Decision time for key building in farming history

Elmswell pic.
Elmswell pic.
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The fate of a historic hall in East Yorkshire hangs in the balance after decades of deadlock. Lucy Oates reports

The owners of a crumbling, historic manor house have broken their silence to explain their plans for Elmswell Old Hall.

It dates back to around 1635 and is part of the historically significant Elmswell country estate near Driffield.

The hall was last lived in by tenant farmers who moved out in 1965. Since then its condition steadily deteriorated and for years it has been the subject of planning and legal battles.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council served an “urgent works notice” on its owners in 1998 in an attempt to prevent further ruin.

That same year, English Heritage upped the Old Hall’s status from Grade II to Grade II* listed – meaning it is officially “of more than special interest”.

Only just over five per cent of the nation’s listed buildings fall into this category. More recently, an attempt by the council to obtain a compusory purchase order failed.

Of particular note are the house’s links with a 17th century agricultural diarist, Henry Best, and the fact that it was one of the first brick buildings in East Yorkshire.

The long-term owners are the Mackrill family who live nearby. During the last couple of decades, a seemingly unbridgeable gulf has divided the family and a number of heritage bodies seeking to restore the place to its former glory.

To complicate matters further, last month East Riding of Yorkshire Council approved two radically different planning applications, one from each of the opposing sides.

The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust won the council’s backing for its plans to restore the derelict house to form a new dwelling.

The trust says it would find the funding for the work at no cost to the council or local taxpayers.

But it seems unlikely that those ambitions will be realised because at the same planning meeting, the Mackrill family was also granted approval for its own alternative planning application, submitted under the name Elmswell Heritage Ltd.

Against the recommendation of their own officers, councillors gave the family consent partially to demolish the hall, providing the matter was referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment.

This effectively shifted responsibility for Elmswell Old Hall’s fate to Caroline Spelman MP, who could still choose to overturn the council’s decision.

An East Riding of Yorkshire Council spokesman confirmed that there is no fixed deadline for a Government response, but such matters are typically decided within 28 days.

Numerous requests to speak to members of the Mackrill family were referred to David Hardy, a lawyer acting on their behalf.

He has provided the Yorkshire Post with a written response setting out why they are determined to press ahead with their plans.

Mr Hardy said that the Mackrill family’s proposal involves the “consolidation of the remains of Elmswell Old Hall to prevent further long-term decay” and “does not constitute substantial demolition of the building”.

Mr Hardy explained: “It is justified because the remaining elements of the structure are in very poor condition and urgent action is required to prevent the loss of further fabric.

“The proposal would not introduce any new feature into the building. As a result of the proposed work, it would be possible to approach the building safely. Public access, including educational visits, would be secured in the public interest by virtue of a legal agreement, which has been volunteered by the owners.

“The Spitalfields Trust application would involve substantial re-building of the surviving remnants of the building.

“The extent of this re-building, together with the other works proposed would mean that the end result would be little more than a ‘pastiche’, which in itself, would have little, if any, historic value or integrity.

“The special architectural interest of the surviving elements of the building would be lost, given the need to bring the building in line with requirements of 21st century domestic living.”

Helen Kirk, a trustee of the Yorkshire Buildings Preservation Trust Ltd, has taken a keen interest in Elmswell Old Hall since the late 1980s.

“There is a huge amount of history at Elmswell Old Hall,” she says. “Henry Best built it for his own use and wrote his Farming and Memorandum Books of 1642 there.

“Nationally and internationally, these books are a vital resource for students of rural agrarian history and development and to students of linguistics on the written page.

“They were written by Henry to tell his son, John, how to run the farm. One of the reasons that they’re so rare and unique is that gentlemen farmers in the 17th century were not usually literate. The books are safe in the Treasure House in Beverley, but, sadly, the house is not.

“As one of the earliest brick buildings in East Yorkshire, it is built from huge, 14 inch-long bricks made in Beverley that would probably have come up the River Hull by barge. It also had beautiful chamfered beams that would have been shipped into Bridlington from the Baltic, as well as other rare detailing and features.”

Helen Kirk last saw the Old Hall in 1997. By then it was held up by council scaffolding and the roof had been removed for safety reasons. “It’s not visible from the public highway and the footpaths around it are now closed. But I’ve continued to campaign because the neglect of the country’s heritage must be stopped.

“The Spitalfields Trust now has consent for its restoration plans, but the owners won’t talk to them.”

David Hardy acknowledges that Henry Best commissioned the Old Hall, but says there’s no evidence he lived there. “The Spitalfields Trust application would have a serious and adverse impact upon the integrity of the wider historic estate that has a long and important history that goes back well before its association with Henry Best.

“In agri-historical terms, it is the linkage between Henry Best and the wider estate which is more important than any one particular building. Creating a new residential dwelling would inevitably involve an isolated parcel of third party-owned land in the middle of the historic estate, which has been carefully re-assembled by the current freehold owners. Given that it would be a private dwelling house, there is no likelihood of any public interest or access being guaranteed.

“Elmswell Old Hall can only be accessed along a gated, narrow, deeply rutted unmade track, which is approximately 300 metres long. The track is of historic interest in its own right. The introduction of a residential use would require this to be upgraded for domestic, service and agricultural vehicles. This would have an unacceptable impact on the special interest of the track.”

Mr Hardy insists that Mackrill family’s plans for the Old Hall will ‘make it safe for the first time in decades’. He added “It will then offer appropriate and controlled public access, including educational visits, so that the historic significance of the Elmswell estate can be understood and enjoyed. The consolidation works result from the combined expertise of a number of conservation and building consultancies, which have been employed by the Mackrill family.”

Henry Best and the Elmswell Estate

Henry Best became owner of the Elmswell Estate in 1618. He and his wife Mary had eight children. It’s thought Henry wrote his Farming and Memorandum Books in the early 1640s, following Mary’s death in 1639. They’re believed to be one of only two surviving texts that give a unique insight into 17th century farming techniques and practices and rural customs. They are also a fascinating domestic account of the the running of the estate at that time. Professor Donald Woodward of Hull University produced a transcription of the text published by the British Academy in 1984.