The House in the Rock

History of the House in the Rock (Fort Montague) and the Hill family – Nancy Buckle.

The House in the Rock is a thing that dreams are made of, and indeed was conceived through a dream of a humble linen weaver, Thomas Hill – my great-great-great-great-grandfather, who, like his forebears, lived in a whitewashed cottage at the foot of the magnesium limestone cliff which was to be the substance of his toil.

In the year 1770, armed with pick, chisel and hammer, and with the goodwill of Sir Charles Slingsby Bart. – the Lord of the Manor – and Margaret, Duchess of Buccleugh, he commenced his assault on the rock face. Over a period of sixteen years he hollowed out an elongated deep cleft in the rock; this extended from the foot of the cliff at the Abbey Road area to the top of the cliff at the Crag Top area thus facilitating a split level system of dwelling. The resulting mass of rocks and rubble caused by the excavation was recycled. The rocks were fashioned into building blocks to build up the front wall so that the completed dwelling consisted of three walls of solid rock and a front wall of dressed, excavated stone. Excesses of rubble were burned in kilns on site to obtain lime to be used in the building process.

Eventually the house was to have four rooms leading up from one another, lighthouse fashion. The top room protruded from the cliff face reversing the lower construction in having a rear wall of rock and three built walls.

At a later date castellations were added to both upper and lower levels by Thomas Hill and his elder son, also named Thomas, giving the appearance of a fort. The house then became known as Fort Montague at the request of the duchess of Buccleugh – the principal sunscriber to it.

The views from all windows were, and indeed are to this day, breath-taking. The very concept of viewing the Nidd Valley from what is the interior of the cliff is enchanting whether the valley be cloaked in a mantle of snow, russet with autumn tints, dressed in lush summer foliage or the delicate hues of spring.

Landscaping of the cliff top areas and lower gardens took a further five years. By this time Thomas Hill was helped by his son. Soil had to be carried for considerable distances to give a good depth to the cliff top areas, and countless shrubs, plants, ornamental trees and statues were provided by the Slingsby’s, together with pairs of exotic peacocks. Following completion the gardens were likened to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Doubtless the sub-tropical summers experienced then were a tremendous advantage, even allowing apricots to be freely grown.

Thomas Hill, his wife and six of his seven children inhabited the house. The eldest son, Thomas, also a linen weaver, had married and lived elsewhere but was still very much involved with the House in the Rock. It was he who persuaded his father to place two cannon on the roof battlements – one authentic and the other a replica. These were in situ until the end of the 19th century, the working cannon being fired under careful control on “feast and field days”. Both cannon were removed when two “likely lads” – one of the Hill family and his friend (a member of the Renton family – well-known auctioneers) – fired the cannon without permission, the cannonball allegedly landing in Calcutt village, fortunately with no casualties!

The house was arranged with the kitchen/living room at the top. Here was a great iron range for heating and cooking. It was the most used room in the house and from then up until the 1950’s contained a “shut-up bed” in one corner. This was of particular use in childbirth, sickness, and, of course, over the years many members of the family would die in it. When folded away it presented the appearance of a chest of drawers with a cupboard on top but these were mere artifacts to camouflage the two doors which hid the folded-up bed from view.

The room was furnished with a plain wood kitchen table, a large dresser with delpht rack, various high-backed wooden chairs, and, towards the end of the 19th century, a large, long settle which had a set of drawers beneath the seat. The settle was purchased by Ann Hill, wife of the last of the Hill men to bear the name Thomas. She paid the princely sum of one shilling and sixpence for it and saved it from being chopped up for firewood by a neighbour. When Ann died the house went to the youngest of her seven children – Ellen. The only surviving male – James – emigrated to Canada but to this day the eldest male in his family line is always named Thomas.

Ellen married a retired army officer whose father wove the famous shirt without a seam. On his early retirement John was the accountant at Walton’s Mill

The room below the kitchen/living room was known as the Ash Chamber because in the late 18th century, at the time of completion of the house, a branch of a large ash tree was level with the window and tapped on the pane when the wind blew. The room was reached by descending a short flight of wooden stairs comprising a trap door which, when lowered, created extra floor space for the top room. Very much in evidence here is the enormous chimney breast rising from the fireplace in the lowest room of all. This chimney served as a central heating system for the entire house, but the fire had to be kept stoked up from the end of September until the following March. It took two weeks for the chimney both to heat up and cool down. As the winters were paricularly severe at this time the “central heating system” was a great asset.

Upon further descent down rock steps a little bedroom stands to the side. It was lined with wooden boards in the middle of the 19th century as the Hill wife of that time was alarmed that harebells were actually growing in the room!

The lowest room, or “Bottom House”, produces a sense of genus loci which persists through the whole house. There is a seething atmosphere which some find disturbing and others comforting. Here the last Thomas Hill fell down the steps onto the rock floor, breaking his neck and dying several hours later. This happened at the end of the 19th century and, of course, there was nothing anyone could do for him except to make him as comfortable as possible, comfort him and pray with him.

The same room was a very communal area where the door which led to the Nidd Valley was never locked. The menfolk of the valley congregated on winter evenings round the fire, fortifying themselves with tankards of porter which were heated by dipping in a red hot poker. It is easy to imagine the men tramping along the four yard rock passage between the door and the room.

The house, although a dwelling place, was a viable tourist attraction from its completion in 1786. The second Thomas Hill, who helped his father finish the house and complete the gardens, produced mock white five pound notes which were sold as souvenirs at the house. The five pound notes were withdrawn when the Bank of Newcastle was duped by them! There are still copies in circulation but they are hard to find.

In the early 19th century a rather strange child appeared in the family, although not in the direct line. This child had abnormal very blonde woolly hair resembling the fleece of a sheep and was known as the Woolly-Headed Boy of Fort Montague. He conducted visitors around the house and must have been a great curiosity himself.

The wife of the second Thomas Hill bore sixteen children, all of whom reached adulthood. Her husband, however, died relatively young and she was left with several young children dependent upon her. She had a marquee erected in the gardens adjacent to the Crag Top and obtained a wine, spirits and cigar licence which, together with the income from visitors to the house, enabled her to raise the rest of her family.

Up to the middle of the 19th century water had to be carried from the river – quite an operation, especially in winter when a hammer had to be used to break the ice!

The house was visited by tourists until 1994 and lived in by the descendents of Thomas Hill until 1996 when I myself was forced to vacate it to enable it to undergo renovations. My aim is for it to be available to the public, as was intended by my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Hill, who made it by blood, sweat and toil. It must not be lost to heritage.