Visit Hackfall – England’s best folly landscape?
- 11 November 2019 -
That Hackfall has survived at all is remarkable. That Hackfall is today one of the most evocative of all England’s folly landscapes is testament to the efforts of many individuals as well both local and national organisations. I first visited a dozen or so years when I felt as though I was Alice wandering through Wonderland, discovering seemingly long-forgotten follies, cascades and walkways at every turn. Even though our holiday cottage and shepherd’s hut at Coxwold are just 25 miles from Hackfall via Ripon I have put off visiting again as I was concerned that the ambience would have changed and not for the better. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find this enchanting landscape still fascinated. Although much restoration has occurred during the intervening years, it still evoked “the genius of the place”…
Hackfall appears today to be a natural wood on a steep hillside, whereas it is actually a carefully designed landscape created as an adjunct to the world famous, and far more formal, gardens created by the Aislabie family at nearby Studley Royal. John Aislabie bought Hackfall for £906 in 1731. His son, William, set about transforming Hackfall into an ornamental landscape in 1749/50 and this work continued until around 1767. The design was developed around views of both the follies and the enhanced natural features. In 1768 William purchased the Fountains Abbey ruins and set about incorporating the Abbey into Studley Royal gardens, turning his attention from Hackfall and back to Studley. Ultimately, Hackfall went through a long period of decline, and in 1932 was sold to a timber merchant who clear felled it. A period of general neglect followed, resulting in the gradual decay of the buildings.
Hackfall today contains four listed buildings: The Banqueting House – Grade II*, Fishers Hall – Grade II; Mowbray Castle – Grade II; and, The Rustic Temple – Grade II. The Banqueting House, either inspired by or even designed by a Design for a Roman Ruin by Robert Adam, one of the finest British architect of the 18th century, has been fully restored and is owned by the Landmark Trust. Fishers Hall has been consolidated to prevent further deterioration but not reroofed and the windows not replaced. Mowbray Castle has been underpinned and stabilised to maintain the structural integrity of the building for the future. The Rustic Temple has an unusual construction of interlocking sand stone and had survived pretty much intact. There are also some lesser structures which are not listed: The Grotto; Kent’s Seat; The Dropping Well; and, Sandbed Hut from where the famous artist JMW Turner sat to paint one of his famous views of Hackfall. There were once also wooden buildings that have sadly all disappeared without leaving a trace.
The logging operations resulted in damage to the footpaths and a change in the distribution of different types of trees. Nature took over and it was feared that the precious Hackfall landscape had been lost forever. However, in the 1980s, the Woodland Trust and the newly formed Hackfall Trust came to the rescue. They cleared out the dead wood, managed the trees and restored many of the footpaths, always with nature conservation in mind. Hackfall is now a Grade 1 listed garden.
In 2007 a major restoration project funded by a £1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund was implemented. This has helped restore and preserve the buildings, dredge and restore water features, improve the footpaths and open up the vistas. A new car park has been provided at the Masham end of Hackfall wood. Visitors are now welcome to explore Hackfall and enjoy its unique landscape for free. I recommend a visit when staying with us at Coxwold Cottages, although do be prepared for a hike as the whole place is on a steep slope and is not a sanitised garden with information boards at every turn – simply pick up a map and enjoy exploring! And do take your wellies as it is very boggy down by the River Ure that bounds the landscape!