architecture, belvedere, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, landscape, North Yorkshire, Rustic shelter, Summerhouse

Fisher’s Hall, Hackfall, near Masham, North Yorkshire

Photograph courtesy of Gail Falkingham

Studley Royal, near Ripon, stays comfortably in the upper reaches of the list of most-visited National Trust properties, helped by the fact that the landscape garden features that epitome of eye-catchers, Fountains Abbey. But only a few miles away from Studley’s shops and scones is Hackfall, a tranquil vale* which is sublime, romantic and wild – and totally devoid of facilities. Both were created in the 18th century by the Aislabie family of Studley.

Hackfall was created in woodland on the bank of the river Ure and was dotted with follies, each with vistas – to the river, to Masham church spire, or to the other ornamental buildings. There was no house at Hackfall, as it was a pleasure ground that could easily be reached by carriage from Studley, and as one contemporary postulated:  ‘It is experimentally known that a long residence, even in the most romantic scenes, is apt to cloy: so the owner wisely has prevented all risk of satiety, by adapting his edifices to a visit only of a few hours.’

Today you have to visit the Village Hall in nearby Grewelthorpe for (excellent) refreshments, but in the 18th century Hackfall’s pavilions and alcoves provided shelter where light meals could be taken. If something grander were required, two of the follies had detached kitchens in which meals could be prepared. The remains of that by Mowbray Point, high above the valley, can still be seen.

Fisher’s Hall, wood engraving by Ann Tout, 1990, courtesy of a private collection. The image is based on a 19th century view when the thatched roof had been replaced with tiles.

The second kitchen, now lost, serviced Fisher’s Hall – one of The Folly Flâneuse’s favourite buildings. The ‘rotund room in which the family often dine’ was thatched in 1749 and completed in 1750 – a stone above the entrance bears that date and the initials of William Aislabie. It was lined with ‘that sort of stone which is commonly called petrifyed moss and roots which they dig near it’, and thatched with ling (heather). Guests sat at a horseshoe shaped table inside the octagon, from which there were ‘the finest and most picturesque views’, through the pointed gothic windows and door.

Fisher’s Hall by Ed Kluz, 2017. This work featured in Ed’s solo show ‘Sheer Folly – Fanciful Buildings of Britain’ at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2017-18. Courtesy of the artist and YSP.

Hackfall soon became very popular and the earliest tourists (only the rich and influential were able to take tours at this date) could gain admission by calling at a cottage where the gardener, a Mr Hardcastle, would show them around. One visitor was moved to write some lines, and in this extract imagines the rustic summerhouse as a hermit’s retreat:

Fast by this stream, and in the thickest shade,
A straw-roofed cot appears with ivy bound,
The walls with cells and vary’d moss overlaid,
And rough-hewn altars mark’d the hallow’d ground.

Here haply dwells some hoary-headed seer,
Far from the guilty clouds’ tumultuous din,
Here lost in soft musings wears the silent year,
Estrang’d alike to passion and to sin.

The reality was that you were far more likely to bump into elegant travellers having ‘PicNic parties’  – in 1786 one visitor was delighted to bump into William Wilberforce drinking tea.

Hon. Elizabeth Cust sketch dated 1840. From ‘An Album ofViews in the Lake District and Yorkshire’, The Wordsworth Trust 2003.44.18, gift of the W.W. Spooner Charitable Trust 2003. ©The Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.

The inns in the closet towns of Harrogate and Ripon arranged transport by carriage to Hackfall, and stabling was provided both inside and outside of the grounds. However, it’s not clear how many visitors took their lead from The Hon. Miss Cust who arrived by donkey in 1840.

The woodland garden remained a favourite destination throughout the 19th century. By this date visitors taking tea at the Mowbray Point ‘refreshment house’ had another attraction to enjoy, Hackfall being ‘celebrated for its cream cheese’. With the advent of the motor engine further visitors arrived by car and Groups by charabanc.

Photograph courtesy of a private collection.

Descendants of the Aislabies sold the pleasure ground in the 1930s. Hackfall was forgotten, and fell into disrepair as the 20th century progressed: the buildings became ruined, paths became overgrown and the trees were felled. In the 1980s the Hackfall Trust was formed, and it worked with the Woodland Trust and the local community and councils to halt further damage. Grants from various bodies, especially the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowed the partial restoration of Hackfall during the 1990s and the first decade of the current century. Fisher’s Hall and the other abandoned structures were consolidated to ensure their survival, whilst Mowbray Point, the banqueting house overlooking the woods and river, was beautifully restored by the Landmark Trust as a holiday let, now called The Ruin.

Sam Groom’s 3D linocut of Fisher’s Hall is among the works on show at the Masham Gallery.

If you are in the area before 4 November there’s a lovely little exhibition at the nearby Masham Gallery celebrating Hackfall in a variety of media.

For Hackfall information

And the Village Hall cafe

Mowbray Point aka The Ruin is a Landmark Trust property and there’s more here

* if you avoid weekends and school holidays

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5 thoughts on “Fisher’s Hall, Hackfall, near Masham, North Yorkshire”

  1. Gwyn says:

    The Elizabeth Cust image doesn’t appear in my browser. Is it just me?

    1. Editor says:

      Hmmm very odd. No one else has commented but it does seem to be missing. I will investigate!

  2. Simon says:

    I was lucky enough to visit whilst restorations were underway and the builders invited me up the scaffolding on Mowbray Castle. Not sure the HSE would like that today! Would love to go back but I cannot work out if the Hackfall Woods are open for pubic access at all times or whether you can only go on an open day when The Ruin is open. Any information gratefully received!

    1. Editor says:

      Hi Simon. The woods are freely open. The only restriction is the terrace of Mowbray Point (The Ruin) which has limited access to allow privacy for Landmark Trust holiday-ers

      1. Simon says:

        Thank you. Will wait for some Yorkshire sunshine and explore! Will be fascinating to see what everything looks like post restoration.

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