22nd August – Hackfall Wood

Hackfall Wood is located just outside the small village of Grewelthorpe, between Masham and Ripon, in the district of Nidderdale. In 1731 John Aislabie, member of parliament for Ripon and notable for his involvement in the South Sea Bubble financial scandal in the early 1720s, purchased the woods from a local land-owning family called Hardcastle for the sum of £906. Aislabie also owned the nearby Royal Park at Studley and wanted the woods to provide stone from the quarries on it’s southern edge as well as timber. After John Aislabie’s death in 1742 Hackfall Woods passed to his son William who transformed them into an ornamental woodland landscape in the mid 18th century with follies, waterfalls and fountains dotted throughout. It soon became one of the most famous, and popular, visitor attractions in the British Isles being painted by JMW Turner and enthused over by the romantic Lakeland poet William Wordsworth. This popularity lasted right up until the 1920s but in 1933 Hackfall Wood was sold to a local timber merchant and subsequent logging activities lead to severe damage being done to the woodland scenery and it’s many beautiful features. In 1989 the woods were purchased by the Woodland Trust and work began to try to restore them to their former glory. 


Today’s walk started from the recently built car-park just to the east of the woods on the Masham – Grewelthorpe road. Just inside the gate leading from the car-park to the start of the path down to the woods is a small information board showing a map of the woods with all its features clearly shown. On the other side of the gate were a couple of plastic boxes containing a leaflet about the woods along with sort of nature trail/I-Spy type pamphlet for young children, a great idea.

After passing through another gate the path then made its way through some sloping pasture-land leading down to the entrance to the wood. Once inside the wood the lush, deciduous landscape presented a fine spectacle and I followed one of the clearly defined footpaths to the first place of interest, Limehouse Hill.  In 1750, around the time when William Aislabie first started transforming the wood into its present-day appearance, this hill housed a small lime-kiln which may well have given it its name. In 1751 a number of trees on the hill’s northern slope were felled and a ditch was dug out in order to produce today’s fine view of Masham, about 6 miles away. Through the gap in the trees he steeple of St Mary’s church was clearly visible above the River Ure and in the foreground a low moss-covered wall formed a boundary to a  small woodland garden of ferns and foxgloves.


On the other side of Limehouse Hill the foot-path started to follow course of the River Ure as it makes its way through a narrow gorge. This path also forms part of the Ripon Rowell Walk, a 50 mile circular trail around Nidderdale which starts and ends in Ripon. The recent rains had resulted in the path being rather muddy in places and this, as well as plentiful protruding tree-roots and the uneven ground caused by the many tiny steams crisscrossing the path, led to numerous mis-steps along the way.

The next feature I was hoping to discover was the Sandbed Hut but somehow I managed to miss it and instead continued along the path with the river on one side and a heavily wooded slope on the other. Here and there streams made their way down this slope with tiny waterfalls just about visible through the thick vegetation. At various points it was possible to clamber down to the river’s edge to observe it meandering its way through the many large rocks which littered the river bed.


After around 15 minutes the trees opened up slightly to give a great view of Fisher’s Hall, framed by the early afternoon sunlight, up on top of a small knoll just ahead. Not long afterwards I came across a steep set of steps leading up to the now restored folly. Fisher’s Hall , an octagonal structure built from a type of limestone called tufa, was built by William Aislabie in 1750 as a memorial to his head gardener, William Fisher. Initially it had a thatched roof and walls lined with coloured shells but over the years these disappeared and after the woods were bought by a local timber merchant in the 1930s it gradually fell into disrepair. In the 1990s work began to restore the building, clearing the overgrown plants and tidying up the windows and walls.


A number of different paths converged here but I decided to continue onwards along the River Ure, crossing the duck-board covered Grewelthorpe Beck just prior to it joining the river, until I met the path leading upwards along Raven Scar. Numerous steps had been built into the slope to ease the task of reaching the top and once there it was possible to glimpse through the trees the occasional fine view across the river to the rolling countryside beyond.

At the top of the hill the woods ended and were replaced by open farmland and here could be found the mock ruin of Mowbray Castle. The “castle” was built by William Aislabie in the mid 18th century more as an eye-catching spectacle to be viewed from afar rather than to be visited up close. It took its name from the ‘de Mowbrays’, a famous local family who lived nearby in the Middle Ages (and also gave their name to the Vale of Mowbray which runs just to the north-east of Hackfall). Ironically, as the ruin had been designed and built to look like an authentic medieval ruin, after 250 years of exposure to wind and rain up on its exposed outlook the sandstone used to build the castle had been extensively weathered and so, in 2007, a specialist team of stone masons were called in to make repairs to the structure.


After leaving Mowbray Castle the path then started to descend back towards the small valley through which Grewelthorpe Beck flowed down to the river. A short time later I reached Alum Spring, a series of waterfalls running down a moss and fern covered tufa embankment into the beck. The path run alongside the falls and the beck was crossed by a series of stepping-stones in front of a small weir over which the waters ran before continuing down through the woods on the other side.


Across the beck and opposite Alum Spring is a small seating alcove with the name of Kent’s Seat. William Aislabie built it to commemorate the noted 18th century landscape architect William Kent and it offers a fine opportunity for a rest and a nice view of the falls. Here there were a number of options with regard to paths but I chose to make my way back up to the top of the embankment and follow the path along the Grewelthorpe Beck. A number of springs and small waterfalls were marked on the map at various points along the beck but due to the elevated nature of the path and the overgrown vegetation it proved impossible to see any of these features. Just before the woods reached Grewelthorpe village the beck ended in a small pond, named Top Pond, on the map, and a small bridge led over a weir to the other side of the small gorge through which the beck flowed from where it was possible to follow the path back up into the main body of the woods once more.

Shortly afterwards I reached a junction of paths, one of which leading back down to Kent’s Seat and Alum Spring whilst the other ran uphill along the edge of the wood to the Banqueting Hall (also known as ‘The Ruin’) on the promontory of Mowbray Point. I took this path and soon reached another crossroads offering two routes past this feature, one in front along the viewing terrace and one behind. I first choose the former option and entered a small gate upon which a notice read that due to the Banqueting Hall now being available for short-term rented accommodation the privacy of any of its residents is maintained by only allowing access to this path between 11am and 3pm. The Banqueting Hall was built around 1767 and comprises two distinct facades. On the eastern side, facing the viewing terrace the building resembles a mock Roman ruin with a large triumphal arch forming the centrepiece. The western side has the appearance of a small belvedere in the classic Gothic style and is framed by trees on either side so as to maintain the surprise of the stupendous view for anyone passing through the building to the terrace.

This view, said to be one of the best in the whole of North Yorkshire, looks out across the Vale of Mowbray to the Hambleton Hills in the far distance. The Kilburn White Horse on Sutton Bank was just about visible and it is said that on a clear day even York Minster and Roseberry Topping (45 miles away) can also be seen although I didn’t manage to spot them today.   The whole of Hackfall Woods could also be seen spread out below me with the course of the River Ure clearly visible as it wound its way through the wooded gorge to the south-east, the Rustic Temple on the edge of the Fountain Pond directly below to the east and perched up on an open piece of grassland to the south, Mowbray Castle.


It was possible to continue onwards through the woods via another gate on the north side of the viewing terrace but I chose to head back through the southern gate and take the alternative, western, route past the Banqueting Hall. To do so I had to climb over a stile into a field then make my way past along a farm track before climbing another stile once the building had been passed to re-join the original path through the wood.

Shortly afterwards I came across another viewpoint called Lovers Leap which offered more or less the same view as that from the Banqueting Hall albeit more obscured by trees. A small winding path led down to a small wooden seat about 10 metres below the viewpoint – a nice, romantic place for the lovers to rest before the leap to their doom perhaps. The path then started to descend back down to the main body of the wood and I then came to a crossroads where I could choose to leave the wood and head back to the main car park, return to the Limehouse Hill area or descend further to the Fountain Pond and other features. I chose the latter option and soon arrived at the Fountain Pond. And my timing was perfect as the fountain had just started to spout its water 30 feet into the air. Each performance of the recently restored fountain lasts a couple of minutes before the tank supplying it empties and it then takes around 15 minutes for the tank to fill before the cycle began again.

Just to the NE of the pond is another one of Hackfall’s follies, the Rustic Temple. Like Fisher’s Hall it is rather octagonal in shape and also originally had a roof which was not replaced when restoration was carried out. The function of the building is still unclear. It may have been used to house parts of the machinery for the fountain or simply to offer a cool place to rest for weary tourists. One of the window’s offered a fine view of the gushing fountain but none of the other windows seemed to have a viewpoint of anything in particular. There was also a small stone niche in one of the walls which may have once held some religious artifact but there is no record of the temple being dedicated to a particular god or goddess.


A short distance from the Fountain Pond is another structure, the Grotto. Up until a few years ago this had disintegrated into virtually a pile of rubble of tufa-stone but now, like many other of Hackfall’s buildings, it has been almost fully restored with the stone archway enclosing a fine wooden bench. The function of the structure is to provide a view of the large waterfall cascading down the cliff opposite. This fall is known as Forty Foot Fall due to the height of the cliff and at the height of Hackfall’s popularity would have been a spectacular sight with a specially built reservoir at the top releasing water at appropriate moments to enhance the water volume. Nowadays the cliff is rather overgrown and the almost hidden fall reduced to not much more than a trickle


Just near the Grotto a narrow sunlit opening in the trees giving an excellent glimpse of Fisher’s Hall  and just before a small bridge I choose the path heading back up to the NE section of the wood in order to finally track down the Sandbed Hut which I had missed first time around. On the way there my map shown that I should have passed close to another water feature, the Weeping Rock, but apparently this is now so overgrown and as the water channels which once fed the spectacular cascade down the face of the rock are now dry today it looks just like a large vegetation covered rock and so is very easily missed. As indeed I did. I did manage to discover the whereabouts of the Sandbed Hut though it only consisted of a wooden bench surrounded by three low walls. This is only an estimated reconstruction of the structure that previously occupied this spot. It’s condition had deteriorated greatly over the past few decades leaving just a pile of rubble and as no photos or drawings of the hut survive the design of it could only be guessed at. It is thought that the JMW Turner may well have sat in this spot when he painted one of his views of Hackfall in 1816.

There is one more existing feature which I didn’t visit, the Dropping Well on the eastern edge of the woods. There are no paths leading to it nowadays and therefore its difficult to reach. However, it is still in a reasonable condition and has required little restoration, unlike most of the other sites in the woods. The well was said to be like a “miniature Mother Shipton’s Cave” with limestone deposits lining the inside walls of the small grotto which in which it is housed. Originally there were also various wooden buildings such as summer houses dotted around Hackfall but these have long since rotted away and unfortunately there are now no traces of their whereabouts left.

So, all in all my visit to Hackfall was a very enjoyable experience and I was able to spend a few hours exploring the various follies and water features within the wood. There are a myriad of pathways linking the various features it is well worth a visit. There are no toilets or catering facilities anywhere on the site but the village of Grewelthorpe is only a short distance away with Masham being slightly further afield. The restorations are still continuing so it would be very interesting to re-visit Hackfall in the future to see how they are progressing. Hopefully it will be finally restored to somewhere near its former glory in the near future and will once more become the very popular tourist attraction it once was. It certainly deserves to be in my opinion.


About Jeff Lawrence

Hi, My name is Jeff Lawrence and I'm a writer, photographer and Boro fan from north-east England who has an interest in football history, in particular that relating to Dutch (thanks to eight years living in the Netherlands) and Peruvian (thanks to a wife from Peru) football. Another interest is how English managers and players played their part in the development of football overseas, particularly in the early part of the 20th century.
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