Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

More on this story:

More information:

Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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5 Responses to Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

  1. Andrew says:

    It seems a pity that it took Mr Barakat 13 years to figure out that his plans were not appropriate for the site. Normally this should be pretty clear within a year or two, or even before the site is purchased. His £1m would have been better spent making structural improvements to the Castle in order to stabilise it. In the end, no work was done, and the site further deteriorated. Lets hope that the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust can find the funds to purchase the Castle, or find the right person to do so; unlike their predecessor, Ruperra Castle Conservation Trust, formed 2 years before Mr Barakat purchased the Castle.

    Also, to say that the “south east tower largely collapsed” is not strictly correct, as only one side of the tower collapsed, with over half of the tower remaining, as seen on the left of the Savills photo shown above and in the following photo – http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo4639814.html

  2. Oliver Chettle says:

    I can’t see anyone wanting to make this a single home. It would be virtually a new build, but it would cost more. The setting is fine, but it in the wrong place for pretty much anyone who isn’t Welsh, and the house looks like it is made out of concrete. If I wanted a house in this style, I would prefer to buy the site of a demolished country house and start again, using more attractive stone.

  3. duncan hockridge says:

    £1.5 Million! I can see some good financially secure local developer ( PMG say or MEAD or maybe ALAN GRIFFITHS) taking the opportunity to come in and restore the castle building to provide 8 to 10 LEASEHOLD apartments ONLY within the existing structure plus landscaping the grounds. With the extras of legals £250.000, stabalisation costs £300,000 ,building costs £1,200,000, landscaping £200,000. profits £1,000,000. plus 20% contingencies. Flat sale costs to be around say 8 @ £650,000 or 10 @ £525,000. Well folks who is going to step up to the line and get on with this simple no-risk project and make some real money and SAVE RUPERRA? The Trust can then be offered the use of the stables/area to provide the space for any of it’s projects.using the grants available at present for this type of work.

  4. Andrew says:

    Duncan, that’s an interesting ‘back of the envelope’ analysis, but perhaps the area where problems may be encountered is with “building costs £1,200,000″. The first question is whether this figure is based on using modern techniques and products, or traditional methods and materials in keeping with the period when Ruperra was first built. If modern, it may not get planning permission, as was the case with Hampton Gay Manor House (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/lifting-the-curse-of-hampton-gay-manor-house), costing only £600,000 for a 5-bedroom house, but still only a box inside the ruined shell, rather than an integrated full solution. If traditional, then the cost may be far more, such as with Bylaugh Hall (http://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/a-salute-to-determination-goldsborough-hall-yorkshire/#comment-329), which has had over £9m spent on it during 10 years and is still not finished, although Bylaugh included a large service wing and orangery which Ruperra doesn’t have. On a smaller scale there was Hellifield Peel (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3356426/How-I-peeled-back-the-years.html), which was converted from a shell into a family home for £850,000, but was at least half the size of Ruperra and was done inexpensively as the owner-couple were architect and site managers and did a lot of the work themselves. There is also Astley Castle, which is only being partially restored by the Landmark Trust costing over £2.5m to create only one 4-bedroom lettable house (http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk/future_landmarks/AstleyNews.htm#TargetRaised).

  5. Andrew says:

    Ruperra Castle’s real estate agent since August 2011, Jeffrey Ross, has recently updated its website to compare the development opportunities at Ruperra with Hensol Castle in Hensol Castle Park (10 miles south-west of Ruperra), which since 2009 is being transformed into a hotel by Gerald Leeke, with enabling development of its surrounding buildings now for sale. However, there is no word as to when the Hensol Castle Hotel will open, so it may not be the best development model to follow in the current economic climate.

    Another ruin, Brucklay Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, was listed for sale in September. Plenty of opportunities for those wishing to appear on Country House Rescue or Restoration Home.

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