Country House Rescue has proved to be one of the most interesting of programmes featuring the many varied mansions which the UK is lucky to enjoy. Rather than the rather glamorous recent series showing life at Chatsworth, or Jeremy Musson’s brilliant ‘Curious House Guest‘, Country House Rescue has shown the sometimes harsh reality of owning these homes, despite the lazy jibes in the wider media about families living in a state of supposed luxury. The programmes have shown the hard work and sense of duty these families possess, though this is sometimes overshadowed by the friction which change can bring, and which is often what is broadcast. Yet, with a new presenter for the new series (starting Thursday 14 June), perhaps the commitment of the owners and the sheer beauty of their houses will come more to the fore.
In the first three series, Ruth Watson has proved to be an entertaining, if no-nonsense, deliverer of some rather stark home truths to owners up and down the country. For series four, a new presenter, Simon Davis, (favourite houses: Sezincote, Blenheim, Mount Stuart, Villa Emo, Babington House) takes the helm and steers a more collaborative and involved course as he stays at the houses, with the families, to experience their day-to-day life, including the hardships; at one house he spent an extremely cold night after the family admitted they never turn on the heating as it costs £30 per hour to run. It will be interesting to see how the new messenger is received and whether a less assertive style will bring greater success – though many will undoubtedly miss Ruth’s acerbic commentary.
The houses to feature in the new series are now known: Colebrooke Park, Bantry House, Chapel Cleeve Manor, Craufurdland Castle, Gunby Hall, Meldon Park (thank you Andrew); starting with Colebrooke Park in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; the first time the show has been to that part of the UK.
Colebrooke Park is a fascinating example of the varied fortunes of the country house over the last two centuries; a story marked by wealth and also decline, but also one driven by a continued commitment to a house by generations of one family. Home to the Brooke family for over 350 years, the current owner, the 3rd Viscount Brookeborough (a prominent peer, one of the 92 hereditaries sitting in the House of Lords) received what many would regard as an unenviable inheritance in 1980 when he took on the decaying and denuded family seat.
Of course, as with many houses, they had had a heyday. Once the centre of one of the five largest estates in the area, which had reached a peak of almost 28,000-acres in 1876, the house had been home to a succession of prominent politicians and soldiers including the 1st Viscount, the longest serving Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1943-63). However, agricultural changes, taxation, and the Troubles, meant that the estate slowly shrank to just over a thousand acres, with a similarly reduced income insufficient to maintain a house of this size.
The house itself is a rather austere neo-Classical design; a two-storey, nine-bay block only enlivened by a grand pedimented portico with Ionic columns. The house was built in 1820 for Henry Brooke (b.1770 – d.1834) who was created a baronet in 1822 (second creation), as a statement of his position, but one which was to be built on a budget – though a substantial one; the house was completed for £10,381 – approx £7m today. Sir Henry had inherited the house and estate from a rather profligate uncle and clearing the debts and establishing a comfortable fortune had taken three decades – the house was a reward and a monument to his sound management. Despite being a cautious man, Sir Henry still succumbed to the suggestions of his architect that he compete with the nearby Castle Coole by James Wyatt (built 1790-97), increasing the dimensions of the house so that it was larger, and then later in the summer, approving the enlargement of the Library to 36ft by 18ft.
For those who regularly watch TV programmes featuring country houses, Colebrooke Park may trigger a vague sense of deja vue. This is because the house is, bar a few details, quite similar in design to Sarah Beeny’s Rise Hall in Yorkshire (mentioned in this previous blog post). Both houses were built around the same time but by different architects; Colebrooke in 1820 by William Farrell and Rise Hall in 1815-20 by Watson and Pritchett. Yet it is likely that this was more co-incidence than copying as there is a clear architectural lineage for the ‘rectangular block with portico’ style of house which goes back to Colen Campbell‘s masterpiece of architectural propaganda, ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘. Published in 1715, this collection of designs helped shift the national preference away from the more florid Baroque houses of Vanbrugh toward a simpler architectural style; one which Campbell himself exemplified with his quite radical first design for Wanstead Hall, Essex. Although Wanstead as built was significantly different in the detailing, the core architectural idea was for a rectangular central block, fronted by a bold, pedimented portico. This was to be one of the most influential designs produced by an architect; shaping national taste, it was widely imitated for decades afterwards – see Prior Park in Bath, built in the 1730s and 40s, and Adlington Hall, Cheshire, built in the 1750s, and even today. Of course, this design is a derivative of the rectangular, double-pile plan developed by Sir Roger Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (built 1650-64, burnt down 1952).
Despite the grandeur, the agricultural depression in the 1880s hit the estate and the decline began. This was only arrested by the return in 1918 after WWI of Sir Basil Brooke who instituted changes to bring the estate back. It was, though, a struggle; many rooms were left unused in the 1930s and by 1939 the timber was being felled as ‘the only way to save Colebrooke’. Poor tax planning meant that when Lord Brookeborough died in 1973 the contents of the house had to be sold to pay the death duties, leaving a rather forlorn house for the present Lord Brookeborough when he took over in 1980. Realising the scale of the challenge, an architect was engaged to explore what options were available; including the dreaded conversion to a golf club with the grounds becoming fairways.
Luckily, a better solution was found; the house became an exclusive country sports destination, with sporting rights over 10,000-acres and the Viscount and Viscountess welcoming the guests as though friends into their home. The house was sensitively adapted to meet both the requirements of discerning visitors and official regulations whilst preserving the architectural fabric of the house to the greatest extent. Despite their success, the Viscount and his wife wish to pass on the house and 1,100-acre estate to their nephew in an even more robustly healthy condition; hence the invitation to Country House Rescue. It will be fascinating to see if this series presents radically different ideas to those proposed by Ruth Watson. Obviously one hopes that whatever happens, the solutions enable the families to remain in their homes whilst providing sufficient income to not only maintain them but invest in them to give them a stronger future.
A more detailed history of Colebrooke Park [Colebrooke Park]
More on the history of the house and family [Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland]
‘TV makeover for stately home‘ [Belfast Newsletter]
Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4] – Colebrooke Park (episode 1: Thursday 14 June – 20:00)
Country House Rescue – Series Listing [Wikipedia]