Lifting the curse of Hampton Gay manor house


Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire
Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire (Image: Robert Silverwood on flickr)


The fire which gutted the largely unaltered Elizabethan Hampton Gay manor house in 1887 was seen as the retribution of a curse said to have been put on the house when the inhabitants refused to offer help and shelter when the Paddington-to-Birkenhead Express crashed nearby in 1874.  The fire tore through the building leaving nothing but a shell which has stood for nearly 150 years.  However, with continuing structural deterioration threatening its very survival, an application has been submitted to restore it as a new home.

Even ten years ago the idea of restoring a historic ruin would have probably been immediately refused by English Heritage but over the last decade a series of interesting restorations have shown that ruins need not always remain that way.  This re-evaluation was probably a result of the realisation that it is almost impossible to fully arrest deterioration to a building which is not in use.  However, there is a strong incentive for an owner to ensure that his home remains secure and watertight.

One example of this new permissiveness is Eggesford House in Devon.  Formerly the home of the Earls of Portsmouth, this house, built between 1820-30, was abandoned in preference for their Hampshire estates in 1911 and put up for sale in 1913. It was eventually bought by a local man who slowly stripped it of anything usable in the 1920s leaving a derelict shell.  In the early 1980s it was expected that within a few years the last remaining walls would collapse leaving no sign of the grand house.  However it (plus 80-acres) was sold in the 1990s for around £300,000 to the architect Edward Howell who created a huge new house within the existing walls which successfully uses the old room heights to create Regency-style proportions in a very modern house.

Another project which was driven forward by sheer determination was that of Hellifield Peel in Yorkshire whose story was told as part of a 90-minute special edition of Grand Designs.  At it’s core a 14th-century fortified tower, it had been modernised in the Georgian period but abandoned in the 1950s until it was a roofless shell.  With dereliction threatening total loss, English Heritage decided to allow conversion – albeit with some serious stipulations regarding the archaeology. Architect Francis Shaw had always wanted to live in a castle and this was a labour of love – certainly only someone very dedicated would continue after seeing the central spine wall collapse into hundreds of tons of rubble.  However, anyone who sees the house today would probably agree that English Heritage made the right choice.

Astley Castle in Warwickshire was another ancient home ravaged by a fire in 1978 and a fast deteriorating ruin which the Landmark Trust, with grant support from English Heritage, are in the process of rescuing.  Their plan involves the insertion of a smaller house into the shell of the castle to support the walls and provide holiday accommodation thus ensuring an income to provide a secure future for this historic house.

So the plans for Hampton Gay aren’t as radical as some might believe. However, the 18th-century passion for the ‘Picturesque’ – an appreciation for natural environments and particularly for ruins – is still influential today and some may object to this interference in what is considered one of the most beautiful views in Oxfordshire.  However, without significant intervention there is a real risk that the ruin would simply collapse and be lost forever.  So if the choice is between losing an atmospheric ruin or allowing restoration it seems that the current preference from the official bodies is that the latter is to be allowed – although the heavy restrictions will hopefully ensure that only well-funded restorers with a sympathetic understanding of the building will undertake these projects.  This raises some tantalising prospects; perhaps one day we may even see Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire as a home once again?

Story: ‘Grand design for ruins‘ [Witney Gazette]

Lodges to lost houses: Thorington Hall Gate Lodge, Suffolk

Thorington Hall Lodge, Suffolk (Image: buildings_fan on Flickr)

Often the only visible sign of  a grand estate is the lodge house seen as we drive past; their varied size and designs indicating the wealth and aspirations of the owners.  Although still a integral part of the functioning of some estates, providing security and accommodation, sometimes these beautiful buildings lie abandoned, intriguing those who go past them everyday.  ‘The Restoration Man’ series on Channel 4 has been showing people who have been willing to take on abandoned listed buildings and bringing them back to life. The episode to be shown on Sunday 25 April features Thorington Hall Gate Lodge, a forlorn reminder of Thorington Hall, one of the many elegant demolished Suffolk country houses.

Although their main function was to provide shelter for the estate worker who opened the gates, lodges were often designed by the same pre-eminent architects who were working on the main house.  Far from being an afterthought, these houses were often strongly imbued with the overall architectural style of the estate and were seen as an important way of announcing the status of the estate and owner.  Alternatively they gave scope for the owner to indulge in some architectural experimentation.  The styles of the lodges are as varied as the many houses they protected, from Victorian Gothic follies to small thatched cottage orne to minature Greek temples, such as at Thorington Hall.  The publication of ‘pattern books’ such as Joseph Gandy’s ‘Designs for Cottages, Cottage Farms and other Rural Buildings, Including Entrance Gates and Lodges‘ (1805) also enabled the discerning owner to select particular buildings from an established design without the need for an architect.

Many of these lodge cottages are now no longer part of the estate and have been turned into interesting family homes.  Their smaller, more domestic, scale also ensured that they often survived the demolition of the main house.  One example is Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire where all nine lodges at each of the estate entrances survive despite the palatial mansion being demolished in 1938.  Increasingly, the modern estate owner is buying back these buildings to reintegrate them with the overall estate.  However, some still survive as neglected shells and these can prove to be an exciting opportunity to create a home.  One important factor bear in mind is that these houses are often very small (sometimes only two rooms) and their listed status means it’s not always possible to add significant new extensions.  One of the joys of these houses is their diminutive size and that should be respected when considering restoration, but completed sensitively, these houses can be an interesting feature of your local heritage.

To find lodge houses which may be available for sale, join SAVE Britain’s Heritage and access their ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ where you can search for these properties plus many others.  Their latest ‘Buildings at Risk’ report – ‘Live or Let Die’ – will be published on 1 June 2010 and can be pre-ordered now.

To find out more about the many country houses which have been demolished in Suffolk there is a superb book which has been recently published called ‘The Lost Country Houses of Suffolk’ by W.M. Roberts [].

Programme details: ‘The Restoration Man‘ [Channel 4]

A shock return: Abbey Dore Court

Abbey Dore Court, Herefordshire (Image: Sykes Cottages)

Memories of a happy childhood can seem all the stronger as time passes, yet when confronted with the reality when revisiting once familiar haunts it can make any changes seem all the more jarring.  For Clare Sage, her return aged 27 to her grandmother’s home, Abbey Dore Court in Herefordshire, was a particularly hard welcome as the house had been effectively abandoned by her grandmother for several years so she could concentrate on the garden.  Despite Clare’s determination she needed some help and so her family’s home is the subject of Ruth Watson’s Country House Rescue.

After coming back from years living away, walking through her former childhood home, Clare was shocked to discover the many leaks, falling ceilings, holes in the floors, and a general air of neglect.  Built in the 1870s, the house, although comparatively large with 11-bedrooms and 6 acres of gardens, is only a minor country house and much smaller than those usually featured in Country House Rescue.  However, it shows that even the smaller houses can be as problematic as the much larger ones. Again, it’s a familiar pattern of ageing owner with insufficient income to employ full-time staff for maintenance, who does what she can but then find it’s has become just too much. These houses can then deteriorate quick rapidly if the problems are ignored – and with country houses being naturally isolated this is all too easy.

Thankfully, in this case, it appears that Clare’s dedication has enabled the restoration of the house and it is now available for rent which will not only create an income but, perhaps most importantly, will ensure that the house is lived in, keeping it warm and ensuring any problems will be spotted quickly and dealt with.  Here’s hoping that one day, Clare’s hard work with be rewarded with her being able to move back in and live in her family’s home.

Official website: ‘Abbey Dore Court

Rental details: ‘Abbey Dore Court‘ [Sykes Cottages]

Programme to be broadcast at 20:00 on 15 April 2010 on Channel 4.

A labour of love: the restoration of Hammerwood Park

Hammerwood Park, Sussex (Image: South Downs Living)

Once a house has sunk to such a level of dereliction that even the developers won’t take it on, this can easily lead to an application for demolition and the loss of another piece of our architectural heritage.  Yet, as we see in the media, there are often people willing to commit themselves and their money towards saving these beautiful homes – Hammerwood Park is one which certainly falls into this category.

The house was built in 1792 for Benjamin Sperling and is particularly important as the design of the house was the first commission of Benjamin Latrobe (b.1764 – d.1820) who was later to be hugely influential in the direction of American architecture.   Latrobe had studied architecture privately and served for a year from 1789 as an architectural draughtsman in the office of neo-Classical architect S.P. Cockerell. Howard Colvin suggests that Latrobe was also strongly influenced by the work of French architects such as Étienne-Louis Boullée whose own strictly neo-Classical style emphasised the paring back of unnecessary ornamentation and the use of grand scale with repetitive elements.  Through Hammerwood Park it’s possible to see this philosophy in practice with the giant pilasters on the garden front and the miniature temples on the flanking wings.

The early death of Latrobe’s wife in 1793 caused him to abandon Britain and head to America where he made friend’s with President George Washington’s nephew.  It was these contacts which enabled him to obtain further commissions including the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which has been described as the ‘first monument of the Greek Revival in America’ (dem. 1867).  It was this and his later work designing the first Capitol building in Washington which so greatly influenced the future of American architecture towards the ne0-Classical which is so evident even today.

That a building as interesting as Hammerwood Park was ever allowed to deteriorate to that extent was unfortunately all too common in the post-WWII era. It is only the dedication of it’s current owner, David Pinnegar, that has probably saved the house from conversion or even demolition.  After various owners it was requisitioned during WWII for use by the Army who left it in their usual poor condition.  Post-war, the Chattell family, who then owned the house, sub-divided the house into flats but as dry rot took hold, the residents moved out and the house was sold in 1973 to the rock group Led Zeppelin for use as a country retreat to work on their music. However, touring commitments meant they never moved in (and rumour has it they even forgot they owned it) and whilst empty, thieves took the roof lead leading to massive wet rot outbreaks.  The house was boarded up in 1976 before finally being offered for sale in 1982 in Country Life magazine with the marvellous understatement that it was ‘in need of modernisation’.

David Pinnegar, then only 21, bought the now grade-I listed house and has since dedicated his life to its restoration.  The vast house has revealed many interesting architectural nuances as he and many volunteers have worked through the vast catalogue of repairs. Although he has secured some grants from English Heritage, the vast majority of the work has been financed through day visitors, B&B guests, and its use as location for a wide variety of films and music video shoots.  In many ways, David’s dedication is proof that all houses, no matter how poor their condition, can find a saviour.

Full story: ‘Hammerwood Park, East Grinstead: Whole Lotta Love‘ [South Downs Living]

House website: ‘Hammerwood Park

A problem shared? Whitbourne Hall visited by Country House Rescue

Whitbourne Hall, Herefordshire (Image: David Cronin on flickr)

The great wealth generated by the Victorians led to the creation of some of our grandest country houses.  Designed to impress guests and provide a showcase for the collections and taste of the owners, these houses were remarkable and beautiful expressions of the power and preferences of the age.  However, in the more straitened circumstances of the 20th-century, this left owners with running costs which far outstripped their wealth and which unfortunately led to hundreds of our country houses being demolished.

Some escaped the wreckers pickaxe through conversion into apartments – but this doesn’t always solve the questions about the long term sustainability of a house, as shown by the visit of the TV programme Country House Rescue to Whitbourne Hall in Herefordshire.

The grade-II* listed house was built for vinegar magnate Edward Bickerton Evans whose father founded the Hill Evans Vinegar works in Worcester in 1830, which was, by 1905, the biggest vinegar producer in the world.  As was standard practice for the discerning Victorian millionaire he decided to build a grand country house and chose a cornfield in Whitbourne as the perfect location.

Despite its Georgian appearance, it was built between 1860 and 1862 to a design by Edmund Wallace Elmslie and inspired by the Erectheum on the Acropolis in Greece. The house was a lavish example of neo-Palladian architecture with a six-column portico, whilst on the south front a huge orangery, now known as the palm house, was added in 1875 and was thought to be the tallest in Europe.  The interior features a fine pillared main Hall with a rare blue and white glass ceiling, and the main reception rooms retain many original features.  At it’s height in 1876, the estate extended to over 2,500 acres with the classically beautiful Whitbourne Hall sitting proudly at the centre.

Remarkably, the Hall remained in the Evans family until 1980, when it was purchased by Whitbourne Hall Community Ltd to be run as a communal housing project with individual apartments and set in eight acres of gardens.  This original arrangement floundered and a commercial company was created to run the house as a more conventional managed community of 23 apartments.  The main rooms have been preserved much as they were with the Morning and Drawing Rooms retaining their original wall coverings.  However the sheer scale of the house means that the average annual maintenance bill is about £42,000 – and due to extensive and significant work required to maintain a house of this quality, that bill is expected to double in 2011, posing serious problems for the residents.  Extensive restoration is now required as the house is now suffering from a catalogue of issues including failing plasterwork as water penetrates through the coffered ceiling of the main hall.    Curiously Whitbourne Hall doesn’t seem to be on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register – it would be interesting to know why not.

One of the perennial difficulties of owning a country house is not just the huge costs such as heating but also the ongoing maintenance (as demonstrated by the Earl Spencer’s sale), the costs of which, rise significantly the higher the classification.   With the paucity of public grants for maintenance it falls to the owners to seek innovative ways to make these wonderful houses financially self-sufficient if possible.  However, as Country House Rescue often shows, it’s the owners who can sometimes be the problem who need to be convinced before they become part of the solution.

More details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ [Channel 4]

Empty walls? The sale of contents to fund the house – Althorp House

Althorp House, Northamptonshire (Image: Andrew Walker @ wikipedia)

For hundreds of years the political power of a country house was in the ownership of the house, and most importantly the estate – acreage equated with power even if the land was mortgaged to the hilt.  The paintings or furniture which furnish these houses were not only decorative but assets which were easy to sell off when financial circumstances demanded that money be raised.  An upcoming sale at Christies highlights how this is still the case today – even if the strength of the art market means that fewer works now need to be sold to raise the totals required.

Althorp House in Northamptonshire has famously been the home of the Spencer family since the 16th-century and sits in a 14,000-acre estate.  The family fortune was founded in livestock and commodities which enabled John Spencer to purchase the red-brick Tudor house at Althorp in 1522.  It was this house which the 2nd Earl Spencer commissioned the architect Henry Holland to modernise in 1787-89, encasing it in white brick and tiles and remodelling the interior to create the grade-I listed house we see today.  The Spencer family then built up their connections becoming politically influential but also extensive art collectors.

Today, Althorp is in the middle of a £10m project to put the house on a sound structural footing.  One major task, along with repairing the ornate stonework and the external tiles, is to fix the roof – an undertaking which is taking nine months and requires over 50-tonnes of lead.  Globalisation means that commodity prices have been rising strongly on the back of growing demand from countries such as China meaning the cost of the project has proved too great to be borne through income.  So the 9th Earl Spencer has been forced to put a selection of art, considered ‘non-core’ to the collection by the trustees, up for auction.  However, the flip side to globalisation is the massive wealth creation and more well-funded collectors chasing the best works.  In this case, the quality of the paintings and the robust prices being achieved at recent auctions, it is possible to raise enough money with just a few works.

The highlight is ‘A Commander Being Armed for Battle‘ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens which is expected to fetch between £8-12m which should cover the restoration bill for the house with the other works, including ‘King David‘ by the Italian Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Il Guercino, providing some financial breathing space.  Ironically, the current Earl publicly criticised his stepmother for selling off four van Dycks and a Stubbs in the 1970s and 80s but this time the difference is that the proceeds will be re-invested in the house and estate rather than just simply for running costs.  It’s a fact of life that ownership of a country house is a constant battle against physical deterioration and with grant aid from the public bodies in such short supply it is unfortunately the artistic heritage which is once again being sacrificed to ensure that the family seat remains intact.

Full story: ‘On their uppers: The great aristocratic art sell-off‘ [The Independent]

Auctioneers: Christies – The Spencer House sale will be on 8 July 2010.

What’s to happen to Mentmore Towers?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

Running  a country house is always going to require a certain level of wealth with larger houses easily costing six figures a year in basic running costs and maintenance.  When funds are lacking it can be the house which shows the physical consequences as it becomes difficult to fund the ongoing care. Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire is one of the largest and impressive houses in the UK and the latest reports that its owner, Simon Halabi, has been declared bankrupt raise some worrying concerns about the future of this grand house.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers (known locally and to staff as just ‘Mentmore’) was originally built between 1852-54 by Baron Mayer de Rothschild of the famous banking family.  Designed by Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) the neo-Renaissance style echoed houses as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire and following Sir Charles Barry’s work at Highclere Castle in 1838.  The interiors are considered to be some of the finest Victorian designs and workmanship in the country.

Mr Halabi’s original plan was to convert Mentmore into a six-star country club with a London equivalent based at the ‘In and Out’ Club on Piccadilly which was also part of his property empire.  The global financial crises appeared to put these plans on hold before the collapse in property values caused a default on the bond secured on these properties which led to the bankruptcy.  Both properties are on the English Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk’ Register – indeed, Mentmore has been on for over 8 years with particular concern about the elegant stonework and the roofs with the danger of serious leaks increasing with each month goes by.  An earlier story on this blog (‘Simon Halabi and Mentmore Towers‘) produced a series of comments that indicated that a lack of maintenance was already taking it’s toll on the house.

So what’s to happen next?  Although Mr Halabi’s fortune is much reduced it is expected that the sale of various properties from his White Tower property empire will cover the £56m required to clear the debt which led to bankruptcy.  Ownership of Mentmore is also thought to be obscured through a web of companies but, if the report in The Times is correct, it is likely to be last property Mr Halabi would want to sell as his young son Samuel who tragically drowned in France is buried on the estate.  Hopefully, the bankruptcy will provide the opportunity for Mr Halabi to re-organise his empire, free up some capital and undertake not only the urgent basic repairs but also secure the long-term future of one of the most important country houses in the UK.

More details: ‘Hunt for Simon Halabi after tycoon is made bankrupt‘ [The Times]

A glimmer of hope: ‘Country House Rescue’ visits Kelly House

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

Kelly House has a series of long associations; there has been a house there for over 900 years, it has been the seat of the Kelly family for that entire time, and, sadly, has been on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register for over five years.  Now the latest twist in the tale is that the house will feature in Channel 4’s ‘Country House Rescue’ on Thursday 1 April when expert Ruth Watson offer possible solutions which will help the Kelly family remain in their ancestral home.

The Kelly’s are one of the very rare families able to trace their lineage back to pre-Conquest times.  Warin Kelly is the 31st squire of the family to live in a house which has been passed down since 1100 through fathers, grandfathers, and brothers.  Described as being ‘in a class of its own’ by Marcus Binney*, the elegant Palladian house was built in 1743 -45 for Arthur Kelly by Abraham Rundle (d.1750), a joiner and provincial but obviously skilled architect who lived in Tavistock.  The house is grade-I listed and features a Portland stone doorcase, sash windows glazed with Crown glass and made in London, with local slat stone walls with moorstone quoins. Inside, the extensive high quality woodwork  features superb carving including panelling, chair rails, and a particularly good staircase with chunky corkscrew balusters.

However, the fine panelling hides serious issues such as the periodic bouts of dry rot which break out. Mr Kelly, as a conservation architect advocating minimal intervention, admirably refuses to treat it with chemicals or by stripping out the panelling.  This ongoing damage is largely the fault of death duties, with two demands being levied in swift succession which have severely limited the family’s ability to maintain the house.  Kelly House is exactly the sort of house which the Historic Buildings Councils would have provided grants for when they were set up in the 1950s.  Today, with English Heritage’s budgets under severe pressure, Mr Kelly was told in 2005 that they were unable to provide funds as the increase in the value of the restored house would be greater than the grant – meaning that they force owners towards the sale of their ancestral homes.

Much as it would appear difficult to argue for the provision of public money to preserve private residences, there has to be a better solution than just letting them slowly grow more derelict despite the often heroic efforts of the family involved.  The current generation doesn’t want to be the one which is remembered for having to sell the family seat, leading to a battle against the elements of decay which saps finances and families and often doesn’t provide a long-term solution.  Outside expertise is to be welcomed as it may show the way to a sustainable future for these beautiful homes. Hopefully Ruth’s suggestions can be taken on by the Kellys and other families to ensure their homes are self-financing and not a burden to either the state or the owners who are then able to look forward to the prospect of handing a home and not a liability to their descendants.

Programme details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Channel 4)

More information: ‘TV show could help manor restoration‘ [Western Morning News]

Official Kelly House website: ‘Kelly House

* – ‘Houses to Save’ – article by Marcus Binney in Country Life magazine (8 September 2005)