In 1952 the new owner of Overwater Hall, then known as Whitefield House, wrote the following lines concerning his recent purchase;
“…I have attained what might have been a life’s ambition, for I have moved house to where I have always wanted to live. I have bought the great old house of Whitefield, lying snug and secure away from all hurricane and horrid blast.”
Certainly the valley between Binsey and Skiddaw Forest does greatly enjoy the protection of the surrounding fells. It was perhaps for this reason that centuries before this present house was built, the valley was chosen by the Romans as the site for some rather special barracks.
The Ordnance Survey map for this area clearly shows the location of the encampment, just a couple of hundred yards from the hotel.
It is said that the area may have been used for the recreation and enjoyment of weary soldiers,perhaps those relieved from duty at other camps in the area, even from Hadrian’s Wall itself. This may be fanciful thinking, but if true one could claim that people have been taking holidays at Overwater for almost two thousand years!
The name of the present building has changed over the years since it was built. Originally it was called Whitefield House, but in the early part of the last century its name changed to Overwater Hall. In the 1950s it reverted back to the former name, and a decade later it became Overwater Hall once more. “Overwater” refers to the tarn which lies some 500 yards to the northeast. The name is apparently derived from an old Norse word (Orri), which was both a personal name and the name for black grouse. The original meaning of Over Water, therefore, was either “Orri’s Tarn”, or “The Tarn where the Black Grouse are found”.
According to Jollie’s Cumberland Guide and Directory, the first owner of a house on this site was a Mr Gaff. The 1811 edition of the guide contains the following entry:
“Overwater is about half a mile in length and one fourth in breadth, situated between Binsey and Caldbeck fells. Its situation is naked, but Mr Gaff of Whitefield has erected a pleasant seat in the neighbourhood, reared numerous plantations, and has otherwise adorned and beautified the country around”.
It is not clear how long Mr Gaff lived here. We do know, however, that by 1814 the house had passed into the hands of new owners.
Joseph Gillbanks, born in 1780 to an already wealthy family, sailed to Jamaica at the age of 20 in pursuit of further riches. In due course Joseph established himself as a merchant on the island, and subsequently married Mary Jackson, niece of the Chief Justice of Jamaica. In 1814 he returned with Mary to England and purchased the estates of Whitefield. Orthwaite and Stockdale. Overwater Hall was subsequently built on the site of the former house and became the family seat.
The Gillbanks’ coat of arms can be seen above the hotel entrance. Five hearts, a rose and two trefoils, surmounted by a stag’s head, with the family motto, “Honore et Virtute”.
Joseph had become a magistrate on his return to England, and subsequently served the Wigton court for 40 years until his death. His obituary in the Carlisle Patriot of February 12th 1853 described him thus:
“His heartiness of manner, and real kindness of disposition rendered him a great favourite. Mr Gillbanks made no pretensions to polish; he prided himself on plain speaking, yet he had in his heart feelings which are much more valuable than mere ornament.”
Joseph and Mary had raised a family. A son, Jackson and two daughters, Josephine and Mary.
The ownership of the house seems to have passed to Jackson on his father’s death. Jackson followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a magistrate before his own death in 1878
Meanwhile, Josephine and Mary had both found themselves husbands, and by 1914 the Gillbanks family had retained ownership of the house in the person of Mary Agnes Gough, daughter of Josephine and The Reverend Henry Gough.
Mary Agnes Gough did not have any children of her own. She lived at Overwater Hall with her companion Miss May Macray. Miss Macray was one of eight children. The daughter of The Reverend William Dunn Macray and Adelaide Ottilia Alberta Schmidt. On Miss Gough’s death the house and estate was bequethed to her friend and companion. In 1919, at the age of 56, May married The Reverend Donald Jones, Principal of Bede College, Durham. The marriage lasted for just six years until her husband’s death. May herself died in 1929. She lies buried beside her friend and companion in Uldale churchyard.
In 1929 the estate was purchased by the Gatty family. Frederick Alfred Gatty was a textile merchant and is known to have enhanced his personal fortune through the development of Khaki dye and its subsequent adoption by the British Army. The textile merchants would have benifitted from the enormous demand for uniforms during the First World War, and Frederick Gatty must have been well placed to grow wealthy from his trade.
Frederick died in 1951 and the estate was again sold. One of Frederick’s daughters, Prudence, who was born in this house, still lives at the top of the hotel driveway. She would be able to describe, amongst other things, the great sale which took place after her father’s death. The auction was held over five days. A huge tent was erected in front of the house, on what is now the car park, and almost everything in the house was up for sale.
The catalogue consisted of 2,085 lots, and varied from 12 bottles of 1878 Vintage Cognac, to a chair carved in 1798 from the timbers of Nelson’s former flagship, “Foudroyant”. The most expensive single item sold was a 12 bore Purdy hammer-gun in a leather leg-of-mutton case. It fetched £38.00. However, it was not the only firearm to be sold that week, for Mr Gatty seems to have kept a small arsenal at Overwater Hall, including 30 guns, 2 cannons, 8 swords and 2 shillelaghs!
It was at this point that the house was purchased by the man who may have fulfilled his “life’s ambition” by coming to live here, as quoted in the opening paragraph.
Charles Norman de Courcy-Parry came to Overwater Hall in 1952 at the age of 53. He was the self-admitted wayward son of the Chief Constable of Cumberland. Known as “Bay” to his friends, he gave a brief resume of his life during an interview in 1973;
“I have fought in two great wars, battled in a South-American revolution, worked a passage around the world, fought in the ring for the Middleweight Championship of French Oceania, been a ship’s cook, a swagman in Australia, a Master of Foxhounds for 35 years, travelled alone behind the Iron Curtain, written books, been a sporting journalist. And I’ve been in Gaol too.”
In addition to all these adventures, there was one other incident which gained him life-long notoriety. Wherever he went in the North Country, people would say; “There goes Parry. The man who shot Toplis.”
Percy Toplis, subject of the BBC television series “The Monocled Mutineer”, was an army deserter from the First World War and an alleged murderer. He was at the time the most wanted man in the country, having been at the centre of the British Army mutiny at Etaples (the infamous and brutal training base in Flanders), an incident so “un-British” that it was denied by the government until as late as 1978. He was therefore a severe irritation, and a potential danger to the authorities.
The 22 year-old de Courcy-Parry joined his father’s police hunt for him when Toplis turned up in Cumberland, at Plumpton, near Penrith. He took with him his small Belgian automatic, an unofficial souvenir from the war, and headed the police chase on his 1000cc American motorcycle.
The actual circumstances of Toplis’ death are still a mystery. Toplis was certainly shot, and the young de Courcy-Parry may well have been responsible. In any event, the local people seemed to have had no doubts. Meanwhile the officials in Whitehall breathed a sigh of relief, and conveniently erased all record of the rebellion at Etaples.
Incidentally, in the late 1990s Paul McGann, who starred as Percy Toplis in the BBC series, had dinner in our restaurant, unaware of the identity of the previous owner.
De Courcy-Parry was certainly a colourful character. In “A Walk around the Lakes” by Hunter Davies, the author recounts the following story, told to him by de Courcy-Parry;
“I (Parry) was drinking in a pub in Wales, and somebody at the bar was saying that their ambition in life was to own a lake. Now, how often do you expect someone in the bar to say.
‘actually, I’ve got a lake to sell’
I wish to God that I Hadn’t. I regretted it the next morning when I woke up, but it was too late.
I’d agreed to sell to this stranger, Over Water, which I then owned, for £500. It was sheer bravado”. (break)
Things that go Bump..!
De Courcy-Parry wrote a regular column for “Horse and Hound” for an astounding 50 years.
His first article appeared in 1934 under the pseudonym “Dalesman” - the name stuck for the next half century.
It was in an article in Horse and Hound that he once referred to hauntings at Overwater Hall…..
“I (Parry) was assured that the old house was haunted by the ghost of a black woman, who had met her sad ending by being drowned in the lake at the bottom of the garden (Over Water).
It was her husband who did the horrid deed, and when she came to the surface and clutched the side of the boat, then the brute up with a chopper and cut off her hands and down went she to the pike and weeds, bubble, bubble, bubble, goodbye!
A nasty tale without a doubt, and no wonder the black lady walks the house and has terrified a great many people. Apparently, it is the lack of her hands that gives them the willies. No maids would sleep here and so cottages were bulit at the end of the back drive for them to sleep in peace.
Naturally, I was a little curious to see this unhappy phenomenon, and I was very surprised indeed on a Friday in August at twenty-past twelve of the clock… to see her pass noiselessly up the stairs and go into our best bedroom without opening the door. Right through the panels she went, whoosh!
She could not have opened the door, it sticks with age, and apart from that she had no hands to turn the knob!”
De Courcy-Parry died in 1988 at the age of 89, but his ownership of Overwater Hall had been brief. The house was sold to Mr & Mrs Henry Sinclair Hays who lived here for ten years until Mr Hays’ death in 1967.
The Hall was again sold, this time to Mr Monte Green and his wife Pixie. Londoners by origin, they made their home in Cumberland and had a catering business in Carlisle. Monte and Pixie had decided that the Hall would make a splendid hotel. In their fifties already, they intitially thought a bed & breakfast operation would suit them best. Soon, however, the desire to establish their new home as a fully-fledged hotel got the better of them, and eight happy years followed.
Mr & Mrs Green finally retired in 1975, and the house was again sold. The new owners Guiseppe and Gail Pollio continued the hotel in an Italian style and sold after six years to Mr & Mrs Arthur Kent.
Arthur and Joyce Kent purchased Overwater Hall in 1981 after owning an old manor house hotel in Gloucestershire. They may have bought Overwater Hall earlier, given the opportunity, for they had fallen in love with it when they stayed here in 1975. So began some very successful years at Overwater Hall, and the popularity of the hotel reached new heights. After eleven years, with Mr Kent approaching 60 and the prospect of a well-earned retirement, the hotel was again put on the market.
Overwater Hall was bought by Stephen Bore and Angela and Adrian Hyde, with a little help from the bank, in November 1992.
It is without doubt a unique and beautiful place to live and work, and for this reason, they say, it may not only be their very first hotel, but also most probably their last.
“The woodcock are here, and all manner of winter birds are exploring the reed beds around the lake.
The bracken is dead, and all around is a blaze of golden and bronze glory.
In a world of grumblers and complaint, it is still very good to be alive and happy. We all should be, would be, could be, if only we all could return to more simple things, and could find the time for just a moment in the day to thank our Creator for this…
…His gift of the magic of October”.