26 January 2009

Jane Eyre's secret staircase found

Charlotte Bronte is believed to have based the deranged character Mrs Rochester, who was locked away at Thornfield Hall, on a story she heard while visiting a country mansion in 1839.

The house, Norton Conyers, [is] near Ripon, North Yorks... Only the grand rooms are on show but now the owners have discovered a hidden staircase linking the first floor directly to the attic, just as the novelist described.

Norton Conyers dates from the Middle Ages and the family of the current occupiers, Sir James and Lady Graham, have lived there since 1624...

They lifted floorboards in the attic above and discovered the top of a narrow flight of 13 steps. Lady Graham said: "We were hoping to find the Norton Conyers' treasure. That's another family story about a hoard of gold and jewels supposedly hidden during the Civil War. But all we found was lots of woodworm, some old nails and a collar stud."

At the bottom of the steps was a door, fitted with a spring to ensure that it always closed after use. Sir James said: "The stairs are only just wide enough for one person. They are hidden within the thickness of the panelled wall. There is no way you could tell there was anything behind it. The door at the bottom would have been visible originally, certainly at the time Charlotte Bronte visited..."

Lady Graham said: "It is such a sad room, it has such a tragic feel about it. It is very awkward to reach. It is north-facing with a small gable window. Most people don't want to stay there. It's creepy.

Image credit to a remarkable publication - Secret Chambers and Hiding Places: Historic, Romantic, & Legendary Stories & Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc. - a full-text, fully illustrated e-book available at Project Gutenberg.

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