“ Address: The Avenue / Washington Village / Washington / NE38 7LE „
Question: what's the connection between a small village in the North East of England and the first President of America? Give up? It's Washington: because unlikely as it sounds, George Washington's ancestors came from the North East of England and lived in Washington Old Hall.
Washington Old Hall is located (logically enough) in the small village of Washington, near Newcastle. The A1 provides a very easy way to get to it: simply leave at the Washington exit and then follow the brown signs. The Hall is slightly trickier to find. It's located almost bang in the centre of Washington village (a very small place) and it's not terribly obvious where the turning for the hall is: it's a simple right turn through some fairly anonymous looking gates and doesn't look like the entrance way to a tourist attraction!
Parking spaces at the hall is fairly limited, with room for around a dozen or so cars. Thankfully, this is not an issue as there is plenty of free parking available on the surrounding roads outside.
Washington Old Hall has had a fascinating history and very varied history. It started off as a medieval manor house and was extended in successive centuries to form a small, but comfortable family home. Much of the building still stands as it did in the 17th century and parts of the kitchen actually date back to the original medieval building. Unlike many stately homes and halls, Washington Old Hall is relatively simply furnished. After all, it was never meant to be a home designed to show off the wealth and power of a family; it was merely a place of residence for the local influential family. Many of the rooms are probably furnished pretty much as they would have been in them 1600s (although few of the items are actually originally from the Hall) and gives you an idea of what it might have looked like.
Washington Old Hall has had something of a checkered history. By the 19th century, it had been abandoned and fallen into a state of disrepair. It then began a new career as a tenement for the very poor of the area, with up to thirty or more families living in cramped and difficult conditions right up until the time the property was condemned in the early 1900s.
Many places would probably try and gloss over this less than salubrious aspect of its history, but Washington Old Hall confronts it head on. A couple of the upstairs rooms have been converted to give some idea of what it would have been like to live in the property during that period and some information boards detail memories of some of the people who were born there and lived in it. This was a really fascinating glimpse into a very different kind of history and is something which is probably unique to Washington.
That's not all, though. Although an excellent example of an extended medieval manor house in its own right, Washington Old Hall also makes the most of its American connection. As you move up the stairs, you see a massive collection of Washington memorabilia ranging from commemorative buttons and mugs through to full scale uniforms worn by soldiers during the American War of Independence and even a copy of Washington's Will. American history is not something that normally interests me, but the rare chance to see this huge collection of Washington related stuff was really interesting. The displays are relevant to the history of the property and whilst the Hall is clearly attempting to maximize its connections to attract the US visitor, this is done in an appropriate way.
One of my frequent complaints when visiting historic properties is about the lack of information boards. There are many places that could learn a thing or two from Washington Old Hall. As you enter the Hall, you are given an information sheet comprising about 3 double sided pages of A4. This contains a brief history of the Hall, an explanation of the links to George Washington and a room by room guide to the house. This is very well written, containing enough information for those who already know something, without be too detailed to put off more casual visitors. Each room also contains further boards with information on some of the key features. Some of this repeats what is on the A4 handout, but much of it is extra information so that you can find out more if you want to.
Be careful when you visit Washington Old Hall as it is only open for around 6 months of the year (typically March to October) on certain days (Sundays to Wednesdays from 11-5). If you're planning a visit, visit the National Trust website to check its open first.
When it comes to facilities, Washington Old Hall is pretty limited. A couple of unisex toilets and a volunteer-run tea shop (which also sells old books bric a brac and paintings) are pretty much it. On the plus side, we found the independent teashop to be far nicer than the usual National Trust ones. It had a rather eccentric charm that was not twee or forced, and which perfectly matched the setting. The coffee was served in proper china cups and there was a selection of ridiculously delicious homemade cakes available. Throw in some really friendly staff and who needs anything else?
Adult admission to Washington Old Hall costs £5 or £3.15 for children; National Trust members can get in for free. This is fantastic value for money and even though it might not be the most elaborate property we have ever visited, its unspoilt charm meant that Washington Old Hall quickly made its way it onto my list of favourite properties. Better still, entry to the small gardens and teashop is completely free.
Washington Old Hall might only be small, but it's one of the National Trust's hidden treasures. Where else can you find a Jacobean manor house, Victorian slum and an American President's ancestors all under one roof? It's well worth making a special trip to see.
Washington Old Hall
(c) copyright SWSt 2013