Tucked away in a small Dacorum village is a rare piece of history, the likes of which are found almost nowhere else in the country.
Only Windsor Castle can claim to rival the series of beautifully preserved 15th century Catholic wall paintings within a row of Grade-I listed cottages in Piccotts End, which have finally been opened to the public for the first time since the 1990s.
The panels, which depict patrons such as St Catherine, St Margaret, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ, have survived for five centuries after being hidden under layers of linen and wallpaper.
All of the subjects were defaced during the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, and are believed to have been covered up to prevent any further damage.
The existing result is an almost flawless example of a medieval mural, with many incredible facets such as vines weaving through each of the seven panels, believed to echo Jesus’ words ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches’.
The iconostasis – the technical word for a screen with icons – also features fascinating elements such as depictions of a claw hammer and safety pins, items which were previously thought to have been much newer.
More intriguing aspects of the scene are an Eastern all-seeing eye, and the opposing forces of good and evil demonstrated by a large star and a frog, referring to one of God’s seven plagues against Egypt.
The artists are unknown, as are the reasons for the painting’s existence.
The incredible artefact, discovered in 1953 by Arthur Lindley who owned the cottages, is hoped to become a small museum, if Dacorum Heritage Trust’s latest bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund is successful.
The group failed in its bid to instate a museum at the site in 1992, but it is hoped renewed interest from the limited series of tours – which ran from Thursday to Sunday – will spur donations and once again get the ball rolling.
Trust chairman Roger Hands, who has organised the tours and put together an information sheet for visitors, said: “I am amazed that the tours have all been fully booked, and the phone keeps ringing.
“It has gone very well and people have been filling in our questionnaires, which will help us in our bid.
“Everyone has been so interested and they have all walked out with great smiles on their faces.”
The cottages, amazingly also the site of the first ‘cottage hospital’ run by Sir Astley Paston Cooper in the early 19th century, have been opened for the tours by owners Karen Murphy and Alison Wright. The pair, who bought the cottages in 2011, are keen to make them wider known in the community.
Karen said: “They are so fantastic, and we really wanted the opportunity to share them with all the people from the local area, and people who are interested in local heritage.
“We are in negotiations with the Dacorum Heritage Trust to try and raise the funds to keep it as a museum, which is what we are all hoping for.”
The tours were hosted by Alastair Lindley, son of founder Arthur, who regaled the many crowds across the four days with a series of interesting and often humorous anecdotes about the site.
One such tale described how surgeon Paston Cooper, who performed limb amputations at the cottages without anaesthetic, would often cook a leg of lamb for friends.
After the meal, and to prove his merit as a surgeon, he would bring in the three-legged creature still alive although, one would assume, slightly worse for wear.
Arthur also explained that the Piccotts End site, as well as being home to a remarkable series of pre-Reformation paintings, is also the birthplace of the NHS, thanks to Paston Cooper.
To find out more about the cottages, click here. Call the Dacorum Heritage Trust on 01442 879525 or email email@example.com for ways you can support the museum bid.