
A letter written to Margaret Feeney 30th March 1998
Dear Mrs Feeney,
My wife and I were recently browsing in Waterstone’s Birmingham bookshop when I came across your book “Ullenhall” and became riveted by photographs of Barrells Hall, especially the interior, which brought back memories of my various visits to the Hall, between 1946 and the early 1950’s.
. . .
I was still a child at the end of the Second World War. In 1945, my brother Barry and I joined a local Birmingham youth club which resulted in us camping at Oldberrow Court Farm in 1946. We camped on Barrells Hall side of the stream, and on the edge of a large field at the top of which was the Ha-Ha referred to in your book. On subsequent visits we camped on the opposite bank, within Oldberrow Court Farm and alongside the stream where we had sightings of kingfisher.
Perhaps unusual for its day, ours was a mixed camp with girls and boys tents separated by a kitchen tent, nicknamed the “black-hole”. This was a roadman’s ‘tent’, – a folding tubular steel frame with a fitted canvas cover. We took our own cutlery and ‘fat’ rations, and these were kept in a meat safe which hung on a nail driven into a nearby oak tree. We each had to cook our breakfasts. Girls were allowed to cook their’s inside the kitchen (on Calor Gas rings), while the boys cooked over a fire, but when it rained the eggs almost jumped out of the pan, and hands were spotted with hot fat!
At that time, Barrells Hall, Oldberrow Court Farm, and Grimshaw were owned by Mr E H Smith, a well known builders’ merchant and member of the Christadelphian community. ‘EH’ had a son, Kenneth, and a daughter, Beryl.
Howard (EH) Smith lived with his wife at Grimshaw, and I mention this because although I did not visit them there, my brother did. It was then he saw a magnificent coloured marble fireplace which had been relocated from Barrells Hall, probably by Mr Smith.
Some of the club members had camped there before and had found several gold sovereigns in the house, which they sold. Some of them slept for a couple of nights in Barrells for a dare! The Hall was reputed to be haunted by a lady “kept imprisoned in the turret” by her husband. So the lads wrote on a plastered wall “ – From Ghoulies and Ghosties and Long-legg’ed Beasties, and Things that go Bump in the night! . .”. The turret was in fact built as a small observation platform reached by a short half-spiral staircase, lined with pinewood paneling.
In 1946, the Hall was complete except for the Servants’ Quarters, which had been gutted by fire, said to have been started by a poor madman who was living rough there, and kept others at bay with a shotgun. The Servants’ Quarters were also referred to as the ‘East Wing’.
The white marble staircase in the main entrance hall was damaged, – broken part the way up with a section lying in rubble on the mosaic hall floor. Ken Smith told me it had been “blown up by British Army Royal Engineers as a military exercise” during World War Two. The Servants’ Quarter was a wing, set-back from the right of the main house. It had been gutted, so its roof and timber floors were gone. Inside its blackened shell, the fireplaces of each room could be seen at each floor level. Looking upwards, the chimneys stood high in the air (viewed from the side windows in the Hall) through the shell which had been the servants’ quarters. Chimneys and fire-openings had become nesting places for jackdaws which would flock-out in rowdy flight when anyone came near.
Ken Smith said thieves had removed the lead from the main roof which resulted in water getting into the building. We were cautioned not to go on the roof, but of course we did, scrambling across past the ridge and towards the turret. To the left-rear, we overlooked the Conservatory and Rear entrances, – fronted by what looked like a coach-turning circle. Rabbits grazed there and, – young lads that we were, – we threw down the odd piece of broken slate to make them jump! The main roof was of slate, and low pitch behind a front parapet wall on which sat the finials.
At the time of our first visit there were several plants in the conservatory, including a Fig Tree. The stained glass windows were still intact in shaped stone surrounds. The older lads had taken to removing cast iron grids from the boundary wall guttering of the conservatory roof. The grills were to prevent leaves blocking the gutters, but they were used on campfires as trivets, to keep frying pans level and prevent them from tipping. The grids were like a framed comb, about five inches wide by approximately twenty-four inches long. They did not last very long when subjected to the intense heat of the open fire.
Approaching the front of the Hall from the Ha-Ha there were a few stone steps with a dwarf wall each side. A paved area then lead to the main entrance steps (2?) and the double front doors. A Bell-pull was still in-place on the right-hand side. This was brass, or bronze, and pulled a connecting-rod attached to a wire rope, let into the fabric of the building. Another rod emerged from the plasterwork inside and near the ceiling. A steel plate bracket was fitted to re-direct the ‘pull’ my more wires and levers towards the bell-board location.
Inside the front door was a hall with a connecting door to the left. This led to a large square room. Windows opposite the doorway had either never existed, or were bricked-up as result of “Window Tax”. I believe two sets of windows were affected at ground floor level, also those on the first floor above. Adjacent to the door, and on its right, was an alcove which was about nine inches deep and approximately five feet wide by eight feet high. There was a second alcove to the right of the fireplace, set in the wall which faced the front windows. Inside each alcove was a large one-piece mirror which filled the alcove without the use of a frame.
The ceiling plasterwork was beautiful and surrounded by a frieze, – a continuous ornate plaster panel comprising gilded leaf-form edgings. The field of the frieze was in a pastel shade of blue with coloured and gilded tudor roses every six inches all around the room. To the left of the fireplace was a door to another room.
Inside the front door once again, on the right hand side was a service stairway. A short flight led to a mezzanine landing. On the right was a left-hand hinged door, like that of a safe, but leading to the Strongroom with another, apparently a Counting room off to the right, inside it.
The “counting” room door was also hinged right-hand and made from a piece of steel plate, approx. 3/8” thick with a handle on the outside, and a bolt on the inside. This room had no windows, but on the floor were straw tufts, the kind used for stacking and storing wine bottles (some empty bottles remained).
The Strongroom barrel-vaulted ceiling sloped in a downward curve from above its entrance door toward the front of the building. On the left was a single barred window, which was at floor level with a brick built sprung-arch surround. The side outside wall was covered with ivy which wrapped itself around the vertical iron bars which were fitted into the shallow opening.
Back on the landing, – the service stairway continued (though the direction escapes me) leading to the bedrooms which were inter-connected across the front of the Hall. The doors were tall, paneled and painted. Each had a lock with beehive knobs and hinged key-hole covers of ebony mounted on brass. From the last of these rooms one could look into the remains of the Servant’s Quarters, with the roof and floors gone you could see up to the sky. To the rear of this wing was an upward embankment, and a small group of fir trees.
Inside and opposite the main front door was a doorway beneath the remains of the stairway. After a short corridor this led to what I shall refer to as a dining room. This room was wide, tall, and narrow from front-to-back. High up on the surrounding walls was a vertical wooden freize, in panels of pine or cedar with a large coat-of-arms opposite the door we had just entered. In the left-hand corner was a door leading to the conservatory, – while to the right another led to the kitchen and scullery.
The scullery was almost square, and appeared to be a single-storey extension. The back door (on the left) was in timber, framed, ledged and braced, with a security bar hanging on its centre-pivot. When in place, the flat bar entered hooks on each side of the doorframe, with a hasp and staple at the right-hand end.
A doorway on the right led past the head of the cellar steps, and close to this was the top of a well, which had been filled with brick rubble. A couple of the helpers told me they had removed the hand-pump and dropped it down the well.
Inside another room at the rear of the Hall a net curtain still hung at one side of the window. There was also some heavily patterned, gawdy wallpaper, coloured in a kind of purple, which I guess was Victorian.
Looking again from the Ha-Ha, – to the left of the house was a large sweet chestnut tree. It’s thick main trunk divided into several others a few feet above ground level. These ‘trunks’, or heavy branches were held from falling by a series of wire ropes, or cables linked together among the branches with iron plates.
To the right of the Hall was a very large shrub in the centre of which was a wrought iron garden seat. This was a short distance from the end of the avenue of trees, leading from Henley/Ullenhall Road.
Transport on the occasion of our first visit (in 1946) was by steam train. Arriving at Henley-in-Arden, we had to walk by road carrying our kitbags, clothes and bedding. On later visits we walked cross-country from the Station footbridge, and using field paths we approached the site via the avenue of trees.
While out walking one year, we were chased by bullocks and “escaped” by jumping over the iron fence at the side of Barrells wooded garden. We then came across the Ice House. We later investigated with torches we could see the lovely egg-shaped brickwork of its construction. The outer mound was covered with woodland tilth and we discovered the iron entrance-gate was just above half-way up the side of the Ice House (which of course was mostly beneath ground). On another occasion we recovered a door from within the ice house, – a door from the Hall, – and we dragged this down to the pool where it was made into a raft using old oil drums. I gave a photograph of the raft on the pool to Roger Weaving, who lives at Hanbury. Another, showing the door being towed by a group of youngsters from Turves Green and myself, is in my own archive.
During our stay we called at Oldberrow Court Farm each day to collect milk in a bucket. Carried between two, – if we got out-of-step it would splash our legs and make them sticky. Drinking water was collected from a tap near the stable block at Barrells Hall, – which meant an arduous walk carrying a dustbin between two, filling it half-to-three quarters, then walking back with wooden ‘cross’ floats to prevent spillage. It was necessary to change hands several times during this operation, also to protect our hands with a pad of cloth. Bearing in mind some of our camps catered for 60-70 youngsters there was a great deal of water carrying to be done, and each bin weighed almost two hundredweight!
At some of the camps the mode of transport was no less that a four-and-a-half litre Bentley, owned by Ken Smith. It had a previous history as a Le Mans racing car but had a replacement shooting-brake body. The inside was cavernous with standard Bentley bucket-seats in the front, – two small folding seats in the middle, and a large leather bench seat across the back which could be removed for carrying goods. The Bentley was used as an ambulance to take one lad, Jimmy Allen, home to Hall Green, in Birmingham, when he managed to get sunstroke. It was also used by Dr John Weaving to bring youth club members from the back-to-back dwellings area of the Nelson Street area of Cambridge, for a camping holiday.
Years later, we made occasional visits to St Mary’s, Oldberrow, and after one such visit my wife and I were married there, in 1989. It was necessary to establish local ‘residence’ to make this possible. A search through the list of Farmers the ‘yellow pages’ led us to telephone ‘Watty’, of Cadborough Farm. We were welcomed with open arms, and it was arranged that Carole should stay B&B for a week. She had to convince the Stratford-upon-Avon Registrar, and (in his other hat) High Sheriff that she was complying with the letter-of-the-Law, which she had been able to do thanks to the Wattys. Thanks also to Mr Hilbert Smith for his support in agreeing to let us marry at the church. Sadly since then, Dennis and “Watty”, and Mr Hilbert Smith have since died (Note added July 2003).