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Last weekend we welcomed a friend from Norway and together with her we visited Portmeirion, had a ride on the Llanberis Lake Steam Train, and visited the National Slate Museum. The museum is one of seven wonderful national museums of Wales and as such offers free admittance. We had a most excellent weekend despite the typical Welsh weather. Our guest left the Land of the Midnight Sun to vacation in the Land of Perpetual Rain.

Norwegian brown cheese - strangely addictive

Norwegian brown cheese – strangely addictive

norwegian brown cheese

Sadly, on Monday, our guest had to leave so we drove 2½ hours to deposit her at the John Lennon Airport in – where else? – Liverpool.   Now John Lennon Airport is the only airport I have ever been to where there is no drop-off/pick-up zone. The entire airport is surrounded with an area of double red lines where there is zero tolerance for stopping. There are over zealous traffic wardens ready to photograph your vehicle and hit you with a fine. Cars are funneled into a parking lot where you take a ticket and then you have 5 minutes (!!) to jump out, wrestle your luggage out of the car, make sure you have your passport, get teary-eyed, give a few hugs and leave a good 90 seconds for your chauffeur to get in the car, start it up, fly across the parking lot and insert the ticket. The penalty if you fail is $4/10 minutes (i.e. $8/11 minutes). And each vehicle is only allowed to enter the lot once every 2 hours. A more Draconian system I have yet to encounter.

I certainly was not going to drop off a 17 year old Norwegian and not wait to make sure she got checked in safely. I certainly was not going to pay $4 for every 10 minutes of waiting while two teenage girls said their good-byes in the airport. We hightailed it out of the parking lot and drove around the round-about three times before the traffic warden gave us the beady eye. Thank heavens for French license plates. I asked Fahbio to cheekily pull over right on the double red line (verboten!), while I got out of the car (verboten!) and approached the traffic warden (verboten!) to strike up a conversation.

I figured that would satisfy my curiosity while also buying time for Firstborn to emerge. Fifty percent success rate – my chat caused enough of a diversion to allow Firstborn to dash to the van. But the warden’s response piqued my curiosity rather than satisfied it. She said in Paul McCartney’s accent, “Bad things happened in the past with cars in front of the airport so for secoority reasons, ever since then, only taxis and buses are allowed anywhere near the airport.” When I asked her what had happened, she shook her head and only said, “Bad, bad things.”

John Lennon Airport

John Lennon Airport

Leaving the airport, we noticed a National Trust sign for Speke Hall. Bingo!! We turned in and joined about 500 other people who were all out for a beautiful Bank Holiday Monday. You know things are bad in Wales when you start to make daytrips to England for the sunshine!

We had never heard of Speke Hall but it was fantastic. Ample outdoor areas with hedge maze, play structure, kitchen garden, lawns for picnics, and several walking paths. There were organized bus tours of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes departing from Speke Hall but because these only take place a couple of times a year, they were fully booked. Too bad, but there was more than enough to keep us happy at Speke Hall.

The house itself is a great big half-timbered Tudor home built in the 1530s. In the four hundred years between the time it was built and the time it became a National Trust property, only two families owned it. In the 1800s, the interior was thoroughly modernized so the site offers a fascinating blend of Tudor and Victorian architecture/décor. Fahbio also made it his mission to poll locals to figure out the more recent history of the bad, bad airport incident.

Victorian-era replica armour

Victorian-era replica armour

The site is well maintained and each of the many rooms had an interpreter on hand to answer any question we had. Though labour intensive, this approach was so much better for this site than either a guided or self-guided tour would have been. We all learned so much from things the staff pointed out to us. And though we had to queue for a while to get into the house, this system of crowd control meant that it wasn’t crowded as we visited the interior.

View through window of queue to get in

View through window of queue to get in

Here is some of what we learned:

In Tudor times, there was a lot of intrigue, deception, betrayal and general hanky-panky going on in the royal court. Just because you were super-rich, didn’t mean that you wouldn’t be charged with treason or lose your head for whatever reason. In those days, a big house would be built with a spy centre. At Speke Hall, the secret room allowed the family to look out into the Great Hall without being seen and to listen to private conversations taking place in the inglenook fireplace in that room. There was also a hole located in the eves just above the front door that afforded the person at spy-central the ability to see and hear those approaching the house. From this we get the term to “eavesdrop”. The interpreter called it Tudor CCTV.

When Henry VIII converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in the 1530s, it became dangerous to be a Roman Catholic priest. Wealthy catholic courtiers like Mr. Norris (the owner of Speke Hall) had a hidden room where they could stash the priest when the marauding priest-killers came looking. This was another reason that eavesdropping was so important.

Spy hole in master bedroom allowing Mr. Norris to see anyone approaching Speke Hall

Spy hole in master bedroom allowing Mr. Norris to see anyone approaching Speke Hall

The Norris’ owned 27 000 acres of land in the 1500s! They owned all the land that the old Liverpool airport sat on and all the land the new Liverpool airport sits on. The amount of money they had was staggering. In Victorian times, Miss Watt, the owner, spent the equivalent of about $2,000,000 to modernize the domestic parts of the house: dairy, home farm, kitchens, scullery. But the dairymaid, who worked 10 hours a day (milking cows, making butter and cheese and doing laundry) was paid 48 pounds sterling plus room and board (less than $100) in today’s terms for a week’s work.

In Tudor times, Mrs. Norris refused to go to church and was fined the equivalent of 2000 pounds sterling/$4000 dollars. That’s almost as much as you would get charged for jay walking in Singapore. Tee hee. Not only that, but a later Norris (her son?) also refused to go to church. When the magistrate came to investigate, Mr. Norris stabbed him and was fined the equivalent of $200 000. This was later reduced to $50 000 but Mr. Norris continued to refuse to go to church and eventually the fines caught up with him and forced him into bankruptcy. Even though he was very, very rich. Wow.

The big 19th century revamp included some Arts and Crafts additions including William Morris wallpaper. Most of the wallpaper was replaced (same wallpaper just newer) in the first half of the 20th century, but there is still some original wall paper to be seen at the back of the bookshelves. Double wow.

You rang, Madam?

You rang, Madam?

speke tea set About five years ago, there were several cases of drive-by shootings at the entrance of the Liverpool Airport. I find it ironic and sad that this happened at an airport named after John Lennon.  NOTE: I have since tried to confirm this info online but haven’t been able to turn anything up other than some shootings a few years ago near the airport.  Urban myth?  Fun story to trick tourists?  Tall tale?  Slightly garbled and exaggerated half-truth?  I guess we’ll never know.

And there you have Speke Hall – illuminator of Liverpool’s Tudor, Victorian and Present-Day history.