Page last updated at 13:54 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 14:54 UK
Myth and legend at Hawkstone Park
Hawkstone Park
Hawkstone Park and Follies

Andrew Adamson's Chronicles of Narnia films have been celebrated by audiences and critics alike.

The films take advantage of New Zealand's varied and dramatic scenery to present a magical land.

However, in 1988 another landscape was inspiring film-makers shooting a BBC TV adaptation of CS Lewis's classic story.

The tale of good versus evil, rooted in a heady blend of the scriptures and classical mythology found its perfect backdrop at Hawkstone Park.

It is not the first time Hawkstone Park in Weston-under-Redcastle has been linked with a mythical tale.

Often associated with the Arthurian legends, author Graham Phillips, in his books King Arthur - The True Story and In Search of the Grail, identified it as being possibly the last resting place of King Arthur himself.

However, it is the stunning setting and the park's historic and quirky follies which must have really excited the BBC producers .

Featuring a series of tunnels, grottos and arches, amid a beautiful Shropshire landscape, it is easy to imagine Narnia's fauns wandering around. The gothic arch on Grotto Hill, one of the park's most distinctive features, provided Aslan with a dramatic route into Narnia.

Magic of Shropshire park

Even in the 18th Century tourists were flooding to Hawkstone, making it one of Britain's most popular tourist destinations. The 1988 TV version of CS Lewis's tale raised Hawkstone's profile once again.

Today the Grade I listed park attracts around 60,000 visitors a year.

History of Hawkstone Park and Follies

This part-natural, part man-made landscape began pulling in visitors more than 200 years ago, but it declined with the fortunes of the family who owned it.

In time, the estate was split up, and this bizarre collection of features set among four natural sandstone crags jutting out of the Shropshire plain decayed and lay forgotten by all but a few.

But in 1990 a rescue mission was mounted, and less than three years and £4m later, it opened to the paying public once again, restored, at least in part, to its former glory. Today it's one of the county's top tourist attractions .

View from the top of the Hawkstone column
View from the top of the Hawkstone column

In amongst the tree-capped hills there's a tower, a 100ft-tall column with a statue on top and a platform that gives views to the Wrekin, the Breidden hills and Wales, down to Cannock chase and across the plains of Shropshire and Cheshire.

There's a grotto, a stone arch and a series of caves on one of the hilltops, and a network of pathways that lead to spectacular views from clifftops.

But how did all this get here? Who built it and why?

The story begins with the building of a castle by Henry de Audley in 1227. Rising out of the plains, one of the crags was an ideal location for a castle befitting the Lord of the Welsh Marches, who was also the constable of both Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth.

Unfortunately the Audleys, Lords of Red Castle, as they were known, were not the luckiest of families, and many met untimely deaths.

Hawkstone Park grotto
Hawkstone Park grotto

When John Touchet took the title through his sister, he at least managed to survive wars with Owain Glyndwr and the Battle of Shrewsbury, where he fought against Hotspur. His son James was killed at the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459.

The end of the line for the Audleys came when James' grandson (another James) led a rebellion against the King in 1497 and was executed (although the title was later restored in 1512). However, the castle fell into ruin.

The Hill family

Sir Rowland Hill purchased Hawkstone in 1556, along with land at nearby Soulton and Haughmond. Hill was the first Protestant Lord Mayor of London and despite a brief imprisonment in the Tower of London, he was widely celebrated by Henry VIII, who knighted him in 1542.

Eventually the land passed via Sir Andrew Corbet of Moreton Corbet to Sir Rowland Hill, the first baronet, who lived nearby between 1737 and 1756.

By then, major changes had begun to happen in the land around the Red Castle. Sir Rowland (the great, great, great, grandson of Lord Mayor of London Sir Rowland Hill) had a taste for landscape gardening on a grand scale.

Hawkstone Park view
Hawkstone Park view

His uncle Richard 'The Great Hill' had travelled, but also made large sums of money by what was described as 'lucrative arithmetick', with which he raised the family into the aristocracy. He rebuilt the family seat of Hawkstone Hall, while his son concentrated on the grounds, as well as extending the estate.

By the time he died, the place was packed with curiosities, not least of which was a real life hermit, who would dispense wisdom to visitors.

Making the most of the lie of the land, he laid out walks over the four natural hills and the park grew so much in reputation, that it received a visit from a distinguished guest - Dr Samuel Johnson.

Dr Johnson was impressed, remarking on "…the awfulness of its shades, the horror of its precipices….". He also said it needed water - a remark Sir Roland's son took to heart.

Sir Richard Hill, the second baronet, took over on his father's death in 1783 and decided Hawkstone should be introduced to a wider public. He had a guide to the place published, and soon the tourists were rolling in.

Sir Richard enlisted landscape gardener William Emes to build a vast lake, the Hawk River, but the tourists were becoming so plentiful that he had to build the Hawkstone Inn and Hotel to house them.

Hawkstone arch
Hawkstone arch

He added the 'ruined' Gothic arch on Grotto Hill, the urn, a tribute to a Civil War ancestor, but also most noticeably the obelisk: a 100-foot-high column with an internal staircase, topped by a statue of the family's founding father, the original Sir Rowland Hill.

Added to this there were numerous other changes, including the construction of the Swiss Bridge.

Hawkstone Park was one of Britain's top attractions by the time the second baronet died in 1809, and his brother took over the estate, leaving it roughly as it was.

But after generations of gradual building and improving, it was all about to fall apart. The fourth baronet (yet another) Sir Rowland Hill, inherited a large fortune, but still managed to spend every penny.

He created two new drives, one at vast expense in a rock cutting, and even considered completely relocating the hall across the park.

His son, Rowland Clegg Hill, inherited an estate in chaos in 1875, but was bankrupt within 20 years. The contents of the hall were sold and then in 1906 splitting up of the estate began in earnest.

By then the walks and all the features had been neglected for a good 50 years, and the estate was sold off bit by bit around it.

20th Century

Inside Hawkstone Hall
Inside Hawkstone Hall (no longer part of the park)

The hall and lake were bought by a group of Roman Catholics known as the Redemptorist Fathers in 1926 and set it up as a religious retreat. The hotel and a large part of the park - later to become a golf course - were sold, too.

During World War Two, parts of the park were even used as a prisoner of war camp, and the decay of the follies continued.

By the time it was bought in 1990, the walks were overgrown, the column had lost its statue and suffered from weather erosion. The white tower was dilapidated and the Red Castle, once a feature in the walks, was a shadow of its former self.

Today, Hawkstone Park lives again and is protected as a Grade I historic park, although the restoration isn't finished yet.

The park near the village of Weston-under-Redcastle, and is signposted from the A49 between Shrewsbury and Whitchurch. Opening times and days vary throughout the year, so it's best to check Hawkstone Park's website for that and admission information.




SEE ALSO
Magic of Shropshire park
15 Aug 08 |  England
Secret historic stairs uncovered
02 Mar 09 |  Shropshire
Finding peace at Hawkstone Hall
17 Aug 09 |  Religion & Ethics

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