Rufford Abbey Country Park is situated two miles south of Ollerton, 17 miles north of Nottingham on the A614 Nottingham – Doncaster road.
From abbey to country house
The present day park once formed part of a 12th century Cistercian abbey and its estate. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, the land and buildings began a slow transformation into a country house estate, owned first by the Talbot and later the Savile families.
One of its most famous owners was the Elizabethan aristocrat and property magnate George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, whose wife Bess of Hardwick later built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Rufford was later purchased by the Savile family of Yorkshire, and eventually became their principal country seat.
Decline of the country estate
By the early 1900s, the Rufford estate comprised some 18,500 acres, but had begun to feel the effects of rising running costs and reduced incomes. It was eventually sold in 1938.
Much of the land was bought by Sir Albert Ball, a Nottinghamshire industrialist, who resold the country house and its grounds to the eccentric Henry de Vere Clifton. By the late 1940s, after years of neglect, the main buildings were suffering from structural damage.
From private estate to public park
In 1952, in an attempt to salvage this once proud feature of the county’s heritage, we purchased Rufford Abbey and 150 acres of its grounds.
Despite strenuous efforts, funds for renovation were not forthcoming, and in 1956 safety concerns meant that part of the house had to be demolished. The responsibility for the fabric of the remaining building fell to English Heritage.
The remains of the country house and its grounds were officially designated a country park in 1969. A park ranger service was set up, and an extensive renovation scheme commenced.
The lake was reformed and re-landscaped, the park meadows and formal gardens established, and in 1980 the Stable Block was opened as a Craft Centre, with a gallery, gift and craft shops.
Park improvements have continued since, and include the 1995 restoration of the Orangery, and renovation of the Jacobean Wing in 1998 for use as County Council office accommodation.
Also in the Jacobean Wing, the former Victorian kitchen was redeveloped as the Savile Restaurant. A ceramic gallery and potters’ studio were added to the Craft Centre.
Extra retail outlets were opened at Rufford Mill, in the form of the Outdoor Living Shop and the Lakeside Garden Shop.
The Abbey that visitors see today is a mixture of Cistercian remains (see the monastic exhibition in the Undercroft) and one wing of the later country house.
The surviving fabric is largely Jacobean, dating from the early 1600s. The ornate steps and porch at the front of the Abbey, and its clock tower cupola, were added by Anthony Salvin the Victorian architect, in an era when it was fashionable to make old buildings look more quaint!
The Stable Block, which today houses the Craft Centre, dates from the 1660s with renovations and improvements made in Victorian times.
The grounds of the Abbey retain some fascinating features of landscape history, such as the Ice Houses, where ice for the Abbey table was stored before the days of refrigeration.
Look out for traces of Georgian ornamental canals in the gardens near the Orangery, and the animal graves where the owners of the Abbey laid to rest beloved household pets.
The present day
The remains of the medieval abbey and its surrounding area are today designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The range of nearby buildings, such as the Stables Block, are grade II listed historic buildings. The Orangery, an unusual example of a Georgian bathhouse, is grade II* listed.
Rufford has become one of Nottinghamshire's most popular tourist attractions. Approximately 450,000 visitors each year come to explore its unique combination of history, countryside and modern crafts.