The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project

One of the sadly almost inevitable side-effects of urban and industrial growth is the loss of more of our countryside. Sometimes it can be on a smaller scale for residential developments and industrial units but occasionally society’s plans are much grander and require a greater sacrifice. This has been shown with the publication of the latest proposed route for the new High Speed 2 rail project to provide a fast link between London and Birmingham.  In previous generations, landowners could influence the path of developments such as roads or canals to their benefit but as their power has diminished so routes of these developments can now threaten the settings of our country houses.

The High Speed 2 railway is aiming to dramatically reduce the need for internal domestic flights in the UK by linking London to, first, the West Midlands, followed by Leeds and Manchester.  The plan has always been controversial, requiring the loss of hundreds of homes in the urban areas around the terminals and also a significant loss of farmland.  Following an initial proposal, the latest route was announced to the House of Commons on 20 December 2010 which reflected some concerns about the initial proposal.  However, 13 of the 30 sections (yes, I have been through all of them!) contain a number of country houses and manors which will still be significantly affected by the plans.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One bit of good news is that fears over the proximity of the link to the wonderfully elegant West Wycombe Park (raised in a blog post in Oct 2009) have been alleviated as the new route is further away.  However, another significant house will still be badly affected; the Georgian, grade-I listed, Edgcote House, Northamptonshire.  The proposed route now slices through the remarkably unlisted grounds with the line passing just to the east of the ornamental lake which forms one of the main axial views from the house.  Edgcote was built between 1747-1752 for London merchant Richard Chauncey by architect William Jones and featured as ‘Netherfield’ in the 1995 TV adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  The house and grounds form the centrepiece to a 1,700-acre estate which was bought for £30m in 2005. Interestingly, this value has not deterred the planners (who moved the line from the original position cutting across the lake) so it will be interesting to see if the owner submits a claim a for ‘statutory blight‘ [.pdf]. This gives the Secretary of State the option to buy the property at the current market value if the owner can show that they have been unable to sell due to the Government proposals, or only at a substantially lower value.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

Amendments have also been made to protect another significant property; Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  A grade-I listed house, now run as a hotel, it was built in the early 17th-century for the Hampden family but was later let to the exiled King Louis XVIII of France who lived there between 1809-14.  Originally Jacobean, it was substantially enlarged and ‘Georgianised’ between 1759 and 1761 by the architect Henry Keene.  Again, following initial concerns, the route has now been moved further away from the house so that it would not be visible and will benefit from extra earth works and planting to reduce the noise.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)

Another grade-I house which would have been worse affected if it hadn’t been blighted already is Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.  This imposing house, now converted into apartments, is part medieval, part Georgian designed by the talented Francis Smith of Warwick, exists in a seriously compromised setting with the Stoneleigh Park exhibition and conference venue built in one half of the immediate parkland.  The proposed line will not only cut through the conference venue but also forever separate the house from the northern edge of the original park – though the massive scale of development already means this was never a house which was going to be returned to splendid isolation.

Another compromised house is Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire where the train will pass in front but quite some distance away.  The house itself, a beautiful Baroque-style Georgian mansion was built in 1757 to a design by Benjamin Wyatt and remained the home of the Swinfen family for nearly 200 years.  After the death of the last Swinfen in 1948 the land was sold and later a huge youth detention centre built to the immediate north-west with the house being left to deteriorate until it was converted into a hotel in the 1980s.  Having a railway line in the middle distance is the least of the concerns for the setting of this house.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Despite the vocal complaints of Lord Rothschild it seems that the route will be quite far from their old family seat of Waddesdon Manor.  However, Rothschild has become one of the leading opponents of the scheme – along with 16 other Conservative MPs whose constituencies will be affected.

With the rail route cutting across the countryside it was unavoidable that it would pass near to country houses, ironically which, of course, were often built to get away from the industrial blight.  Other houses which now lie close to the proposed route include:

  • The Vache (image), Buckinghamshire
  • Pollard Park House – a 1903 house built to a Lutyens design.
  • Classical Shardeloes, built between 1758-66 for William Drake MP by the architect Stiff Leadbetter would also suffer from the high speed line cutting across the main view from the house.
  • Grade-II* Doddershall House would be within a couple of hundred metres of the line on which up to 18 trains per hour are expected to rush past at speeds of up to 400kph.
  • Chetwode Manor
  • Oatley’s Hall
  • Berkswell Hall, Warwickshire – a grade-II* listed house now converted into apartments
  • Coleshill Manor, Birmingham – now offices and already suffering from being surround by motorways, the house will now have the line within metres, also necessitating the demolition of a new office complex next door.

The route also cuts across the old estate of the now demolished Hints Hall in Staffordshire – an elegant two-storey Georgian mansion with giant pilasters to enliven the facade.  It’s unlikely that if the house had survived it would have prevented the proposed route but again, without the house, an estate becomes even more vulnerable.

These are just the houses affected by the first 120 miles of the proposed 355 mile scheme.  If successful, we can expect more houses to be blighted as the route carves through the Midlands and up into Lancashire, shattering the peace and quiet that were the original reasons for the creation of these refuges from the industrial reality of the cities.  Although progress can often bring benefits, in this case the price is being paid by our country houses as their parklands and estates are judged the path of least resistance.


More information: High Speed 2 [wikipedia]

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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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9 Responses to The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project

  1. Norman says:

    This demonstrates “short term-ism” of government. We had the Great Central Railway line (the last intercity line built in the UK) from Marylebone to Manchester.(around 100 stations, plus access to other lines en-route). Closure of the G C started in 1965, with the final section in 1969, making it the largest single closure of the Beeching era.
    Denis Butler, Earl of Lanesborough wrote in 1965: (Among] the main lines in the process of closure, surely the prize for idiotic policy must go to the destruction of the until recently most profitable railway per ton of freight and per passenger carried in the whole British Railways system, as shown by their own operating statistics. These figures were presented to monthly management meetings until the 1950s, when they were suppressed as “unnecessary”, but one suspects really “inconvenient” for those proposing Beeching type policies of unnecessarily severe contraction of services [...] This railway is of course the Great Central forming a direct Continental loading gauge route from Sheffield and the North to the Thames valley and London for Dover and France . . Enough said.

  2. Andrew says:

    A well researched post, with a lot of map (or Matt?) reading. The ironic aside to the Edgcote House story is that the new owner has only just finished building a new waterway extension to the lake (or Pool as called on the map) which draws the viewer’s eyes from the house right down the waterway and new tree plantings into the field in which the new railway will cross (before and after).

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  4. Chris says:

    I find it extraordinarily arrogant of this government that they are prepared to destroy the country’s heritage for the sake of a brand new railway line with a dubious business case.

    At a time of unprecedented cuts to services, the Coalition is still pressing ahead with spending £33 billion and at the same time they will be bulldozing through some of England’s last unspoilt places. If they feel this new railway is essential, then surely it should follow an existing noisy transport corridor, and not blight a whole new area of open countryside?

  5. Emeric says:

    I just wonder why the new owner payed so much for the estate in 2005.
    Nobody told him about the High Speed project?
    Even with routes probabilities, the estate should have been much devaluated!

  6. Oliver Chettle says:

    Chris, this sort of thing just has to be accepted. The amendments to the route show that heritage concerns are taken seriously, and presumably at enormous cost. It isn’t possible to build an efficient high speed railway along an existing corridor, that is a totally unrealistic suggestion. The existing rail corridors are full, and they pass through urban areas, where building is even more expensive and would involve massive demolition of people’s homes. Adding a railway to an existing motorway is almost impossible, probably more expensive and disruptive than building a new railway AND a new motorway. For a start, it would be necessary to demolish and rebuild every single bridge and junction.

    This country is in a terrible mess, with its competitiveness damaged more than most people realise. We desperately need investment in infrastructure (among many other major policy improvements) to arrest the decline. If we don’t get it, England is going to be a miserable place to be for future generations. We have to have a successful economy, without it, there will be no funds or will to protect our heritage. We all use infrastructure, so we have to accept that it will be built close to us, or in other places that we consider less than ideal.

    • Chris says:

      Oliver, I dont think we do have to roll over and accept the destruction of our heritage. I believe we have to protect it for the sake of generations to come.

      Arup, the engineers, have said that HS2 could follow an existing noisy transport corridor. Trains would have to travel fractionally slower than those currently being proposed – the additional time taken from London to Birmingham would be under 4 minutes. Arup do have experience in this field, as they did the work on HS1 in Kent.

      We should ensure that a precedent is set now that damage to our heritage is minimised.

  7. Emeric says:

    It’s also important to consider the landscape insertion.
    For instance, as you can see for Shardeloes house on this map:

    http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/assets.dft.gov.uk/hs2-arp-00-dr-rw-04007.pdf

    On the left of Amersham’s tunnel, the train roof should be under the groung level in the house’s view.

  8. Pingback: HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others | The Country Seat

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