Nun Appleton Hall: The abandoned Yorkshire estate that's shrouded in mystery

Hidden behind locked gates and barbed wire fences is a listed mansion lost to time.

The estate has been closed to the public for 30 years
The estate has been closed to the public for 30 years

Nun Appleton Hall is a Georgian stately home surrounded by beautiful parkland - but only a few people have set eyes on it in the last 30 years.

The house is derelict, empty and many would consider it forgotten since huge security fences were erected around the perimeter of the estate in the early 1990s.

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Once the centre of village life in nearby Appleton Roebuck, in its heyday the hall had a large staff and children could roam the fields and woods around it - but only the older generation now remember a time when the park was open and welcoming.

Access to Nun Appleton Hall is severely restricted

Nun Appleton has an owner - but it has fallen victim to a bizarre planning wrangle and the determined conservatism of one of the Selby area's major employers.

An historic seat

The estate was once the seat of the Lords Fairfax, who built the original mansion on the site. One member of the family was notorious Civil War military commander General Thomas Fairfax, nicknamed 'Black Tom'.

Older residents of Appleton Roebuck remember when the parkland was open

Subsequent owners replaced the house with a Georgian one, and there were also 19th-century additions. In 1920, Bradford industrialist Sir Benjamin Dawson purchased Nun Appleton.

Local councillor Richard Musgrave, who grew up in the village, remembers the Dawsons' tenure as a golden period in the house's history. They employed many local people, and there was a football team for the workers. Some areas of the parkland were accessible and there were footpaths through the estate. Richard was one of many village children who played in the grounds.

Steve Williams spent his childhood living on the estate, as his father was the gamekeeper employed by the Dawson family from 1955.

He remembers a large pet cemetery with around 12 dog graves - his own pet falcons were also buried there. The house had its own chapel and there was also an underground passage that ran beneath the carriage drive to the village.

Nun Appleton Hall

He also recalled Sir Benjamin suffering memory loss after a serious car accident.

Perhaps his strangest memory is of the time Dawson's daughter Joan arranged for the gamekeeper's cottage to be blessed as it was thought to be haunted. The Archbishop of York and the local vicar performed the ceremony.

The cloak of secrecy that later enveloped Nun Appleton was the result of its sale in 1982. Joan Dawson had inherited the house, but put it on the market and it was snapped up by Humphrey Smith, the chairman of the Samuel Smith's brewery in nearby Tadcaster. It was the latest addition to the company's large land portfolio.

The stables and pump room, where the generators were housed

Closing the gates

Richard Musgrave believes the park remained open for around a decade before, in the early 1990s, the Smiths decided to enclose it. Barbed wire fences and locked gates were constructed to prevent trespass.

The security measures confounded BBC presenter Clare Balding, who visited the estate in 2015 as part of a radio broadcast on poet Andrew Marvell, who wrote about Nun Appleton during his time as a tutor to Black Tom's daughter Mary. She described the atmosphere as 'aggressive' and failed to gain access to the park.

The notoriously secretive Smith, who is descended from the brewery's founder, has never lived at Nun Appleton - the family live at Oxton Hall, near Tadcaster. But it's believed he does intend it to be used as a private dwelling once again - albeit only if an ambitious restoration scheme is granted permission.

Records from Selby Council show that a planning application was submitted in 2016, requesting consent for the mansion to be restored to its original designs. Some demolition of the 18th, 19th and 20th century modifications would be required. A decision has never been made on whether to approve the alterations and the proposal is still officially under consideration.

Samuel Smith's refused to comment on the future of Nun Appleton.

"Stuck in limbo"

Richard Musgrave would love to see the building restored, and is keen to help the owners secure permission for the scheme to go ahead.

"It's a significant historic building and it's been stuck in limbo. The Smiths want to restore the original house - it's changed quite a lot of over time. Sir Benjamin Dawson bought it in 1920 and added a water tower and garages to make it suitable for 20th century living, and it was then listed in 1955 to include these changes. The brewery wanted to reverse the changes and turn it back into a private house.

"It's a fantastic old place - I'd love to see it come back to life. It provided a lot of employment locally when the Dawsons were there. You can't get close at all any more - there's a wall around the edge of the estate.

"I would be happy to help the owners navigate the planning system - with a listed building it can be quite hard to find a use for it, and Historic England have a strong view."

A secretive owner

Eccentric brewery boss Humphrey Smith hit the headlines in 2016, when Tadcaster was split in two after the town's historic bridge was severely damaged during winter storms. He opposed the construction of a temporary bridge that would have been built on his land, calling it a waste of public money, and refused to back down, despite pressure from government. The bridge was built elsewhere.

He is also known for his crusades against swearing, sportswear and the use of mobile phones in his pubs, preferring them to align with the values of 18th-century founder Samuel Smith.

Nun Appleton is not the only derelict building the brewery has owned for over 30 years. In 1989, Samuel Smith's bought a former school in Bath, but it has remained empty ever since and has never been developed, despite planning permission for a hotel and pub having been granted around a decade ago.