The Very Thought of You
Prologue May 1964 My dearest
, Of all the many people we meet in a lifetime, it is strange that so many of us find ourselves in thrall to one particular person. Once that face is seen, an involuntary heartache sets in for which there is no cure. All the wonder of this world finds shape in that one person, and thereafter there is no reprieve, because this kind of love does not end, or not until death—
Guide to the Historic Houses of England (2007)
Any visitor travelling north from York will pass through a flat vale of farmland before rising steeply onto the wide upland plateau of the North Yorkshire Moors. Here is some of the wildest and loveliest land in England, where high rolling moorland appears to reach the horizon on every side, before subsiding into voluptuous wooded valleys.
These moors are remote and empty, randomly scattered with silent sheep and half-covered tracks. It is unfenced land of many moods. In February the place is barren and lunar, prompting inward reflection. But late in August this wilderness surges into bloom, igniting a purple haze of heather which sweeps across the moors as if released to the air. This vivid wash of color mingles with the oaks and ashes of the valleys below, where the soft limestone land flows with numerous streams and secret springs.
It is hallowed territory, graced with many medieval monasteries, all now picturesque ruins open to the sky. Rievaulx, Byland, Jervaulx, Whitby, Fountains—these are some of the better-known abbeys in these parts, and their presence testifies to the fertile promise of the land. The early monastic settlers cleared these valleys for farming, and left behind a patchwork of fields marked by many miles of drystone walls.
Nearly two centuries later, long after the monasteries had been dissolved, the Georgian gentry built several fine estates in the valleys bordering these moors. Hovingham Hall, Duncombe Park, Castle Howard and others. Trees were cleared for new vistas, grass terraces levelled and streams diverted
into ornamental lakes—all to clarify and enhance the natural patterns of the land, as was the eighteenth-century custom.
One of the finest of these houses, if not necessarily the largest, is Ashton Park. This remote house stands on the edge of the moors, perched high above the steep Rye Valley and theatrically isolated in its wide park. For some years now, the house and its gardens have been open to the public. At one corner of an isolated village stand the ornate iron gates, and the park lodge where visitors buy their tickets. Beyond, a long white drive leads through a rising sweep of parkland, dotted with sheep and the occasional tree. It is a tranquil park, silent and still, with a wide reach of sky.
Turning to the left, the visitor sees at last the great house itself, a Palladian mansion of honeyed stone, balanced on either side with curved wings. Topping the forecourt gates are two stone figures rearing up on hind legs, a lion and a unicorn, each gazing fiercely at the other as if sworn to secrecy.
The house appears a touch doleful in its solitary grandeur, an impression which only intensifies when one enters the imposing but empty Marble Hall, with its scattering of statues on plinths. Red rope cordons mark the start of a house tour through reception rooms dressed like stage sets, leading this visitor to wonder how the house could have dwindled into quite such a counterfeit version of its past.
The guide brochure explains that when the last Ashton died, in 1979, there remained only a distant cousin in South Africa. Mrs Sandra De Groot, wife of a prominent manufacturer, appears to have been so daunted by her inheritance that she agreed to hand Ashton Park over to the National Trust in lieu of drastic death duties. But not before the estate was stripped of its remaining farmland and other valuable assets. Two Rubens paintings were sold, alongside a Claude Lorrain, a Salvator Rosa and a pair of Constables. Soon after, her lawyers organized a sweeping sale of the house contents—a multitude
of Ashton treasures accumulated over three hundred years, all recorded without sentiment in a stapled white inventory.
One pair of carved George IV giltwood armchairs, marked; one Regency rosewood and brass-inlaid breakfast table; one nineteenth-century ormolu centerpiece …
Antique dealers from far and wide still reminisce about the Ashton auction of 1980, the final rite of a house in decline. It is said that a queue of removal vans clogged the drive for days afterwards.
Mrs De Groot was apparently not without family feeling, because she donated a number of display cabinets to the National Trust, together with the house library and many family portraits and papers. In a curious detail, the brochure mentions that “the exquisite lacquered cigarette cases of the late Elizabeth Ashton were sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum”.
According to the notes, Ashton Park had fallen into disrepair before its reclamation. But the curators retrieved plenty of family relics and mementoes, and the walls are now hung with photographs of the Ashton sons at Eton, at Oxford, in cricket teams, in uniform. A look of permanence lingers in their faces. Downstairs are photographs of the servants, the butler and his staff all standing on the front steps, their gaze captured in that strange measure of slow time so characteristic of early cameras.
Beyond the Morning Room and past the Billiard Room, a small study displays an archive of wartime evacuees. It appears that an evacuees’ boarding school was established at Ashton Park in 1939, and a touching photograph album reveals children of all sizes smiling in shorts and gray tunics; handwritten letters, sent in later years, describe the pleasures and sorrows of their time there.
In the last corridor there is only one photograph, an elegant wedding picture of the final Ashton heir, dated 1929. Thomas Ashton is one of those inscrutably handsome prewar men with swept-back hair, and his wife Elizabeth is a raven-haired period beauty not unlike Vivien Leigh. Their expressions carry no hint of future losses, no sense that their house will one day become a museum.
On high days and holidays, Ashton Park attracts plenty of day-trippers. An estate shop sells marmalade and trinkets, while the gardens offer picnic spots, woodland trails and dubious medieval pageants on the south lawn. And yet visitors may drive away from Ashton Park feeling faintly dejected, because the spirit of this place has somehow departed.
This melancholy cannot be traced to any dilapidation. The roof is intact, the lawns freshly mown, and the ornamental lake looks almost unnaturally limpid. But the dark windows stare out blankly—a haunted gaze. Beyond the display areas are closed corridors and unreclaimed rooms stacked with pots of paint and rusting stepladders. The small family chapel remains but is rarely visited: it is too far out of the way to qualify for the house tour.
Perhaps it is the family’s absence which gives Ashton its pathos. It appears that there were three sons and a daughter at the start of the last century, and yet none of them produced heirs. By what cumulative misfortune did this once prosperous family reach its end? The brochure notes do not detail how or why the Ashton line died out, yet a curious visitor cannot help but wonder.
But for all this, one can still stand on the sunken lawn and almost apprehend the house in its heyday, even amidst the signposts and litter bins. One can imagine how others—in earlier times, in the right weather—might have found in this place a peerless vision of English parkland.
There is one tree which particularly draws the eye, a glorious
ruddy copper beech which stands alone on a small lawn by the rose garden. It was on a bench under this tree that the duty staff recently found an elderly woman sitting alone after closing hours, apparently enjoying the view. On closer inspection she was found to be serenely dead, her fingers locked around a faded love letter.