The great houses of Great Harwood

PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 March 2014

Looking from the gateway to the Gatehouse at Martholme

Looking from the gateway to the Gatehouse at Martholme


Three architectural gems have been restored in a Lancashire town which remains off the beaten track. Martin Pilkington reports

Churchfield HouseChurchfield House

There is no denying that some of Lancashire’s architectural gems were left to rot during the last century. Great Harwood, however, is reversing such neglect with three particularly fine examples benefitting from individual and collective determination.

Churchfield House, built in 1851, the nearby Martholme, with a medieval manor house at its core, and the baroque-style Mercer Memorial Clocktower all now provide landmarks that might draw visitors to this east Lancashire town, a few miles south of the Ribble Valley.

In December last year, the clocktower was rededicated following a major refurbishment overseen by the civic society while the Churchfield House Trust took over this former family home in October and immediately set about redecorating.

As Lynn Wilson, chairwomen of the civic society, and her colleague on the trust, Sandra Robinson, take me around the house they explain that Churchfield was built for surgeon Henry Ainsworth. But just three years later, Blackburn vintner Joseph Haydock bought the property and it stayed in the family until his son, Milton, left it to the people of Great Harwood as a reading room and pleasure gardens.

Tight finances and abuse of the facility led to a brief period of closure before the civic society got cracking. ‘When we walked in there was not a single picture, or anything to go on, it was blank,’ says Sandra. With no hint of what it was like in its heyday, the transformation so far is remarkable, partly thanks to helpers from the Prince’s Trust. Three upstairs rooms now house small exhibitions and the downstairs is ready for use by local groups or just by those stopping for tea.

There’s much to do and a major priority is the unsympathetically altered kitchen area. ‘We have a volunteer – Jack – who was a joiner and all these things go on “Jack’s job list.” Whenever he completes one job, two more are added!’ says Maureen Tomlinson, vice chairman of the trust. The rather bare gardens need attention too, with plans to plant lily of the valley, the favourite flower of Milton Haydock’s wife, Janet.

She was famed for her dress sense, a fact that highlights a mystery in this substantial mansion - only a narrow side staircase remains. Surely for servants, not an elegantly-gowned lady? Doubtless the trust will solve that problem too – with a little help from Jack and his friends.

‘We want to ensure it is fully restored and pass it on to the next generation,’ says Sandra. ‘We want the children to come in and use this place as a continuation of the legacy, and for the gardens to be a pleasure ground again.’

Lynn Wilson is confident they’re getting there. ‘Every event that happens now, we see more and more people. There’s definitely a resurgence of interest in the history of the place. There is a lot to do but we’ll do it.’

From its gardens, Churchfield House is framed by St Bartholomew’s Church, a fine 14th century building altered in Tudor times. The probable instigator of the 16th century work was Thomas Hesketh, a busy man as he was improving his nearby manor house, Martholme, at the same time. You could say that work never finished.

Not far away is Martholme, a remarkable property bought by Mary Codling and her husband in 1962. ‘It was our first house. We were looking for something slightly smaller, but of this period. The gatehouse was an unsafe ruin, three walls, no gable end, no roof. The house was roughcast, grey and rather ugly,’ she says. What visitors on open days see now is entirely different, a beautiful and charming Grade I listed home – English Heritage’s definition is ‘of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important.’

Early in their tenure a nasty crack appeared in one wall of the main house. An architect sent by the then Ministry of Works took one look, said it was an important building and told them to remove the roughcast. ‘We were aghast - think of the cost! But he said they’d do something to help, and we received a grant towards its removal,’ says Mary. ‘It took two years. Then of course we’d got a beautiful stone house.’

There was a house here in 1289 and much research has been done into the current building. The space where the great hall once stood is in mid-excavation by archaeologists. ‘We speculate endlessly about the history, and everybody has a new theory,’ she says.

Mary refers to it as the remains of a medieval manor house, given the great hall went long ago. ‘The remains are the domestic wing, the buttery for drinking butts and the pantry for pans. And there was a kitchen building, marked now by the straight joint in the wall. Originally it was separate so if you burned it down you didn’t destroy the entire house.’ Protection in another form came from the moat, still visible in places.

She quotes an architectural historian: ‘Thomas Hesketh greatly repaired Martholme in 1577’ and adds: ‘We are interfering with it just as everybody else did over its history. We’ve been at it for 52 years and we’ve not got to the end of it yet. It’s interesting – and a bit chilly 

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