By the early 18th century Hornby Castle was a seat of the D’arcy family, earls of Holderness. Robert D’arcy, the 4th earl, began to improve the estate from around 1750 with John Carr of York remodelling the castle and associated buildings, including three eye-catcher farmhouses to be viewed from the castle and the network of rides around the estate. Capability Brown was paid for his services in 1768 and although it’s not known exactly what he proposed, as no plan survives, the series of lakes in a very Brownian style were constructed over the next decade.
Before Brown, an amateur, or gentleman designer had made his mark on the gardens. D’arcy’s friend, the Revd. William Mason, was Rector of Aston, near Sheffield, another of the earl’s seats. Mason gave advice on garden design at a number of sites and found wider fame when he published the poem The English Garden in four volumes from 1772-81. In 1760 Mason recruited another of his circle, Richard Bentley, to design a garden ornament for a spot he had chosen at Hornby. Bentley was a member of Horace Walpole’s ‘Committee of Taste’, a group of men admired for their style and good taste (they’d probably be ‘influencers’ on instagram today). Mason had sent a rough sketch but as he did not ‘pretend to much skill’ he asked Bentley and Walpole to tickle up his design. D’arcy was impressed with the ‘very pretty Gothic room’ and ordered work to start immediately.
By 1762 the building was nearly complete and William Peckitt of York supplied stained glass for the windows and a panel over the door where D’arcy’s motto ‘Un Dieu, Un Roi’ accompanied the family crest. The Italian Stuccadore Cortesi worked on the compartmented ceiling; he was probably brought to the project by John Carr who managed the works (D’arcy wrote that his friend Carr ‘had the overlooking of all’ his building works in Yorkshire).
The building takes its name from the Bowling Green that was close by but its primary function was as a banqueting house. Furnished with 18 chairs and two square dining tables the neighbouring gentlemen were invited to dine in the building every Monday. A local inn delivered the food and ‘Strangers of genteel appearance were admitted without restraint’.
Sometime in the 19th century, when these evenings of bonhomie had come to an end, the Bowling Green House became home to an eclectic collection of artefacts from around the world. The Museum, as it was known, was fitted out with glazed gothic cabinets, and housed arms and armour, grand tour souvenirs, ethnographic and natural history collections and celebrity memorabilia such as Lord Byron’s cane.
Hornby Castle passed by marriage to the dukes of Leeds in 1778, and remained in their hands until 1930 when they decided to disperse their Yorkshire estates. The contents of the castle, including The Museum’s collection, were sold at auction and the estate was bought by a speculator who was only interested in the land. Having tried, and failed, to sell the castle at auction he announced a demolition sale. At the eleventh hour it was agreed that a more manageable portion of the castle could remain ‘and thus continue to be a landmark’. Although the fabric of The Museum was marked up into several lots for sale it too won a reprieve, and was allowed to stand.
The building is now roofless, and the front elevation has partially collapsed, but the other walls are largely intact. It is Grade II listed and one must hope its future can be secured. Hornby Castle is private but the rear elevation of the Bowling Green House can be glimpsed from a footpath, especially when the trees are bare. There are also occasional openings in aid of charity.
The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland have been investigating Hornby Castle for a number of years and their fascinating discoveries can be explored here http://www.aasdn.org.uk/hornby.htm