Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Nocton Hall - grounds and gardens

Nocton Old Hall (- 1834)

Henry VIII, his fifth wife and his Royal party visited Nocton and stayed over night with young Sir Thomas Wymbishe and his attractive wife Lady Elizabeth Tailboys of Kyme. It is said that the large chestnut tree near the North main entrance was planted by Katherine Howard on 13 October 1541 at the behest of Lady Wymbishe and years later the tree was supported by props to stop it collapsing from its own weight.

N.B. As the Horse Chestnut was only introduced to the UK in the late 16th Century, this seems rather unlikely.

Plate 1: Chestnut tree
[photo taken 3 Oct 2011]

In 1672, Sir William Ellys called in the best professional architects and set about adjusting and enlarging his home to become one of the greatest houses in England. On the park wall to the west, opposite the hall, to provide a balanced view he had constructed the face of a Jacobean house into the wall (now known as 'The Pheasantry'). He extended the house through the wall to provide an eating house for travellers who cared to call. There were even tankards of ale, marked 'Nocton Hall' to complement the meals. A large pathway was constructed between the hall and this building to allow his staff to deliver the meals and ale each day without getting wet underfoot.

Plate 2: 'The Pheasantry'
[photo taken 29 May 2010]

It was Sir William Ellys who made substantial alterations to the parkland and estate. Large areas were  planted with oak, ash, lime and good quality hardwoods. This development provided Nocton with a landscape of incredible beauty. Snowdrops, bluebells and lilies of the valley grew in abundance, spreading as each season passed. In May, the scent of the flowers, wafted by a gentle breeze from the woods, gave a satisfaction that made one feel good to be alive. It still does even today.

Plate 3: Snowdrops in profusion
[photo taken 20 Feb 2014]

In mid winter on 29 Dec 1767, the Hobarts entertained at the Hall. Lanterns were festooned from the trees on the drive through the park adding a romantic touch for the arriving guests. It was George Hobart  who conceived the idea of planting a lime avenue to the eastern side of the hall. The trees were double planted and the avenue was about a mile in length towards the horizon. In time, these trees developed a canopy providing a fine feature in the Nocton landscape and Hobart further altered and remodelled the gardens and grounds.

Plate 4: Lime Avenue - east side of Nocton Hall

In 1773, St Peter's Church which stood only a few yards from the Hall, was completely demolished and rebuilt on the site of the current All Saints Church. The original graves and headstones are still in situ buried in the raised mound, just south west of the current Nocton Hall.

Plate 5: St. Peter's Church - North view, from a water-colour sketch
by Miss Louisa Charlotte Hobart B: Feb 1826

On 28 April 1827, Frederick John Robinson became Viscount Goderich of Nocton. Frederick and his wife, Lady Sarah Albinia Louisa Hobart, had a devoted love for Nocton which she had inherited on her father's death. There is a charming letter dating from the early years of the Robinsons' possession of Nocton Hall, which conveys the affection they had for the place.

Frederick Robinson writes to his mother on 6 December 1818: "We have certainly been very alert in all our improvements, and notwithstanding the shortness of our stay here, we have contrived to get as many irons into the fire as can well be managed at once ...  Sarah ... is become one of the first rate gardeners; and altho' undoubtedly by no means knowing in the botanical part of that science, she directs the proceedings of the gardener with all the airs of lengthened experience. How far this may result from my having recently become a member of the Horticultural Society, I cannot pretend to say, but the fact is undeniable & excites the utmost astonishment in all her ancient friends."

Concerning the gardens, The Lincoln and Lincolnshire Cabinet criticizes the' infant avenue of elms' in front of the house for being old-fashioned, at a time when axial planning in garden design was anathema. No doubt the elms were planted to replace 'the avenues rooted up' which Torrington had observed in 1791. It is likely that the avenue was replaced by the Robinsons.

[N.B. Lincoln and Lincolnshire Cabinet for 1828, 8. The avenue in question does not appear on an estate plan of 1809, in the possession of Mr Christopher Howard, which was prepared in the time of the Fourth Earl of Buckinghamshire (d.1816). It is not plotted on Greenwood's Map of Lincolnshire of 1830 (based on surveys of l827 to 1828), but it is on Bryant's Map of Lincolnshire of 1825 to 1827]

After the Viscount resigned from office, he was created Earl of Ripon on 13 Apr 1833. Just over a year later, Nocton Old Hall sadly succumbed to fire on 15 Jul 1834 and all that remained was a shell.

Plate 6: Nocton Old Hall (West elevation)
from a drawing by D Jewett

Plate 7: A.W.N. Pugin pencil sketch of the ruins of
Nocton Old Hall, 1834 [Lincoln Cathedral Library, Willson Collection]

The 'new' Nocton Hall (1841 -)

The foundation stone for the current Grade II Listed Nocton Hall was laid on 26 Oct 1841.

Plate 8: Nocton Hall Foundation Stone - laid 26 Oct 1841
[N.B. The inscription is in Latin, but reads in translation:

"This house was founded in about 1530 during the reign of Henry VIII. Enlarged in 1680 by Sir William Ellis. Then George Buckingham finally received it in 1780. Robert Earl of Buckingham's daughter married Frederick John, Earl of Ripon. Fire destroyed the house in about 1830 and another was built in the same place in 1841."]

The architect was a William Shearburn of Dorking (a Nocton born lad) and it was his father, Joseph (a joiner on the estate) who oversaw the building work. It is written that Sir George Gilbert Scott, one of Sarah's close friends, graciously offered his services free and acted as an advisor to William Shearburn. It took ten years to complete.

Not only was a new Hall built, but a new church was constructed - All Saints Church - designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the "Gothic Revival" style - after demolishing the second St Peter's Church.

Much of the surrounding woodland was carpeted in snowdrops, wild garlic and daffodils.

It was the first Marquis of Ripon, George Frederick Samuel Robinson, who planted the evenly spaced Wellingtonias  bordering the driveway to Nocton Hall in 1887, just three years after his return from India where he had completed four year as Viceroy.

Plate 9: Wellingtonia - Nocton Hall
[photo from 1998]

It was also in 1887 when the famous West lawn of Nocton Hall (now scrubland with saplings), was used by the Marquis to hold a political meeting attended by over 10,000 of his Liberal supporters from all over Lincolnshire. He gave his speech from the garden steps which gave a suitable elevation for his address.

Plate 10: View of the W elevation showing the garden steps
from where the Marquis addressed his Liberal supporters

In the census for 1891, there is an entry for 'Nocton Hall Gardens' showing that a John Ridsdale was the gardener.

Following the sale of the Hall and estate to George Hodgson (a friend of Ripon), his eldest son John Hodgson came to Nocton Hall in 1895, to assume responsibility. It was John who constructed the extensive lake to the north of the Lime Avenue, to the east of the Hall. It was pump fed from Dunston Beck, thereby making it possible to stock the water with trout.

Plate 11: View of the lake to the E of Nocton Hall

By the time of the census in 1901, there is no mention of John Ridsdale, but a John Montgomery appears. Too many John's for my liking!

The character of the gardens and grounds was described in a Country Life article dated 28 Sep 1901 "... it will be noticed that broad lawns and dark masses of wood, with an abundance of flowers and evergreen bushes are the chief elements in the attraction of this pleasant house... it has a modest and admirable charm of its own, and is an example of what may be accomplished by many, who may bring Nature in her most pleasing form into the neighbourhood, and invest the surroundings of their houses with some of her fairest graces."

Plate 12: 'Nature in her most pleasing form...'

John Hodgson had a great fondness for marble statues, carved in seductive poses, he placed them in various locations around the grounds. These ethereal figures used to send shivers down the spine of estate workers returning late through the avenue of trees, especially as one could never be sure where they would pop up next.

When John died and his 25-year old son Norman Hodgson took over the Hall and estate, he had these statues removed and rehoused in Nocton Hall, disapproving as he was of his father's hobby. He also set out to improve the grounds by having the flower borders enlarged and stocked with a full variety of shrubs and herbaceous plants. Rose borders were created and filled with many varieties, providing a colourful display.

Species of rhododendron were first planted by Lord Ripon on the estate, but this collection was increased by Norman to add a mass of colour to the 400-acre Nocton Wood, which was already famous in Lincolnshire for its fantastic display of rhododendrons, lilies of the valley and bluebells. There is an historic oak in Nocton Wood, thought to be a old boundary marker, called 'The Nine Brethren', so-called for its nine separate trunks.

Plate 13: Bluebells in Nocton Wood adjacent to public footpath
[photo taken 20 Apr 2017]

The head gardener however, was rarely seen tending the gardens. His penchant was to perfect the chrysanthemum. The Squire, on his daily rounds, soon noticed that the junior gardeners seemed to be doing much of the work and with several acres of walled fruit and vegetable gardens, it became a laborious hunt for said head gardener. He was finally found in the greenhouse striving to produce the finest chrysanthemum. It resulted in Nocton winning the coveted chrysanthemum prize for three consecutive years at the Royal Horticultural Hall at Westminster before 1914.

The Garden House, Coachman's Cottage, Gate Lodge, orchards and walled gardens in the grounds of Nocton Hall were all to be included in the forthcoming sale of the estate to William H Dennis and Sons of Kirton in 1919. There is a fine memorial to Evangeline Brewster Dennis, wife of one of the Dennis family in the churchyard of All Saints Church.

Plate 14: Old fruit trees with walled garden in background
[photo taken 3 Oct 2011]

With the passing of Nocton Hall and gardens into corporate ownership, one can only presume a gardener and his assistants continued to maintain the grounds during its time as a convalescent home for wounded American soldiers. The 1937 Prospectus for the Boys Preparatory School mentioned: "The House is surrounded by beautiful lawns and private walks and approached by a long drive from the Lodge gates..." However, there is evidence that as time went on, especially during the period of WW2, there appeared to be a slow and inevitable decline.

It was only when the Air Ministry took over responsibility in 1946 that things really improved again, with the gardens and grounds being meticulously maintained.

Walking around the woodland and grounds surrounding Nocton Hall today, you can still see the template of the private walks lined by mature trees, obscured by the neglected laurel hedging that has become much too large for its location. There is a collection of cherry blossom trees surrounding the former lawn to the South of Nocton Hall that are very impressive in Spring. You can still experience the grandeur of the large Wellingtonias and feel the soft hollow, fibrous bark in russet red tones.

Plate 15: This is how the 'Laurel Walk' on S side
of Nocton Hall used to look

Even today the grounds are well-wooded and many trees extremely fine, so much so they are under Tree Protection Orders... unfortunately though, the lime avenue to the east is no longer there, nor is the trout lake.

Plate 16: Old map clearly showing the Lime Avenue
and the trout lake

Many trees in the grounds of Nocton Hall now require attention and there are masses of saplings that need to be removed to allow more light to reach the woodland floor. However, work is long overdue to give these fine specimens the care and attention they deserve. That said, it is still a pleasant landscape in which to wander and dream what this place was like in its heyday.

Sources of Information:
  • Country Homes and Gardens: Nocton Hall - The Seat of Mr J Hodgson (Country Life 28 Sep 1901)
  • EJ Willson and the Architectural History of Nocton Old Hall (Author: Carol Bennett)
  • Nocton – The Last Years of an Estate Village – Vol 1 (ISBN 978-1-873257-80-7)
  • Nocton – The Last Years of an Estate Village – Vol 2 (ISBN 978-1-907516-13-9)
  • Nocton Hall Preparatory School for Boys 6-14 Years of Age for the Public Schools and Royal Navy (1937)
  • Sheila Redshaw Collection
  • The Revelations of an Imp (Author: Douglas Craven-Hodgson)

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