In the 18th century, travellers on the Great North Road were able to enjoy a view of the ‘small neat house’ that was Leases Hall as they passed by in their carriages. Today, it’s not so easy to dawdle and appreciate ones surroundings, as the Great North Road has been superseded by the 6 lanes of the busy A1(M). But if you are quick, you can snatch a glimpse of a small mound which was once topped by a little rotunda.
Leonard Smelt (1725-1800), who inherited Leases Hall in 1755, is remembered as a man who had ‘the honour of being friend to the King’. He was greatly respected at the court of George III where he socialised with the likes of the writers Samuel Johnson and Fanny Burney, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (who painted his portrait), and the learned ladies of the Bluestocking Society, including Mrs Delany whose description of Smelt is quoted above.
The estate at Leases was not large (in 1792 it was described as being 139 acres), but Smelt created a small pleasure ground which was much admired by his great friend Elizabeth Montagu, another member of the bluestocking circle. Writing to her husband during a visit in 1767, Mrs Montagu described the ‘neatness & elegance’ of Leases. She noted that there was no ornamental garden, but rather that a grass terrace, edged with a ha-ha, carried a walk around the fields. The walk was ‘nicely kept, & fringed with plantations’ and had a ‘very rich prospect of well cultivated country bounded by distant mountains’. Above all, she admired the ingenuity of the design, which combined the beauty of the perimeter walks with the utility of the lands they enclosed. Smelt himself referred to his estate as his ‘farm’.
The writer Arthur Young visited Leases Hall (which he called The Leases) in 1768 as part of his six months tour of the north of England. Young visited estates to investigate and promulgate improvements in agriculture, and along the way he often recorded his thoughts on mansions and pleasure grounds. After praising Smelt’s farming methods, he described The Leases as ‘a very beautiful ferme ornée’ and admired the situation and prospect, concluding that ‘Mr Smelt has ornamented it with much taste’.
The history of Bedale was recorded in a curious manner by Robert Hird (1768-1841). Hird was a shoemaker who spent his whole life in Bedale, not far from Leases Hall. In his later years he wrote a history of the town, The Annals of Bedale, entirely in rhyme. Writing of Lady Stapleton of Aiskew, he goes on to name Smelt as the builder of a little temple on a mound in the park at Leases:
Her Ladyship knew Leonard Smelt.
He liv’d at Leases hall,
This Squire the Rotunda built;
Which we the Mount now call.
From which there is the finest view
Of any near the road,
Mowbray vale, you may see it through,
And view where armies trode.
Although Hird wrote that the rotunda had been erected by Smelt, neither Montagu nor Young mention the temple and the first contemporary account is not until 1779, when a traveller noted that ‘upon a small eminence a pretty Rotunda stands upon Pillars’. A designer for the temple and pleasure ground is not known (Smelt himself may have been responsible), but there were plenty of local sources of inspiration: just across the Great North Road was Hornby Castle, where Smelt socialised with the family. Here landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and architect John Carr, were working for the Earl of Holderness in the 1760s. Holderness was advised by his chaplain, William Mason, best known as a garden designer and author of the epic poem The English Garden. Also close by was Kirby Fleetham, sold to William Aislabie of Studley by the Smelt family early in the 18th century, where Aislabie had created a small pleasure ground.
Smelt sold Leases to Randolph Marriott in 1769 and the estate subsequently changed hands a number of times. Despite various alterations, the house (grade II) and grounds are largely as Smelt left them, although some of the perimeter walk has been lost to road-widening.
A very lovely, leafy, bridle path leads up to The Mount, but the ‘pretty Rotunda’ is no longer there. The old photograph, sadly undated, seems to be the only surviving image of the temple in situ at Leases.
But… as the opening photo hints, there is some good news, in fact some very good news. In 1933 Leases Hall was offered for sale by auction. The details described the elegant hall and gardens and the ‘elevated mound surmounted by a circular stone structure’. The estate failed to meet the reserve, but the following year it was sold by private treaty. The purchaser was Alfred Drewett Chaytor (1901-1977), whose family also owned Croft Hall, in the pretty village of Croft-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, close to the border with County Durham. Sometime around 1940 the rotunda was moved from Leases to Croft Hall, where it remains today.
By the time of the move the temple was in a poor condition. The stonework had suffered from erosion by the elements, and the JT who carved his initials into a column, as clearly seen in the old photograph, had set a precedent: the columns are now covered in graffiti, including a large caricature, dating from the early years of the 20th century (without condoning such vandalism, there is something fascinating about the social history that the graffiti records: who were the people with the time to carve intricate names, dates and figures onto the columns? Why were they there?). The roof was missing, no doubt stripped of its lead some years earlier, but happily the cast stone company Haddonstone was able to supply a modern fibreglass replacement. The little temple is a real charmer, and has a secure future at Croft Hall.
Croft Hall is strictly private but opens annually as part of the National Gardens Scheme. Watch out for a date in 2022.
For more on Hird’s Annals of Bedale see this excellent blog post by the team at the North Yorkshire County Record Office https://nycroblog.com/2020/10/28/hirds-annals/
Elizabeth Montagu’s letters are an amazing resource and this project will see them made available online https://www.elizabethmontagunetwork.co.uk
This post would not have been possible without the collaboration of Gail Falkingham and Alison Brayshaw. Thanks team.