Near Ollerton, on the edge of Sherwood Forest, is the ruins of a remarkable 12th century abbey, one of the first in the country to be converted into a country estate. Now a popular visitor attraction – under the stewardship of English Heritage and Nottinghamshire County Council – the beautiful parkland offers many spots where the imagination can roam freely.
The grounds of Rufford Abbey play a prominent role in Helen Cresswell’s children’s book, ‘The Secret World of Polly Flint’ (1984), later a Central Television series of the same name (1987).
Cresswell’s book features Rufford’s animal graves, the ice houses, the ford, the lake, the woods and the abbey itself. In the story, young Polly escapes her loneliness by retreating to a magic parralel world, reached with her imagination.
Polly Flint knows there is magic in the place. And she should know, because she is an unusual girl who can see things others can’t.
Polly visits Rufford from nearby Wellow, arriving at the ford where she is promptly sprayed with water by a passing car. From here she embarks on a series of Rufford based adventures.
The animal graves at Rufford cover the last years of the estate, from 1880 to 1938, at which point much of the land was sold to Sir Albert Ball before Nottinghamshire County Council bought it in 1952. The graves include the headstones of domestic and social animals.
“Animals graves. Well that is posh,” says Polly, played in the TV series by Kate Reynolds (with a Notts accent). The gravestone of Snuffy, who died in 1893, is read aloud by Polly. She describes Snuffy as a, “snobby pet dog of Miss L Saville Lumley.” Another of the dogs afforded a grave is Boris, “a funny name for a dog,” she says, adding “a faithful friend is hard to find.” The pooch then comes back to life and joins Polly on her adventures.
Within Rufford’s lake is its ‘tunnel bridge’, an arched bridge that Polly names “the secret tunnel”. It’s through this that time gypsies are able to travel from their lost world, meeting Polly in the process. The top of this folly bridge has been a curiosity since the middle of the 18th century.
Rufford has two ice houses that were built around 1820 for ice taken from the nearby lake. In the drama, Polly visits Ice House 1 with her new friend Boris.
When Polly stands looking at the lake, it’s “the biggest stretch of water she had ever seen.” The lake was introduced by Sir George Savile, 8th Baronet, in 1750. Savile’s decorative lake was filled by a stream from Rainworth Water.
Rufford’s lake and its ducks have inspired another children’s book, ‘The Ducks of Rufford’ by Lincolnshire authors Gavin and Oskar McIntosh (2011). Gavin and Oskar’s first collaboration is about five ducklings who spend their first year exploring Rufford’s lake. A comment on the changing seasons, the story proves that it’s always nice weather for ducks.
The famous ducks also feature in ‘Emma, Eddie and Jack Go To: Rufford Park’ (2016) by Notts based author Jackie Yelland. The retired primary school teacher chose Rufford as the setting for her book as she saw it as, “a child/family friendly place where activities can happen in a beautiful setting.”
In addition to feeding the ducks, Emma, Eddie and Jack fly kites and explore the woods in a story that’s written for young children. “My intention was to write for children who are learning to read,” the author tells us. “I thought the story would be especially meaningful for those who had visited Rufford and experienced kite flying, feeding the ducks and watching the cars – and perhaps it would also encourage new visitors.”
Other titles in Yelland’s ‘Emma, Eddie and Jack…’ series has them visiting Clumber Park, Sherwood Forest and Sherwood Pines.
Of all the writing associated with Rufford, it is a folk song that carries the most fame, ‘The Rufford Park Poachers’. The ballad recounts the true story of a mass brawl between the poachers and gamekeepers in 1851. Depicting the poachers as brave heroes, the ballad is on the side of the men that assembled at Rufford Park to take action against the wealthy landowners unfair control of the game.
From the folk song:
‘So poacher bold as I unfold
Keep up your gallant heart
And think about those poachers bold
That night in Rufford Park
They say that forty gallant poachers
They were in distress
They’d often been attacked when
Their number, it was less.’
Many of the poachers faced imprisonment and deportation for their action.
In 1618, the poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637) visited Rufford Abbey and was taken hunting for game. He was met by Jane, Countess of Shrewsbury, who ran the household at Rufford, which was known for its free hospitality and generous provision. Jonson later wrote an epitaph for Jane on her death in 1625.
Jane is not thought to be the famed White Lady that is said to haunt Rufford; this is the apparition of Lady Arbella Stuart, whose parents were secretly married at the Abbey in 1574. The noblewoman was tipped for the throne before she ended up being banished to the Tower of London, dying from starvation after refusing food. A talented Renaissance thinker, she left behind many letters, expressing her anguish over her constricted life and yearning for independence. More than a hundred letters to relatives, royals and others were collected and published in the 1994 book, ‘The Letters of Lady Arbella Stuart’.
When the abbey was founded, the local villages of Cratley, Inkersall, Grimston and Rufford were all emptied to make way for the new estate, the displaced locals moving to the new village of Wellow. The Cistercian monks arriving from Yorkshire needed a quiet monastery away from people and, although it took a century to complete, the abbey became their place of solitude. A chequered 880 years later and Rufford now attracts busloads of people, enjoying the grounds, the history and the ducks. No doubt there are some Helen Cresswell fans amongst them.