Mount Snever observatory

2009

Observatory, Mount Snever, Oldstead

I do like a Sunday wander in some green and pleasant part of Yorkshire, particularly if the map suggests it has many woods and streams. But a walk is all the more alluring if among all the greenery there’s some interesting architectural feature. Near Byland Abbey, in Yorkshire, is an intriguing tower on a hill in the woods.

Mount Snever Observatory, Oldstead, was built for John Wormald by J Dodds, in 1837/8, to celebrate the accession of Queen Victoria.

The available sources all refer to it as disused, and one photo I found suggested it might have crumbled rather at one stage. If so, it has been rebuilt, this large tower, at the top of a hill, in the middle of a wood. It was a fairly arduous climb to get there.

View of the observatory at Oldstead

Apparently this tower housed a telescope. Presumably John Wormald climbed up the hill of an evening and went up his tower to do a bit of stargazing. We have a slightly more accessible observatory in York, of course, in the Museum Gardens, dating from a little earlier (1832-3).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is this verse on the side of the tower, carved into a stone block in the brick-built walls. It’s difficult to read now, but the English Heritage records have a transcription of it – see below. I thought it might be a verse penned by John Wormald himself, to put onto his celebratory observatory tower. The capitalised words are striking.

In fact, it’s apparently his own adaptation of parts of a poem by Alexander Pope – Windsor Forest. With a couple of words slightly ‘mis-remembered’ perhaps, and what are clearly deliberate changes.

Verse on Mount Snever observatory

‘Here hills and waving groves a scene display

And part admit and part exclude the day

See rich industry smiling on the plains
And peace and plenty tell VICTORIA reigns!
Happy the MAN who to these shades retires
Whom NATURE charms and whom the muse inspires
Who wandering thoughtful in this silent wood
Attends the duties of the wise and good

To observe a mean, be to himself a friend
To follow NATURE and regard his end.’

These are the original lines from the (very long) poem by Pope:

Here waving groves a checquer’d scene display,
And part admit, and part exclude the day; [lines 17-18]

Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
And peace and plenty tell, a Stuart reigns. [lines 41-42]

Happy next him, who to these shades retires,
Whom Nature charms, and whom the Muse inspires; [lines 235-236]

Or wand’ring thoughtful in the silent wood,
Attends the duties of the wise and good,
T’observe a mean, be to himself a friend,
To follow nature, and regard his end; [lines 247-250]

The tower is mentioned in various walks in the vicinity, but no one seems to know much about John Wormald, or his observatory up on the hill amongst the ‘waving groves’ of North Yorkshire.

Detail of inscription on wall

Location

The old observatory tower is in North Yorkshire, not far from Byland Abbey. A walking route (5 miles) is available on the AA website: Monks and an Astronomer at Byland Abbey

2 comments

  1. Thank you very much for posting this. I went on a lovely walk from Byland Abbey up to Mount Snever Observatory today and was rather intrigued by the inscription, but I could only make out parts of it thanks to my shoddy eyesight.

  2. Martin Dawson

    Great to see some on else knowing of this tower. I first found it in 1981 and managed to get half way up the hill on my motorbike! Its what you do when yer young… I a interested in astronomy and have researched many old astronomy sites in Yorkshire but reverences to Mt Snever Observatory are far and few between. I have discussed this at my astronomy society and some long gone members suggested it was a look out tower for fires and the view over the Harwardian Hills and not a astronomical observatory. But in the mid-19th the view of the skies up there would have been brilliant (except towards the north and Middlesborough even then!) best wishes Martin Dawson, York Astronomical Society.

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