Knowle Hill, which lies atop a sequestered valley west of Ticknall and just south of Ingleby, is really two lost houses, albeit that we have no idea of the appearance of the first, and only a limited idea of the appearance of the second. What is there today, are the sensitively restored remains of a Georgian Folly, now in the care of the Landmark Trust.
The first family of note to have lived at Knowle Hill was that of Franceys, which had come by a portion of the manorial land at Ticknall, once held by the King with part of Ingleby, by inheritance from the de Ticknall family, via the Beaufoys of Trusley. They had a capital mansion on this land, and it is thought that it stood on the level ground on a ridge, to the immediate west of a bosky defile with a brook at the bottom. At the time of its destruction it was described as ‘very large and romantic.’ Timber framed and gables, suggesting that it had probably been rebuilt more than once and would have looked sixteenth century by that time.
In the late sixteenth century the heiress of Franceys married the head of the distantly related family of Franceys of Foremark and their daughter, their only surviving child and heiress, married into the Warwickshire family of Burdett. At this stage, the new owners had no interest in moving to Derbyshire, and let the house at Knowle Hill to the Abells of Stapenhill.
After the Civil War, however, they moved there, built a new seat at Foremark and installed a younger son of sir Thomas Burdett, 1st Bt., Robert in Knowle Hill, but in due course he pursued a successful career in London and eventually moved to Ireland. It was then settled on another younger son, Walter, third son of Sir Franceys Burdett,
Walter Burdett demolished the ancient house and rebuilt it nearer the edge of the ravine in an ‘extraordinary mode of structure’ the result, which ran actually down the side of the slope in tiers, regarded by his contemporaries as a ‘curious house.’ Again, we have little clue as to its actual appearance, but a limited archaeological excavation carried out before the Landmark Trust restoration of its successor began confirmed that it must have indeed been curious in occupying a steep east facing slope!
He also created exotic landscaped gardens, dammed the brook near its source at Seven Spouts farm (anciently Knowle Hill’s home farm) and created a lake and cascades, opening the view towards the NE and Swarkestone Bridge. William Woolley in 1713 wrote of it:
Mr. Walter Burdett, an elderly bachelor….has made a very agreeable habitation….suitable to his humour and circumstances, where two Knowles or hills covered with woods and two pleasant valley on each side, with two murmuring rivulets running along them, to which natural disposition he has added a great deal of art which renders it a most delightful place which, with his kind of hospitality, causeth it to be much resorted to.
Sic sciti laetantur Lares
Oh quis me geldis submontibus Haemi
Sistat et ingenti ramorum proteget umbra’
In the longer term, Walter, who was nothing if not personally eccentric, fell out with his family so that upon his death, unmarried, it was bought from his heir by a neighbour and drinking chum, Robert Hardinge, MP, a son of Gideon Hardinge of King’s Newton Hall (ancestor of the present Viscounts Hardinge). He also died without issue, in 1758.
At this precise moment, Sir Robert Burdett, 4th Bt. was having a new house built for his family at Foremark, to a design by David Hiorne of Warwick and with the work being undertaken under the direction of the young Joseph Pickford. This had necessitated the family moving out, and to this end he rented Knowle Hill from the Hardinge family so that they would have a house nearby to live in until the much grander new Foremark Hall was completed.
In 1761, the new house was able to be re-occupied, and after a gap of five years, Sir Robert managed to buy the Knowle Hill estate. The old house was thereupon demolished, and in its place a courtyard (once the stables) was created, with a long low range facing west, incorporating timber elements, possibly from the old Franceys family house. On the opposite side of the courtyard a bow-ended summerhouse range was built with a crenellated tower and Gothick windows, the main room boasting an Ashford black marble bolection chimneypiece from Walter Burdett’s old house, a stucco dado, frieze (of glyphs) and cavetto cornice, and was decorated in trompe l’oeuil, possibly by Nottingham artist Paul Sandby (1731-1809) who had done much the same for the dining room at Drakelow Hall (see Country Images May 2017).
Beneath this were landscaped – probably by local Capability Brown follower William Emes, who had just finished landscaping the park at Foremark – a 44 acre series of monumental terraces with stone niches, ponds, cascades and a bosky chasm, whilst the landscape generally was re-engineered, waterworks and all, to become one of the very earliest Picturesque movement landscapes in the Midlands, making the place highly romantic and, in the catchphrase of the era, sublime. Only William Aislabie’s Hackfall in Yorkshire really rivals it. The courtyard itself was walled to the south where a fine lawn was laid out, once walled throughout in stone and possibly more ancient than the house.
From the first terrace below the house, opened a narrow passage giving onto a brick lined domed cave beneath. Bottle shaped niches along the entry clearly indicate that this was designed for convivial occasions. The fact that Burdett, a Whig, was a close friend of Sir Francis Dashwood, Bt. of West Wycombe Park (later Lord Despencer), famed for his Hellfire Club, probably says it all! Antiquarian stone heads from the site survived until some 40 years ago in a garden at Repton. The one caveat that might be entered is that this feature could, just could have been an element of old Walter’s house!
The surviving records are unclear who was actually responsible for the works at Knowle Hill, but Emes for the landscape seems virtually certain given that he was landscaping Foremark for the same family 1760-1764, and the likelihood is that Joseph Pickford designed the folly-cum-summerhouse range, bearing in mind that from 1758 to 1761 he was the clerk of works and executant architect of Foremark Hall, whose designer had died before work had hardly begun. Indeed, Pickford had returned in 1769 to build a garden temple (now a ruin) at Foremark.
These works continued until about 1767, which may explain the setting for Joseph Wright’s impressive double portrait, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Burdett, now in Prague. The cartographer and astronomer Burdett, an important Enlightenment figure and a close friend of Wright’s, was not known to be related to the Foremark family, yet he chose to have himself painted at what is unmistakably Knowle Hill, their property, perhaps the nearest he could get to associating himself with the Derbyshire family without actually causing offence. In the picture, the walls look strangely tumbledown, so the 1765 portrait may have been posed for whilst the building works were still going on (or had barely started) and possibly through the good offices of the architect, if Pickford it was, for he, too was a friend of Wright’s and had already designed a house in Derby for Burdett..
Revd. William Bagshaw Stevens, the likeably wayward headmaster of Repton in the 1790s, was also tutor to the Burdett children at Foremark, and frequently accompanied them on picnics to Knowle Hill, and the Burdetts tended to go there on summer evenings in the nineteenth century after supper.
Yet by the end of the 19th century the place had become a gamekeeper’s cottage (the gamekeeper being one Andrew Craven – no relation! – and ancestor of a family still living in Derby) but was used only intermittently after the Great war, when the Burdetts moved permanently to Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire. The last occupant, before it fell into total ruin, (which is how I first saw it in 1979) was the eminent local sculptor Ronald Pope from 1943 until 1959.
The site was sold in 1978 for £8,000 for restoration but nothing was done, but pressure for conservation mounted (including my first account of it in The Derbyshire Country House, (1st edition) in 1984, and in 1989 it was purchased by the Landmark Trust, who sensitively restored it (omitting the crenellated tower, however), the work being done by Rodney Melville & Partners from 1990 to 1993 when it opened as a holiday let, which it still is.