Summer Outing 2009 — The Richmond Area

2 July 2009
Leader - David S. Johnson
Reporter - Ken Pearce
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

A glorious summer day saw us speeding through the lanes to find an abandoned quarry beside the A6108. David Johnson had worked his magic once again. He had arranged a splendid and intriguing itinerary for a day in and around Richmond. We were to begin with a privileged viewing of Aske Hall and its grounds before moving on to a DIY tour of Easby Abbey followed by a guided tour of Richmond Castle - a feast of a day.

Some 26 Trust members gathered, car by car, in the unpromising quarry and, once complete, the party moved off to reconvene to the rear of Aske Hall. Since 1763 this has been the seat of the family eventually headed by the Marquess of Zetland and is currently home of the heir, Earl Ronaldshay. The house is rarely open to the public so we were lucky indeed. The Hall is in Georgian style, built around a medieval pele tower and remodelled in 1578 and 1727 by differing families (Robert Aske, who featured so prominently in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, was a member of the family which first remodelled the original pele). In 1763 it was further remodelled and augmented to designs by the famous John Carr of York, this time to the instructions of new owners, the Dundas family, in whose hands the house has remained to this day. Sir Lawrence Dundas was elevated to the Marquessate of Zetland in 1892.

The Earl himself showed us round the ground floor rooms and we immediately appreciated that the house is very much a work in progress. Everywhere there were packing cases piled up, hinting at glass, silver, books, yet to be unpacked. Staff busied to and fro, painters painted here and there, ladders came and went. A degree of renovation was going on, inside and out, to make the house more of a modern family home. The Earl disarmingly acknowledged that he had no idea of the final bill. He explained that it would just not be economic to defray costs by opening the house to the public, which would involve expensive adaptations to comply with public liability insurance or health and safety requirements, as well as the costs of room stewards or tour guides. We felt that we were able to help when he asked us to identify the subjects or authors of some splendid portraits already unpacked and hanging on the walls. Outside we walked the fine garden terraces and stone staircases to admire the Carr stable block later converted to a chapel. From an elevated vantage point we were able to appreciate the ‘Capability’ Brown landscape laid out before us, complete with lake. We also enjoyed the warm pale stonework of the newer buildings, contrasting with the older, darker yet equally elegant edifice. They all sit so well in their setting.

But clearly the Earl’s pride and joy was the new biomass plant hidden in nearby premises. Trimmings from the estate plantations are fed directly into the maw of this machine to produce low cost, low carbon heating for the entire house. This is an earl who looks to the future just as much as to his heritage. We were pleased to contribute towards meeting the costs of such a delightful house and garden.

From Aske Hall we made our way to Easby Abbey, also known as St.Agatha’s Monastery. We entered via the substantial remains of the two-storey gatehouse. The monastery, a Praemonstratensian house, was founded in 1152 by the Constable of Richmond Castle and is now heavily ruined though one can still work out the original layout of much of the complex. Significant parts of the 12th century church nave, choir and transepts survive. The majority of the other ruins date from the 13th century. The cloister, surrounded by the chapter house, dormitory range, reredorter and refectory undercroft are all clear to see, the west wall of the reredorter leaning at an alarming angle. The abbot’s lodging is also easy to place, together with a kitchen and two apparently detached bread ovens which hint at buildings now lost. The whole site is well cared for and extremely photogenic.

Many of us lazed in the sun to eat our packed lunches while others took photographs or sauntered round the site, David’s plan and notes in hand. These told us that the Abbey is thought to have surrendered to Henry VIII’s commissioners at the Dissolution in 1536. But apparently local people so relied upon the Abbey that many joined the Pilgrimage of Grace and secured the temporary restoration of the Abbey.

Those of us who wanted more information later found that there is a guidebook, covering both the Abbey and Richmond Castle, on sale at the Castle. The Abbey is unattended.

Close by the Abbey ruins lies Easby parish church, also well worth a visit. This modest building dates from the same period as much of the Abbey. Most notably it has amazing 13th century wall paintings, lately restored to something like their original glory and giving us a real sense of what parish churches must have looked like in the later Middle Ages (if you can ignore the furniture). There is also a 12th century window panel. This little church is a gem.

From the Abbey we travelled the mile to Richmond Castle, where a self-confessed trainee guide gave us an excellent tour of the building and its site. The Norman castle is perched on the very edge of a steep drop down to the Swale. It is said to be the most complete surviving Norman castle in the country, its triangular Great Court built in the late 11th century and its fine tower keep added in the 12th. From atop the tower we enjoyed extensive views of the Swale valley running away east and west. Turning round we had a bird’s eye view of the barbican and of the town built around two sides of the castle. Inside the Great Court there once lay the 19th century barrack block originally occupied by the North York Militia and in 1908 taken over as the headquarters of the Northern Territorial Army, where Robert Baden-Powell commanded until 1910. This range of buildings was demolished in 1931 but still standing inside the Great Court, close by the keep, is a range of cells which during the First World War were used to house 16 conscientious objectors. They were sentenced to be shot but this was commuted to 10 years hard labour. In the south east corner of the Great Court stand the remains of the range of domestic buildings, Scollands Hall, the Gold Hole Tower, chapel and great chamber. Outside the wall at this point lies the Cockpit Garden, thought to have been established when the castle was built. There is much to see and too much to describe in a short article. The whole castle was very well worth the visit.

The day was an outstanding success. David’s preparation had been meticulous - we were provided with background notes on Aske Hall, Easby Abbey and Easby church as well as a plan of the Abbey ruins. The weather was magnificent, the guide at Richmond Castle was far better prepared than she suggested and Earl Ronaldshay was charming, warm and congenial. Thank you David for a triumph.