Ten Gothic Gardens
Gothic frontpage
Hackfall
Once upon a time, a fairly small-deal Yorkshire landowner and businessman, Sir John Aislabie, became Chancellor of the Exchequer because nobody else wanted to be. They thought finance was a bit beneath them, all those aristos. A gang of traders called the South Sea Company came to him and suggested they take on board Britain's National Debt in return for shares, which were a sure bet because the Company was going to make untold amounts of money in the new markets of the far seas. The shares inflated and inflated. It was called the South Sea Bubble. Then they collapsed. When the smoke cleared and thousands were ruined, it was noticed that Sir John, who'd bought plenty of South Sea shares himself, had sold them just at the right moment. His public reputation was destroyed, but he'd made a massive fortune to console him in his disgrace. Part of the consolation was the estate at Studley Royal, where he remodelled the landscape around the most colossal garden ornament in Britain, Fountains Abbey. It was a Classical garden, all about reason, order and tranquility. John's son William, however, bought Hackfall, and did something very different with it.

'Hackfall', it was said, was 'Hag's Fall', the abode of witches. In fact it means 'bend in the river', but it was an expressive error. The River Ure cut here a gorge through the Yorkshire hills, a dramatic, haunted landscape of precipices, cliffs and cascades. It was already a Gothic landscape. William Aislabie set about accentuating that thrilling shuddersome glen with ruins and vistas, making the cascades a bit more exciting, the views a bit more interesting.

The garden became, as these places often did, a tourist attraction, and remained so well into the 20th century. Then, around the time of the War, it was forgotten along with so much else, and the ruinous forces of the natural world began taking the landscape back. Over the last decade, the Woodland Trust has begun managing the wood again; the Hackfall Trust has rescued the remaining buildings, and the Landmark Trust has pulled one of them back from the brink, quite literally, of destruction, as one of its weird holiday lets.


Hackfall The Ruin
And here it is - The Ruin. A strange little banqueting house, originally, a Gothic pavilion on one side and a Romanesque wreck on the other. The point of this structure, apart from providing a pleasant place for Aislabie guests (and later the tourists) to enjoy a bit of refreshment, was to frame a surprise view as dramatic as Sir John's arrangement of Fountains Abbey at Studley Royal. Early visitors were conveyed along the road from Ripon with no idea that they were on high ground. They would draw up outside The Ruin,and were met by Sir William, who would lead them inside, and then throw open the doors on the far side. The doors revealed a view that ranged over the gorge of Hackfall itself, and beyond - way, way beyond, in fact as far beyond as the hill of Roseberry Topping some 35 miles away.Hackfall The Ruin view
Hackfall Gothic KitchenAnd just along the hilltop is the Gothic Kitchen, built a short while after The Ruin, to allow the servants to prepare a few little light 14-course snacks for the guests.
Hackfall Mowbray Castle
Hackfall Fishers Hall
Other follies of which a good deal still remains are Mowbray Castle, so called after the medieval lords of Hackfall, and Fisher's Hall - named rather
nicely after Sir William's gardener.
Hackfall viewsHackfall viewsHackfall views
One of the ways Hackfall dramatises its landscape is to ensure that the follies are visible from one another. The Ruin looks down the gorge on Fisher's Hall; the Rustic Temple and Fisher's Hall frame views up to The Ruin at the top of its precipice.
The Hackfall environment is exciting anyway, but wherever you look the natural features are heightened and tweaked to make them even more lively; the Forty Foot Falls rumbles away in the valley below The Ruin, while steps and walks run around cliffs within the woods such as Raven Scar and Ling Scar.
Hackfall Forty-Foot Falls
Hackfall Ling Scar
The woods are alive with water cascading and running through the trees, but here again the natural endowments of the landscape have been exploited and accentuated. This wasn't all down to Sir William Aislabie, but also to the Earl of Ripon, a 19th-century owner of the garden, who added a number of waterfalls, walks and stairways to make the woods more accessible to day-trippers, even constructing steps up the side of the Forty Foot Falls.
Hackfall landscapeHackfall landscapeHackfall landscape
The western edge of Hackfall is marked by two stern gateposts like diminutive obelisks either side of the path, while on its eastern side is a feature accounts never seem to mention, but one I was naturally keen to see, the Dropping Well. Presumably Sir William would have known about Mother Shipton's famous Dropping Well at Knaresborough not far away, and turned this spring into his own version. The well-chamber is artificial, and I think the tufa limestone deposits which decorate it inside have been deliberately added as well rather than left by the water itself. It's clearly part of the romantic garden, but you have to scramble through the undergrowth to reach it.Hackfall gatepostsHackfall Dropping Well
Hackfall River UreAt the bottom of the valley, of course, runs the thunderous River
Ure, a sinister and threatening presence whose voice can be
heard all around the gardens. It seemed to be thoroughly in spate
in October 2008.
Hackfall is, bit by bit, emerging from its ruin; but perhaps it should not venture out too far. The slightly twee follies of the 18th century are now dramatically lovely wrecks in the 21st, and the ghosts hang all the thicker around them for it. Some buildings are gone, and while the stones of two grottos remain it's difficult to see them being resurrected. The Weeping Rock, however, could do with being uncovered: I can't work out where it should be, in any case.

More information on Hackfall can be found
here and here.
Gothic information
Gothic galleries
Gothic gardens
Things to buy
Go to homepage