I have only once before paid a return visit and that was about 20 years ago. I quickly took a photograph of the front view of the House and then departed knowing that I was on private property and felt a little intrusive. The Hall is now back in the hands of the Scrope family who loaned it to The White Fathers to accommodate the boys of St Columba’s after the fire.
On this occasion (October 2008) I summoned up the bravery to venture a little further and decided to seek permission to explore beyond the front view of the Hall which remains imprinted on people’s minds. The front façade is without doubt the principal view of the Hall and this, being the one which we always seem to see, is what we have relied upon over the years to remind us of our time there.
My memory is shocking! Perhaps I have not yet reached that age where childhood memories are vivid. In the not too distant future, as I understand happens, the fog will clear and I will be in a position to relate much more clearly the thoughts I am now desperately searching for as I write this – and pay the price by forgetting what I had for dinner yesterday! As for now, I need visual stimuli to trigger hidden memories of those early days and my recent, brief visit to Danby Hall did not disappoint. Glimpses of absolute trivia not seen or thought about for 45 years provoked such emotive responses, my mind ran wild with nostalgia. Each new discovery was like finding the shilling in the Christmas Pudding!
I rang the bell at the front entrance. There was no answer. I stepped into the porch to the double doors and used the knocker. As I did so, I glanced through the panes of glass in the door into the main hall. I was annoyed with myself that I couldn’t remember what it used to look like. For some reason I thought there should be a magnificent wooden staircase straight ahead but it wasn’t there. I could well be mistaken. The stone flagged floor was exactly the same as it was 45 years ago but, then again, it probably hadn’t changed in 450 years. Still, it triggered memories and my eyes scanned the hallway in search of the antique, hand carved, ebony, cupboards where we used to keep the snooker balls and table tennis bats.
Someone was coming. I stepped back and waited. “You could be a little more patient,” said the lady who opened the door. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand,” I replied. “You could be more patient. This is a big house, you know.” It then dawned on me that the bell had, in fact, worked but was not audible at the front door. It followed that my use of the knocker had aggravated the situation and I assessed my chances of being invited in for a cup of tea as nil! I apologised profusely, explained who I was, the purpose of my visit and sought permission to wander the grounds to take some photographs. In a more mellow tone, she agreed to my request for which I am eternally grateful as I would have been so disappointed to have left empty handed.
However hard I might try, I cannot remember clearly the inside of the Hall. I remember our classroom being quite airy and spacious and must have been in the East Wing, as we knew it, which I think is, in fact, the South view overlooking the valley. I seem to recall it was a labyrinth of narrow corridors particularly in the West Wing where a little old lady whose name I cannot remember had an apartment. When The White Fathers took over Danby Hall, she remained in residence. We used to be called out of class to go to confession, if I remember correctly. I can’t recall exactly where confession took place but it required going up the back stairs and along the corridor adjoining her apartment. News spread quickly that if you walked sufficiently noisily along the corridor she would come out and offer you some home made toffee, still on the baking tray. Strange how some memories stick more than others!
There was a priests’ hidey hole at Danby Hall. It was behind the fireplace, I think. The Scrope Family did not waver in their faith during the Catholic persecution under Oliver Cromwell and many a priest sought refuge and asylum at Danby Hall in the early 17th century. There is a date on the balustrade around the front of the house – 1658 – indicating that some restoration took place at that time. Is it significant that 1658 was also the year of the death of Oliver Cromwell? The South view, looking towards the River Ure, was rebuilt in 1855 and looks like a new build compared to the oldest part of the Hall which dates back to the Plantagenet era of the 12th century.
None of this, of course, we appreciated. This was our playground, not an historical monument!
Boys in the 2nd year at St Columba’s College who came directly to Danby Hall were housed in the main Hall. We, first years, went to Totteridge until after Christmas so that accommodation could be prepared. This accommodation came in the form of a large ‘Portakabin’ dormitory placed adjacent to the hedged walkway. In pyjamas and dressing gown, winter or summer, we had to rush up the steps, through the gap in the hedge and into the main Hall to have a bath – but we were hardy boys! We had to be.
Having witnessed it first hand, I recall vividly the punishment for talking in the dormitory after lights out. It was mid winter. A cold bath was filled and |I had to lie in it for 30 seconds. Deeper analysis might suggest that had I been talking because I couldn’t sleep, then a cold bath was not going to act as a sleeping potion. It might not have cured my insomnia but it certainly stopped me from talking!
I have included in this selection of photographs views of the parkland, the main entrance with the eagles, the entrance to the copse and so on. As soon as I saw the cattle grid it reminded me of Father Walsh, was it, whose philosophy was to drive over it as quickly as possible thereby minimising vibration. We used to have an old army truck, I remember, and with Father Walsh at the wheel, we would be thrown about like toys in the back. Health and Safety and risk assessments played little part in those days but we all survived and look back on our days at Danby Hall with nostalgia.
I hope you enjoy the photographs.
Michael Ashe writes (January 2009) : " [Gerard] mentions the lady who lived in the apartment in the Hall. I am sure her name was Miss Motion. I visited the hall in 1970 and had tea with her. she remembered all the boys well and spoke of the ghost that lived on her wing. "