A visit to Hackfall is a true adventure. It is a journey of discovery, best attempted with well rested children and a backpack full of eatable goodies. There is no tea room. There is no shop. There are no loos. (And there is no entrance fee!) It is a Great Garden; a designed landscape hidden in a wood, deep in a ravine, with waterfalls, lost buildings and fountains to discover.
Hackfall was the creation of William Aislabie, who wasn’t satisfied with already having one pretty spectacular garden 13 miles away at Studley Royal and decided he wanted another one. This one wasn’t even surrounding or adjoining a house; there is no house at Hackfall – and never has been. But it was such a ravishingly beautiful valley, he couldn’t help himself. So he took what nature had already given him: sheer cliffs, a dashing river and streams with waterfalls, cut paths through the wood and peppered it with ornamental buildings, in a variety of different guises giving the visitor a variety of landscape experiences from each. The banqueting house, known as Mowbray Point or The Ruin, teeters on the brink of a precipice, another – the octagonal Fisher’s Hall – gave 360 degree views from its windows. He started work in 1749 and continued tinkering with his creation for the next 18 years. Aislabie’s guests arrived at the banqueting house, were ushered inside the beautifully decorated main room, then the shutters were thrown open and they realised, thrillingly, they were dining on the edge of a sheer drop. Then, when they were refreshed, they would set out to discover the delights of the garden in the wood.
The walks at Hackfall go on for several miles and one can hike in on a public footpath which runs through the whole site from Mickley one way and Masham the other, or there is also a path from Grewelthorpe, but we used the small car park on the Masham road out of Grewelthorpe. Here you can pick up a leaflet produced by the Woodland Trust, who now owns the site, showing you the options for routes. There is also one you can download from the web, but neither is brilliantly detailed. We didn’t follow any of the suggestions exactly and had a short-ish walk taking in the central features and it took us perhaps an hour and a half to two hours, with stops to paddle and picnic. From the car park we walked along the top path to Mowbray Point, which belongs now to the Landmark Trust and is let as a holiday cottage. It is also known as The Ruin because from the valley side it has the appearance of something which might just have been excavated from ancient Rome. Between 11am and 3pm you can walk across the terrace and look down at the sheer drop with a vista to the Fisher’s Hall and Fountain Pond and distant views to the North York Moors and Roseberry Topping 30 miles away.
We then headed downhill to the Alum Spring. The path is steep and narrow, and can be slippery when it has been wet. But on our trip it was generally dry underfoot and the children were spurred forward on their adventure by promises of waterfalls and the hope of seeing a kingfisher or traces of an otter. There is something of a Rivendell feeling as one travels deeper into the wood and you almost expect a Tolkein-ish elf to step out from behind a tree in front of you. We didn’t see any elves (or otters or kingfishers sadly), but we hardly saw any people either, which gives you the feeling of being in a secret place that hardly anyone else knows about. This relative silence belies the fact that for over a century and a half from its creation, Hackfall was a tourist attraction. There were plenty of visitors in Aislabie’s day and by the end of the Victorian era there were tea huts in the woods to cater for the day-trippers.
At the Alum Spring, little rivulets of water trickle over a mossy rock and into a little pool in one of the streams which flow through the woods to meet the River Ure. The pool is perfect for paddling (with or without wellies) and there are stepping stones too. After not quite managing to fall into the stream or pool fully clothed, we played a little en route hide and seek as we headed onwards. The place is perfect for playing find the lost garden building too and there were prizes for the first to spot a lost structure hiding amongst the general verdure of the wood. We managed to find the Fisher’s Hall, Aislabie’s first banqueting house, for which he built a little kitchen in a hut nearby, though no trace now remains. This was a perfect place for our picnic and, as we munched our less-than-romantic packets of crisps, we tried to imagine we were posh Georgians eating cold chicken and venison pasties, waited on by the odd discreet servant. The noise of the rushing river below us must be almost exactly the sound that Aislabie and his chums would have heard, but we were frustrated that one cannot see much of the river in summer from any of the windows, when really there should be views of it. The Woodland Trust and their partners have done a grand job of rescuing this wonderful landscape which was under threat of commercial development in the late 1980s and opening it, but I fear that they cannot see the wood for the trees. There is evidence of tree planting where it really isn’t needed, like around the kitchen block for Mowbray Point (a rare and important building), and the density of tree cover is greater than it would have been in the 18th century – William Aislabie’s father bought Hackfall to exploit its timber and minerals long before the idea of a design here. Some vistas have been opened – you can see Mowbray Point from Fisher’s Hall and vice versa, but the cut through the wood is very narrow and un-natural looking.
At Fisher’s Hall the boys enjoyed trying to find evidence of shards of glass embedded in the walls of the interior which it was originally decorated with, and which, if used at night, would have made them twinkle charmingly in the candle light. Our picnic was rounded off with wild raspberries picked from around the building. We then started to head gently up hill passing the remains of the Grotto, now roofless, and stopped at the Fountain Pool. Here we sat for a rest before the steep climb back up, watching dragonflies and waiting for the 30 foot jet of water to go off periodically. Restored in the recent project, this is now working again for the first time since the end of the 18th century. The slog back up hill is strenuous for little legs, but was lightened slightly by more wild raspberries. The trip was rounded off with well-deserved ice creams in Masham – the promise of which had also helped on the last leg of the trip back up to the car.