Nun Appleton House is a sad place these days in every sense. The Yorkshire estate was once the home of Thomas Fairfax, the great Parliamentary general, and also for a short while to Andrew Marvell, the poet, who acted as tutor to Fairfax’s daughter Mary. Marvell wrote extensively about the house, landscape and garden in a series of famous poems, and yet there is now no access of any sort, and the landscape has been effectively rendered a no-go area to all but the most determined.
I only realised the plight of the house when I was researching a lecture about philosophy and politics in the 17thc garden, [don’t ask but it wasn’t as boring as it sounds!] and wanted to include some illustrations to accompany some extracts from Marvell’s verse.
The parkland of the estate has been registered Grade II by Historic England but the whole Nun Appleton site has significant importance because of its association with Marvell and given its present inaccessibility and apparent neglect it certainly deserves better treatment.
“Googling” the house produced the beautifully naieve 17thc engraving shown above and then a series of photos of its 18thc replacement in both good repair and now more dilapidated state, as well as overgrown hedges, barbed wire fences and heavy metal gates.
A bit of basic research soon showed that Nun Appleton had passed out of the Fairfax family’s hands after Mary’s death, without children, in 1704, and that the new owners had soon rebuilt the house. After being altered and extended and changing hands a couple of times in the late 19th and early 20thc, it was bought in 1982 by Humphrey Smith, the owner of Sam Smith’s brewery in nearby Tadcaster. Most of the later accretions were demolished but since then it seems the house has been allowed to slowly – or maybe not so slowly – decay.
Seventeenth century poetry is hard work. Not only do we not share the same language or understanding of the poetic form but much more importantly we don’t share the same mindset. So reading the work of someone like Andrew Marvell isn’t exactly the same as reading Pam Ayres or John Betjeman. If Marvell, whose poetry wasn’t actually published after his death, is remembered much these days its probably for To his Coy Mistress but there’s a lot more to Marvell than that. We may find his language and syntax difficult but there’s no doubting his interest to garden historians. That might sound odd – after all what on earth could a politician and poet who died in 1678 have to say to the modern historian of horticulture and garden design, or indeed anyone thinking philosophically about gardens.
I’m not a literary critic and obviously this isn’t the place to try and give a full analysis of Marvell’s poems about the house and estate: Upon Appleton House and the four Mower poems, but there are some points that it is worth making. Firstly Upon Appleton House was a very private poem. It was written with an audience of one in mind: Thomas Fairfax himself. Marvell did not intend even to circulate the manuscript let alone publish his work. That makes his choice of themes and imagery very personal.
Fairfax was perhaps the most accomplished commander of the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War, and his decisive string of victories ensured the King’s defeat. However he was concerned by their increasing extremism so refused to take part in the trial of Charles I and retired from public life until 1660, when he supported the Restoration. He and his wife had one daughter, Mary, and Marvell was hired to be her tutor.
Country-house poems, like ‘Upon Appleton House’, became fashionable from the early 17thc and typically heaped praise on the patron and their estate. They centred around the virtues and hospitality of the patron, and usually represent the estate as a form of paradise… but somehow trying to do that while remaining humble in tone.
‘Upon Appleton House’ is a long poem stretching to nearly 800 lines but distinct sections: the house, gardens, meadows and woodland. It begins with Marvell praising the ‘humility’ of Nun Appleton and its owner. Its proportions are ‘like Nature, orderly and near’ with ‘no foreign architect’ by contrast with many other country hoses. It includes comment on the house’s history especially the dissolution of he nunnery which was later torn down and the materials used to build a new house built nearby.
But, of course, it is the gardens in which we are most interested. Its worth bearing in mind that the countryside of this part of Yorkshire is extremely flat so any raised garden feature would be quite prominent. Perhaps surprisingly, according to Marvell, they are not laid out in traditional formal style but in ‘the just Figure of a Fort’. Fairfax’s choice of a military design reflects the rapid change in English politics in the previous couple of decades. England had had a peaceful history for well over a century, and as a result was the least fortified country in western Europe. Europe on the other hand had suffered almost continual warfare in which the siege was a central weapon. The change hit England quite suddenly. Even London was surrounded by 11 miles of fortifications, dug by the inhabitants in 1642-43. Fairfax as an experienced and successful military commander had built fortifications as well as besieging and defending them. Even now, when he ‘retired here to peace’ from politics and power the garden is there as a reminder of the world he had left behind.
So although the description of the garden could be seen as metaphorical its more than possible that it was a factual description. Fairfax wouldn’t have been the only owner of a garden like this. Another Parliamentarian Walter Erle (1586–1665) who ‘had been a Low Country soldier, valued himself upon the sieges and service he had been in.’ His garden at Charborough was “cut into redoubts and works representing these places.”
However it is not known where the garden Marvell writes about was in relation to the house and there are no visible trace of it. The only image is by Daniel King, a not particularly reliable engraver, and shows a formal pattern of rectangular beds and paths on the south side of the Hall.
As you can see from the short extract on the left, at Appleton the flowers and insects become military components. The sun’s rays are the military colours, standing over regiments of roses, tulips and pinks. The bees are sentinels, ready to sting opponents. The scent of flowers is like musket shot sent out in ‘fragrant volleys’. Serried ranks of botanical militia echo the reality of the bastions. ‘When gardens only had their towers, / And all the garrisons were flowers’ , whereas now ‘But war all this doth overgrow: / We ordnance plant and powder sow.’
Finishing his review, Marvel turns his sight towards the ‘ings’ or water meadows, which he calls “the Abbyss . . . Of that unfathomable grass.” [Even tho the drop would only have been a few feet and the grass not much more than knee-high] then across the River Wharfe, and towards Cawood Castle, a former palace of Archbishop of York which Fairfax had captured during the Civil War.
He tells of the meadows flooding. But this is not for “natural” reasons but because the sluice gates upstream have been opened by order of Fairfax as a deliberate part of the regular pattern of hay-farming in the area. There is even a hillock called Mote Hill where the poet could have stood to watch the operation.
Even the water meadows can be seen as a battlefield. In four other major rurally-inspired poems Marvell uses the figure of “The Mower” who scythes his way across proving that ‘all flesh is grass’. There are Biblical references galore but its pretty clear that Marvell is offering his readers a miniaturised replay of the Civil War as the Mower criss-crosses the meadow – retreating, advancing with ‘careless victors’ and innocent victims. The mowers ‘massacre’ the grass, they wage war on the insects and birds, like the grasshoppers and the poor rail sliced open by a scythe. Even Fairfax’s fishing exploits are full of weaponry.
Only entering the woodland “of ancient stocks” allows escape from conflict and find peace by reading from the ‘Nature’s mystic book’ as if they were Scripture.
There’s one other major area of horticultural interest in these Nun Appleton-related poems. The Mower can be seen as a bit of Luddite [anachronistic tho that is!] opposed to horticultural innovation and change – ‘there are specific and hostile references to grafting and selective breeding and he is seemingly unaware of any of the large number of agricultural improvements going on all around him.
Having looked at the literary garden and landscape, how much of it survived Fairfax? Certainly the landscape that Fairfax and Marvell knew was drastically altered by the enclosure of the fields in 1797 but the garden…?
By the time of the first Ordnance survey map I can find – the 1849/51 6″map – it had been drastically altered too. There were just lawns studded with scattered trees, and a serpentine lake . The 1890 25″ OS map shows a rectangular lawn planted with conifers, and lake now called a fish pond.
There doesn’t seem to have been much change [to my untutored eye] by the 1950s.
But today who knows? Because if you approach Nun Appleton from the north today, as maps would suggest you do, you won’t get very far, not even close enough for a glimpse of the mansions chimneys. You pass Bilborough, another Fairfax property, where Marvell wrote about its slight hill as a “mountain” and then cross through flat and level fields around Appleton Roebuck and arrive at the firmly locked gates of the park. This has apparently been the fate of many Marvell-lovers since the sale to the brewery magnate.
However, as one academic discovered. there are those locals who resent this attitude: “Just because a man buys up property gives him no right to keep us off paths we have used freely for centuries.” And put the visitor on the right path. “It’s a little tougher going than you thought it would be, but you have [catch] glimpses of Appleton House through its screen of trees, a clutch of some half-dozen chimneys, slate roof, and four-story red brick façade, grander than the edifice Marvell knew.” But that’s as far as he could get. [For the full account see Alan Altimont, Trespassing in the Mower’s Fields]
Things haven’t got any easier. In October 2015 Claire Balding did one of her Ramblings for the BBC at Nun Appleton, with two academics from Hull University. They also tried to see the landscape Marvell wrote about, with equal lack of success. Even the public footpath and bridleways were difficult to negotiate or see from. They were surrounded by high overgrown hawthorn hedges or 2m high metal grid fencing, impossible to climb over or see through but very effective at keeping people out.
The group encountered padlocked gates and lots of private no entry signs. They gave up with Balding sighing: “That is a sigh of desperation… we hoped for a view of the house or the grounds or even the meadow but we can’t. Everything is fenced in. Everything is locked …”
They retraced their steps to the village of Bolton Percy where Fairfax and his family worshipped and where his brother was vicar, trying another path and hoping to get a view of the meadows but with the same result. At one point there was the equivalent of a window in the hedging where there was a wooden gate, and through it they could see a field of clover. It was “encased by barbed wire fences” – and they couldn’t even lean on the gate because it too was covered by barbed wire.
Since the last sale there has been quite a long history of blocked bridleways and contested public rights of access, as well as several planning applications.
Luckily it has not always been so. Way back in 1984 before the house changed hands another Marvell scholar visited and recorded his exploration. Although the fundamental topographical features had not changed since Marvell’s time, he was struck by the differences between the estate as it is and the estate as Marvell portrayed it. Of course, the house and the elaborate flower gardens, “laid . . . out / In the just Figure of a Fort,” were long gone but he felt something of the earlier gardens seems to have been preserved. To find out more check out his article in the Marvell Society’s newsletter.
However, now, as Balding concluded dolefully: “there’s an aggression to it…I absolutely understand it is within a landowners rights to protect their own property and they don’t want anybody coming along randomly but… there is an aggression to this. The wire. The fencing. The numbers of signs saying private keep out. There is a real sense of YOU WILL NOT STEP ON MY GROUND…and it seems to me such a shame because of the historical significance.”
How could anyone not agree?