ON a certain coastal footpath between Robin Hood's Bay and Ravenscar, a short distance from the private Fyling Hall School and Boggle Hole, you can look back and spot an amazing pint-sized residence nestling into the hillside.
Don't lose your footing as you double-take in wonder at whose imagination ran riot enough to build a miniature Greek temple in such an out-of-the-way place and what its purpose could ever have been.
The truth is that two pigs were the excuse for this exercise in primitive Classicism, supposedly inspired by buildings seen by Squire John Warren Barry of Fyling Hall on his travels around the Mediterranean in the 1880s. With his use of timber columns and his choice of residents, he might have been trying to make a point about the roots of classical architecture; he may have simply had an extravagant sense of humour – or he could simply have been slightly batty.
The date of the tiny building's construction is not certain, but Matthew Hart, one of the men who carried out the work is recorded as having said it took two years from 1889. He and a workmate celebrated completion of the built by dancing on the roof, until Hart fell off and broke his nose.
One reason this extraordinary but small pig house took so long to build is that Squire Barry was apparently maddeningly indecisive, experimenting first with one kind of column then another – and finally settling on a hybrid of Ionic, Doric and Tuscan. Mr Hart attributed the Squire's choice of grand style for his beloved pigs to his dislike of the insanitary Victorian practice of putting basic pigsties in the backyards of cottages, often right next to the back door. A family that kept a pig could enjoy a better diet and extra income from the sale of piglets and because there were two farm cottages on the Fyling Hall Estate, the Squire provided accommodation for two pigs, the local Large White variety, nearby.
It's anybody's guess what the true reasons were for putting pigs in a mock Greek temple, but Squire Barry is known to have been passionately interested in the island of Corsica and wrote a book about it, and perhaps he was inspired by Etruscan and Greek buildings surviving there since days of antiquity. At another of his farms he built a cowshed in dressed stone with carved church windows and louvres, iron-studded door and stalls of carved oak which looked almost like pews. Maybe he just enjoyed startling passers-by, or perhaps he had some enlightened reverence for all creatures great and small. Not knowing the true story is part of the fun, as is the folklore around it.
The interior of the building was thoughtfully laid out, with a central partition and a feeding trough on either side, filled from outside by opening a hinged shutter. Extra ventilation came from shuttered windows. How the pigs accessed their cosy home from the field next to it is unclear, as any sign of a ramp has disappeared. One tale maintains that the pigs actually refused to enter their well-appointed pad, which must have been a disappointment to their owner
After Squire Barry's death in 1920 the Pigsty was first used for hens and later became a dog kennel. Eventually, it fell into disrepair, but in 1990 the Landmark Trust, a building preservation charity established to rescue historic and architecturally interesting buildings and their surroundings from neglect and give them new life by letting them as places to experience for holidays, took a long lease on the property.
Gone are the troughs, although many of the original details have been preserved in the dinky dwelling that boasts one double bedroom and en-suite, living room and kitchen. One wonders if the porcine former residents every had chance to appreciate the incomparable over fields down to the sea.
"Agriculture was very important in Victorian times, and farmers liked to show off the latest thinking and have prize winning animals as well as displaying their taste and innovative ideas", says Simon Verdon of Landmark Trust. "I think it was part of a fashion, in that many model farms were built around that time. Yes, it was an indulgence, but they were surely very happy pigs".
Decades after the last pigs departed, The Pigsty is warmed by a woodburning stove, and holidaymakers wanting to enjoy its splendid seclusion and quirky charm will pay upwards of 300 a week. Squire Barry would no doubt be pleased.