‘It’s grander than he’d supposed, with the high chimneys and crenellated gables of an older age, mullioned windows and two jutting wings on either side of a central hall, clearly designed with more than practicality in mind – a statement of wealth and power, one man’s attempt to make his mark in this wild landscape.’
This is Scarcross Hall, the setting of my novel, The Coffin Path, as first encountered by one of the main characters, Ellis Ferreby.
When I began to plan my 17th century ghost story, I knew that the house I created would play a significant part. Set high on the desolate West Yorkshire moors, Scarcross Hall is a crumbling pile with a dubious history. The stuff of gothic cliché perhaps, but as an historical novelist with a respect for the past (and my readers) I wanted to make sure my house was historically plausible.
The Coffin Path takes place in 1674 and, for story purposes, my house needed to be at least 100 years old, preferably with a much longer history. Luckily for me, the West Yorkshire area has a distinct architectural heritage, rooted in the area’s economic past.
The pre-industrial economy was mostly farming and weaving. Sheep were farmed for wool rather than meat and through the 15th and 16th centuries the area became one of the foremost producers of Kersey – a coarse woollen cloth that was made for domestic and international markets. For some it was a hard, hand-to-mouth existence but, then as now, some people got rich. Self-styled ‘Yeomen Clothiers’ built large residencies to reflect their status at the top of local society. Known as ‘Halifax houses’, these vernacular buildings were built of the local millstone grit, with long mullioned windows and often a circular rose window above the doorway. Local gentry also built grand manor houses, ensuring the continuity of their estates by adding to older timber-framed buildings.
I went looking for examples.
Scarcross Hall probably owes most to Oakwell Hall in Birstal near Batley. Built in 1583 by John Batt, this manor house has been beautifully restored with 17th century interiors and was the first place I visited. It delivered inspiration in spades. In The Coffin Path readers might recognise Oakwell’s central hall with large mullioned windows and a huge stone fireplace, circled by an upper gallery that connects the first floor rooms. A bedroom, complete with large Elizabethan bed and painted fire screen, was the model for the creepy old bedchamber in Scarcross Hall.
When I found out that Oakwell has it’s own Civil War history (the Battle of Adwalton Moor was fought nearby in 1643), Brontë connections, (Charlotte Brontë is said to have based Fieldhead, the house in her novel Shirley, on Oakwell), and even its own ghost, I was sold. I had found a great prototype for the interior of Scarcross Hall, but what of the exterior?
Next was East Riddlesden Hall, built in 1642 by wealthy Halifax clothier James Murgatroyd. There has been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by various gentry families, but the house that exists today is mostly 17th century. Despite a salubrious history, the hall fell into disrepair and was uninhabitable by the early 20th century. This picture, taken in 1905, certainly has the atmosphere I was looking for.
The hall was almost demolished but was saved by locals William and John Brigg, who bought the hall in 1933 and donated it to the National Trust. Inevitably, East Riddlesden has its ghosts too: the Grey Lady, who is said to have been bricked up alive by her cuckolded husband, and the Blue Lady, who met a slightly less dramatic end by drowning in the fish pond!
East Riddlesden Hall was saved by the passion and generosity of two local men, but many other houses were not so lucky.
High Sunderland Hall is widely thought to have been the model for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. This 16th century house, built by the Sunderland family, stood on the outskirts of Halifax, on a site inhabited from the 13th century. Quite unlike the other houses I’d encountered, High Sunderland was incongruously decorated with Latin inscriptions and many grotesque statues of mythical creatures.
Emily Brontë would certainly have been familiar with the building during her time as a teacher at nearby Law Hill School. Here is Emily’s description of the Heights, which seems to match the pictures we have of High Sunderland:
'Before passing the threshold I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front and especially about the principal door, above which, among the wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date 1500 ...'
Imagining High Sunderland as it might have been inspired several elements of my own fictional house: the bleak setting, the crenellations, the strange, atmospheric mixture of the sacred and the superstitious. Sadly, it was demolished in 1951, though judging by the photos of the house in its latter days, it may not have been the most welcoming place. Perhaps it may have looked something like this, from The Coffin Path…
‘There are slates missing from the roof, cracked panes in the leads and a crumbling central chimney. A high wall lends poor protection, pocked and lichen-stained, ravaged by years of storm and gale. It has the air of a shipwreck, abandoned and disintegrating amid the great wild ocean of the moor. Even now, the dark windows seem to stare back at him, soulless, like the eyes of a destitute.’
East Riddlesden Hall circa 1935
Oakwell Hall bedchamber
East Riddlesden Hall, Starkie wing (now demolished)
High Sunderland Hall