VISIT TO SINAI HOUSE
In August we enjoyed a joint visit with the South Staffordshire group to Sinai Park House, which is on the western outskirts of Burton-on-Trent. We met up for an enjoyable lunch at a pub /restaurant in a nearby village. Sinai Park House is quite difficult to find because it is a private residence and therefore not sign-posted, but with a couple of pauses to check the map, we managed and drove up through the park to the house where we were welcomed by Kate, the owner, a very welcoming hostess and knowledgeable guide. We began our tour outside the building.
The site, elevated high above the Derby to Lichfield road, commands extensive views over Burton and beyond. It has been occupied since Roman times. The 1643 Battle of Burton Bridge between Royalist and Paliamentary forces could have been seen from the site, as could the 1322 encounter between Edward II and Thomas of Lancaster. It was a moated site, the present moat is 14th C.
The site was donated to Burton Abbey by the de Shotenhale family, around the time of the Abbey's foundation by Wulfric Spott in 1004. What type building may have been on the site at that time is unclear. At some point the monastery decided to use Sinai House as an infirmary. In 1334, Abbot William Bromley granted 5 days indulgence from blood-letting with an increased allowance of ale and bread for convalescence. The name "Sinai", is thought to come from the French "saignée" and to refer to the blood-letting, rather than being any reference to the Biblical mount.
The earliest of the remaining structures is what looks like one wing of an H shaped manor house. It isn't. It consists of two 14th century, "second hand", timber framed houses, one of which is about 30 years older than the other and neither of which was originally built in its present location. We had learned some time ago, (on a visit to Little Moreton Hall) that medieval timber framed buildings were generally constructed of standard parts and fittings, which were assembled flat on the ground, then raised upright. (The original "flat pack"?) The walls and other parts were fixed together and when the frame was complete, the sections would be in-filled with wattle and daub. However, this was the first time we had heard of a building being dis-assembled, moved and re-assembled on another site, let alone two second hand houses fixed together. (Kate said someone had told her that this was the oringin of the phrase to "up sticks",meaning to move house.) The difference in the working of the beams in the two halves can be seen inside. This is the part of the Sinai House which has been restored and which Kate now lives in. It was the part that was in the worst condition - one wall was flat on the ground! Restoration work was carried out by local firms with the help of students from South Derbyshire College.
By the later middle ages Sinai House seems to have been used not only for blood-letting and convalescence but also for recreation. A second building was added in the 15th century, opposite the first and built to match the 14th century one(s), though the differences in construction can be seen. By the time of the Dissolution, the Abbot had his own parlour and the monks were hunting in the park. The Abbots' Parlour, which is in the 14th century, inhabited part, is a perfectly square room with the remains of a striking black and white wall painting.
After the Dissolution, Burton Abbey together with Sinai House and park, was acquired in 1546-7, by William Paget (1506-63) 1st Baron Paget of Beaudesert, a prominent Tudor statesman who was born in Staffordshire and served Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary. Burton Abbey wasn't the only ecclesiastical property Paget acquired: Beaudesert itself, which occupies the southern part of Cannock Chase, was formerly the palace of the Bishops of Lichfield and Coventry and this was Paget's main seat; Sinai House was to be a hunting lodge. Paget also acquired extensive property in Abbots Bromley, which was known for some time as Paget's Bromley and is referred to as such by Fr. Robert Plot writing in 1686.
The Pagets were Tudor, "new men", and like most of their kind, they were anxious to establish a suitably ancient, "county pedigree", (the 16th century was a period when a lot of dubious claims to bear coats of arms were made). To bolster this image, they wanted their newly acquired hunting lodge to look like an ancient manor house. They therefore ordered a middle section to be built, joining the 14th century building(s) and the "14th century style 15th century building", to give the "H" shape typical of a medieval manor house. Furthermore, this central section had to be built "in period", to match the existing structures. Unfortunately, as Kate pointed out, the doors in the 14th century section face outward, rather into the central courtyard, as they should do for a medieval manor house - but no doubt it gave the right impression. The central section has remains of an outside staircase, a feature typical of 12th-13th century first floor halls, providing further indication of Tudor "medieval" styling. So the 14th century "wing", is made of two second hand parts, the 15th century building was built in an old fashioned style to match the 14th century part and the central section is Tudor "fake medieval". Kate said that the one of the reasons English Heritage are now showing an interest, is precisely because it is to a large extent an old fake.
Sinai House remained in the Paget family until 1905, after which it passed through several hands, at one time being owned by the Co-op. The farm was still occupied in the 1960s but soon after that, the house began to fall into decay. Kate and her partner have restored the 14th century wing, where they now live. The central and 15th century sections are reckoned to be just about recoverable. Salvaged beams, carefully numbered, are stored under covers on site. The cost of the restoration of the Tudor central "hall" and 15th century "wing", has been estimated at 2 million. Ironically, if they get English Heritage funding, the cost will be higher, "because of the way English Heritage works", but they would get the funds.
After being guided around the exterior we were invited inside the restored section, where they live. Kate pointed out some of the features, including the differently tooled ceiling beams of the two original buildings. There are no original Paget portraits or furniture, Kate has bought furnishings to suit the house, in second hand shops, at auctions and shopping on Ebay. The result certainly looks authentic, with the kind of furnishings which might have been passed down from one generation of residents to the next, as well as being a cosy family home. Pictures of hunting and horses decorate the walls, "because it used to be hunting lodge". There is also an old plunge pool in the grounds, probably 18th century.
One of our party asked how much previous experience they had had of restoration of this kind. She told us that so far, "a Victorian terrace". She had always fancied, "doing", a timber framed building "sometime", but when they saw that Sinai House was up for sale, they had absolutely no intention of buying such ruin. They went only out of curiosity because being for sale meant a rare opportunity to, "just have a look", at a site which was privately owned and not open to visitors. Just looking, they came away having commited to buying. (We later agreed, that whilst we've all occasionally given in to a impulse buying - not on that scale!) Kate also told us about the ghosts who,"if you believe in that sort of thing", are their co-inhabitants. Sinai House is considered one of the most haunted houses in England and she of often entertains parties of keen ghost hunters who turn up with lots of detection equipment.
After her talk, we were allowed to freely explore the house, before returning to the kitchen where Kate provided a cream tea with home made scones and jam. We all agreed that it had been a terrific visit.
Link below to Sinai House website which is informative and interesting with many photos.