Category Archives: Country Houses of North Yorkshire

For your tomorrow we gave our today

Fountains Hall, North Yorkshire: memorial to Elizabeth and Charles Vyner

Fountains Hall is a quirky Jacobean house, built into a steep hillside, probably to a design by Robert Smythson, on the edge of the precinct of the medieval Fountains Abbey.  Indeed, its stones came from the Abbey, plundered by the builder, the unlikeable Stephen Proctor, in the first decade of the seventeenth century. 

Periods of neglect in its long history kept it intact and charming.  In the late 1920s it was renovated by Commander Clare and Lady Doris Vyner and during the Second World War the house was used to accommodate evacuees.

The Vyners’ daughter Elizabeth joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and died of lethargic encephalitis, or sleeping sickness, aged eighteen, on June 3rd 1942.  Her death reminds us that not all the victims of war die by enemy action, but for their loved ones the loss is as great and the grief no less hard to bear.

Elizabeth Vyner’s younger brother, Charles De Grey Vyner, served as a pilot in the Royal Naval Reserve, and was reported missing in action when his plane crashed into the sea off Rangoon on May 2nd 1945.  He was nineteen.

Word reached his family on May 12th.  After the euphoria of VE Day on the 8th there could hardly have been a more cruel blow.

After the War Elizabeth and Charles’ parents erected a memorial, poignantly placed above the main door of the Hall, a stained-glass window flanked by carved figures of brother and sister in uniform.  It was designed by John Seely and Paul Paget and was unveiled on April 9th 1953 by Elizabeth’s godmother, after whom she was named, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The memorial is visible only to visitors leaving the house, unless on entering they reach the top of the stairs and turn. 

Its inscription reads, “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.  From this their home, they went forth to war.”

Venus’ previous home

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, just outside Barnard Castle in what was once the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit, though you have to pick the right afternoon to find it open.

It’s the home of Sir Andrew Morritt, whose family have owned the estate since 1769.

To describe it as a home is no cliché.

There’s a table with guide-books and postcards, and visitors are offered a commodious ground-floor convenience, but there’s no tea-shop, nor gift shop, no potpourri or potted plants.

You’re welcome to go through any door that is open, and to sit on any chair that isn’t taped.

The house-tour is free-flow, as are the guides, an affable and knowledgeable team who make guests feel at home.

The house was built by Sir Thomas Robinson (1703-1777), the amateur architect who was fond of telling his friends how to design their houses, and who is best known for adding the west wing to Sir John Vanburgh’s incomplete Castle Howard.

Rokeby Park is an almost perfect Palladian villa, never completed because Sir Thomas ran out of money.  Rather than leave it unfinished, he rounded it off and successive owners have tactfully extended it.

Sir Thomas sold the estate to John Sawrey Morritt, who commissioned John Carr of York to adapt the original stable wing to provide a spacious, elegant dining room with plasterwork by Joseph Rose the Elder (c1723-1780).

J S Morritt’s son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt (1772?-1843) was a connoisseur and collector, whose Grand Tour extended into Asia Minor.  He was one of the founders of the Travellers’ Club (1819) and he was a close friend of Sir Walter Scott, whose poem ‘Rokeby’ is dedicated to him.

He bought the painting by Diego Velázquez of Venus and Cupid, now known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’, which he described as “my fine picture of Venus’s backside”.  He went to some trouble over its hanging:  “…by raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty, and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing in the said posterior as part of the company”.

The Velázquez was sold by a cash-strapped descendant – it’s now in the National Gallery – and a 1906 copy by W A Menzies hangs in its place.

The park stands at the confluence of the River Greta and the River Wear, and the lawn ends at a spectacular drop into the Greta gorge – the sort of ha-ha no-one could emulate.

The walks through the gorge are comparable with the more contrived landscape at Hackfall, and more formal Yorkshire gardens at Studley Royal, Rievaulx and Duncombe Park.

Rokeby was at one time written as ‘Rookby’, which seems to be the preferred pronunciation.

It’s easy to miss.  Don’t miss it:


Allerton Castle, North Yorkshire:  Great Hall

Allerton Castle, North Yorkshire: Great Hall

Allerton Castle, just off the A1 in North Yorkshire, is an ideal place for a wedding, though it’ll cost a bob or two.

A dramatic Victorian Gothic pile designed by the little-known London architect, George Martin, for the 19th Lord Stourton, it has a spectacular 70-foot-high great hall, splendid state rooms and a parkland setting.

The contents were sold in 1965 when Lord Stourton’s direct descendant, the 25th Lord Mowbray, died, and two successive religious organisations, neither of which proved capable of keeping it up, leased it.

When Lord Mowbray’s heir, his grandson Edward, inherited in 1985 he resolved to sell it and it was spotted, fortuitously, by the vice-president of the Tandy Corporation, Dr Gerald Rolph, who was driving north to go shopping for a Scottish castle.

Dr Rolph inspected Allerton Castle in the morning and bought it the same afternoon.

He then spent twenty years carefully restoring the building, replacing the roof, rewiring, and filling the place with furniture, some of it original to the house.

In January 2005 a chimney fire spread into the roof void, gutting most of the principal rooms.  The 5,000-gallon water tank cracked and the resulting flood saved the Conservatory and part of the Library.

Dr Rolph, reasoning that if the place could be restored once it could be restored twice, promptly set about a renewal programme which was completed in 2012.

Much of the carving in both wood and marble and the plasterwork was completed in China, using fibreglass moulds of originals as templates.  Other work was sourced locally:  armorial stained glass was restored or replicated by Paul Lucker of Elland and the wood-carving in the conservatory was carried out by Julie Meredith of York.

Dr Rolph designed and commissioned other reproductions including the Bucharest-made Persian-style hand-tied carpet for the Great Hall and the carpets in the Morning Room and the Dining Room.  For the Library the Pugin wallpaper was printed from the original blocks by Cole of London and the carpet was designed by Dr Rolph and manufactured by Mercia Weavers.

You can visit Allerton Castle on Wednesday afternoons and Bank Holiday Monday afternoons from Easter Monday through to the end of October 2016, though you see rather more of the place (and enjoy a sumptuous afternoon tea) on special tours that run on specific dates through the year:

Or you can hire the whole place if you have enough cash.

The Yorkshire Lutyens 2

Sion Hill Hall, North Yorkshire

Sion Hill Hall, North Yorkshire

Sion Hill Hall has been described – convincingly but imprecisely – as “the last of the great country houses”.  It was built for Percy Stancliffe, the son of a wealthy brewer by one of Yorkshire’s foremost local architects, Walter H Brierley, in 1912-3. 

Walter Brierley (1862-1926) was a partner in the dominant York architectural practice which was begun in the eighteenth century by John Carr and had included in the intervening years such figures as J P Pritchett (1789-1868) and G T Andrews (1804-55, architect to the North Eastern Railway).

Like John Carr, Walter Brierley’s fame was limited because his work is concentrated in the North.  He built a rich collection of houses, churches and public buildings including a distinctive series of 1890s school buildings for the York School Board and the Principal’s House at the King’s Manor in York.  He restored Sledmere House after the major fire in 1911 and designed Welbeck Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, which was built (1930-1) after his death.

At Sion Hill Hall there were temperamental clashes between the rich but parsimonious Percy Stancliffe and his perfectionist architect, whose belief that “cheap work is always there to remind and annoy us” did not encourage a quiet relationship.

Nevertheless, the resulting building made Brierley’s reputation as “the Lutyens of the North”, and its expansive horizontal façades, enlivened by generous hipped roofs and tall chimneys, have a strong air of assurance, with an ambitious classical doorcase, dated 1913, as an entrance and on the south-facing garden front, roundels and painted shutters.

In fact, the house is only one room deep, with connecting corridors the length of the north front and all the principal rooms facing the sunny south.  At the western end the corners are stepped, so that Percy Stancliffe’s study and his wife’s boudoir share the advantage of south- and west-facing windows.

(The real Edwin Lutyens, on one of his rare Northern commissions, took no nonsense from his rich Yorkshire client, whom he despised.)

Percy Stancliffe lived at Sion Hill House until his death in 1949.  It was eventually purchased in 1962 by a remarkable collector, Herbert W Mawer (1903-1982), who rose from humble origins, trained as a chef at the Royal Station Hotel in Hull and started his own model bakery, “Our Herbert’s”, at Stokesley in 1926.  The family business prospered enough for Herbert to retire in his forties with sufficient wealth to support a passion for antiques which had begun with the purchase of two candlesticks for £1 5s in Hull when he was eighteen.

In the late 1930s he bought Ayton Hall near Guisborough, but by the 1950s that modest Georgian house was too small to house his accumulating possessions.

Herbert Mawer chose, in the absence of an heir, to establish the H W Mawer Trust to administer Sion Hill Hall and the Mawer Collection, which has since his death been increased to include the remarkable pot that contained the Breckenbrough Hoard (discovered in 1985) and paintings by the identical twins Dorothy and Elizabeth Alderson (respectively 1900-1992 and 1900-1987), who were Herbert Mawer’s aunts.

The house is open for group visits by prior arrangement:


Elizabethan skyscraper: Burton Agnes Hall

Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorkshire

Burton Agnes Hall, East Yorkshire

I never tire of visiting Burton Agnes Hall in North Yorkshire.  It has so much to offer the visitor.

It’s one of the most beautiful of Jacobean country houses, in warm brick with distinctive round “compass bays”, with extraordinarily fine wood panelling, fireplaces and a magnificent staircase.

The history of the place goes back a long way.

In the grounds, behind a seventeenth-century façade, are the standing remains of the original Norman manor house.

The Jacobean house was built by Sir Henry Boynton after he was appointed to the Council of the North in 1599.

His daughter Anne was attacked nearby and subsequently died of her injuries.  She asked her sisters to make sure that after her death her skull should kept within the house saying that “if my desire be not fulfilled, my spirit shall, if it be permitted, render the house uninhabitable for human beings”.

Initially, her corpse was buried intact in the churchyard, but the supernatural ructions were such that, in consultation with the vicar, the sisters had the grave reopened and the skull brought within, upon which peace was restored.

Subsequent attempts to remove the skull from the premises – in one instance by burying it in the garden – always led to terrifying consequences until eventually the skull was interred within the walls.  Anne, and Burton Agnes, now rest in peace.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton, who owed Burton Agnes Hall between 1947 and 1989, resolved when he inherited to live “quietly, but not too quietly”, and spent his life modernising and beautifying the house and its gardens.

With the Yorkshire architect, Francis Johnson, he brought in panelling and fireplaces from neglected and unwanted houses and restored the long gallery, which had been divided into bedrooms and a store.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton was an astute art collector, bringing to Burton Agnes an impressive array of English and French paintings by such artists as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, Duncan Grant, Augustus John, Edward Lear, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Walter Sickert and Maurice Utrillo, alongside two impressive bronze busts by Sir Jacob Epstein.

His heir has added further items that are displayed in the Long Gallery, such as a tapestry by Kaffe Fassett and furniture by John Makepeace including the Millennium collection, ‘Tuscan Obelisk’, ‘Spiral’ and ‘Coppice’.

Visitor information for Burton Agnes Hall is at

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. 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.

High society

Tuscan Temple, Duncombe Terrace, North Yorkshire

Tuscan Temple, Duncombe Terrace, North Yorkshire

You can spend an enjoyable day in North Yorkshire pretending to be an eighteenth-century aristocrat lording it over the landscape.

Visit (in either order) Duncombe Park [] and Rievaulx Terrace [].

In the grounds of Duncombe Park, stretching along Ryedale towards Rievaulx Abbey, are a series of artificial high-level terraces.

Duncombe Terrace is significant because it’s one of the first such features to ignore formal geometry and follow the contour.

It’s punctuated by two temples dating from around 1730, an Ionic rotunda which closely resembles Vanburgh’s Rotondo at Stowe (1721), and a circular Tuscan temple.

The terraces at Rievaulx are rather later, dating from about 1758.  The pattern is the same, with a temple at either end, and the Rievaulx temples follow the same classical orders as their companions at Duncombe, but in this case a circular Doric Temple is paired with a rectangular Ionic Temple.

Both are spectacularly expensive ways of giving guests somewhere to stroll, and apart from the landmark temples, each provides dramatic vistas:  the Duncombe terrace looks across to Helmsley Castle, while the walk at Rievaulx provides a whole series of views, cut through the trees, to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in the valley below.

The two sets of terraces are some three miles apart, and it’s probable that they were meant to connect by means of a scenic ride.  Large worked stones found in the intervening river-bed could have been the basis for a viaduct.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s comment [The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The North Riding (Penguin 1966)] on Rievaulx Terrace sums up the breathtaking assurance of the eighteenth-century handling of natural and man-made beauty:

The whole composition…is a superlative example of large-scale landscape gardening and of that unquestioning sense of being on top of the world which the rich and the noble in England possessed throughout the Georgian period.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. 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.

Country house survivor

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire

After decades of talk of “the destruction of the English country house” it’s refreshing to find more and more houses that were given over to institutional use have been restored as homes in the past twenty years.

One such is Duncombe Park House, North Yorkshire, (1713) designed by the gentleman-architect William Wakefield, possibly with assistance from Sir John Vanburgh, who was at the time coming to the end of his work at Castle Howard.

It’s a house that has survived a succession of crises.

All but the shell of Duncombe Park was destroyed by fire on a snowy night, January 11th 1879.  The parish magazine describes how the maids woke to the sounds of crackling and extremely hot carpets.  The water-supply to the house had been turned off to prevent frozen pipes, so the main block burnt to a shell although all of the family, guests and servants and – after desperate efforts – many of the contents were saved.

Work on rebuilding the main house stopped when the heir, Viscount Helmsley, died unexpectedly in 1881, leaving a two-year-old son to inherit from his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Feversham.

When rebuilding resumed in 1891, the architect William Young based his plans on the original design and some surviving fabric, but with an additional bay projecting the east front further into the garden.  He also made the original round-headed windows square, and reduced the interior size of the entrance hall, converting the design of its plaster ceiling from an oblong to a forty-foot square.

In 1894 a further fire destroyed furniture, tapestries and £6,000-worth of jewellery that had escaped the 1879 fire.  The damage was quickly restored, with the addition of a chapel by Temple Moore, in 1895.

When the second earl, grandson of the first, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, a year after inheriting the title, his son took the title at the age of ten, inheriting an estate encumbered with two sets of death duties in rapid succession.

Duncombe Park House was let to the Woodard Foundation and opened as Queen Mary’s Girls’ School in 1926.  The third earl throughout his life lived at Nawton Tower elsewhere on the estate.

At his death in 1963 the earldom died out but the older barony passed to his fourth cousin, the 6th Lord Feversham, at the age of eighteen.  It now belongs to his son, the 7th Lord.

The school’s lease did not cover repairs, and Lord Feversham was not prepared to allow modern buildings to be added, so when a break-lease fell due in 1986 Lord and Lady Feversham chose to reclaim the house, and the school removed to Baldersby Park near Thirsk – another fine early-eighteenth century house, though much altered, by Colen Campbell.

The restoration of Duncombe Park was carried out by Martin Stancliffe to such a standard that it’s difficult to visualise that the place was for sixty years a thriving, though apparently well-disciplined boarding school.

It’s a shame that it’s no longer possible for the general public to tour the house at Duncombe Park, though the gardens remain open:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  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.

“A mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive”

Castle Howard:  Mausoleum

Castle Howard: Mausoleum

Horace Walpole, a man not easily impressed, was bowled over by Castle Howard:

Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive;  in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Charles, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, proclaimed in his inscription on an obelisk near the house that he –


Of all these out-works and monuments, the most sublime is undoubtedly the Mausoleum, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1728-9, begun in 1731, and completed substantially to the original design in 1742, six years after Hawksmoor’s death and four years after Carlisle’s.

This great domed rotunda, seventy-six feet high, its twenty slender Doric columns set deliberately narrowly together, sitting on a bastion of gargantuan proportions, is a noble monument not only to Lord Carlisle, whose remains were finally laid to rest there, but also to its designer, who never saw it.

Members of the Howard family continue to be interred in the Mausoleum, which is off limits to ordinary visitors.

But it is possible to see inside the Mausoleum, and to visit other inaccessible parts of the estate, on pre-booked walking tours which are detailed in the Castle Howard website at

The walking isn’t strenuous, though the tour can take up to 2½ hours.  It’s worth every step.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  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.

The Brideshead set

Great Hall with murals by Scott Medd (1962-3), Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

Great Hall with murals by Scott Medd (1962-3), Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

Castle Howard is not Brideshead, though it owes a great deal to Brideshead Revisited.

It’s acknowledged that Evelyn Waugh’s wartime novel was based on the Lygon family who lived at the very different Madresfield Court, Worcestershire, which has its own stock of stories:

The scandal which envelopes Lord Brideshead is nowhere near as dramatic as that which overtook the 7th Earl Beauchamp, a man who always carried £100 in cash “in case I have to hire a train”.  When his brother-in-law, ‘Bendor’, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, maliciously outed him, Lady Beauchamp remarked absently, “Bendor says that Beauchamp is a bugler.”

The only connection between Brideshead and Castle Howard is through television, and it’s proved crucial to the fortunes of the house and its family, the Howards.

The house was built by their ancestor, Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (c1669-1738), who hired the multitalented playwright, John Vanburgh (1664-1726), to design a baroque palace on the site of the ancient castle of Henderskelfe.

The Great Hall is a stupendous space, seventy feet high and fifty-two feet square, surmounted by the great dome.  The paintings of the hall, dome and high saloon were by the Venetian Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and the Huguenot Jean Herve.

In the period before the Second World War, canny country-house owners offered their properties to well-behaved girls’ schools:  the Duke of Devonshire, for example, saw to it by this means that Chatsworth was well looked after, but at Castle Howard an accidental fire on November 9th 1940 gutted much of the interior and destroyed Vanburgh’s dome.

The owner George Howard (1920-1984) spent much of his adult life breathing life back into Castle Howard.  The dome was restored in 1960 and the lost Pelligrini murals reproduced a couple of years later by the Canadian painter, Scott Medd (1911-1984).

George Howard, who was at the time Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC, was very glad to hire the place to Granada TV for their series-adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981).  The proceeds enabled him to rebuild some of the rooms on the south front, to the designs of Julian Bicknell with paintings by Felix Kelly.

His son, the Hon Simon Howard, the present owner, similarly welcomed Julian Jarrold’s feature-film production in 2007 (released 2008).  This enabled further rooms to be brought back to use, and the story is told in an exhibition ‘Brideshead Restored: The Story of Restoration at Castle Howard and Brideshead Revisited’.

For thousands of visitors and millions of viewers, Castle Howard is Brideshead.  It isn’t really, but it might as well be.

Castle Howard deserves a day to itself, at almost any time of the year:  If the house is open don’t miss eating in the Fitzroy Room restaurant.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  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.

Deer little house

Deer Park House, Scampston, North Yorkshire

Deer Park House, Scampston, North Yorkshire

When you look out of the upstairs windows of the south front of Scampston Hall your eye is caught by a red-brick castellated lodge in the distance.

This is Deer Park Lodge, built by John Carr of York in Gothick style c1768 as an eye-catcher across the lake.  Originally, it was stuccoed in white, so that it stood out from the now-vanished forest behind it.

As well as being an ornament to the view, the lodge served a practical function.  To each side of the central bay were arcades to provide shelter when the deer came to feed.  Behind the building was a modest cottage in which the deer-keeper and his family lived.

The three-sided bay, with its castellated gable embellished with a trefoil, contains two grand rooms, connected by a steep, straight staircase.  Both have marble fireplaces and were decorated, apparently, with marbled paper.  The upper room, where visitors from the great house would take tea and admire the view, has a delicate plaster ceiling decorated with hunting horns and sheet music.

The current owners, David and Jane Crease, have carefully restored the lodge, and Jane explains how the three sides of the bay offered completely different views – the forest to the right (nature), the house straight ahead (culture) and the mill to the left (commerce).

Mr & Mrs Crease entertained the members of the Art Fund South Yorkshire to tea on their way back from an art day in Scarborough.  It’s a rare privilege to enjoy a sumptuous afternoon tea sitting outside the lodge gazing across the lake towards Scampston Hall in the distance.

One of the ironies of an eye-catcher is that it commands at least as good a view as the view it belongs to.  No doubt that’s why the St Quentins and their descendants, the Legards, drove over to admire the big house in its setting.

Scampston Deer Park Lodge is a private residence and is not open to the public.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.