Nun Appleton

Andrew Marvell
after unknown artist
line engraving, published 1681, NPG

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.


Andrew Marvell, , NPG by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, circa 1655-1660

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.

Thomas Lord Fairfax by William Marshall, published by John Partridge, after Edward Bower, line engraving, published 1647 NPG

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.

Mary Fairfax, Duchess of Buckingham by John Michael Wright, York Museums Trust;

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.

Nun Appleton Lake and hall, early 20thc                                                                                                          from [a blog about someone born on the estate in 1905]

The Fairfax Memorial, in nearby Bilborough churchyard

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.

Nun Appleton Hall and Park                                                                 


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.

Nun Appleton Hall & Park from Google Earth

Nun Appleton
by Daniel King

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.

An extract from Upon Appleton House.

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.

The woods, 1984

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.

Nun Appleton Hall, 
© Copyright Ian S,2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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…?

Extract from OS map Yorkshire 205 
Surveyed: 1845 to 1846Published: 1849 National Library of Scotland

The fishpond, apparently surrounded by fragments of mediaeval masonry, 1984

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.

Extrcat from OS map Yorkshire CCV.8 
Surveyed: 1890, Published: 1893, National Library of Scotland


There doesn’t seem to have been much change [to my untutored eye] by the 1950s.

Extract from OS map Yorkshire CCV.NE 
Revised: 1950, Published: 1952 National Library of Scotland


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.

The Outbuildings at Nun Appleton Hall
 © Copyright Ian S 2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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]

Claire Balding, contemporary landscape poet,
John Wedgwood Clarke, contemporary landscape poet, and Stewart Mottram a Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Hull University. from

“A land locked public right of way
To get to this public right of way as shown on up to date Ordnance Survey maps you must trespass over private property at Nun Appleton Estate.” © Copyright Ian S 2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

“Locked gate near Jew Leys Lane
There is another gate & fence past this one which was open so we could gain access to the public right of way on Dam Lane. Nun Appleton Estate.” © Copyright Ian S 2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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 …”

“Red Lodge – Nun Appleton Estate
Taken from the OS documented bridleway. The track swings left before the lodge and access to Dam Lane is gained through security gates.” © Copyright Andrew Whale, 2010 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

These can be followed via  a local webforum, the inspectors report and  via the local council’s planning department.

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.

The house in 1984

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?

“The end of the path on Oak Avenue
At this point Oak Avenue is blocked off by a 7 feet deer fence. So we retraced our steps to Jew Leys Lane. Part of the Nun Appleton Estate.” © Copyright Ian S 2014 and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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3 Responses to Nun Appleton

  1. Paul Adams says:

    Nun Appleton inspired the great english composer William Baines.

  2. Paul Mottram says:

    i used to live there in red lodge my father was a game keeper for miss joan and martin dawson brown at the time i went to ashfield secondry moderen school and my younger brothers went to appleton roebuck , we used to get home made butter from the home farm and i went fishing in the farm pond and the river warf miss joan was a lovely person so very kind to us all sad to see it all gone now

  3. Natasha Charpentier says:

    Such a sad story. The gardens at Nun Appleton were so beautiful and well kept. A shame.

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