The secrets and scandals of Yorkshire’s country houses

Kate Lycett in her Hebden Bridge studio
Kate Lycett in her Hebden Bridge studio
  • Artist Kate Lycett has brought the lost houses of the South Pennines back to life and unearthed secrets, scandal and a Brontë mystery. Sharon Dale reports.
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Reimagining the lost houses of the South Pennines in her trademark rainbow of rich colours, gold leaf and shimmering threads was always going to be a big adventure for artist Kate Lycett. What she didn’t anticipate was the thousands of hours of research involved in bringing the properties back to life. Or that she would uncover scandals, secrets, the supernatural and a Brontë mystery.

The whereabouts of a gateway, said to have inspired the first chapter of Wuthering Heights, is something Kate would dearly like to find. It belonged to High Sunderland Hall, a vast, gothic property near Halifax, built in the late 1500s and demolished in 1951.

Castle Carr in 1953. Copyright: PHDA - David Fletcher Collection

Castle Carr in 1953. Copyright: PHDA - David Fletcher Collection

Emily Brontë often walked past it when she worked at Southowram school in the early 1800s. Carvings of grotesque figures, griffins and wicked faces decorated the frontage. It must have fired Emily’s imagination as she is said to have combined the architecture of High Sunderland with the wild, remote location of Top Withins above Haworth.

The first description of it in the novel reads: “Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500.”

High Sunderland’s ghost story is also reminiscent of Heathcliff’s feverish dreams of Cathy. The hall was said to be haunted by a woman whose husband had cut off her hand in a jealous rage.

While pouring over old reports of the property’s demolition due to subsidence, Kate discovered that its famous gateway was bought by a man who planned to rebuild it in the garden of his home in Brighouse. “I would love to know whether it was ever rebuilt and if it still exists,” says Kate, who found other parts of High Sunderland lying in a pile at Shibden Hall, near Halifax.

Kate Lycett Lost Houses of Yorkshire''Manor Heath in Halifax, brought back to life by Kate

Kate Lycett Lost Houses of Yorkshire''Manor Heath in Halifax, brought back to life by Kate

The idea for her latest collection, which will be on show at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum from January 23, came seven years ago when a friend told her about New Cragg Hall, which was lost in a mysterious blaze in 1921. Edward Waterson’s book Lost Houses of the West Riding further ignited her interest.

“I found it very romantic that there were hundreds of these amazing houses that no longer exist. The pictures of them were all gloomy and in black and white. I wanted to paint them in colour to give them warmth and atmosphere,” she says.

Not only did Kate want to reconstruct the buildings, she wanted to know the stories behind them. Her father, a writer, came up from Suffolk to help and together they delved into the West Yorkshire archives, scoured press cuttings, consulted local historians and hunted down photos and floor plans. Kate, who lives in Hebden Bridge, also visited the sites, including New Cragg Hall, which sits in a hidden valley, near Mytholmroyd. “A new house was built on the site but I discovered that parts of the hall still exist. There are remnants of it scattered around the garden. The Rapunzel-style turrets are hidden in tall hedges,” she says.

An Arts and Crafts mansion with hints of a French chateau, the property is one of Kate’s favourite lost houses and was the subject of gossip and scandal during its short life. It was built for heiress Helen Hinchcliffe and William Algernon Simpson-Hinchliffe, her third husband, who was an eyebrow-raising 27 years her junior. It was completed in 1904, and burnt down in 1921. The two-hour delay in raising the alarm was well documented , with stories of “Algy”, then a widower, rescuing two maids who were “in their night attire”. Said to have been heavily in debt, he was delighted with the handsome insurance pay-out. Locals, however, thought it suspicious that most of the furniture and furnishings had been removed “for cleaning” the week before the blaze.

Manor Heath in Halifax, which was demolished in the 1950s as the council could not find a use for it

Manor Heath in Halifax, which was demolished in the 1950s as the council could not find a use for it

Manor Heath in Halifax, is another lost house that Kate adores. It was built for John Crossley, whose father founded Dean Clough Mills, and was demolished in 1958. “People remember it as a spooky place. However, from the architects drawings and old descriptions of the place in its heyday, I’ve imagined it as rather beautiful,” says Kate, whose detective work revealed misconceptions, especially in relation to Norland Hall. It is said that the stone from the demolished 16th century property was bought by US newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s so he could recreate the building in California. The plan is thought to have failed due to an import tax that left the crates languishing at the docks.

“We looked at telegrams between him and his architect and what really happened is that it was going to be rebuilt in Croydon but the war came and it sat in crates in a barn. Randolph Hearst had it shipped over to so he could combine it with stone from another property to build his perception of a perfect English house. Then he went off the idea.”

Norland Hall was eventually unpacked and incorporated into a chapel in San Simeon, California, in 1968.

Only one property caused Kate disquiet and that was Castle Carr, on the moors at Luddenden Dean. Ill fortune and horrible deaths seemed to befall those connected to it. It was commissioned by Captain Joseph Priestley Edwards in 1859 and rumour has it that the bad luck is connected to his decision to allow the Halifax Corporation to build reservoirs on nearby land, believed to be the site of ancient burial mounds. In return, the corporation constructed Castle Carr’s grand water gardens. The house took over 100 men eight years to build but Priestley Edwards and his eldest son died in a railway accident before it was completed.

The castle was isolated, damp and plagued by midges and was never fully inhabited. It was used as a hunting lodge and then demolished in 1962, apart from one tower and the water gardens. The landowner now opens the gardens once a year for charity, when the spectacular gravity-fed fountain is switched on and rises over 100 feet in the air. Kate based her painting on old auction brochures, architectural plans and a visit on the open day. “There’s an odd atmosphere there and it is horribly still. It is the only house I could not paint in colour.”

Apart from that, she enjoyed every minute of her Lost Houses odyssey. “It has been a joy and, although it is a bit sad that we lost some beautiful places, most of the houses were massive white elephants and it’s not a bad thing they have gone,” she says. “Now they are just stories. My kids love it, they think it’s amazing that there were once all these Disney-style palaces around here.”

• The Lost Houses of the South Pennines exhibition will be at Bankfield Hall from January 23 to April 9, If anyone knows of the whereabouts of the High Sunderland Hall gateway, email