‘The south-facing side of Lower Wharfedale, an undulating sylvan and pastoral landscape, strongly rural in character’ – a contemporary description of the north bank of the River Wharfe from Ilkley to Otley in West Yorkshire, land fundamentally unchanged in centuries and relatively little-traversed. The latter circumstance is partly explained by a still pertinent observation from 1873: ‘There is little doubt that if access were as easy as it is to the south side, the number of visitors to [these] tree-embowered sunny slopes would be much greater.’1
But while the single stepping stone crossing between the bridges of those towns has certainly contributed to this state of preservation and privacy, more influential has been the remarkable endurance hereabouts of three adjacent country estates. And, rather like the modern-day adage of sun-loungers and beach towels, in order to bag the plum spots you had to get there early – in this case around about the thirteenth century.
East of Ilkley lies the Denton Hall estate, an ancient property which first changed hands for money in 1717 when it was acquired by wealthy Leeds cloth manufacturer James Ibbetson. Today the John Carr house of 1778 is a corporate headquarters and wedding venue but remains at the heart of ‘2,500 acres of idyllic private parkland’.
John Carr’s substantial south-facing addition to Farnley Hall is also visible from the banks of the Wharfe just east of Otley. Noted for its long association with JMW Turner, Farnley has been privately owned by the Fawkes family for over 700 years. Recently, however, the older Jacobean half became available to let.
Lying between these two places, meanwhile, is the Weston Hall estate, over 2,000 acres extending up into the Nidderdale AONB from the distinctive Grade I-listed house and its park wherein also stands a ‘very lavish and sophisticated’ banqueting house.2 Always private and passed only by inheritance since 1359, ‘the best view of both these structures from a publicly accessible vantage point is a tantalising oblique view between the trees’.3
The oldest memorial in the small church which stands close by the Hall records the life of William Stopham upon whose death the manor of Weston passed to his brother-in-law, John Vavasour. The eventual failure of the latter male line after almost 500 years of father-to-son descent only partially explains the disappearance of the Vavasour name here (since: Carter→Dawson). For in 1833, in a reversal of customary gentry practice, the will of childless William Vavasour expressly forbade his heir, nephew William Carter, adopting the family name: “I am, and will die, the last of my race.”4
Not that, beyond the singular feat of endurance at Weston, this was an especially illustrious lineage. In contrast to the senior branch of the family at Hazlewood Castle twenty-three miles to the east, over the course of five centuries ‘it is remarkable that the Vavasours of Weston never threw up anyone of more than local importance’.5 Here, parochial affairs have largely preoccupied the lords of the manor, their approach to matters naturally varying over time:
1450: ‘To the Archbishop of York, complains John Doyd, your servant and humble tenant of Newall [now part of Otley], that whereas one John Vavasour, Lord of Weston, Henry his brother, and others, on Tuesday in the third week of Lent past, by night forcibly broke into your suppliant’s house, and dragged his wife out of the house naked from her bed, and would have killed him if he had been there; and now day and night they lie in wait to kill him.’6
This particular ‘Lord of Weston’ was the fourth of seven consecutive Johns to hold the manor, a run which would come to end a century later with the succession of 22-year-old William Vavasour. And it was the latter’s son, Mauger, who determined c. 1600 to significantly upgrade his ancestral home in the late Elizabethan style.
The ‘spectacular’ north wing (above, right) with its garden front of 690 individual panes remains unaltered from this time.2 Its counterpart and the central section would be scaled back and internally remodelled in the mid-C18, and twice subject to re-fenestration. Portraits dated 1588 of an extravagantly ruffed Sir Mauger and his second wife, Joan Savile, still hang at Weston and their taste in interior decor is similarly much on display in such spaces as…
… the so-called Dragon Room with its panelling, ‘elaborate’ fireplace and plaster ceiling studded with Tudor iconography. More centrally, ‘what were presumably the Elizabethan great hall and great chamber are discernable, one above the other, the latter now an early C19 room with Adam-style ceiling’.2
This room was part of the last substantial rearrangement at Weston – captured soon after by Neale (1821, left) – which created the garden front as seen today, its characterful if ‘rather confused appearance’ contrasting markedly with the ‘utilitarian’ Georgian entrance front (r) created by infilling the space between the cross-wings.2
The immediate vista from Sir Mauger’s many new windows comprised a formal walled garden in one corner of which he added a fashionable freestanding feature, appreciated today as ‘one of the best preserved late Tudor banqueting houses’ in the country.7
Echoing the big house with its canted bay and mullioned and transomed windows, this proud three-storey Grade 1 tower features Tudor-arched corner fireplaces serviced by front chimneys. In rear, a separate staircase turret culminates in a belvedere ‘more window than wall’, all the better to survey the parkland, river valley and its framing moors.5
Mid-C18 gate-piers at an elbow in the road announce the long tree-lined drive at Weston but modern access is from the north via Church Lane, which terminates with the cemetery and towerless edifice of All Saints.
Of Norman origin (recorded in Domesday), the church of ‘this diminutive parish’ is outwardly unrefined. ‘Inside all is Georgian decorum,’5 however, nowhere more so than the private Vavasour family pew (left) ‘which has the appearance of a small scale drawing room’.8 A stove would be installed here by William, the last of the Vavasours, for the comfort of his new bride, heiress Sarah Cooke.
Orphaned at the age of ten, William, the youngest of three sons, only inherited Weston (in 1798) due to the premature demise of brothers Walter and Edward. His marriage three years later spurred on a programme of modernisation and refurbishment of the Hall but the optimism of these early years would not endure. The couple remained childless and in 1817, having come into her father’s fortune, Sarah left Weston for a largely independent life.
Vavasour’s journals reveal a pragmatic, paternalistic squire nevertheless wedded to the feudal order and correct form. They also record long-running feuds with the neighbours, particularly the parvenus over at Denton Hall: “Everyone for himself is their honest maxim; it is a family failing of the Ibbetsons.” Indeed, Vavasour was frequently to be disappointed by the behaviour of those who really ought to know better, notably the clergy. ‘A parson, Mr. Rye, dined at Weston Hall …
… after a day’s shooting. “[He] got so handsomely drunk that as we were putting him to bed he made his escape out of the door naked and we found him hindmost lifeless in a bed of nettles. The next morning, ashamed, he slipped off before I was up.”9
Little wonder that, when the opportunity arose, Vavasour elected to keep the living of Weston within the family, granting it (against expectations) to his artistic sister Ellen’s husband, the Rev. John Carter, then headmaster of Lincoln Grammar School. This couple’s son inherited Weston Hall but the male line would prove ill-starred: William Carter died just fourteen months later while his only son would pass away aged twenty-eight having already lost his own boy hours after birth.
So it was that in 1852 the Weston estate reverted to William Carter’s sister, Mrs. Emma Dawson, the philanthropic wife of Christopher Dawson of Royds Hall (whose grandfather, Joseph Dawson, had been a prime mover behind the Low Moor ironworks). The Dawsons have since proved most durable: In ninety-nine years from 1912-2011 Weston had but two owners whose middle names acknowledged their venerable antecedence. Emma Dawson’s grandson William Stopham Dawson died unmarried in 1969 to be succeeded by Herbrand Vavasour Dawson, father of the present owner.
‘They have reason to rejoice in one of the most favoured situations in this favoured valley,’ observed one scholar a little over two centuries ago.10 The town of Otley may have encroached towards the old gates of Weston Hall in the modern era but in essence little has really changed since that time. Or, for that matter, since the Conquest…