Times Remembered – “High Down”
As I mentioned in my last article the 16th Century was the century of the grand Tudor houses and High Down, which stands a mile to the south-west of the village was one of the grandest in Pirton. In a previous series of articles I have written about the Pollard family that lived there during the second half of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th and it is to Ellen Pollard that we owe the story of this very interesting house.
High Down, or High Down House as it appears on old maps, was built by Sir Thomas Docwra (a French name pronounced Dockray) in 1504, the same year in which he finished the Priory at Clerkenwell. He was the elder son of Richard and Alice Docwra of Bradsville, Yorkshire and was elected Lord Grand Prior of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, in England, by bull of the Grand Master, Pierre d’Aubusson, in 1501. His coat of arms appears over a window of the house, looking into the garden, together with his name, the date 1504 and the motto “Sane Baro” (a Baron indeed). The Knights Hospitallers were of high consequence and in the reign of Edward IV the Prior was the First lay baron, with a seat in Parliament.
The house is built of clunch, a local chalk, like the church, dug from the south west side of the hill and is responsible for the chalk pit near Wellbury Cottages. The foundations were laid in the excavated side of the hill, which is a spur of the Chiltern Hills. Some of the walls are four feet thick. The exterior of the house is interesting for its gables, barge-boards, stone mullions, tiled roofs, bricked corners and carved escutcheons.
The chief entrance was through the gateway and courtyard. One side of the latter was formed by the house, a second by rooms connected with the house, a third by stables and the fourth by a brick wall. The basement was composed of two rooms in the front, looking north-east, kitchen and servants hall; four cellars and a central passage hall. In a corner of the kitchen was the entrance to a subterranean passage, said to have connected with Dowcra Manor in Hitchin Road, but nobody, as far as one knows, ever made the connection. Dowcra Manor was built by Sir Thomas’s great grandnephew, in 1609. The passage may have been a ‘priest’s hole’ or secret hiding place for those hiding from Cromwell’s men.
A staircase led from the courtyard into the middle of the hall that ran the length of the house on the first floor, parallel with the two chief rooms at the front, north east, of the house. The hall ended in a square porch and door, used as the front door in the Pollards’ time. Both rooms and hall are oak panelled. Drawing and dining rooms were connected by double doors. Another sitting room existed at the foot of the staircase. On the floor above, many of the rooms connected with one another. A back staircase led into the pantry.
Over the porch was a small roof-chamber that was discovered in 1878 by a workman falling through the tiles and in one of the inner corners was the remains of a turret stair. It is likely that this was the hiding place of the Cavalier named Goring who, pursued by Roundheads, sought refuge at High Down, one of the few Royalist sanctuaries in a strong Government supported area. When news came that the house was to be searched he left the house and hid in a large wych elm in the grounds. There he was discovered by Cromwell’s soldiers, dragged down and murdered at the foot of the tree. Although his ghost in the form of a headless horseman is supposed to ride to another sanctuary in the grounds of Hitchin Priory on the night of June 15th, I have never met anyone who has seen it. Well – one person and the ghost was galloping in the wrong direction according to her description!
King George IV kept some racehorses at High Down when he was Prince Regent and often came there with Beau Brummel to inspect them and hold high revelry in the dining room. He was given to throwing wine bottles, as they were emptied, at the windows.
Sir Thomas died in 1527 and was succeeded by his great-nephew Thomas Docwra Esq of Putteridge, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire 1581. He is buried in Lilley churchyard. The latter’s son, Thomas Docwra Esq, High Sheriff of Hertfordshire 1606 married, firstly Helen Horsey and secondly Jane Periam, 24 years his junior. He it was who built Docwra Manor, in Hitchin Road. Thomas died aged 72 in 1620 and is buried at Lilley. Jane died aged 73 after twenty five years of widowhood and is buried at Pirton. Her epitaph to her husband, by herself composed, resides on the west wall of the church.