HISTORY has skirted around Markenfield Hall which is all the better for it. John Grainger reports. Pictures by Alison Raven and Gary Longbottom.
AT the end of a winding, bumpy cart-track just a mile-and-a-half south of Ripon, time stands still.
Once you’ve left the traffic of the busy A61 and your ears have adjusted to the hush, there is a stillness redolent of an earlier age, broken only by the wind and the skylarks.
You take a right turn through a farmyard, and there it is, staring you in the face: a small corner of mediaeval England preserved in almost pristine condition.
Markenfield Hall is the most unspoiled early 14th-century fortified house in the country. A solid, protective place, built around a large central courtyard, it has a great hall and a chapel with a turret. Two black swans glide around the spring-fed moat.
It is incredibly romantic – a place so stunning that it should be wildly famous.
And yet it isn’t. For most of the year it is simply a family home. It belongs to the Nortons, who are the barons Grantley, and is currently lived in by the widow of the 7th Lord Grantley, Lady Deirdre, and her second husband, television dramatist Ian Curteis.
Like his wife before him, Mr Curteis has clearly fallen for Markenfield’s charms.
“I love just about everything about the place,” he says. “The quiet, the isolation, the history, being married to my wife, the birds on the moat – everything. It really can be hauntingly beautiful. When I come down in the morning and switch the light on, the swans hoot at me – it’s magical.”
The house was built on the site of an older one in 1310, by Canon John de Markenfield, a ‘thoroughly unscrupulous local bully’, who at various times was accused of rape, kidnap, intimidation and theft. He went on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer to Edward II.
From then on, it was the Markenfields’ family seat right up until 1570, when dramatic and tragic events brought their tenure to an abrupt end. But more of that later.
For the next 400 years, it was occupied by tenant farmers who had neither the means nor the authority to make any great changes. So, while other mediaeval houses were demolished and rebuilt by their status-conscious owners, Markenfield Hall sat out every passing architectural trend.
But time and neglect effected their own transformations, and by the late 20th century, parts of it were in a sorry state.
It was only in 1980 that the 7th Lord Grantley started in earnest to restore the Hall to its former glory. Sadly, he died in 1995, but his work is continued today by Lady Deirdre and Mr Curteis.
“There is a tremendous amount of restoration work yet to be done,” says Mr Curteis. “I don’t resent the time it takes up, but it does take me away from my other work.”
That’s hardly surprising, given the huge challenges the restoration project has thrown up over the years. In the Great Hall, for example, the huge fireplace had been dismantled in around 1570 and moved down a floor, to the ‘new’ farm kitchen in the undercroft below. The resulting space had simply been filled in.
So, seven years ago, following protracted negotiations with English Heritage, the fireplace was unblocked, revealing the soot from the last fires to burn there four centuries earlier, and a replica fireplace, made from stone from the same quarry as the 14th-century original, was installed.
It was a complex and time-consuming project, but the effort paid off: the results are impressive (“It comes into its own at Christmas,” says Mr Curteis).
Having a private chapel adjoining the main body of the Hall is, says Lady Deirdre, “a great privilege”, and one project close to her heart has been its restoration.
One of the long walls was sagging dangerously and so had to be rebuilt entirely. The supporting archways of the new niched wall are the only place in the house where bricks are used – a conscious acknowledgement by the architect that it is not original work.
The chapel has also been the site of one of the most stunning pieces of restoration anywhere in the Hall. The original piscina, from 1310 – with separate bowls for the priest to wash his hands and the communion vessels – had been rendered almost unrecognisable by countless layers of limewash, but was painstakingly uncovered using a second-hand set of surgical tools. The stone was carved in the early 1300s, but what has been revealed looks breath-takingly crisp and unworn.
Unusually for a place so old, the Hall is not said to be haunted. “I sometimes get requests from people wanting to camp out here, looking for ghosts”, says Mr Curteis, “but there’s nothing to see. It’s a house with a most extraordinarily benign feel to it.”
Lady Deirdre agrees: “I think it welcomes people after so many years of neglect.”
As if to thank its owners for all the attention, the house has revealed some pleasant surprises, including a beautiful carved stone hand, which was found when the water-level dropped in the moat. Where it comes from, nobody knows, but it has been speculated that it was salvaged centuries ago from neighbouring Fountains Abbey when it was closed by Henry VIII.
Gems like these make it seem all the more surprising that more people don’t know about the place. “The most common comment I hear from visitors is ‘I’ve lived in Ripon all my life and I never knew Markenfield was here’,” says Mr Curteis. “It is beautifully tucked away – thanks to the Turnpike Act.”
He’s referring to the fact that the main road used to pass within yards of the house, but was re-directed in 1771, leaving it stranded a mile away from the main thoroughfare. It’s one of the reasons why the place appears so untouched by the ebb and flow of history.
The other reason is that its owners were absent for 400 years. Which brings us to what must be the house’s defining moment in history.
The year was 1569, and England was riven by sectarian strife. Under Elizabeth I, the country had been restored to Protestantism, yet, like many northern landowners, Sir Thomas Markenfield was a staunch Catholic.
On November 20 that year, he and his uncle, Sir Richard Norton (a direct ancestor of the Hall’s present owners), gathered a large contingent to take part in a Catholic rebellion against the queen in an attempt to restore freedom of worship.
When they had taken their final Mass in the chapel, Sir Thomas carried the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ around the courtyard at Markenfield, before riding out for what he deemed a holy and sacred cause. It became known as the Rising of the North – and it was crushed. More than 200 rebels were executed in Ripon on what is still called Gallows Hill, just two miles from Markenfield.
Sir Thomas and his uncle fled to the Low Countries, where their fortunes sank further still. Sir Richard died in 1585 of wounds sustained while being arrested in Flanders, and Sir Thomas died some years later, alone and destitute.
The Hall was confiscated by the Crown and only returned to the family’s hands when it was bought a couple of centuries later by a member of the Norton family which still owns it.
But that’s not quite where the story ends. A decade ago, the chapel saw a coming together of the two faiths that Sir Thomas and his uncle could never have envisaged.
When Lady Deirdre married Ian Curteis, in 2001, it was the first marriage in the Chapel of St Michael Archangel for more than 400 years; poignantly, Lady Deirdre is a Catholic, and Mr Curteis is a Protestant.
It was described as “this smallest of healings between us”, and Anglican services and Catholic masses are now held alternately at the chapel, every two weeks.
It seems some things do change – even in places where time stands still.
So, if time has healed and the house is reconciled to its past, what of the future?
“It must stay a private house to which people are welcome,” says Mr Curteis.
“With the chapel in use,” adds Lady Deirdre firmly.
Markenfield Hall will be open to the public from June 19 to July 2, from 2pm to 5pm each day. Admission is £4, concs £3.