Hallelujah] The source of inspiration: In a Leicestershire wood near the site of an old mansion lie the newly discovered ruins of an 18th-century temple. Locals like to think it was here that Handel composed the 'Messiah'. Edward Marriott reports

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MOST OF the residents of Shackerstone are too young to remember Gopsall Hall, a Palladian mansion that stood just south of the Leicestershire village in 600 acres of parkland. It was demolished in 1951. For fans of the composer George Frideric Handel, however, the site of the house, where now only a few cows graze, is a popular shrine.

Gopsall was built at the beginning of the 18th century for a Birmingham industrialist who lived there with his son, Charles Jennens. The younger Jennens, who eventually inherited the house and estate from his father, was Handel's close friend and librettist, writing words for six of Handel's works, including the Messiah, at Gopsall.

Now Gopsall is about to become even more of a revered spot for Handel fans. Earlier this month a ruined temple, unknown to all but a handful of villagers, was discovered in a copse 200 yards from the site of the house. Local received wisdom holds that Handel composed the Messiah while sitting inside the temple.

The truth is a little more prosaic but no less exciting for die-hard Handelians, for whom anything to do with Jennens offers an insight into the composer's life.

Jennens had the temple built in 1764, in memory of a friend, Edward Holdsworth. It was Gopsall's principal temple and stood on eight columns, about 30ft high. From here, the view over the ornamental lake and deer park to the house must have been awe-inspiring.

Now, however, it is scarcely recognisable. Its curved roof, on which a statue stood, collapsed more than a century ago and only four columns still stand. It is overgrown with brambles and rhododendrons. In this state it has lain forgotten for most of this century. Although only a few yards into the copse, the pillars are camouflaged by lichen. It is impossible to stumble casually upon it - from the public footpath, 100 yards away, it is invisible. Local children use the ruins as their own adventure playground.

Then last month, Christopher Brooke, Leicestershire County Council's chief historic buildings officer, discovered the temple while on a routine check of the area. Excited by its special history, he applied to English Heritage to have it listed at the beginning of December.

He is less excited by the Handel connection than by the fact that, aside from the walled garden, it is the only remaining part of Gopsall. 'Classical garden features are scarce around these parts,' says Dr Brooke. 'They only crop up where you have major country houses with formal gardens. And these are few and far between. In the case of Gopsall, the temple and the walled garden are all that remain of the house. That increases the importance of the temple in historical terms.

'When we applied to have it listed we played up both its architectural and historical significance. We will mention Handel, but it will be a minor mention as it was not his house and he never actually lived there.'

At the turn of this century Gopsall was one of King Edward VII's favourite retreats. At that time, owned by the 4th Earl Howe, it was at its peak. The 580-acre park in which the house sat was the centre of an estate of more than 33,000 acres spread over 11 counties. It offered the king a welcome respite from royal duties. But ironically it was the expense of entertaining the monarch that forced Lord Howe to sell up in 1919.

Projects such as the building of a silver hip bath for the king and extending the railway platform at Shackerstone so the king could alight more easily cannot have helped his bank balance.

Gopsall was sold to the Crown. It grew gradually more shabby, being used during the Second World War as soldiers' quarters. Their casual treatment of the building contributed greatly to its destruction a few years later.

Dr Brooke says the temple is likely to be awarded a Grade II listing. Whether this will save it from eventual ruin, however, is doubtful. A spokesman for the Crown Estate Commissioner, which owns the temple and the land on which it stands, says: 'It is too early to say what we will be doing about the temple if it is listed. We support moves to list it and it is quite possible that we will repair it. Our surveyors will be looking at it before too long.'

Handel specialists are divided on the importance of the temple. Sir Winton Dean, probably the world's foremost Handel scholar, said he did not know anything about it.

Others, however, are beside themselves with excitement. Ruth Smith, an acknowledged Handel scholar who has published a number of respected essays on the composer, says: 'For anyone who is interested in Jennens - and I am probably more interested in him than anyone else on this planet - it is sensational news that the temple has been discovered and might be listed.

'Charles Jennens and Handel are very closely linked. It was Jennens who conceived the idea for the Messiah and put together the libretto.

'And he helped Handel a lot elsewhere. He fostered a friendly interest in him, he attended his performances and he commissioned a portrait of him. But he was also quite critical of Handel. He was quite a slow worker and he felt that Handel had been very hasty with the Messiah.'

Ms Smith would prefer to see the temple reunited with the statue that sat on its domed roof, which is now in a museum in Leicester, rather than watch it continue to decay in the wood. 'The temple could not be more important for Handel scholars,' she says, but adds a note of caution: 'I should point out for anyone who believes that Handel wrote the Messiah in the temple, that it was put up in 1764, by which time Handel was dead.

'So Jennens and Handel never sat there except, perhaps, in spirit. Nonetheless, it encapsulates the religious beliefs of the man to whom we owe the Messiah.'

No amount of persuasion by learned academics will convince committed believers that Handel did not scribble the Messiah under the temple's elegant domed roof.

John Lain, a farmer who rents the adjacent land, says: 'Everyone around here thinks Handel wrote the Messiah there. But how can you ever be sure?

'I dare say there are other places at Gopsall where Handel could have written it. There was a chapel in the house. I'm sure that would have been a very nice place to compose as well.'

As the house is long gone, we will never really know.

(Photograph omitted)