Yorkshire Walks - Hackfall Wood near Ripon
PUBLISHED: 12:04 17 November 2009 | UPDATED: 19:48 18 April 2019
Paul Kirkwood rediscovers the lost paths of Hackfall Wood near Ripon
It's hard to believe that a corner of Yorkshire remains uncharted. Hackfall Wood, north of Grewelthorpe, is something of a mystery, but this only adds to its appeal.
An Ordnance Survey map isn't much help. A mass of tiny dotted black lines indicate some of the footpaths but it's not clear which are public rights of way and there's no indication of the best way to enter the wood. No features are named and some of them aren't even marked.
Googling Hackfall doesn't bring up a walking guide or route – not even on the website for the Woodland Trust which owns it. Inquiries at tourist information centres also draw a blank. In the end I gave up detailed planning and just turned up. At least the new car park is easy to find but, predictably, there was no board suggesting routes or explaining the wood.
All I had to rely on as I struck out was a single sentence of directions painted onto a rusty old sign, a poor sense of direction and a determination to get to the bottom of this clandestine woodland.
When in doubt I followed the clearest boot prints and paths with old stone steps. They give a hint of Hackfall's fascinating history. It was created in the mid-18th century by William Aislabie as a sort of alternative version of Studley Royal, developed by his father down the road at Fountains Abbey.
Until the early 20th century when Hackfall fell into decay, tourists flocked to marvel at the wooded gorge and the follies, mock ruins and water features strategically placed to enhance its natural beauty and add intrigue.
Perhaps the most striking of them is an old banqueting house now simply called 'the ruin' and restored in 2004 as a holiday home by the Landmark Trust. The front elevation looks ordinary enough except for the tops of two ruined arches poking above the roofline.
To the rear the extent of the deceit is apparent. Standing on the balustraded terrace, Aislabie's original visitors looked back at the house but only after they had gasped at a spectacular surprise view across the gorge in front of them.
This is a good point to get your bearings. To the left you can see the pond and the peninsula from which a fountain spurted water high into the air in Hackfall's heyday. To the right you can see Fisher's Hall, a once thatched octagonal building named after William Fisher, Aislabie's gardener.
The third eye-catcher is Mowbray Castle, a sham ruined tower named after the De Mowbrays, fierce medieval knights who lived near here.
These sightlines – and a view from Limehouse Hill towards Masham church – have only recently been opened up under the wood's partial restoration. Other work has included repairs to some of the buildings and the positioning of benches in grottos and at other viewpoints.
Dropping down to the river and back up again on the other side o the gorge takes you to the castle where the view back towards the ruin has also been reinstated. It appears to float like an exotic treehouse on a canopy as dense as a rain forest. Drizzle, on one of my visits, gave the impression of rising steam and the roar of the churning river heightens the Amazonian atmosphere.
Experienced at twilight on a winter's afternoon this is a spooky, other worldly place (every cracked branch and scuttling squirrel will make your heart race a little faster). Nothing is quite as it seems here.What I thought from a distance was a ruined cottage turned out to be a square of felled trees and a desolate stump.
As you explore keep a look-out for Lovers' Leap, the Alum cascade, the Forty Foot Fall, Gothic servants hall and Weeping Rock (feel free to make up your own stories for these little gems).
For my final recce of Hackfall, I met a couple who had picked up a map in the car park. One of several in a plastic wallet hanging from a gate by a bulldog clip, it was a photocopy of a 19th century map with paths and legends written on in a spidery hand. Too little, too late perhaps, but I'd had so much fun getting lost that I didn't mind a bit.
1. Leave car park via gate and follow track downhill. Turn right in direction of signs to Hackfall and pass through two gates to enter wood.
After 20 paces turn right up a path. Follow it past the Lovers Leap viewpoint to The Ruin.
2. Between 11am and 3pm you can walk across the terrace at rear of the building but outside these hours you must walk around the front (to the right). Continue ahead and past a Gothic servants hall. Descend to a crossroads of paths. Turn left and continue for 100 yards to view the Alum cascade on the far river bank.
3. Retrace steps to crossroads and turn left. Follow path to a new wooden footbridge. Don't cross it but bear left and over a smaller bridge. Continue bearing left (rather than ahead) and walk along the opposite side of the river. This path takes you above the cascade (with views down to Kent's Seat) and up to Mowbray Castle. Eventually it leads down via steps to the riverside at which point turn left. Divert from the path briefly via stone steps leading up to the left to visit Fisher's Hall.
4. Retrace your steps and continue along riverside path. At a waymarker post continue in same direction. Pass the Sandbed Hut (a bench set within three low walls) then between a pair of old stone gateposts. At the next junction take the middle of three footpaths at 11 o'clock upwards. It switches back three times before bringing you out to the viewpoint towards Masham church.
5. Descend to a wall and turn left. Immediately after the sign for 'Limehouse Hill viewpoint' turn left and downhill. The path joins up with your out-going route, passing between the gateposts again. At the waymarker post this time bear right to pass Weeping Rock.
6. At a T-junction turn right and immediately fork left in front of a seat. Pass the Forty Foot Fall to your left and grotto to your right to reach the Rustic Temple. Continue ahead and up. As you approach a clearing turn left then bear right following sign for 'Way out to road' back to car park.
Parking: free car park ¾ mile north of Grewelthorpe on the Masham road.
Distance: about three miles
Time: allow at least half a day despite the short distance
Terrain: paths are steep and often muddy
Refreshments: The Crown Inn, Grewelthorpe, 01765 658210. Open for lunch every day except Mon
Map: free map available (if not all taken) from car park and online
Further information: see www.tinyurl.com/62u3nl