ANNESLEY HALL AND OLD CHURCH: what does the future hold for historic gems?

FORLORN SIGHT -- Annesley Hall, pictured this week, seven weeks after a fire.
FORLORN SIGHT -- Annesley Hall, pictured this week, seven weeks after a fire.

The future of two of Ashfield’s most iconic and treasured historical landmarks is under the microscope.

Annesley Hall, boarded up and broken down, is a forlorn sight after the fire that ripped through the ancient building seven weeks ago.

With its links to literary legend Lord Byron, the Hall could be attracting tourists. Instead it is a magnet for curious trespassers, ghost-hunters and petty criminals, who are now being urged to stay away by the owners and the police.

Next door, challenging times also lie ahead for Annesley Old Church, which featured in the works of D.H.Lawrence, as well as Byron.

Volunteers worked tirelessly to restore the crumbling ruins, which date back to 1356. But now funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has dried up, and worried visitors say signs of decay and neglect are creeping in again.

So what next for the two architectural attractions that lend a claim to fame to Annesley, the village of the Hidden Valleys?

The decline of the Hall, a grade two listed country house, provides stark contrast to its heyday as the ancestral home to the Chaworth-Musters, one of the most powerful families in Nottinghamshire.

It was here that Mary Chaworth, the boyhood love of Byron, lived in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Byron, who resided at nearby Newstead Abbey. tells in his poem, ‘The Dream’, of how they met on Diadem Hill, which was part of the Annesley estate. It broke his heart when Mary shunned his advances and instead married John Musters, of Colwick Hall, in 1805.

The Chaworth-Musters family remained in residence until selling the Hall in 1972. The new buyers carried out lots of alterations, but another fire caused untold damage in 1997 and the building has not been lived in since.

In poor condition and not open to the public, it was described as “of high vulnerability and deteriorating” by English Heritage, who placed the Hall on its Buildings At Risk register.

The building’s private owners are listed officially as East Midlands Developments Ltd, an estate management company, whose base at Mansfield Road, Tibshelf is also the headquarters of property rental agency, Dennis Rye Ltd.

Boss Dennis Rye is semi-retired, so many of the firm’s management responsibilities now fall on his 47-year-old son, Stephen Rye.

The Ryes have been reticent about their plans for the Hall, which has infuriated locals keen to see the landmark given a new lease of life.

The fire on Saturday 16th May, which severely damaged two of the three floors, has surely brought matters to a head.

Alan Jackson, a contributer to the Annesley Old Church Project Facebook page, summed up the feelings of many when he wrote: “Something needs to be done. Such a beautiful building and yet it has been rotting for years.”

Mr Rye jnr insisted this week that the clamour for action will be addressed.

“We are very serious about our plans for Annesley Hall,” he said. “We have had ownership of the building for a number of years and now we want to do something about it.

“We have put a lot of funds into Annesley Hall, and we were talking to Ashfield District Council about it even before the fire. I am happy to let people know about our plans at the right time.”

Mr Rye is wary of divulging too much until he can be sure planning permission will be granted by the relevant authorities. And in any event, for now, he is more concerned about unwanted visitors and vandals who are hindering work on repairing the Hall after the blaze. He blames stories in the media suggesting the building was haunted, tempting ghost-hunters and daredevils to go and have a look. In 2005, the TV show, ‘Most Haunted’, paid a visit to the Hall. But last month, it was the turn of ‘Countryfile’ -- for an item on rural crime.

Mr Rye has liaised with Ashfield South police, whose chief, Insp Nick Butler, confirmed there is a problem at the estate which they are taking very seriously.

“Annesley Hall is of great significance for its architecture and heritage,” said Insp Butler. “It is a beautiful site. But it is also not a safe site because it is under repair. There are holes in the ground, wells and tripping hazards, so walking around the site, especially at night, is not advisable. It is dangerous and it is private property that is boarded up and fenced off.

“There have been lots of break-ins and, in partnership with the owners, we have had to put a plan in place that includes patrolling the grounds.

“We caught five offenders only last week and although they said they were just hanging around and talking, some criminal damage was caused on that same night.”

Policing a 140-acre site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is not easy, Insp Butler admits. “But there is a real need for a police presence because people are going there and causing damage,” he said.

“My message is: stay away from the place. There have been no sightings of ghosts. The site is under renovation and various hazards could cause serious injury. Anyone caught trespassing will be arrested and will also be prosecuted, through the civil courts, by the landowners.”

So there we have it. Annesley Hall, once the majestic pile of revered gentry and haven of romance for one of Britain’s greatest poets, is now a no-go zone, even for ghosts. And the wait to save the Hall, or restore it to its former glories, goes on.

As Byron himself once wrote: “So we’ll go no more a-roving, So late into the night, Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright.

“For the sword outwears its sheath, And the soul wears out the breast, And the heart must pause to breathe, And love itself have rest.”