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10:57 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 11:57 UK

Discovering 400 years of Oakwell

Oakwell Hall

Driving on the M62 near Birstall, Oakwell Hall is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it blur but its 400-year history makes it well worth a visit.

Home to the Batt family between the 16th and 19th centuries, Oakwell still feels like a retreat from a busy world.

In fact, as Eric Brown, senior museum officer at the hall, says: "It's just like stepping back in time."

But that doesn't mean the house and its inhabitants have been hiding away from real life - far from it.

After all, not only was Oakwell just a musket shot away from one of the Civil War's most significant battles, but it also has its own rather bloody ghost. And, on a lighter note, it can also count famous author Charlotte Brontë among its past guests - someone who went on to write about the house in one of her most celebrated novels.

"We've got this image of them perhaps not like the Trotter family, but more like Black Adder!"

Eric Brown on the Batts of Oakwell

The Batts certainly had quite a colourful reputation. Scandal, as Eric Brown explains, is certainly not a modern invention: "There are all sorts of stories associated with the Batts.

"Henry and his son John were supposedly implicated in the theft of some church bells for resale and [they were responsible] for purloining funds set aside for the building of a school for poor and under-privileged children. We've got this image of them perhaps not like the Trotter family, but more like Black Adder!"

And then there's the ghost in the Painted Chamber. In this case, it's the ghost of William, another member of the controversial Batt family, and one which reputedly still haunts Oakwell on cold December nights.

Eric recounts the tale: "William went on business in London and got involved in an argument over gambling debts and it needed to be settled with a duel. At the precise moment this duel was taking place in London, Oakwell Hall's door was flung open and in rushed William.

Painted Chamber at Oakwell

"Subsequently they found out that it was the same time that he'd been involved in this duel - and that he'd died."

Blood and death had unfortunately already become part of Oakwell's story years before William's untimely demise thanks to a major Civil War battle which took place almost literally on the Batts' doorstep on 30th June 1643.

The Battle of Adwalton Moor saw the Royalists - the losing side in the War and the side the Batts supported at the time - score a victory against the Parliamentary troops.

Later, while Oakwell Hall was a boarding school, it played host to its most famous visitor, Charlotte Brontë. Eric Brown says: "Charlotte visited Oakwell quite frequently while in the area because her friend Ellen Nussey was involved in running the girls' school.

"And while visiting Ellen on, I guess, quite a few occasions she got the inspiration to use Oakwell Hall as Fieldhead in the novel Shirley. The description of Oakwell Hall really describes it as it is today. It'll have changed little since Charlotte's visits."

Astonishingly, despite Oakwell's story being intricately woven into so many of the threads of West Yorkshire's history, it was once in danger of being ripped from its foundations and transported to America.

Eric Brown

Eric says: "It was put up for sale and there was interest from a gentleman in America who wanted to buy Oakwell Hall, take it to America stone-by-stone, timber-by-timber, and rebuild it on a prairie in Texas or something like that."

Eric says if there's one thing he hopes people will take away from their visit, it's a taste of what life was like in this part of Yorkshire 400 years ago: "I want them to feel that they've stepped back into the 17th century and got an impression, even a fleeting one, of what life was like then...It's a fascinating house!"

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