Browsholme - Lancashire's oldest county home
PUBLISHED: 21:45 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:11 20 February 2013
Lancashire has lost many of its historic houses, but there is one in the Forest of Bowland which sets the spirits soaring. Roger Borrell met its owner<br/>Photography by Kirsty Thompson
It's a sobering fact that since the early 1900s more than 90 of Lancashire's historic homes have been lost. Many were bulldozed in the name of progress, a few left to rot and then collapse and at least one was shipped brick-by-brick across the Atlantic.
What's left is splendid - Hoghton Tower and Samlesbury Hall, for instance. There just aren't enough of them. Thumb through the guidebooks and the Lancashire section is comparatively sparse.
While that's a little depressing, there are still some houses which send the spirits soaring. One of them is the privately-owned Browsholme Hall, a few miles north west of Clitheroe in the stunning Forest of Bowland.
Not only has this impressive red sandstone pile withstood the ravages of time, but it has the remarkable distinction of providing a substantial roof over the heads of the Parker family since it was built in 1507. This means it can claim to be the oldest family home in Lancashire.
If the outside is remarkable - Turner painted it in the 1790s - the inside is a jaw-dropping jewellery box, packed with historic artefacts. Some are beautiful, some grizzly, some valuable and others pretty worthless. But all are fascinating.
Robert Parker, the self-deprecating head of this household, jokingly says many of the antiques are the sort of 'tat' that gathers in every home. The difference is that this particular brand of 'tat' has taken over five centuries to accumulate.
Few family homes possess a cabinet containing the skull of a lady who was one of the martyrs of the religious rebellion that shook Henry VIII's crown and cost this poor woman her head. There's a legend that dire things will happen if the head ever leaves Browsholme. But in spite of the home's antiquity and its extraordinary contents, Robert is quick to dismiss any talk of ghostly goings on. 'And so would you,' he laughs 'if you had two children who you want to sleep at night!'
The truth is that Browsholme has all the components of a spooky old house without any of the chilling atmosphere. In fact, it feels like a relaxed, welcoming home if an exceedingly rare one. It hasn't been the scene of gruesome deeds down the ages and while turmoil has gripped the nation, the Parkers have been adept at keeping their heads down - and on their shoulders.
'We have documents in the house from the Royalist and from the Parliamentarian sides during the Civil War telling each that we are to be left in peace,' says Robert.
This ability to be poacher and gamekeeper is demonstrated by a military coat which hangs in the hall. It was taken from the bloody body of Thomas Whittingham, husband of Anne Parker, who was killed at the Battle of Newbury fighting for King Charles I. Soon after his death, canny Anne married a Dutchman, who supported Cromwell.
The Parkers descend from the ancient Alkincoats of Colne but in the 1380s a member of the family was appointed park keeper for the area around Browsholme by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
While there have been changes to the house - the dining room extension was added in 1807 - the Parkers have remained constant, landed gentry rather than big hitters on the political stage. Today's inhabitants - Robert, his wife Amanda, who was born in the Ribble valley, and their teenage son and daughter - are far from what you might call 'toffs'.
The couple both work because they have to. Amanda is involved in specialist audio/visual electronics and Robert is chairman of the Clitheroe livestock and antiques auctioneers as well as working two days a week as an advisor for the Historic Houses Association
It's clear that Robert regards the family 'collection' as part of the fabric of the building and the house is his life's work. He says: 'My ambitious is to leave Browsholme in a better state than I found it.'
There's little doubt he will achieve this. As a distant relative of the previous owner, Robert inherited the Grade I listed Browsholme - pronounced 'Brewsum' - when he was just 19.
It was quite a task for such a young man but the confidence of youth saw him through. 'The water was poisonous, the electrics were dangerous, the walls were streaming and there was no kitchen or bathroom to speak of.'
With the support of his parents, he set about putting Browsholme's 26,000 square feet back in good order. He estimates they have spent around 1 million of their own money on the project. 'Despite popular belief, there are few grants available for private homes like this,' he says.
If the hall was an empty shell it would be interesting. But the tremendous collection which adorns every room make it a must-see for anyone interested in history. This is thanks to Thomas Lister Parker, owner in the early 1800s.
He spent much time rummaging around in the attics and storerooms recycling artefacts that had been discarded by earlier generations. He also created the dining room which provides a striking gallery of high quality paintings and he bought in other items from salerooms around the country.
Today, Robert bolsters the income of the estate by opening the home for around 30 days a year (check www.browsholme.co.uk or call 01254 826719 for details) and he seems to genuinely enjoy sharing it with the outside world.
'It means the family do lose some privacy as visitors are shown around private rooms, but it's a small issue,' he says. 'I do believe that history matters and that the Browsholme and its unique collection can be shared.'
Browsholme is now about to move into a new and exciting era with the planned conversion of a large Grade II listed tithe barn into a public space for music, theatre, farmers' markets and craft fairs with a cafeteria. It will mean future events are not dependent on the unpredictable weather.
While the house has been used for some television series, including Hetty Wainthrope Investigates, the family has resisted the going down the weddings route. Perhaps a house with cases of delicate Jacobean relics, antique furniture and ancient stained glass isn't suitable for enthusiastic revellers.
However Browsholme is now about to move into a new and exciting era with the planned conversion of a large Grade II listed tithe barn for music concerts, theatre, farmers' markets, craft fairs and a wedding venue. It will mean future events are not dependent on the unpredictable weather.
'Converting the barn for us is a very big step and, if all goes well, we hope to be up and running in September 2010,' adds Robert.
'I'm not interested how old or how valuable a thing is, if it's capable of being used, we use it,' says Robert. 'That chair you are sitting on is a Hepplewhite...comfortable, isn't it?'