I would like to redirect your attention to a fascinating post over at Damian Thompson’s place.
He has written about a … well… here is the first part as a tease to get you to go over there and read the rest.
Mapledurham House, an imposing Elizabethan mansion in south Oxfordshire, is one of Catholic England’s best-kept secrets. Which is appropriate, in a way – for it went to enormous trouble to keep its Catholic allegiance secret during times of persecution, when it was a safe house for fugitive priests.
That said, I think it’s high time that Mapledurham was better known: by rights it ought to attract thousands more visitors than it does. We live in an age when fans of The Da Vinci Code and other thrillers rush to historic locations to stare at “clues” to bogus mysteries. In contrast, the owners of Mapledurham House kept a genuine secret during the Tudor persecution and for decades afterwards: their fidelity to the Roman faith. But the clues had to be subtle – to the extent that, even now, its current owners, John and Lady Anne Eyston, are still making discoveries.
The most recent priest hole, for example, lay undiscovered until 2002 – though it’s in such an inaccessible upper bedroom that it can’t accommodate crowds of tourists. The hole is hidden underneath a sliding hearth, and it might better be described as an elaborate escape shaft.
“Family legend had it that there was a priest hole in the bedroom fireplace – but we didn’t realise that for years we were looking at the wrong fireplace, not the hidden original,” says Jack Eyston, a descendent of the Blount family who were guardians of the house for most of its history. “Nothing was ever committed to writing, for obvious reasons.”
Mapledurham is next to the Thames at a point where the river can’t be crossed. As Richard Williams observes in his guide to the estate, this means that “the village, clustered round the manor houses, the church, the mill and the almshouses, remains a peaceful and secluded oasis, beloved of artists and visitors”.
The river was crucial for some of those early visitors – Catholic priests. Mr Eyston explains: “This was an ideal safe house because you could get here without riding a horse and being spotted as a stranger.” But how would they know their boat had reached safety? “All recusant houses had a sign, and this was ours,” he says, pointing to a gable covered with oyster shells visible from the river. The shells may represent the biblical “pearl of great price” – the Catholic faith, whose Mass was celebrated in an attic.
Read the rest there.
In a time when Pope Benedict is talking about a “New Evangelization”, I often wonder if we should not start thinking about making “priest holes” again.