Sleeping Beauty

Discover the Forgotten Treasures Hidden Deep in Hackfall’s Magical Woods

Words: Camilla Swift

Pictures: Jane Sebire

Hackfall clings to the sides of a steep and rocky gorge in North Yorkshire that plunges 120 feet down to the river below. It looks like Nature untamed but most of the woods were artificially conceived and crafted. Follies, ruins, streams, cascades, weirs, waterfalls, and extraordinary and magical views loom out from the trees at every turn. Lost for nearly a century, Hackfall, enchanted and enchanting, is now enjoying a glorious renaissance.

“Hackfall” wrote an 18C visitor, “is romantic beyond description, it has every beauty nature could bestow; ” This 120-acre spread of wild and ancient trees has been called one of the most beautiful woodlands in England.

A hugely popular destination on the Grand Tour and again in Victorian times, Hackfall amazed, enthralled and stirred the romantic imagination of its visitors. At the height of its fame around 30,000 came to walk there and marvel. Turner painted it, and Wordsworth loved it. And When George 111 presented a tea service depicting notable English scenes to Catherine the Great, two of those scenes were of Hackfall.

A bit of history

Making a romantic woodland garden

John Aislabie, then Chancellor of Exchequer, had retired to his home in Yorkshire in disgrace, following some dodgy dealings involving the South Sea Bubble. In 1731, he acquired, for the princely sum of £906.00, Hackfall woods in order, it was thought, to avail himself of its abundance of wood and tufa, or “ragged stone” for landscaping works on his neighbouring estate at Studley Royal.

It was his son William who, on retiring as MP for Ripon created, over a period of 18 years in the 1750s, the romantic woodland garden at Hackfall, building follies, creating grottoes, surprise views, waterfalls and a fountain.

Hackfall under threat

A major tourist attraction during the 18th and 19th centuries, by the 20C Hackfall had fallen into decline. Owners came and went. In 1932 a timber merchant moved his lumberjacks in and clearfelled most of it. The only people who appeared to have benefitted from this wanton destruction were the two local pubs and would be landladies, one of whom displayed in her window a notice which, perhaps not intentionally, but appositely, read “Young men taken in and done for”.

By the late 20C, the trees had largely grown back, but the vistas were lost and obscured and the ponds, the streams, the follies and paths damaged and overgrown. Hackfall lay forgotten.

Sprouting Forth

Only recently restored, this magnificent gravity fed fountain with its 40 foot plume of water sits halfway up one side of the gorge, with vistas reaching up to the distant ruins silhouetted against the skyline. In William Aislabie’s original designs water pressure for the jet was delivered from a reservoir high on the slopes above through yards of pipe made from the hollowed trunks of elm, some of which were uncovered during restoration work. These have now been replaced by plastic pipe but the mechanism remains as it was the 18th C. Resident hydrologist Graham Wilson who has overseen the restoration of the water features at Hackfall and also works at Studley Royal, has, attempted for some time and unsuccessfully, to retire. With work on the Weeping Rock, the remaining great water feature, starting shortly, he looks like being thwarted once again.

Here’s how the Hackfall Fountain works.

Close to the fountain, next to the rustic temple, there’s a large rock known as the wishing stone, so called because young women were supposed to stand on top of it and wish for a husband. Slightly worryingly it looks across the gorge to yet another glorious view point….. Lovers’ Leap.

The restoration begins

With Hackfall under threat of being sold off for a theme park, James Ramsden, Tory MP for Harrogate, stepped into the fray and in 1987 set up Hackfall Trust. Two years later Hackfall was acquired by the Woodland Trust and In 2002, armed with £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the two trusts together launched a major project to restore Hackfall. A team of landscape architects, ecologists and hydrologists, organised by the Landscape Agency, set to, reopening the dramatic vistas, restoring the follies and bringing back to life the lost ponds, paths, cascades and weirs, and the gravity powered fountain.

By May 2010 the work was completed, and In 2011 Hackfall was awarded the 2011 European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage at the Europa Nostra Awards, the only UK winner in the Conservation category. “The Jury”, the citation read,” was captivated by the authenticity of the restoration of the ruined buildings, highlighting the garden’s poetic communion with nature.”

Picturesque and naturesque

Hackfall is one of the best examples of a picturesque or naturesque garden, although these should be thought of as landscapes rather than gardens. Picturesque landscapes were an early reaction to the gardens of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, which were seen by many as too manicured, too neat and contrived, and which had lost touch with the wildness and drama of nature. The idea behind picturesque landscapes was to reconnect with nature in ways that brought to mind the classical landscapes.

Great picturesque landscapes still surviving in Britain include Hestercombe in Somerset (1750-1791) , Piercefield on the River Wye (1753-1772), and Hafod in Aberystwyth. These gardens all have wild landscapes dominated by forested hills, cut through with networks of vistas; they are often inhabited by ruined and atmospheric but largely fake buildings. Piercefield only survives in pieces, restoration and conservation work continue at Hafod, Hestercombe, like Hackfall, is being expertly restored.

The creation of these landscapes in the mid 18th century was accompanied by an enjoyable and informative polemic about the proper way to read the landscape with Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight on one side and Brown and Repton on the other. No hostages were taken. As a critic said of one of Humphrey Repton’s works, “this garden does nothing but show the owner’s wealth in land and poverty in mind.”

Eyecatcher or folly?

Classical ruins, or eyecatchers, were meant to be seen from a distance, while follies were meant always to have a view. While keeping faith with William Aislabie’s vision, the Hackfall restoration team have resisted the temptation to over-restore, making the buildings sound, but ensuring that they complement rather than conflict with, the woodland setting.

Amongst lesser ruins, there are 4 listed buildings at Hackfall: Mowbray’s Castle, “The Ruin”, the Janus-faced Banqueting hall, so called because you would enter from a formal landscape on one side to a spectacular and surprise view on the other, in this case over the wooded landscape to the rolling Yorkshire dales beyond, and, on a clear day as far as York Minster, allegedly. Aislabie “borrowed” the design for this building from a painting by Robert Adam. Imaginatively restored by the Landmark Trust, you can now stay there.

Aislabie’s follies

Fisher’s Hall, the centrepiece of Aislabie’s design, with windows in every wall and vistas in every direction, originally sported a roof jauntily thatched with heather. And there’s The Grotto, too damaged to be listed, but romantic and charming nonetheless, faced in tufa in which are set small fragments of quartz and crystal, (an 18c forerunner to disco lights?), that still sparkle in the bright sunlight.

Tufa, known locally as “ragged stone” is found in abundance at Hackfall. This spongy looking sort of limestone, extremely light and durable, was used extensively by the Romans for the external facing of buildings, during the Middle Ages for churches (particularly good for domes) and later in grottos. Its porous nature makes it a friendly habitat for species of water plant, moss and liverworts.


Water, water everywhere

Hackfall positively thrums with the sound of running water. At the bottom of the gorge, in a series of sweeping bends, flows the River Ure. Springs and waterfalls have been cleared, cascades dredged, and streams once again chase down steep slopes and snake through trees, alongside historic paths.

Now that the restoration work is almost complete, Paul Moseley, Hackfall’s warden, and his trusty band of devoted volunteers take care of the maintenance; culverts need to be kept clear and paths have to be regularly gravelled because of the wet. Work is complicated by the steepness of the site. A mechanised barrow with caterpillar tracks can only go so far, so gravel has to be lugged in by wheelbarrow, sometimes for up to ½ mile, then distributed by hand. Last year these doughty workers got through over 15 tons of gravel.

The density of the tree canopy in summer makes Hackfall a predominantly bramble free zone, the few there are the volunteers hand weed. “Much more people efficient and team friendly than using a strimmer or a chain saw”, says Paul, briskly. Another current project in progress is the Forth Bridge rebuild of a stone wall which runs around the perimeter. For this purpose Paul cunningly organises courses in dry stone walling,

Into the woods

Hackfall is a designated historic woodland comprising oak, beech, sycamore, ash, lime, silver birch. So ancient is it that the seedbed and fauna have survived even the desecration of the clearfelling. So too have some of the ancient trees, some around the perimeter, others protected by the steepness of the slope, and some now individually registered (there are wonderful 150 year old silver birches and a mighty three stemmed lime) but the majority of the trees are astonishingly only 80 years old.

Flora and Fauna

Hackfall as well as being a Grade One listed Garden is also an SSSI. The woodland flora is rich, diverse and prolific and the Hackfall team have never had to plant a thing, only watch with pleasure in spring, as reams of wild garlic pop out of the dark leafy soil, and tumble in heavy folds, like the best linen sheets, down the sides of the gorge.

Next come swathes of bright bluebells and lime green fern, and dog’s mercury and sedge peppered with the Twayblade orchid, anenome , toothwort and bugle.

Hackfall is equally rich in wildlife with nuthatches, flycatchers, woodpeckers, kingfishers, otters in the riverbank, and five species of bat.

What next?

Timber decking in damp and shady places is a bit of a liability. Not only will it rot quicker but it tends to become slippery when wet resulting in an inelegant tumble into the drink. Made from partly-recycled plastic, Millboard is so convincingly oaky that they use it in Snowdonia National Park and it’s designed never to get slimy, even in a drippy wood. How to manage once the Heritage Lottery funding ends? Courses and events bring in additional income but, says Warden Paul Mosley, “volunteers and friends are the key to our survival, especially as the bulk of the restoration work complete, so it’s now all down to maintenance.

“The original Hackfall gardens might have been more pristine in Aislabie’s day,” says Paul. “More paths, maybe, vistas more open; but this feels right, for now, for today.”

Above all the Hackfall Trust, going refreshingly - if bravely - against the grain, are anxious not to overly commercialise this idyllic place. Signs are clear and informative and totally unobtrusive. There’s no visitor centre, nor any facilities and only a tiny car park.

Hackfall has always been strong on using local resources. Everyone who has worked on the woodland restoration project has come from within a five mile radius. And Paul actively wants to discourage too many people from coming at once. “The magic of these woods is that even on busy days you feel as if you have them entirely to yourself. Too many visitors will spoil the wilderness.”


North Yorkshire HG4 4DY

Hackfall is open to walkers all year round free of charge. Paul Mosley, the Hackfall Warden, organises an imaginative programme of events, courses and guided walks. And volunteers are always needed and welcome. For further information we refer you to their website.

Betty’s of Harrogate: (I defy you not to stop for afternoon tea)
1 Parliament Street
Harrogate HG1 2QU
Tel: 01423 814070

The Blue Lion (Divine food; wonderful stay)
East Witton, Nr Leyburn, North Yorkshire DL8 4SN
Fax: (01969) 624189
Tel: 01969 624273