There’s a setting for a novel around Aston Hall, in the south-east corner of South Yorkshire – a sort of Alan Hollinghurst meets Jane Austen, with more than a dash of Anthony Trollope.
The key character, probably the narrator like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, is the poet Rev William Mason (1724–1797), the Rector of Aston, whose Musaeus (1747), a monody on the death of Alexander Pope, and his historical tragedies Elfrida (1752) and Caractacus (1759) have hardly stood the test of time.
He’s better known as the editor of the poems of his friend Thomas Gray, whose ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ is one of the best-loved eighteenth-century poems in English.
Mason and Gray shared friendship with Horace Walpole, whose catty observations are so vivid you can almost hear his voice. Walpole’s residence, Strawberry Hill was a gathering ground for some of the brightest and most sophisticated wits of the day. Mason’s rectory was similarly a centre for creativity, conversation and cyncism.
He was rector of Aston from 1754 to 1797, and though he didn’t live there continually, he must have watched from the rectory the rebuilding of Aston Hall on the opposite side of the church after a fire in the 1760s.
The owner, the fourth Earl of Holderness, had it rebuilt in the Palladian style by the ubiquitous, versatile and highly respected architect John Carr of York.
Once it was finished in 1772, Lord Holderness declined to move in: Walpole declared this was “because it is too near the ducal seat at Kiveton”; in other words, the earl didn’t want to be overshadowed by the Duke of Leeds at Kiveton Park.
After all, Robert Darcy, 4th Earl had been ambassador to Venice and The Hague, Secretary of State (then one of the great offices of state) and later became tutor to two of George III’s sons, in which capacity Walpole described him as “a solemn phantom”.
Lord Holderness let the house to Harry Verelst (1734-1785), whom Walpole described as “the Nabob” – the term for an opportunist who had made money in India. He was Governor of Bengal from 1767 to 1769.
Verelst purchased Aston Hall in 1774-5 and employed the local architect John Platt to install a finer staircase and the west wing. His descendants lived there until 1928.
Mason was distantly related to both Lord Holderness and Harry Verelst. One may imagine the twitching of curtains at the rectory, and the comments of Rev Mason and his wife about the nabob’s taste.
Sitting in the bar and lounge of the Aston Hall Hotel [http://www.tomahawkhotels.co.uk/home.aspx?h=1], it’s possible to see Lord Holderness’ viewpoint. Even though Carr’s rooms have been much carved about by institutional use it’s clear that they would hardly have been grand enough for an earl to entertain.
It’s more than comfortable for modern visitors, set in a quiet village literally within two minutes of Junction 31 of the M1. It’s an interesting alternative to a comfort stop at Woodhall Services.
The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing. It includes chapters on Aston Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Cannon Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Renishaw Hall, Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.