From Rambles Twenty Miles around Doncaster by John Tomlinson – 1860
It was far into the night before I prepared to return from Barnburgh to Doncaster, and after descending the hill was soon enveloped in the thick woods around Melton. A great deal of nonsense has been said concerning solitude. It is impossible in the wide, wide world to realise a perfect sense of solitude. Stay! Perhaps it is possible, aye, even amid the din and pressure of crowded towns. That young man stands alone, a stranger, without any practicable object, without money, in the streets of our fabled city ; his true being, which consisted in bright anticipations and cherished purposes, is exorcised ; hope, that anchor of the soul, can find no ground, and in the drear, dark, despondency he experiences the most perfect solitude of which existence is capable. Not here, however, in voluntary converse with Nature, can we realise a feeling of loneliness; here every object is acute with life, as if spiritual existences took the body of material forms during their temporary reign in the moonlight. I do love a moonlight walk! A soft and silvery film seems to rest upon the earth, clothing in romantic garb things which look mean in the glaring light of the sun. Even that old gate and ruined hovel might have been placed there on purpose to heighten the effect. Look at those trees — what a most fantastic form they wear; a gentle wind rustles the leaves; the shadow of one bough flits tremblingly through the other, and the whole is reflected upon the road beneath. There are voices among the trees; and while the droning hum of the beetle and the trumpet of the gnat are very audible, the heart listens, expecting that the flowers as they open their perfumed mouth will burst out into song. Truly myriads of living things do join in a general an them, while the hosts of heaven send down a bright smile ; and man, liberated at such seasons from secular cares, may not inaptly pray — “Lord give us ears to hear!”
To the left, extending more than a mile is a line of tall abrupt crags covered with trees and under-wood, but which are partly concealed from the road by a high stone wall. This is Melton warren tenanted by thousands of hares and rabbits. The turnpike is formed towards the base of these immense crags while, to the right, the land suddenly dips and then sweeps away on a gradual incline forming a magnificent prospect of park scenery, bounded in the distance by the huge perpendicular ridges of Conisborough Cliff and Levitt Hag. Immediately below I noticed scores of rabbits gambolling upon the green turf which evidently had runs at a great depth underneath the road communicating with the warren. The sheep were peacefully eating their suppers. We might suppose they had few cares or sorrows and that their little pates [heads] are never warped by melancholy; but we should be wrong. Did you never mark one venerable with age straggling out of the flock to indulge her solitary studies? How gravely the old ewe muses upon the transitory nature of all sublunary good, while even the plump juicy turnip, in which she most delights, lies neglected before her. I now approached the village passing the back of Melton Hall, which on this side looks buried in a hole, surrounded, however, with the thick foliage of what may be termed the park proper, on an angle of which stands the venerable looking church as if this too was private property. There was an indescribable charm about this spot, and I resolved to prosecute a closer investigation the next day. I now hastened forward at a brisk pace when having crossed the road which leads direct into the village of Sprotbrough I encountered two human bodies — you need not start reader they were live Irishmen, who, no doubt, had come over to reap our fields. But for the moment they made me startle. In my time I have been out on lonely roads night and day at all hours, and am not naturally timid, but no man can say positively that he shall never feel fluttered at a sudden encounter. Crawling along amidst the shadows of overhanging trees the grim hungry visages of these tall bony men, so silent withal, caused a tremor to creep through the veins as if the Wood by some unaccountable process was becoming frozen. I debated within myself whether I should pass the compliments of the season or simply pass on. Before determining this point like a true disciple of Lavater I resolved to scrutinize more narrowly the countenances of these men. Alas! Their countenances were bad. They had a peculiar leer in the eye, wide open lips and heavy chin, which clearly betokened sensationalism, brutality, and low cunning. In the midst of these forebodings the worst looking of the two turned his eyes full into my face, and, showing a large cavity filled with long teeth, gurgled out “A fine night, Master”, “It is” I replied, quite boldly. “Yes, it is; a very fine night, Master,” and a sudden gleam from the moon seemed to elongate a most terrific grin. But, thought I, it is no use forestalling evil, for to manifest fear is to incite danger. I wished them good evening and walked into the merry town of Doncaster. Arriving the next day at Melton I enquired of an inhabitant the way to the church, and was conducted first through a fold-yard then across a paddock and over a narrow inconvenient stile fixed in the church yard wall. I wondered if this was the proper road, and as I found out later, the right way, was through the park gates and down the carriage drive, but it is never used except for funerals. The congregation does not average above a dozen people, and the road makes no difference to them. I went to the clerk’s house for the key and then strolled round the church-yard, in which are, perhaps, twenty times more graves than the whole population of the village numbers; for very many generations have been deposited under the earth since the loose rubble stones of this interesting old church were first piled together. I could not refrain from gazing at the building for it has indeed a most primitive appearance — its old plastered walls, patches of which are dilapidated, and reveal masonry rude and irregular as a field fence — its low square windows covered with wire trellises through which the ivy in vain tries to get a peep into the interior. As the visitor stands upon these accumulated mounds he might almost reach the roof of the chancel, but, excepting one drawback, the whole has an exceedingly picturesque appearance. The exception consists in two red brick chimneys crowned with narrow red tile chimney pots, for these staring out from the top of the church lead one to suppose that this is not only a sanctuary but a domicile in which cookery is done. The tower is more solid and evidently far more recent than the other parts of the building, but even this bears evidence of having been restored and extended at different periods. For merely the tower was crowned by a spire, but this was removed and the tower extended at the cost, I believe, of John Fountayne, Dean of York. On entering the building I felt an unusual dullness, as if in a cloister where the damp of ten centuries had not been permitted to escape, while the flagged isles were literally black with wet. But amid all this discomfort the interior possesses many objects of interest, particularly to the antiquary, who will positively gloat upon those old circular pillars, upon the square capitals of which may be faintly distinguished through unnumbered layers of whitewash, some of the most rude and primitive zigzag tracings. Whatever may be the date of their erection, they certainly have a most ancient and Saxon appearance. A large square carved oak screen encloses the pew of the Montagu’s, around the walls of which are four imposing marble monuments, three of them memorials of the Fountayne family, and one commemorating the Rev. Anthony Moye, who is there stated to be descended from the Woodward’s, a family of note in London. Within and around the Communion are several magnificent monuments, one recording the death of Anne, wife of the Rev. John Fountayne, daughter of the Right Hon. Wm. Bromley, Speaker of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State in the reign of Queen Anne. Another, in memory of John Fountayne, Dean of York, and his two wives, one of whom was daughter of Chas. Montagu, Esq., of Papplewick, Nottinghamshire. And yet another, in memory of Elizabeth, wife of Richard Wilson, Esq. (son of Christopher, Lord Bishop of Bristol), and daughter of John Fountayne, Dean of York; with several others; but I was surprised to find that no monument had been erected to the late Richard Fountayne Wilson, Esq. The arms of these families are blazoned in stained glass on several of the windows, while in one of the latter I noticed a painted figure with this inscription, part in English and part in Latin — “William de Melton, Archbishop of York.” There is a small hand organ to assist, or, what is more probable, absorb the psalmody of Divine service. Turning away, I could not help noticing how vividly, but not unseemly, those imposing monuments contrasted with the primitive simplicity of the whole building.
On the west side of the church, with little more than the carriage road of the park to separate them, stands Melton Hall, the seat of Andrew Montagu, Esq. Everything seemed so lonely that I could not muster resolution to ask for admittance to the hall. My guide, however, took me across a large paddock on to a steep eminence or crag, a little to the east of the park, which he said afforded a beautiful prospect. He was right and I could not but admit that this view over the Vale of the Don, over Mexborough, Wentworth, and Rotherham, on towards the bold hills around Sheffield was both more extensive and more varied than could be obtained, even from the old Castle of Conisborough. “But a still finer view,” said my informant, “is gained from the front of Melton Hall.” Before leaving Melton, I went into the park, which, although comprising not more perhaps than fifty acres within the enclosure, is exceedingly well wooded, and contains a few dozen heads of deer. Andrew Montagu’s father was Richard Fountayne Wilson, a man somewhat eccentric in his manners, but for all that a genuine man, possessed of not a few sterling qualities. Seldom, perhaps, did his benevolence manifest itself in the conventional mode, namely, through public subscription lists, but he did good in his own peculiar way. Once in passing through a village he heard the bellman crying the household furniture of the incumbent. There was something singular in this announcement, and his curiosity being excited he sought a private interview with the clergyman. There had been a large family to provide for out of a small stipend which, together with some affliction thrown into the scale had turned the balance the wrong way. Fountayne Wilson expressed no sympathy, but in a few hours the pastor was snugly ensconced by his own fireside and there was no sale of his effects. One day the managers of an Infirmary in one of our large towns received a considerable sum of money from a benefactor without a name; but it was afterwards known to have come from Fountayne Wilson, Esq. These actions embalm the memory of a man. Besides, his property in the immediate neighbourhood, the present owner of Melton possesses large estates at Ingmanthorpe, near Wetherby, and at Papplewick, in Nottinghamshire.