It’s 700 years old and regarded as one of the best surviving houses of its type in England. Roy Hampson photographs Markenfield Hall and explains its history.
Markenfield Hall is a fortified manor house hidden among the North Yorkshire countryside, quite close to the picturesque ruins of Fountains Abbey. It is one of our lesser known gems, a place of beauty and tranquillity.
It’s privately owned and thanks to its current owners, Lady Deirdre Curteis and Ian, has been made more accessible to the public lately through special open days, concerts and conducted tours. Now everyone can enjoy this historic building’s endearing charms. Civil weddings and blessings take place in the romantic surroundings of the old stone chapel inside the manor house.
The hall has several unique features including a moat that completely encircles the building, complete with a pair of black swans which are regularly on patrol.
The manor house hasn’t always had a grand existence. For 400 years it was used as a barn. I was given a guide tour by Ian Curteis, a distinguished playwright who told me that if I Googled his name on the internet, up would come all the work he’d rather forget. He wrote scripts for ‘Z Cars’ in the 1960s and ‘The Oneden Line’ TV series. He still gets a tiny percentage of the royalty fees if the programmes are repeated; cheques arrive for all of 57p!
Ian represents 25 per cent of the population of Markenfield, the county’s smallest parish. The other residents are Lady Deirdre, the tenant farmer and his wife.
‘If I bump into them for a chat, that constitutes a parish meeting,’ he said jokingly.
Ian told me that the Great Hall is the oldest part of the building and was built on gently undulating countryside south of Ripon around 1280. Early in the 14th century a rectangle of buildings was constructed around the courtyard including the moat.
In 1310 it was a grand house for a grand family, a civil servant called John De Markenfield who was Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The ground floor, called the undercroft, was originally vaulted with a series of archways and pillars. During the ‘Rising of The North’ in 1569 Catholics, who assembled in the courtyard to rise against Queen Elizabeth 1st, suffered hideous defeat and the house was confiscated for high treason. The vaults were pulled out and it became a tenant farm house. Today only two rooms remain where the original vaults can be seen; the study and a utility room.
Ian originally met Lady Deirdre in London and didn’t know anything about her family home, Markenfield Hall, which came as a big surprise. They married in the chapel in 2001, the first recorded marriage there since 1487 and Ian loves to remind visiting American tourists that was five years before Columbus discovered America.
The 13th century great hall at the heart of the building was used for many years as a grain store. Lady Deirdre and Ian spent £100,000 turning back what was an empty space into a family room including the re- installation of a large fireplace. The main motivation was to breathe life back into the room for the first time since 1570 and to house a massive collection of books and family documents. Their efforts won them a £5.000 reward from the Historic House Association and Sotheby’s.
Ian told me that the loveliest thing to survive in the chapel is a wonderful example of a double piscine - two stone basins set into the wall of the chancel where the priest would wash his hands and communion vessels. They bear the Markenfield coat of arms and the Chancellor of the Exchequer who owned the house thought it would be a good idea to incorporate three gold coins into the design. It caused great amusement at the time. ‘This kind of humour would not appeal now but apparently it was a side-splitter in its day’ Ian said.
Lady Curteis and Ian bless the day in 1777 when the Bridal Act was passed in Parliament. It stated that the old main road running quite near to Markenfield must be moved to its present day site which is the A61 Harrogate to Ripon road. Probably the reason why the house has survived intact after all these centuries is the fact that it’s situated a mile away from a main road.
One ambition of Ian’s is to dredge the 700 year old accumulation of mud from the bottom of the moat. He thinks some of the house’s missing masonry may be retrieved, thrown in during the darker days of its history. The swans were originally introduced to the moat as a house warming gift to Lady Deirdrie and her first husband the 7th Baron Grantley of Markenfield who died in 1995. The swans have produced several pairs of cygnets, and he told me: ‘You always know when there are more on the way as they build nests like mountains out of twigs...We thought they were daft,’ he added, as the nests were always situated quite close to the noisiest of farm machinery and tractors, but this was clever ploy by the swans to scare off foxes.
Lady Deirdre and Ian are making plans to celebrate 700 years of Markenfield Hall next year with including concerts and special open days. They both consider it a huge honour to live in such a special place with an extraordinary sense of history.
For details of events, open days and conducted tours go to www.markenfield.com or ring 01765 692303.