SECRET rooms, sliding panels, and hidden escape routes have long been a boon to thriller writers and film people, but in times of civil war and religious persecution they were often vitally necessary to people of rank or importance. Examples can still be seen in some of Britain's old manors and country houses. Many were the handiwork of a 16th-century Jesuit carpenter named Nicholas Owen who was a genius at contriving secret hide-outs for Roman Catholic priests and families persecuted during the reign of Elizabeth I. He was eventually captured and put to death in the Tower of London for refusing to betray the people who had employed him.
There is a very ingeniously concealed chamber at Aston Hall, Warwickshire. The entrance is completely hidden by an ancient carved chair, hinged on one side to the wall. It can be opened only by releasing a hidden spring concealed in the carving above the door. The chair will swing outward, revealing the entrance to the chamber.
Five secret hiding places can still be seen at Harvington Hall near Idderminster, all believed to be the work of the celebrated Nicholas Owen. In the library, one of the timbers in the wall is fitted with hinges at the top so that it can be lifted up to give access to a hide-out behind. Another of the hall's secrets is a panel in the wall of the gatehouse through which food and letters could be passed to fugitives in hiding.
Sawston Hall, Cambridgeshire, has a particularly ingeniously contrived priests' hiding-hole. It is hollowed out of the thickness of a wall. The entrance is concealed by floorboards and the chamber is only high enough for the fugitive to crouch in.
Lovely old Compton Wynyates House in Warwickshire holds many secrets. In the paneling of its ancient walls are a number of concealed openings that can be revealed only by manipulating certain parts of the carved woodwork. Behind the openings are hide-outs and secret passageways providing ways of escape or concealment.
At Prior Hall, also in Warwickshire, are a number of cunningly concealed hiding places. One is situated in an attic in which appears to be an ordinary cupboard with three shelves. When an inconspicuous peg is removed, the back of the cupboard swings inward, disclosing a recess in which a fugitive could hide in safety.
After his defeat at Worcester, King Charles II fled to Boscobel House in Staffordshire, which had numerous hide-outs. One of these is reached through a door that appears to be part of the wall. A trapdoor in the floor behind gives access to a hiding-hole barely deep enough for a man to stand upright in. Charles spent a very uncomfortable night in it.
A few years ago an extremely interesting secret chamber was accidentally discovered in an old Warwickshire farmhouse. A child playing in an unused part of the house fell against the oak-paneled wall and in so doing touched off a hidden spring mechanism. A section of the paneling slid aside, giving access to a narrow passageway. Upon investigation this was found to lead to a hidden room about seven feet square, situated immediately behind the fireplace. Within the chamber were many valuable books and documents relating to the British civil war.
A particularly interesting feature of this hide-out was that if the person in concealment wished to see what was happening in the room beyond, he could manipulate a spring device and the head of a carved bird in the paneling over the mantelpiece would move to one side, opening up an inconspicuous but very useful peephole.
Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire is claimed to be one of the finest examples of 16th-century half-timber work in Britain. As might be imagined, the lovely old house contains traces of secret places.
There is a large secret room, access to which is through a sliding panel in the wall. Over the large open fireplace in the great hall is another sliding panel, said to have been used by hunted priests when retreating to a hiding place in the chimney behind.
False backs to fire grates, hinged treads in staircases, innocent-looking window seats - all these have been used to conceal access to hide-outs and escape routes. Here's hoping we may never again have to make use of such contrivances!