The battle to own Nappa Hall

The new home of Mark Thompson is his castle. Frederic Manby explains how chance brought them together.

If Mark Thompson had not cut the holiday short at his pied--terre in the Loire he would not today be the owner of a 15th century fortified manor house in Wensleydale – a historic gem he had always wanted but presumed would never be sold.

Nappa Hall was built 550 years ago by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, on land given to his father, Captain James Metcalfe, by Sir Richard Scrope, of Bolton Castle, in thanks for the soldier's valour at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Sir Richard was to die at the siege of Rouen in 1420.

The plot of land by the River Ure was marked "no castle" but that is more or less what the Metcalfes built in 1459. Two towers stood at either side of a grand hall, with a minstrels' gallery and other trappings of gentrification. At some time a farmhouse and shippons were attached.

Legend has it that Mary Queen of Scots stayed there for a couple of nights while under house arrest at Bolton Castle and that James I visited while deer stalking. Such stories are hard to prove and rather easier to dismiss. Why would Mary be allowed out for a couple of days? Was King James ever near Nappa at the time he was supposed to be there and even if he was, why stay with a young knight who was by then just about broke?

Whatever, they add to the glamour of the property which attracted 500 punters and hopefuls when Carter Jonas put it on the market in May.

At that point Mark Thompson was happily mowing lawns at his holiday home near Vendome. When he returned early, staying at Goathland on the North York Moors, before returning to his Dales pub, he met a coach driver in Whitby who told him Nappa Hall was for sale. Bids were about to close.

Talk about panic. Mark rang the agents and they emailed him the details to a computer at Whitby library. The following day was the final viewing.

By this time the sale of Nappa Hall and its acres had made headlines and attracted interest and serious bids from many parts of the world. It was the first time it had been sold on the open market and was up for offers over 500,000. It was Grade 1 Listed, and ready for some care and attention, after several sets of tenants and a fair amount of neglect.

Some bidders had flown in by helicopter rather than waste time meandering along the snaky valley roads through the enchanted dale. They had big plans, but in the end Mark Thompson's simple proposals to restore it and live in it won against higher bids.

He already knew the seller, William Metcalfe, a descendant of Nappa Hall's founder, and variously known as Willie and, after his father, WG.

William Metcalfe was born at Nappa Hall in 1922 but left at the age of 16 to farm on his own. At this time Nappa Hall had only just come back into Metcalfe hands. The family was once prominent in high office. They were wealthy landowners. Sir James, born in 1460, was Master Forester in three dales, High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1525 and knighted at Windsor in 1528. The estates later passed to Sir Christopher Metcalfe, a man "fond of the gaieties of life and ostentation" according to Harry Speight's 1897 book on Richmondshire.

When, as High Sheriff, he met the judges at York Assizes in 1556, he was accompanied by 300 Metcalfes, all in uniform and riding white horses. On his death in 1574, his pleasurable diversions had drained the coffers and left only the Nappa estate to be passed on.

In the 17th century it was mortgaged. The Metcalfes continued to live there but Thomas Metcalfe's losses after speculation in the notorious South Sea Bubble of 1720 left him in hock to a kinsman, Thomas Weddell, who became the owner of the Nappa estate when Metcalfe died in 1756. For a time Nappa's warrens supplied the silver sable fur skins to the Russian royal family. The property passed to Earl de Grey and from him to his daughter, Lady Mary Vyner, of Newby Hall, near Ripon.

In 1889, Thomas Metcalfe moved back in as tenant and his sons John and William took over when he died. Around 1930 the brothers bought it from the Vyners, who faced death duties: an heir had drowned while following the hounds, recalls Mr Metcalfe. "It was a great pity, and they were very good landlords", recalls WG, sitting with his wife Freda in their modest house, once occupied by the shepherd for the Nappa estate.

They have lived there since their marriage in 1943. Of Nappa Hall he says: "I always thought it was a place for families. My grandfather says it was the best living he ever had when he came there." Freda, a Kilburn from Thirsk, adds: "In my younger days I would have liked to live there (Nappa Hall) but it was not available, and when it was available our girls had gone and it was too large for the two of us." W G looks on, dressed in work trousers, an old shirt, stout boots and wearing a cap so flat it could have been in a cheese press.

He farms beef and sheep on 600 acres with Freda and their grandson, Stephen Fawcett, 29 and "a good stocksman". The talk in their sitting room turns to sneak thieves in the Dales – everything from Land Rover spare wheels to diesel fuel and, most recently, the lead off the towers and porch at Nappa Hall. And the lack of suitable retribution when villains are caught. It's life as we know it, and will probably get worse.

"Things aren't as good as they were by a long way. Not even the folks. Nobody helps anybody now", says Mr Metcalfe, drinking tea from a patterned half pint mug with a rim that looks like it was chipped 20 years ago.

He has hunted, shot and fished. He is president of the Wensleydale Angling Association, was chairman of the Wensleydale Harriers, rode with the Lunesdale Foxhounds and helped make the otter extinct in the Ure, to protect the fish. "I've hunted since I was a lad. I've done the lot. I have tried to enjoy life, I can tell you." When the Metcalfes were newly married, the valleys and hills were almost unimaginably different. His father would buy cattle at Bedale market, bring them back by train to Aysgarth and then walk them back to Nappa, often in the dark, a distance of several miles.

Traders called regularly, the same day every week, and the Metcalfes can still remember their names: such as the butchers Dixon Daykin and Jim Trotter from Askrigg on Tuesdays and Fridays "and they used to go into Swaledale after they had been here", various grocers, the pot and pan man, the seasonal visits of the three draper brothers Milner who had shops in Hawes, Leyburn and Kirkby Stephen.

It started to tail off after "the war", which was also when the Irish hiring season faded out. These impoverished, hardy men from workless Ireland would be hired at Hawes in July after travelling from work in the Skipton area. They'd spend a month or so at Nappa on the hay harvest. "You needed to have them from the same county in Ireland, then they were less likely to fall out," recalls Mr Metcalfe. They had Sunday off for church and the pub and, most likely, fighting in lumps at Bainbridge when they fell out with their kinsmen from the other farms.

They moved south to gather turnips, "snag tatties" and then came back to

the Dales to cut and stack peat, and

later bring it in.

Mark Thompson's grandfather, Norman Goldsbrough, had travelled in Ireland buying wool for the Bradford trade before the wool slump of 1936. And Mark's paternal ancestors had farmed at Mallerstang, between Hawes and Kirkby Stephen.

"It's a small world when you get talking", observed WG, having another gulp of tea, a brew by now almost as cold as the Ure. He and Mark met decades ago when Mark was a "penniless travelling artist" looking for a place to rent.

Mark grew up in the Ilkley area in a comfortable middle class house, but didn't settle into the family textile concerns. Instead, as a teenager, he cycled all over Yorkshire with his sketch pad, selling paintings and drawings. As a young man he rented the Tudor farmhouse at Barden Tower from the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the first outsider in five centuries, following generations of the Lister family.

Mark then moved into buying and renovating property, including a ruin in East Witton, Wensleydale, which he sold on to Richard Whiteley. He now owns a marvellous old pub, the Green Dragon, near Hawes and not far from Nappa.

And yet that was not enough. Now he has enough. Nappa Hall should keep him and his partner, Yvonne, busy until they can no longer manage the stone spiral staircase in the four-storey West Tower.

WG remembers that the farm's cheese and other provisions were stored in this tower. His uncle John lived in the East Tower and his own father, William, lived in the farmhouse. Mark and Yvonne are already living at Nappa, partly to make sure that nothing else gets stolen. The theft of lead is irritating. Water gets in. Meanwhile, the robbers get just a few pounds for their booty.

The three-storey East wing is mostly habitable. The farmhouse is reasonably cosy but any renovation will have to wait: the Heartbeat TV series is using it as a film set shortly.

The great hall is rather desolate these days. Its gallery has been walled up but there are no obvious cracks in the structure. In some of the dozens of rooms the ceilings are down. In the West Tower the floors are mostly rotten. But for Mark and Yvonne it's all possible, given time. There are no plans to commercialise it, other than possibly to let the West Tower in the future. Damsons and apples grow in the scrubby orchard. Charlie, their fell pony, grazes in the croft and sleeps in one of several stables. Mark Thompson says it is what he always wanted.

During the wait to see if he had got Nappa Hall, a painting of it came up at Tennants saleroom in Leyburn. Mark bought it, thinking that if he missed the hall he'd at least have the painting.

Now, having got both, he has given the painting to William Metcalfe, as a thank- you for selling him the real thing. And its price? Rather more than half a million.