Hidden extras: The age-old appeal of houses with secret passageways

Concealed doorways, secret gardens and smugglers' tunnels are the ultimate period details for those with a spirit of adventure. Catherine Quinn has a peek

Wednesday 10 January 2007 01:00

Secret rooms and hidden doorways are usually found on the pages of children's books rather than real houses. But all those fictional tales had to draw their inspiration from somewhere, and there are more than a few real-life properties guarding their own clandestine architecture. And a secret tunnel carries real cachet for luring potential buyers.

"A secret passageway can certainly attract potential buyers to go for a viewing," says Toby Milbank of the estate agency Knight Frank. "And it can also make it more likely that you'll have several people bid on the same property, which could obviously drive the price up."

Knight Frank is currently marketing a large Lancashire property with just such a hidden extra. Blythe Hall dates back to the 16th century, and includes a stairwell concealed in the master bedroom. The passage runs down two floors and into a secret tunnel under the garden, which emerges in the sunken ditch, or ha-ha, running along the back of the garden. So, if you are after a quick escape, someone could run out from the master bedroom, along the ha-ha, and never be seen again. That may attract a certain type of modern-day buyer.

With the UK's chequered history, it's no surprise that many properties from the 16th to the 18th century have all manner of hidden passages, tunnels, and bolt-holes. The religious unrest of this period ensured a steady flow of priests and soldiers needing a place to lie low and a handy escape route.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, properties with religious heritage are the most likely to include architectural plans with hidden aspects. Priest-holes are probably the most common, and are often found in abbeys, although most of these are likely to have been blocked up after years of disuse. Waterside properties are the place to find tunnels. They would have been used by smugglers to escape with their booty. One such example is currently on the market in Limehouse, east London, for offers in excess of £1m. The building was originally built for one of Nelson's captains but, despite clear evidence of smugglers' passageways, it was the rare Victorian swimming-pool in the basement that proved invaluable for the 19th- century sailor's swim- ming tuition.

When it comes to hidden features though, Scotland is in a league of its own. The need for self-preservation featured heavily in historical architecture, and the Scots can be credited with building some of the most innovative concealed features. Cluedo fans will be delighted to discover that the clichéd false-bookcase-concealing-a-hidden-door is not just for board games.

A real-life example exists in Balfour Castle, where a secret passage hidden behind a false set of bookshelves leads from the conservatory to the drawing room, although whether it was Miss Scarlet with the lead piping, the current owners won't divulge.

So why would a buyer prefer a property with a secret passage, or hidden entrance? Although it's more a matter of sentiment than investment, children are a popular reason to choose the house with the secret tunnel. "Kids absolutely love it," says Carol Clifford, who owns a home in Devon with a concealed entrance behind a fireplace, available through her company Holiday Rentals.

But there is a more grown-up reason for choosing a home with a feature that, in this century, has little other purpose than fun and games. According to the experts, top-end buyers are moving away from bland modern homes to those with more character. "In the last few years we've definitely seen a move away from the kind of large modern houses that were quite faceless," says Milbank. "In the north of England it's more or less expected that you'll get a property that is historic. Around London it's less common, so a large period property with interesting features is very appealing to buyers. With modern homes, it's much cheaper to build a square room than an interestingly shaped one with a secret tunnel behind it."

Modern life, however, might be factoring in some quirky alternatives to the priest-holes of old. With smaller homes and more possessions, there is a trend to build walls which conceal large storage areas, and slide back at the touch of a button. "With the minimalist look you are seeing people hide storage behind flush walls," says interior designer Emma Saxby, who is working on plans for a concealed doorway which links a master bedroom to an en suite, in keeping with the period design in a listed home. She'd love to see secret passages make a comeback in modern properties. "These things do come around, and it would be great to work on secret passages," she says.

We may still be waiting for modern developers to see the possibilities of innovative hidden features. But period properties on the market are unlikely to remain secret for long.

Knight Frank, www.knightfrank.co.uk; Carol Clifford Holiday Homes, 020-7722 0265; Emma Saxby Interior Design, www.emmasaxby.co.uk

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