When travelling to Buxton from Derby, as we did in May to visit the annual Buxton Antiques Fair, we usually go via Ashbourne and the A515 rather than the A6, which is slower, if more direct. This takes us through Fenny Bentley and one of the delights of passing that village is to be able to refresh oneself at the Coach and Horses (usually on the way back) and the other is to catch sight of the Old Hall, situated on a corner of the road just beyond the pub, as one sweeps up the hill towards the railway bridge.
What one sees is the arresting sight of a gnarled old square three storey stone tower with a couple of superimposed doorways facing the road, shielded on the west by a remnant of cyclopean walling. Attached, behind, is a 17th century house of two storeys with a wide attic gable. The ensemble is delightful and arresting, and the tower marks the surviving vestiges of another lost Derbyshire country house, described by Samuel and Daniel Lysons as ‘once a large castellated mansion’
At Domesday, Bentley was held as an outlier of the King’s manor of Ashbourne, but by the 1180s it appears to have become constituted as a separate manorial estate, and was held by Richard de Bentley. Presumably his family built a capital mansion there, probably moated (the present site is said to contain remnants of a moat), but the passage of the estate and family are confusing in the extreme, and after John son of William de Bentley, who was also of Broadlow Ash nearby, we hear no more of them at Fenny Bentley, and the manor appears to have been divided, probably between two coheiresses, one marrying a Beresford of Beresford, a spectacular site overlooking the Dove, slightly to the west (possibly with an intervening generation of Bassets), the other, it would seem, a Bradbourne of Bradbourne.
By the fifteenth century, we find a capital mansion being held at Fenny Bentley by John Beresford, who was also of Newton Grange, a couple of miles to the north, and also now a farmhouse. His son Thomas died in 1473, leaving Fenny Bentley to his son Aden and Newton Grange to his other son, Thomas. By this time the manor house, of which the surviving tower was once part, had been built. As the Beresfords were an important family, the likelihood is that the house was built around two courtyards, like Haddon and now Norbury, which was discovered to have been on this scale by archaeological excavation in 2009.
The surviving fragment has been canvassed as a gatehouse, but if so, how to explain the remaining stub of wall running westward from it, and the fact that until the 18th century there was a second, similar tower to its east? Furthermore, both towers were crenellated, as the Lysons (writing in 1817) attest. The supposition must be that the towers marked the outer courtyard of a stoutly defended house, and Dr. Anthony Emery has pointed out a similarity to the surviving tower of Smisby Manor. The superimposed internal doors on the west side, along with the wall stub suggest a two storey north range of the outer courtyard having once stood here with the tower at the angle.
The house passed down through the generations of Beresfords until Olivia Beresford married John Stanhope of Elvaston and their daughter brought it in marriage to Charles Cotton, whose son, another Charles, was the likeable poet and intimate of Izaak Walton, who fished in Cotton’s section of the Dove. He fell hopelessly into debt (partly through backing the King in the Civil War) resulting in its ultimate sale to the Jacksons of Stanshope, Staffordshire.
Whilst Charles Cotton lived at Beresford Hall, the old manor house was something of a burden, and he seems to have reduced it and let it, ironically to Mrs. Beresford, mother of the then Beresford of Newton Grange and Compton (Ashbourne), who was assessed for tax on only eight hearths there in 1670, which suggests that probably an entire courtyard had been de-commissioned.
Nor did the Jacksons have any use for the old house once Mrs. Beresford had died, so they sold it to the Recorder of Derby, Sir Simon Degge (1612-1703), of Abbot’s Hill House in Derby a year or two before 1680. He also had a small ancestral estate at Stramshall in Staffordshire, and one wonders if he had any intention of using the house himself. Nevertheless, he spent some money on it. It would appear that he demolished all the medieval house except the two towers and built the present rather high quality farmhouse between them. The portion to the west behind the tower may have been fashioned in the 18th century from a fragment of the old house, too.
Degge’s work bore his initials and the date of 1680 (no longer visible) and the symmetry of the design: taller ceilings on the first floor with rooms lit by one four and two six-light mullioned and transomed windows with a four light window in matching style lighting the attic above. The retention of the surviving tower was originally to provide a newel staircase which leads into the principal chamber which has chamfered door jambs surviving from the original house, and a south facing room was fashioned on the tower’s first floor lit by a full width mullioned and transomed window. Despite the present simplicity of the central entrance, one did not, in the third quarter of the 17th century, build a suite of grand rooms on the first floor with rather meaner service accommodation below for a farmer to enjoy. Clearly this was no farmhouse, and it seems likely that Degge intended to use it perhaps, as a summer residence.
Sir Simon’s grandson, Dr. Simon Degge FRS, FSA was an antiquary, who excavated at Repton amongst other places, but on his death in 1724, the house and estate were sold, being bought by the descendants of the Newton Grange branch of the Beresfords, re-uniting the two estates. Richard Beresford, a leader of polite society in Ashbourne and for whom Joseph Pickford built a fine town house in The Compton there (now Lloyd’s Bank), let both Newton Grange and Degge’s house as farms (the latter became Cherry Orchard Farm thereafter) and built a new, rather modest seat further up the A515, the present Bentley Hall. The tenants who farmed the Old Hall were the Waterfalls followed by the Websters. It was probably Richard Beresford who demolished the second tower, which Degge may have retained merely for symmetry..
When Richard Beresford died in 1816, the property was snapped up by William, Marshal Lord Beresford, Duke of Elvas in Spain and Marquis of Campo Maior in Portugal, PC (I), GCB, GCH (1768-1854), a hero of the Peninsula war, and a former Marshal and Commander-in-chief of the Portugese army. One of his passions was the restoration to the family of the ancient lands of the Beresfords, for the family at Beresford went right back to 1086.
He therefore bought Beresford Hall and parts of its ancient estate, and the acquisition of Fenny Bentley was an element of the same urge. He was himself, however, a member of a junior branch of the family which had gone to Ireland, and which had, since the grant of a Baronetcy after the Restoration, been rocketing up the ranks of the Irish nobility. Yet he probably felt he had much to prove, for he and a younger brother were the supposed natural sons of George de la Poer Beresford, 4th Earl of Tyrone, later 1st Marquess of Waterford. In point of fact, volume II of the Complete Peerage takes the view that they were almost certainly sons of the Marchioness, born before her marriage; if William Beresford knew that, he was perhaps the more driven to establish his Beresford credentials. He was raised to a Viscountcy in 1823.
Unfortunately for any dynastic ambitions the good Marshal may have had, his marriage proved childless, and all his estates (including the one he actually lived on in Kent) passed to his nephew (and stepson) Sir Alexander Beresford Hope PC MP, later (amateur) architect of Errwood Hall (see Country Images February 2017) who shortly afterwards sold it to Sir Henry FitzHerbert of Tissington, 3rd Bt. It was Sir Richard, 5th baronet, who undertook a major refurbishment of the old house in 1894, and it was at this point that the crenellations were removed from the tower. The entrance was simplified and the foundations of the other tower briefly uncovered.
Today the Old Hall and Cherry Orchard Farm form a near perfect ensemble whilst still being a working farm and constitute one of the finest of our renowned Derbyshire views.