The Hackfall Trust was founded in 1988 to restore Hackfall gardens to their former glory. In 1989 the Woodland Trust took out a 999 year lease on the site, which two years later was designated Grade I on English Heritage’s Register of Parks & Gardens of Historic Interest. Mowbray Point, on which sits the pavilion known as The Ruin, was then leased to the Landmark Trust. Our restoration of it, completed in 2004, was thus only one piece of the wider restoration of the garden, brought to triumphant fruition by the Hackfall Trust in 2010, and awarded a European prize for Conservation by Europa Nostra in 2011.
John Aislabie was a politician whose reputation was ruined by his involvement in the South Sea Bubble scandal. He retired from public life to concentrate on his passion for gardens, creating the famous landscape at nearby Studley Royal, now in the care of the National Trust. He bought the land at Hackfall in 1731, originally, it seems, for the agricultural potential of the fields along the ridge. Little was done besides felling and hedging before John Aislabie’s death in 1742 and the gardens as created were entirely the work of his son, William. Through the 1750s, William Aislabie (also a local MP) gently manipulated the landscape at Hackfall to enhance its natural features and vistas, and erected various small buildings as he created an ‘associative’ garden that bore comparison with the finest of its day. He was concerned to enhance rather than mask or unduly orchestrate the nature of the site, in this far less interventionist than his father at Studley Royal. No other landscape designer seems to have been directly involved at Hackfall.
The garden was developed roughly between 1750 and 1767. With the possible exception of The Ruin, the buildings William Aislabie scattered through Hackfall were not especially original or distinguished, but derived their exceptional character from their placing in the landscape. There was a consensus by the mid-18th century that the irregularity of the Gothic style coincided best with that of a wild landscape and William Aislabie’s buildings reflect this. Most of the buildings at Hackfall have no known designer and they almost certainly sprang from Aislabie’s own imagination, fuelled by the fashionable pattern books of the day. As a result of Landmark’s work, The Ruin has become the one exception. Colin Briden, our project archaeologist, spotted an uncanny similarity between the terrace elevation of The Ruin and a Design for a Roman Ruin by Robert Adam, the finest British architect of the mid- to late-18th century. Weight of circumstantial evidence – which includes Adam working at nearby Newby Hall from 1766 points overwhelmingly to this watercolour having directly inspired The Ruin, which building accounts suggest was completed by 1767.
The view across the Vale of Mowbray, in one direction to York and almost as far as Durham in the other, is the main justification for The Ruin’s existence which is directly centred upon Roseberry Topping in Cleveland, now in the care of the National Trust. The Ruin was the climax of any tour of the gardens. Arthur Young, that great 18th-century travel writer, recommended being carried to the spot as we arrive today, ‘through the close lanes of the Ripon road. You have not the least intimation of a design upon you; nor any suggestion that you are on high grounds.’ Visitors were confronted by a simple classical elevation whose smooth Augustan façade was further enhanced by the calciferous coating on its stones. Here, they must have felt, was civilisation and the chance for well-earned refreshment. For this little building was a banqueting house, a mixture of classical and Gothic forms, and on entering, they would have found themselves in a sumptuous room, exquisitely furnished and decorated, it seems from the traces of colour which remain, in a vibrant greenish-blue verditer. To right and left were two further small chambers, one a sitting room with a small fireplace (today’s bedroom), the other a rougher room used to prepare food. Each of these could be entered only from the terrace and not directly from the central room, an arrangement we have respected.
Then, at some point no doubt carefully staged by host or custodian, the folding doors at the back of the pavilion were thrown open and the visitors invited to pass through – and there was the climax of the day’s experience. As they emerged onto a balustraded terrace, it must have been a moment bordering on the Sublime: they stood amid an apparently ruined building, beneath a domed apse of roughly hewn blocks hanging perilously above them; at their feet was – almost nothing, so sharply did the ground fall away down a heavily wooded ravine, and before them lay ‘one of the grandest and most beautiful bursts of country, that imagination can form.’ Many visitors laid down their pens and declared their eloquence unequal to the expression of the experience.
Architecturally, The Ruin presents a tripartite entrance façade beneath a central, pedimented block, which contains a door and two windows. These three openings have Gothic points, while the windows in the smaller, flanking blocks are square. The pointed windows and door introduce a different tone to the prevailing classical one of the day, a tone further enhanced by the rear elevation where the three tall, linked, Romanesque apses abut the classical entrance block.
Hackfall remained a favourite tourist destination until the 1920s, despite becoming increasingly overgrown. In 1934, it was sold to a timber merchant who felled many of the trees and replanted with conifers. During the 1980s, Dutch elm disease struck. Even after the Hackfall Trust’s foundation, the process of regeneration was agonisingly slow.