The history of Littledale Hall in the Lune Valley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 November 2016
A remarkable house in the Lune Valley has been given a new lease of life helping people fight their demons.
IT’S a problem many of us would love to have – just what do you do with the country house you have just inherited?
As owners across the UK look at ways of funding their crumbling stately piles, Fred Leigh always knew he would never live in Littledale Hall when his uncle left him the property in 1980.
The Victorian Grade II listed house, with its prime location in the heart of the Lune Valley, is one of the area’s most prestigious properties. But the farming land – which adjoins the Duke of Westminster’s estate – and its outbuildings were always of more interest to Fred.
‘My uncle lived in the hall. It was a lovely big house, really too posh for me! It’s too big and costs too much to keep warm,’ he said. His uncle, Richard Harrison, who had made money from the poultry trade, purchased the estate – including the 14-bedroomed hall with its library, stables, farms, trout streams, lily ponds, Victorian kitchen garden and 500 acres – in 1957 for just £24,000. Fred moved from Longton, near Preston, soon after with his wife Joan and young daughter Pat to help on the farm. He was 29 and has never left.
‘I think I have been here longer than anyone else,’ he says, referring to the number of people who have owned Littledale Hall since it was built in 1850. Its first owner was Rev John Dodson, who had it built using money his father had made in the West Indies slave trade at the Port of Lancaster.
The Dodson family sold the estate in 1920 to Sir William Priestly and since then it has changed hands seven times. When it was being sold in 1932 the land agent’s details stated: ‘Money cannot buy a more ideal paradise.’ Paradise or not, Fred is the only owner who has declined to live in the hall, although there are reports that Lady Priestly only lived there part of the year because of the midges. Despite the appeal of its mullioned and transomed windows, gables and buttresses and imposing views down the valley, Fred always knew it would be too expensive to run. Instead he chose to bring up his family in a converted joinery workshop on the estate.
‘All the previous owners had been moneyed people and they did not last so long and I thought it would be better if it was used for a good purpose and help the income of the estate. I liked it here as did my family and I had no thoughts of selling. I thought the best thing would be to let the hall and for me to farm here,’ he says.
When he was approached by a couple wanting to set up a Christian retreat he agreed to rent it and for the next 18 years more than 40,000 people visited the hall. All the time Fred was building up the poultry business on the estate – they now have 40,000 chickens (at one stage they also produced eggs for flu vaccines) and let land to local farmers. Then in 2006 the retreat shut and he was approached by Keith Robertson and his business partner now deceased, Kim Wong, who wanted to set up their own drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. That centre – Littledale Hall Therapeutic Centre marked its 10th anniversary this year.
Fred says his lifelong church-going and teetotalism had nothing to do with his decision about renting the hall. With a certain irony he remembers when his uncle had the place and grew peaches and vines in the walled garden so he could make his own wine.
‘It’s not because I’m a Christian, the Bible does not say not to drink, but it’s been a good help to me and saved me a lot of money! I met Keith and I am very pleased with the way it’s being run, they are doing a very good job and helping a lot of people. I feel it’s a very good place for this type of work, lovely countryside and a long way from the pub!’
Littledale director Keith Robertson says it’s the perfect place for a rehab centre. ‘We are miles away from anywhere so there are no distractions. We have a programme where our clients are kept busy all day, often with jobs which help with the upkeep of the wonderful hall and gardens where they live for three or six months. For many it’s the first time they have lived in the countryside and as this is still a working farm it’s a great place for them to learn something new.’
Fred, 84, is now semi-retired but still keeps an overview of his land, which includes the decaying chapel which Rev Dodson had built at the same time as Littledale Hall. ‘I still do light work but I got fired from egg collection as I have trouble with my eyes, macular degeneration, so I could not see the fine cracks or dirty spots,’ he says.
That doesn’t affect his lifelong love of fishing though, particularly fly fishing. He’s travelled across the world following his passion – including five times to Alaska. ‘The biggest one I kept was a 44lb salmon which was cut into steaks and brought back in a coolbox on the plane! They did not charge in those days!’ he says.
Fred’s also taught a few of the residents at the rehab centre how to fly fish. ‘I’m happy to help them and I’m meeting an ex-resident this afternoon who has been through the process and got over his drink problem and got a job. We are going fishing together in Caton,’ he says. ‘Fishing is a very pleasant pastime for anyone as it helps to divert the mind away from cravings.’
He has made a will leaving the estate in trust to his daughters, Pat and Christine, and sons, Alan and Stephen, who all work there and says he hopes they will want to continue the links with the rehab centre. But in the meantime fishing is foremost in his mind as he’s planning a 10-week trip to Florida in January. ‘God willing,’ he says.