Catholic Herald, 9 August 1991
Do you recognise the scenario for a stolen day? You wake up with that sinking feeling. A distant cousin, with mother-in-law and two small children, is coming for the day. The parish committee, 16 strong, is meeting in your house in the early evening; the dog needs to visit the vet; and the plumber will call during daylight hours – he couldn’t say exactly when. And before you’ve even opened your eyes you can hear it’s raining stair-rods.
But at nine o’clock the cousin rings to say they’ve all got ‘flu. Then the secretary ‘phones to postpone the parish meeting. The dog has mysteriously recovered his bounce during the night; the plumber arrives at 9:30 sharp, and by ten the washing-machine is purring. To cap it all the sun comes out!
Such days do really, occasionally, happen. What my grandmother used to call a stolen day.
What to do with this unforeseen, carefree luxury? Go straight back to bed with a tray of tea and the wireless? Potter into the sun-filled garden to snip and tie, weed and prune? Or redecorate the bathroom, perhaps muck out the garage – something you’ve been meaning to do for ages.
The pleasure of doing something one ought is undeniable, but a stolen day is so rare and precious; one might say with Mole “hang spring cleaning”. He recognised a stolen day all right.
Mole and Ratty are supposed to have messed about in boats on a small tributary of the Thames. Downstream from Toad Hall and the Wildwood, some four miles from Reading, lies the magnificent late sixteenth century Mapledurham House.
If ever there was a lure for those with a stolen day on their hands, this is it. Last summer I went to Broughton Castle on your behalf; this year, somewhere equally beautiful, and for Catholics, even more interesting.
Mapledurham has been in the hands of the Blount family, and their descendants, since it was built in 1588. Another, smaller manor house, Mapledurham Gurney, stands on the same site dating in part to the 12th century. The Blounts claim descent from a Norman family, LeBlond, who came with William the Conqueror. One ancestor, Sir Walter, was standard-bearer to Henry IV at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403; his brave death is described by Shakespeare.
Sir Richard Blount was appointed Lieutenant of the Tower of London in 1558, a post also held by his son Sir Michael. Both are buried in some splendour in the Tower. It was Sir Michael who started to build Mapledurham House, raising a loan of £1500 to do so.
In those olden days, the approach to the house was, I suspect, by river. The journey to and from London would have been leisurely and delightful, past Reading Abbey, Hampton Court, Syon Park. One can still do this, but most people will now arrive by car.
Take the Oxford road from Reading (A4074) through Caversham. The last mile or so is down the winding Chalk Pudding Lane, a road that was metalled only 80 years ago.
Part of the charm of Mapledurham is its relative inaccessibility. This gave protection to the Catholic owners during penal times. The house was indeed raided on several occasions, but no-one was caught there. Richard Blount S.J. and a priest friend ran a successful mission to Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire from the house.
The present owner, John Eyston (who kindly showed me round), believes the house was built to deliberately include several priests’ holes. Alas these are not accessible to today’s visitor, so cunningly hidden are they.
You must look upwards to see a very Catholic curiosity. A high gable, above a little window, is covered with oyster shells. These could be seen from far away, the shells. (“pearls of great price”?) glistening in the sunlight.
They were a sign of safe refuge for Catholics, and the possibility of hearing Mass. Presumably there was a contrary sign to alert the faithful to danger – perhaps curtains were drawn across the window below the shelled gable . . .
Nearby Reading was a popular haven for French Catholic emigres. This may have helped gain the permission that was given for a chapel to be built in Mapledurham – provided it boasted neither steeple nor bell. The chapel was dedicated to Sir Michael in 1797, and Mass is celebrated there today on the last Sunday of every month at 6 p.m.
The nearby Anglican church of St Margaret contains the original Norman font, and the unusual feature of a Catholic aisle, where members of the Blount family are buried. This church was altered at the expense of King William IV (Sailor Bill), who installed as vicar there one of his illegitimate sons.
Alterations to the house have been few, mainly because of lack of funds. Catholics were subject to Double Land Tax, not abolished until 1821. They were restricted in the holding of high, well-rewarded positions at court and in government. And they could keep only one horse, among other impositions.
The present owner and his wife have performed miracles of restoration and conservation, presenting the visitor with a gracefully furnished house (look out for the eighteenth century cot that dismantles for travelling, and the striking collection of carved wooden animal heads, including a wolf in sheep’s clothing), and a fine collection of paintings, many with allegorical recusant allusions.
One portrait by Kneller is that of Alexander Pope, Catholic poet and admiring friend of the Blount sisters, Martha and Teresa.
I hope that my clumsy description of this gem of a house, full of interest for Catholics and others alike, tempts you to visit it. If you choose to go by river, departures are from Caversham jetty and the trip takes 40 minutes. There can be few more beautiful places in which to spend the day, stolen or otherwise.