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]