Skelton Tower stands high above Levisham in the North York Moors National Park. Once a moorland retreat, it is now a remote and romantic ruin.
The grandly named Mount Snever Observatory, also known as Oldstead Tower, stands on the edge of an escarpment, high above the village of Oldstead, near Thirsk. An inscription on the building tells us:
JOHN WORMALD IN THE FIRST YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA CAUSED THIS OBSERVATORY TO BE ERECTED. J. DODDS BUILDER
The tower was built at Snever Point, the highest spot on the Oldstead estate. Work was underway in October 1837, and there was great excitement locally when a human skeleton was discovered as the foundations were being dug. The observatory was complete by the following summer when Wormald threw a party to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria on 28 June 1838. All of the village was invited; loyal toasts were drunk, a band played and a royal salute of 21 guns was fired from the terrace of the tower. ‘No one has shown more loyalty to their Queen and Sovereign, than Mr Wormald … and the inhabitants of the village’ wrote the local paper.
There’s a second inscribed stone on the south elevation which contains several lines of poetry adapted from ‘Windsor Forest’ by Alexander Pope:
Here hills and waving groves a scene display
And part admit and part exclude the day
See rich industry smiling on the plains
And peace and plenty tell VICTORIA reigns!
Happy the MAN who to these shades retires
Whom NATURE charms and whom the muse inspires
Who wandering thoughtful in this silent wood
Attends the duties of the wise and good
To observe a mean, be to himself a friend
To follow NATURE and regard his end.
These lines were presumably chosen, or composed, by Wormald. He was not alone in honouring the new monarch with an adaptation of Pope’s ode; Thomas Roscoe included similar lines in Windsor Castle and Its Environs in 1838:
Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
And peace and plenty tell (Victoria) reigns.
There has been much confusion over the identity of John Wormald. He was in fact John Smith Wormald, son of the Samuel Wormald who was Lord Mayor of York in 1809 and who died in 1814. John was one of the ‘six surviving children’ who erected a memorial to their parents in St Margaret’s, York. Samuel Wormald was a tanner and timber merchant and the family are remembered in the name of the offshoot of the River Foss built to service their business: Wormald’s Cut.
John Wormald must have retained some interest in his father’s business as he was praised as a benevolent landlord to his tenants in nearby Navigation Road. He was also a Director of The Yorkshire Fire and Life Insurance Company and sat on the Provisional Committee of the Hull, Malton & Northern Union Railway. His principal seat was at Fulford, near York, but in 1829 he purchased Oldstead, presumably because it was ‘suitable for Gentlemen … who were ‘partial to Hunting or Shooting’. The house was described in sale particulars as an ‘elegant little mansion’ and the views were ‘picturesque’ with Byland Abbey a ‘prominent and interesting object.’ Wormald erected a new cottage for his Keeper and as a member of the North Riding Liberal Association, and a vocal supporter of reform, added the inscription: ‘To the Reformed rights of the people in 1832’.
Wormald died at Fulford in March 1848 and his collection of oil paintings, books and coins was sold at auction in June of the same year. The announcement of this sale in the Yorkshire Gazette was only a few column inches away from details of the sale of his Oldstead mansion and estate. The sale included 121 acres of woods and plantations, but there was no mention of the decade-old tower.
When the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map was published in 1853, the site was marked only as ‘Mount Snever’ with no clue as to what might be found there. Public access seems to have been allowed and in 1871 those who climbed it were promised a view of York Minster and the towns of Ripon, Harrogate and Richmond. At that date the tower was ‘in decay’ and clearly not cherished by the new owner of Oldstead Hall.
Barbara Jones saw the observatory in the early 1970s when researching for the revised edition of Follies and Grottoes. At that date it was abandoned and the base overgrown with wild plants. The more recent history of the observatory is told in a publication produced by Oldstead village to celebrate the millennium. It was restored by Noel Appleby of nearby Ampleforth, who used the building for stargazing and to entertain friends. After his death in 1984 it again deteriorated before being repaired by the Prest family who were custodians in 2000 when the village history was published.
The tower sits on a high platform, forming a terrace. Sadly the building is redundant and its role as a belvedere has been lost; there is no means to ascend, the tower is securely locked and inaccessible, and trees block the views of the rolling landscape beyond. But it is still a charming sight and there’s a lovely walk up from the village of Wass, with the tower appearing through the trees just when you are beginning to think you’ve lost your way.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Graham Fulton, a folly friend and friend of folly.