Suffolk’s historic houses: Strange secrets at Bedfield Hall near Framlingham
PUBLISHED: 16:42 22 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:42 22 October 2019
Historic Houses Invitation to View tours unlock the strange secrets of Bedfield Hall near Framlingham | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
When Thomas Dunston, owner of Bedfield Hall, passed away on December 25 1657 the chances are his death didn't scupper any seasonal family fun. Back then, Christmas was officially illegal. Cromwell was Lord Protector of Puritan England.
Barely a decade or so earlier, the vicar of nearby Brandeston had been 'swum' in the ducking pond by Framlingham castle, having confessed to employing two imps to sink ships at sea.
The poor parson had been hunted down and tortured by fellow East Anglian, Matthew Hopkins, the country's notorious Witchfinder General, but his plight was not uncommon. Thomas Dunston lived in troubled times.
"Hodie Mihi - Cras Tibi," declares Timothy Easton, current owner of Bedfield Hall. Peering from the pews in neighbouring St Nicholas' Church, keenly clutching informative 'homework' sheets issued on arrival, we gaze down at the words inscribed alongside a rather unsettling skull on Thomas Dunston's black ledger stone set in the nave floor.
"It means 'Today Me, Tomorrow You', or 'You'll be next' of course," says Timothy. A weird wisp of draft inexplicably works its way around the curious congregation, making hairs on necks prickle.
With a flash of his torch, Timothy brings to light two roughly carved crosses in the stonework, otherwise hidden near the purposely damaged images of benefactors on the early 16th century rood screen.
His outstretched arm introduces red, black and gold 'crowned Ms' as the sole surviving 15th century stained glass, the only remnants of a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Thomas, he explains, was living in that post-Reformation age when praying to saints for support and protection in daily life was simply no longer an option.
The painted images here in St Nicholas' were among the church's last. With Henry VIII's move away from Catholicism came a concentration on 'The Word', and at Bedfield you can still see the official 'Book' which each church had to have.
It was no easy transition and people soon looked for other ways to reassure themselves that they were adequately protected from evil. Putting a cover on the font to keep the devil from contaminating the baptism water was just a start.
A gateway from the churchyard leads onto Dunston's Lane, linking church and manor with the once tenanted plots on Little Green.
It's hard to say what's more fascinating about Bedfield Hall, the exquisitely restored, extended 15th century hall house and truly delightful gardens, or its owner, not just an artist of international standing, but one who has a passion for working with architecture.
Even though Bedfield Hall is not his ancestral home, nowhere could man and manor be more inextricably linked. Timothy Easton and his wife, Christine, have loved the hall back to life since 1982, when it was long vacated.
Driven by a relentless desire to understand every historic facet of the hall's fabric, character and colour scheme, Timothy has become a highly renowned specialist in several historic fields.
We start in the front garden, where he puts the development of the place in perspective. There's talk of encircling greenways, an adjacent 9th century site, a fair field, and moats to make an impression rather than keep marauders at bay.
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He points out the kitchen wing, the medieval parlour, then leads us down the garden path, past oriel and scripta windows, enlightening us on the magic of mullions and finer details of 17th century fenestration.
He then pushes open the old kitchen door onto something spellbinding - a ceiling covered in strange circles and hexafoils, which he translates with his outstanding knowledge of protective symbols and historic archaeology combatting witchcraft.
"People looked at misfortune with suspicion, and in the 16th and 17th century the kitchen, with its large number of potential hazards, saw the second highest number of deaths," he explains. "The hexafoils and multifoils on the ceiling correlate to the position of tables near the food hooks here."
A shrivelled 17th century child's shoe, curling leather book cover and corner post from a truckle bed are placed on the table in front of us.
"These came out of the chimney and there were other things like cat skeletons and chickens." And so Timothy sets about an explanation of 'spiritual middens', the ritual blocking up of voids in the chimney space with personal items, lest malevolent forces gain entry through the ever-open flue to cause harm to either the house or its household.
Personal items were dropped in from the top of the house, in the hope that evil would latch on to the possession before reaching the person. Thomas Dunston carved his initials in the lintel over the hearth. He was taking no chances.
From apotropaic circles to tree rings. Timothy explains how dendrochronology has specifically dated the house to 1421, before moving on to another of his subjects, 16th and 17th century painted surfaces.
In the dining room there's an introduction to the old brick-masons' craft of 'pencilling of walls', and explanation of the fashionable expense of grey-painted beams.
In the drawing room there's fine decorative plasterwork and a striking painted ceiling beam. Upstairs, the old parlour bedroom's red-painted beams bookended with painted capitals flag it up as the best bed-chamber in the house around 1630.
Even here, the fireplace has an evil-averting diamond and 'magic three' circle motif. We're told how a little hole at the end of the house had been carefully blocked off with a (sacred) wooden heart.
Back outside, in the blazing sunshine of summer, by the beautiful borders and garden vistas which have inspired so many of Timothy's paintings, it's hard to imagine that Bedfield Hall could be home to anything other than good.
The shroud of suspicion which hung heavy over the place in Thomas Dunston's day has clearly been lifted not just by the centuries, but hours of dedicated research.
Nevertheless, the great tall clusters of red-hot pokers preventing any access to the old kitchen window do seem, well, more than just a coincidence.