A Brief History of Hawkstone Park
“Oft had I heard of Hawkstone Park, It’s much frequented ground, But all description was but dark, Compar’d with what I found”.
From a poem entitled “The Beauties of Hawkstone Park” by J W Salmon, published around 1800
Constructed around dramatic sandstone cliffs rising abruptly from the Shropshire Plain and with so many attractions to see, it is little wonder that Hawkstone was once one of the most visited landscapes in Britain.
It may seem curious to say so, but to describe the scenery of Hawkstone Park as “beautiful” does it less than justice. It is much more than this. It has a remarkable capacity to surprise, amaze and grip the imagination and having caught your imagination it leads it on. For example, one moment your eye luxuriates at close quarters over the rocks and wild vegetation, then you see a building, the Red Castle for instance, which rouses your curiosity and calls for its story to be told. Then the full drama of the landscape breaks upon you. An extensive plain stretches beguilingly into the distance but at the same time it seems to lap, like a still sea, at the foot of Hawkstone’s abrupt and rocky cliffs. The picturesque details and romantic scenes are now replaced by a sense of wonder and awe at the grandeur of the scenery. The high pitch of emotional excitement that is generated by this last state of mind would in the past have been described as “sublime”. It is certainly a landscape in which a sense of the “sublime” predominates.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the terms ‘The Beautiful’, ‘The Romantic’ and ‘The Sublime’ were on everyone’s lips, they were the highly fashionable catchwords of the time. There is little doubt that it was these feelings that guided members of the Hill family when laying out the park in the 18th century. It is a masterpiece of the School of Naturalistic Landscaping which developed in this country in the 18th century and this influence spread around the world and eventually became known at the ‘English Style’ which rejected the straight lines and geometrical approach which had previously been the accepted rule in laying out gardens and grounds. Instead, it sought to imitate and bring out natural effects and incorporate natural features to greatest advantage.
Who built it? And why?
The story of Hawkstone begins with the building of a castle by Henry de Audley in 1227. It was built on one of the crags rising from the plain and was an ideal location for a castle befitting the Lords of the Welsh Marches. One of the Audleys managed to survive wars with Owain Glyndwr and the Battle of Shrewsbury where he fought against Hotspur. James Audley was killed at the Battle of Blore Heath nearby in 1459. Another James led a rebellion against the King in 1497 and was executed. The castle subsequently fell into ruin. A couple of hundred years later these Medieval ruins inspired Richard Hill to incorporate the Red Castle – named after the local red sandstone from which it was constructed – and make it a central feature (with a few embellishments) of the park he would develop using the existing natural features.
The area came into the ownership of the Hauckestan (“Hawkstone”) family. The last descendant of this family sold Hawkstone to Rauf Adderley of London. Adderley conveyed it to Thomas Lodge who sold it to Sir Rowland Hill on 2nd November 1556 for £700.00. After a short period in the hands of Sir Andrew Corbet of Moreton Corbet, from then on the Hill family (who could trace back their lineage to William the Conqueror) guided the fortunes of Hawkstone for the next 340 years.
The Hill Family
SIR ROWLAND HILL (1492 – 1561) Lord Mayor of London
Rowland amassed a large fortune through foreign commerce in textiles. He was elected Sheriff of London in 1541 and Lord Mayor in 1549, the first Protestant to hold the office. After the dissolution of the monasteries he bought lands which had once belonged to the Abbeys of Shrewsbury, Haughmond and Lilleshall. Together with his purchase of Hawkstone and Soulton this gave him immense property.
Three generations of ‘Rowlands’ succeeded Sir Rowland but did not expand their estate. This changed when Richard Hill inherited Hawkstone
RICHARD HILL (1655 – 1727) –‘ The Great Hill ‘
Richard was educated at Shrewsbury and Cambridge. He became an influential and wealthy diplomat. Like Sir Rowland, Richard invested his large fortune in land, establishing estates which he settled on his family. His fame as a diplomat and the great inheritance which he built for his family in North Shropshire raised them from the ranks of Gentry to Aristocracy.
Richard Hill’s travels as a diplomat allowed him to explore and experience the architecture and landscape gardens of Europe. Inspired by these he initiated changes at Hawkstone around 1699, and following the fashion of the day he gradually incorporated the ‘English Style’ of gardening as mentioned previously.
After his retirement he expanded the Hawkstone estate. The Hall was rebuilt with courtyards, gardens and tree lined walks. Over one hundred tonnes of pebbles were imported in the summer of 1721 to make terraces and drives.
SIR ROWLAND HILL – 1st Baronet (1705 – 1783)
Richard the ‘Great Hill’ established the family both by inheritance and title. The succession of his nephew, Sir Rowland in 1727 saw a desire to improve the estate. It is under Sir Rowland and his son Richard that the main developments which we see today occurred.
Sir Rowland appears to have constructed a kitchen garden on the steep south facing slopes to the east of the Terrace, known as the Vineyard although no grapevines ever grew there. This had mock fortifications and marked the early phase of the development of the ornamental walks for which Hawkstone became renowned.
The Terrace Walk was created on top of a high natural cliff of white sandstone connected at the north west end to Grotto Hill. Alongside the Terrace but separated from it by the Grand Valley is Elysian Hill.
SIR RICHARD HILL (1732 – 1809) 2nd Baronet
Although the new developments were attributed to Sir Rowland, evidence suggests that his attention was on remodelling the Hall whilst his son Richard spent his time working on the park. When Richard succeeded his father when he was 51 in 1783, he proceeded with extensive work on the park, providing local employment.
There were already features in the park, one of which was a hermit’s summer residence complete with a hermit. It is possible that this was installed by one of the previous owners. The Hermitage was once a hut with rubble stone walls, heather thatch and a stable door. It was home of ‘the venerable barefooted Father Francis’ who was probably the old hermit. The hermit would sit at a glass table where there was a skull, the emblem of immortality, an hour glass, a book and a pair of spectacles. If he was awake he would greet the visitor by standing up and conversing. These lines were also written inside his hut:
“Momento Mori” “ Far from the busy scenes of life Far from the world its caves and strife In the solitude more pleas’d to dwell The hermit bids you to his cell Warns you sin’s gilded bait to fly And calls you to prepare to die”
Other features that were already in place included the following: the Summerhouse and Cold Bath along the path from the Hall to Grotto Hill, the Grotto complete with the Awful Precipice; The Ravens’ Shelf; a Rustic Sofa covered in Moss; Paoli’s Point and the Vis a Vis, all on Grotto Hill. The Ship’s Beak; the Retreat; the Canopy and Indian Rock; the Fox’s Knob; St. Francis’s Cave; the Terrace Walk; the White Tower and the Vineyard all on Terrace Hill. Red Castle Hill with the medieval ruined castle contained the Giant’s Well and Lion’s Den complete with stately stone lion, while the local tales told of its former inhabitants, the two giants named Tarquin and Tarquinius.
Richard constructed the Scene in Otaheite centred on a hut which was modelled on one that is shown in an engraving of a scene from Captain Cook’s voyages in the South Seas. The Temple of Patience was renamed Gingerbread Hall “in consequence of that article being sold there”.
On the southern slopes of the Terrace, the Greenhouse and the Menagerie were constructed. Small animals, monkeys and other creatures, large and rare species of birds were kept in the Menagerie House until, sadly, they died. At one end, used as a museum, stuffed specimens of former inhabitants were exhibited.
Following a visit in 1774 Dr Samuel Johnson (the famous 18th century writer, wit and lexicographer) remembered ‘its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows and the loftiness of its rocks… Above is inaccessible altitude, below is horrible profundity’. He also commented that, although this was “a region abounding with striking scenes and terrifick grandeur”, what it did need was water, so in 1784 the construction of the Hawk Lake commenced – this immense body of water nearly 1½ miles long and 100 metres in width winds around the park and its features. This again provided employment for the locals and it’s design is attributed to Henry Flitcroft and landscaped with the aid of William Emes. At the southern end of this Hawk Lake a scene from Holland was created, with a small cottage in the Dutch style and a windmill. Both were functional estate buildings as well as a visual contribution to the landscape. Behind the cottage was a garden, entered through a whalebone arch, and containing a large statue of Neptune with attendants. At the height of the Park’s fame, this was the entrance to the Park and visitors walked down to Neptune’s Whim from the Hawkstone Inn. The statue of Neptune can now be seen on the Hawkstone Golf Course, overlooking the 16th green.
On one of his visits the previously mentioned Dr Johnson named the ‘Awful Precipice’ which was no doubt a play on words as the view from the edge of the cliff was certainly awe-inspiring.
Whilst carving out the walks for people to enjoy, Sir Richard dew out moral and religious themes at selected places. He put inscriptions for people to read. Delight, humour and romantic fancy were all parts of his character.
Remarkably, descriptive guidebooks go back as early as 1783, and in the 19th and 20th Centuries there were four generations of guides in the same family (the Jones’s).
The romance of Hawkstone Park was achieved by grand expression. Richard added the splendid Gothic Arch above the Grotto as an eye catcher, through which could be seen a splendid view of Cannon Bank, Elysian Hill and The Citadel with its crenulations in the distance. He also unearthed the majestic Cleft (a natural feature) on Grotto Hill and made a new passage from it into the Grotto. The Grotto itself, possibly originally a Roman copper mine, was “encrusted with costly shells, selected from the remotest regions of the sea and inlaid with fossils from the deepest recesses of the earth”. Some of these encrustations were in fact a waste product from the new iron industry in Coalbrookdale – branded turquoise furnace slag! The window spaces were filled in with coloured glass and the whole effect of the place must have been astonishing.
In commemoration of Sir Rowland Hill, the first protestant Lord Mayor of London, a Monument was erected from which it is said thirteen counties can be seen (on a clear day!) and in a token of affection an Urn was placed in memory of another ancestor Rowland Hill of Hawkstone, a zealous royalist who was allegedly imprisoned in the Red Castle whilst his house was pillaged and ransacked by parliamentary rebels!
Other features developed at this time are a Scene from Switzerland containing the Swiss Bridge, and Reynard’s Walk, a meandering path beneath the Terrace passing from Fox’s Knob to The Urn.
By the time of Sir Richard’s death in 1808 Hawkstone was one of the show places in the country. Visitors would come in huge numbers and often stay for a couple of days. There would be sailing on the Hawk Lake and guided walks. Lady Hill’s Drive was a carriageway which was constructed all along the top of the Terrace for three miles through to the village of Marchamley. Some routes may have passed the Citadel, a house built to resemble a castle and erected by Sir Richard for his steward George Downward in 1785.
After the intense activity of Sir Richard’s custodianship the park entered a period of stability. Richard’s brother John, a father of 16, was content to leave the house and park as he found them.
This inn was described in the 2nd Edition of the Rodenhurst Guide (1784) as ‘a very good Inn and genteely fitted up for the reception of company who resort thither to see the park’….. this then became a hotel and by 1799 the 6th edition of the same book wrote ‘a handsome, spacious, excellent Inn with pleasure grounds, bowling green etc. belonging to it called HAWKSTONE INN AND HOTEL’
GENERAL LORD HILL 1st Viscount
The 3rd Baronet’s Second Son, Rowland was the famous General Lord Hill of Almarez and Hawkstone, and although never the owner of it, he was closely associated with it.
He was a distinguished commander who was nicknamed ‘Daddy Hill’ for his way of caring and nurturing his troops. He was second in command to the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo and on his return to Shropshire in 1814 his popularity was great with thousands lining the streets of Shrewsbury to welcome him. He stands aloft Lord Hill’s Column in Shrewsbury which commemorates his achievements.
Sir Richard had left him Hardwicke Grange, in nearby Hadnall, to which he returned in 1818, but he was a regular guest at Hawkstone Hall especially for glittering reunions which Wellington attended. SIR ROWLAND HILL 4th Baronet and 2nd Viscount (1800 – 1875) The 4th Baronet enjoyed life and also liked spending money – he inherited a large fortune which was supplemented by his wife, Ann Clegg.
Dissatisfied by the house he inherited he called in architect Lewis Wyatt to advise him and after careful consideration decided upon a remodelling of the existing building instead of moving it to a new location on the estate! He built two new drives including the one from St Luke’s church in Weston-under-Redcastle through to the Hall – here he bored an opening through the base of Grotto Hill, resulting in a spectacular archway drawing the eye through to the green parkland beyond. The cost of this work must have been exorbitant and at this time the Park was also extended towards Marchamley. A herd of Elland deer was introduced.
Partly due to Sir Rowland’s excesses, there was a gradual decline in the fortunes of the Hill family and in 1935 the estate was sold and parts of it split up, including the separation of the Hall from its Park.
There was one feature, however, which did not suffer from neglect. New varieties of trees had been brought back from abroad during the 18th century and planted on the tops of the hills and along the Terrace. Chestnuts, spruce, scotch pines and even Monkey Puzzles and Californian Redwoods flourished during this period, some of which are still standing strong today.
Myths and legends abound here – stories have been told about the Giants, Tarquin and Tarquinius (after whom the Giant’s Well was named), and Hawkstone was also believed by many to be the home and last resting place of King Arthur, many tales being told about his exploits and those of his knights. It is rumoured that a small green chalice found at Hawkstone Park back in the mists of time (and no-one knows of its whereabouts now) was believed to be the Holy Grail.
20th Century onwards
After the sale the Park gradually fell into disrepair and decay, and lay virtually forgotten except by local children who loved to explore its hidden treasures. Had it been possible to keep Hawkstone in repair it would undoubtedly have been recognised as one of the foremost gardens in Europe. In 1985 such was the level of concern at a national as well as local level that the Countryside Commission and English Heritage together with Shropshire County Council offered the then owners funding to appoint consultants with the aim of producing a restoration and management plan.
In 1986 the Park was designated by English Heritage as a Grade 1 Listed Landscape in the recently introduced Register of Historic Gardens and Parks.
The restoration was a massive project undertaken by a team of consultants from the fields of landscape, architecture, historical research and interpretive design. It was completed in 1993 and the Park was finally opened to the public once more.
There are still treasures waiting to be discovered, hidden away in the undergrowth. In 2009, whilst rebuilding the Hermitage following a severe fire, hidden steps in the rock were discovered which had been buried beneath a mound of soil. This lends credence to the old tales about the tour guides who used to lead people around the front path of the Hermitage, then disappear and miraculously re-appear as “the hermit” to entertain the crowds.
Since the period of restoration, successive owners have diligently cared for the Park and its attractions to safeguard its future and to enable generations to come to appreciate this extraordinary place.