Levens Hall is a mainly Elizabethan house built round a fortified pele tower of the late 1200s. The Elizabethan parts of the house are largely the work of James Bellingham, who inherited Levens in about 1580. A century later, it had to be sold, allegedly in order to settle the gambling debts of his grandson, Alan. Levens was bought by his kinsman, Colonel James Grahme, Privy Purse to King James II until his abdication in 1688, and tradition says that he won the house on the turn of the ace of hearts. True or not, the lead downspouts on the front of the house are decorated with gilded hearts and the initials of James Grahme and his wife Dorothy.
During his long occupancy, Colonel Grahme (d. 1730) restored the house and it has remained largely unchanged since then, possibly because it has remained in the same related group of families down to its present owners, the Bagots. Among its treasures are the Levens Constables, long-stemmed ale glasses twenty inches (51 cm) high, out of which the toast ‘Luck to Levens whilst the Kent flows’ was traditionally drunk.
The ‘Luck of Levens Hall’ is also tied up with a herd of fallow deer in the park. It is said that the birth of a white fawn in the herd heralds some event of importance in the family. Consequent on this idea is the belief that it is unlucky to kill any of the white deer. It is said that Lord Templeton, at one time the owner, gave orders to shoot a white buck he had seen, and told the gamekeeper, when he demurred, that such a belief was superstitious nonsense. The gamekeeper nevertheless refused to carry out the order, and the task was given to someone else. Following the death of the buck, all sorts of trouble followed: Levens Hall twice changed hands, the staff lost their jobs, and local people attributed this to the shooting of the buck.
Connected with the ‘Luck’ is the tale of the ‘Curse of Levens’. J. G. Lockhart, telling the story in 1938, says that an unidentified person, ‘for some reason which is not disclosed’, put a curse on the owners of Levens, saying that strangers would always separate them from their lands, and that no son would succeed his father until a white doe was born in the park and the waters of the Kent stood still. Lockhart writes, ‘The Curse appears to have been literally fulfilled. The estate went continuously from father to nephew, brother or cousin, or else through the female line.’ Then, in 1896, Mrs Bagot bore a son, a doe in the herd gave birth to a white fawn, and the River Kent froze solid.
Such a romantic house as Levens was bound to have its ghosts, one of whom has supplanted the unidentified person (and filled in the gaps) in Lockhart’s story. This is the ‘Grey Lady’, said to be the ghost of a gypsy who in the early part of the eighteenth century called at Levens Hall seeking food and shelter. On being turned away, she died of starvation, but not before cursing the house and its occupants, as before. Peter Walker, relating this tradition in 1993, says that the Grey Lady has been seen several times since then, sometimes by motorists on the A6, when she is accompanied by a small black dog.
Perhaps this is the same black dog who others say manifests himself on the stairs at Levens Hall but is not malevolent.