How to lose money on a country house: Compton Bassett, Wiltshire

Compton Bassett House, Wiltshire (demolished 1929)
Compton Bassett House, Wiltshire (demolished 1929)

The news that Robbie Williams is to sell his country house, Compton Bassett in Wiltshire, for a potential £1m loss shows that with the wrong property it is still possible to buck the generally rising trend in prices by overpaying in the first place.

The current Compton Bassett House is, to be honest, fairly unappealing.  The original Compton Bassett (pictured) was a fine and elegant house built by Sir John Weld of Dorset in 1674 (the same year he died). Interestingly, the house bears a strong similarity to the Weld family’s main country seat, Lulworth Castle in Dorset, built as a hunting lodge in 1610 by Thomas Howard, 3rd Lord Bindon, and bought by Humphrey Weld (John’s elder brother) in 1641, but sadly gutted in a devastating fire in 1929.  Lulworth was also a hunting lodge and had strong projecting circular towers rather than the square ones at Compton Bassett.  As Humphrey Weld died (in 1684) without a male heir, Lulworth Castle passed to John’s son William who seems to have chosen it as his family seat and sold Compton Bassett.  After several owners it was bought in 1721 by the Heneage family who remained there until it was sold in 1929.

That period was a dark time for the country house in the UK with many being demolished. The house was bought by Captain Sir Guy Benson who sadly decided that he would rather live in the stables and so this wonderful house was levelled and the stables converted in 1935.  Unlike other successful conversions of stables, this one was obviously designed as a functional building and lacked the grace of so many of the stable buildings we can still see today and so did not lend itself to being the main house.   Not that it has stopped various owners over the years trying.

Compton Bassett, Wiltshire (former stables) (Image: Panoramio)
Compton Bassett, Wiltshire (former stables) (Image: Panoramio)

The latest project was started in 1998 by the then owner Paul Cripps and was to take six months and cost £500,000 but ended up taking three years and costing £3m.  The house was then launched on the property market in 2007 at an eye-watering £8.5m (no doubt to try and recover some of the lavish overspending on the interior) for the house plus 71-acres.  After languishing for many months Robbie finally bought it for £8.1m but never really settled here, preferring his life in the US.  So now it is back on the market with Savills (but not listed on their website) for a reported asking price of £7.5m – but once you factor in all the costs involved from buying and selling, Robbie should be about a million down from when he bought it.  This also assumes he’d get that price – losses could rise if, remarkably, there was someone else out there who liked the look of the house but decided that it was still too expensive and drove the price down further.  To be honest, when compared with some of the other properties Savills have available in Wiltshire for around £6m (e.g. Langley House or Midway Manor) why anyone would chose this one is beyond me.

[I would normally link to the house on the estate agent’s website but Savills appear to have forgotten to put it on .  Or maybe they’re embarrassed.  So here’s a link to the other, much nicer, properties are also selling: Savills: Wiltshire]


Savills have got over their embarrassment / lethargy and added Compton Bassett to their website so if you have £7.5m and really feel that this house is the best way to spend it (Really? Seriously?) then have a look at the details: Savills: Compton Bassett

A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive))
Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Two of the most important aspects of campaigning to save country houses are vigilance and visibility – and yet sometimes even this doesn’t always seem to bring about restoration any quicker when faced with a slow-moving owner. Braunstone Hall, a Georgian gem still with significant grounds but now swallowed up in the sprawl of Leicester, has been empty for over ten years but despite a vigorous campaign both in the media and online it still remains very much at risk.

Braunstone Hall, now grade-II listed, was built in 1776 (date on rainwater head) for the Winstanley family by the architect William Oldham (b. 1737 – d. 1814) who also designed an early Leicester racecourse grandstand (1770), Master’s House at Alderman Newton’s School (1789) and the New House of Correction (1803) – all though now demolished.  The red-brick house is two and a half storeys tall by five bays wide with a cornice and hipped roof.  The relatively simple front is enlivened with stone bands marking the ground and first floors with an impressive tripartite doorway with fluted columns, a small pediment and an elegant fanlight with arched glazing bars.  One further very distinctive feature is the giant blind recessed arch in the central bay – an architectural device which seems quite popular in Leicestershire with examples in Burbage, Belgrave House (also 1776), and the beautiful rectory at Church Langton (by William Henderson – 1760).  The interior is largely complete with some impressive detailing.

The Winstanley family bought the estate from the Hastings family in 1650 and remained there until forced out in the 1920’s by the pressure to build houses following the First World War.  Estates on the edge of existing towns and cities were eagerly eyed-up by local councils.  For some families, already facing financial hardships following the war this was a perfect opportunity to sell the family seat and relocate.  Others, including the Winstanleys in the shape of Major Richard Norman Winstanley, fought the prospect of compulsory purchase arguing that this was still a family home and the building work would undermine the value of his recently modernised house.  However, he was unsuccessful and so the house, gardens, parkland and further 949-acres were compulsorily purchased in 1925 for £116,500 (equivalent to £5.2m – 2008).  Most of the land was built over except for the house and 168-acres surrounding it which became a public park.  The house remained in council ownership and was first a secondary school, opening in 1932, before becoming a primary school a year later until it closed in 1996.

Since then the Leicester City Council has failed to either find a viable long-term use or adequately protect Braunstone Hall with the house falling victim to repeated acts of vandalism and arson.  The latter is the most worrying as the incidents have not only included fires outside the building but also now inside.  Over the last few years the Council have been making very slow progress towards finding a solution but, as always, they are claiming poverty when it comes to heritage projects.  A very active campaigning group has been set up on Facebook with the members regularly corresponding with councillors and reporting any damage or deterioration at the hall – effectively a dedicated ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ for the house.

The Council put the house up for sale on a 125-year lease in 2007 and had recently been negotiating to sell the house to a local businessman for conversion to a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. However this has been delayed by changes to what’s being offered in relation to the land for enabling development.  Each delay increases the risk that the local yobs will finally succeed in their mindless vandalism and burn down this elegant and important part of Leicester’s heritage.  If this happens the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of Leicester City Council and their apathy and indecisiveness over the last 14 years.

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

Detailed history of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [Leicester City Council]

Detailed description of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [English Heritage]

The modern smaller country house: Home Farm, Yorkshire

Home Farm, Yorkshire (Image: Francis Johnson & Partners)
Home Farm, Yorkshire (Image: Francis Johnson & Partners)

Despite the rather understated name, Home Farm in Hartforth, Yorkshire is a classic example of the long tradition of grand downsizing which has been a hallmark of UK country house owners, particularly since 1900.  The pressures on the large country house in the 1930s and then again from the late 1940s until 1960s sparked a surge in the construction of new, smaller country houses which reflected the financial reality of the times.  Yet today smaller country homes are a deliberate choice for the discerning owner reflecting their own wishes and desires which has led to some very successful designs.

In previous eras (and particularly before the restrictions of the 1970s heritage legislation), a country house owner faced with a house which was too big could simply remove wings (as the 12th Duke of Bedford did at Woburn Abbey in the late 1940s) or floors of the house to make them more manageable (as happened at Hodnet Hall in Shropshire). Unfortunately for many owners it was simply easier to demolish the house entirely giving them the option to convert the stables into a home (the choice of the Earls of Lansdowne at Bowood in 1955) or rebuild either on the site of the old house or in a new location on the estate.  It was this latter course of action which offered the best opportunities for an owner to preserve their estate but dramatically reduce their expenses by building a new house.  John Martin Robinson in his 1983 book ‘The Latest Country Houses’ estimated that over 200 new country houses were built between 1950s-1980s.

The new country houses today are largely either grand statements but there are also examples of smaller houses which quietly succeed in delivering an important contribution to the traditions of the UK country house.  Winner of the 2009 award for ‘New building in a Georgian context‘, Home Farm was a carefully considered response to a particular location and circumstances.

The client behind the commission was Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth Bt. who had inherited the Hartforth estate but unfortunately not the main house, the early Georgian classical Hartforth Hall, which had been divorced from the estate and become a hotel.   The Gore-Booth’s family seat had traditionally been Lissadell in County Sligo, Ireland, built for the 4th Baronet in the 1830s.  In 2003, Sir Josslyn put the house on the market for €3m and was determined that the new house would be very different from the sombre and severe Neo-Classical house he had just left.

Home Farm, Yorkshire (Image: Francis Johnson & Partners)
Home Farm, Yorkshire (Image: Francis Johnson & Partners)

Home Farm is a clever response to a number of challenges.  Firstly, both the new house and Hartforth Hall would be visible simultaneously due to their proximity and so had to make their own architectural statements without competing, ruling out a classical design.  Secondly, the new house was to replace an old estate farmhouse and would join the group of existing Georgian farm buildings.  The architect, Digby Harris, came up with a novel solution – a two-faced house which projected an elegant classical facade to complement the farm buildings but a Gothick facade contrasting to the classical Hartforth Hall.  Usually a client seeks a unified design so these type of buildings are rare in the UK and feel somewhat disconcerting; two examples are Castle Ward in Northern Ireland (Classical front / Gothick front) and Castle Goring in Sussex (Classical front / Gothick front).

The ‘classical’ front draws on a draft design by the late Francis Johnson but also historically the compact Georgian villas of Sir Robert Taylor (1714–1788), James Paine (1717-1789) and John Carr (1723-1807).   The Gothick facade mirrors the style applied to some estate buildings in the 19th-century and features an elegant ogee window on one side looking out on a small canal-type pond with the main front boasting a full height bow bringing to mind other older houses such as Corngreaves Hall with other elements taken from Batty Langley (1696-1751), specifically his ‘Gothic Architecture, improved by Rules and Proportions‘ (pub. 1747)

Home Farm proves that a modern classical country house can be both practical and architecturally interesting without needing to be physically large.  The long tradition of country house building in the UK seems to be alive and pushing forward the architectural boundaries which should prove inspiring to anyone contemplating the building of a new home of any size as the centrepiece of an estate.

More details and photos: ‘Home Farm, Yorkshire‘ [Francis Johnson & Partners]

Credits: thanks to Austen Redman of Francis Johnson & Partners for the photo and information on the house.

The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section

Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)
Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)

The usual spring rush of country houses coming to market has been later this year – a combination of the hangover from the uncertainty in the market of the last couple of years along with that of the General Election.  That traditional shop-window of the country house – the Home section of the Sunday Times – has this week (16 May 2010) heralded what it sees at the start of the rush by including three pages of those for sale.

For those who like their country houses to look traditional from the outside but prefer a more modern interior then the Grade-II listed, six-bedroom Sandley in Dorset, set in 178-acres, might be perfect – if you have the necessary £9m.  The owners decided that the rather ‘quaint’ style of the house was not for them and so they spent ‘a couple of million pounds’ and over two years to strip it back and then make it look very ‘London’.  Personal taste is the final arbiter for whether you think this is a good thing – but not all tastes are the same and it can mean that the appeal of the country house is taken to new markets.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

However, if your tastes are more usual and traditional then there are other options. Holt Manor in Wiltshire, set in 94-acres, mixes both old and new with a more traditional interior cleverly concealing the latest in sound, television and security systems.  With parts dating back to the 12-th century, the Grade-II listed house has been thoroughly modernised whilst still being a recognisably English country house. £5.95m [Holt Manor: Knight Frank]

If, however, you are looking for a more architecturally impressive house, the Ebberly House, near Winkleigh in Devon, could well be the house for you.   Designed by Thomas Lee, a student of Sir John Soane, Ebberly was described by Pevsner as an ‘unusual and attractive house’ and was the first to sell in Devon for over £1m when it sold in 1997.  The Grade-II* listed house possibly benefited from Soane’s personal influence as he was working nearby at Castle Hill which may explain the elegant, and very Soanian, top-lit oval stair hall with its fine cantilevered wooden staircase and curved doors, or the drawing room divided using three shallow arches. Set in  250-acres it has a wonderful estate featuring 20-acres of woodland, estate cottages generating £20,000 p/a in rental income, and spectacular views across to Dartmoor. It was also given an excellent and detailed write-up in Country Life – always a good seal of approval.  [Ebberly House: Savills]

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Perhaps one of the most interesting of the houses featured is unfortunately only given a photo and no details is Chapel Cleeve Manor in Minehead, Somerset. Perhaps now not strictly a country house as it only has 7-acres, at £1.695m for 17+ bedrooms, it may seem a bargain for someone who wants to live in a country house but doesn’t want the responsibility of an estate. Although such a situation a hundred years ago could have led to the demolition of the house as happened to so many others. Yet, with so much wealth now generated without the need for a large estate to support the house, it’s now entirely reasonable for someone to take on and enjoy such a pleasing Gothic-Revival house. The house has been used as a conference venue for a number of years but with careful restoration this could be rescued from commercial use and be a spectacular home for someone who requires a lot of space. [Chapel Cleeve Manor: Webbers]

So has the rush started?  Nobody really knows and asking estate agents is never an exact science.  Several house which have been launched recently are still waiting to find new owners but the right house launched at the right time for the right price usually does find the right buyer.

Full story: ‘The landscape has changed‘ [The Sunday Times: Home section]

A country seat of learning: Wispers, Sussex

Wispers, Sussex
Wispers, Sussex (Image: Daily Mail)

There has been a long tradition of country houses being converted to schools.  Indeed, the practice has saved many hundreds from being demolished all together, denying us today the pleasure of houses such as Stowe and Bryanston.  In recent years fewer houses have passed into institutional use with a preference for modern school buildings.  However, despite some difficulties in the last couple of years for private schools, the recent sale of Wispers in Sussex has shown that there is still the appetite for the country house based school.

Grade-II listed Wispers was built in 1874-76 by Richard Norman Shaw for stockbroker Alexander Scrimgeour and was sold in 1928 to the Bedford estate for Dame Mary Russell (the wife of the 11th Duke of Bedford) as a weekend retreat to which she added the huge eastern wing in the 1930s.  Dame Mary was known as ‘The Flying Duchess’ due to her interest, later in life, in aviation which led to her regularly flying her Tiger Moth – including from the Bedford’s main home, Woburn Abbey, to Wispers.  To help accommodate her new mode of transport, at the same time as the new wing was being added to the house, she had an airplane hanger built as well.  Dame Mary’s love of flying did eventually lead to her death when, at the age of 71 in 1937, her plane disappeared over the North Sea as she flew from Woburn to Cambridge.

Following her death, the house was sold in 1939 and became a school known as St Cuthman’s before West Sussex council bought it as a special needs facility.  After this closed in 2003, the house was sold and a planning application lodged to convert the main house into 7 flats with other buildings on the estate being either converted or demolished.  However, this plan was never implemented and after lying empty for 6 years was sold for £3m (against an original asking price of £4.5m) with 20 of the original 35 acres in April 2010 to Durand Primary, near Brixton, South London. The school was able to use the profits from its successful leisure and student accommodation business to provide Wispers as a weekly boarding environment for secondary age pupils.

Educational use has saved many country houses from being demolished or converted – though sometimes the alterations required or the heavy wear and tear on these buildings could be quite damaging.  When English Heritage took on Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire they discovered light switches and other fittings had been poorly installed, usually by simply hacking through the plasterwork.  However, on balance, these minor issues are the lesser of two evils compared to possible complete loss.  It’s not known precisely how many country houses have been used for educational purposes at some point in their lives (and many took on this role temporarily in WWII, most famously Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) but it certainly shows the versatility of our country houses.  Use as a school can also help preserve a house so that one day it might possibly be converted back to being a home.

More details: ‘Inner-city school buys mansion to keep pupils safe from knife crime‘ [Daily Mail]

Perfect for a family of five: Knole, Kent

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The Sunday Times ‘Home’ section (9 May 2010) features an article which gives some insight into the concerns that might naturally arise when you inherit a huge house in this day and age.  When the 7th Baron Sackville inherited the vast Elizabethan Knole house in Kent in 2004 he and his wife had to decide whether they even wished to move from a four-bedroom cottage on the estate into one of the treasure houses of England with its 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards. Luckily shared with the National Trust since 1946 it is still a huge responsibility.

Despite having to share the house with the 80,000 annual visitors, with a house this size it’s quite possible to still hide the several members of the Sackville family who have apartments in the house or estate.  The Baron occupies the south wing whilst his mother lives in the north wing within a building with a footprint of approximately 4-acres with an exotic roofline which gives the impression of a small medieval town.  Even in these restricted quarters the family enjoys nine bedrooms and multiple reception rooms including a room known as the colonnade with superb trompe l’oeil decoration and a huge library along with the more domestic kitchen and ‘flower’ room.

The Sackvilles have long  opened Knole to the public starting in the early 1800s and had it’s first guidebook in 1819.  The fortunes of the town of Sevenoaks, which sits on the edge of the park, was increasingly dependent on the tourists, much as Leamington Spa and Warwick became on the success of Warwick Castle.  However, after the last of the male line of Sackvilles died in 1843, taking the Dukedom of Dorset with it, a series of inheritances left it, after various family challenges, with Lord Buckhurst in 1870, the eldest son of one of the last Duke’s daughters.  Although the house had remained open in the 1874 season, however he decided, for reasons which are not entirely clear, to close the house in October of that year.  He then removed the various access privileges which had been afforded to the people of Sevenoaks.  This prompted first local grumblings, then letters to the paper, then letters to Lord Sackville (as he had now become), until in 1883 it spilled over into the now infamous ‘Knole Disturbances’ where the locals, roused by stirring speeches,  tore up the gates and chains which had blocked their access, before marching to the door of the house.  However, all this left the cantankerous Lord Sackville unmoved and the house and grounds remained closed until after his death in 1888.

One side effect however of this was the raising of questions nationally as to the levels and rights of access to these parks and estates which were increasingly seen as something the public could enjoy at their leisure.  These sort of questions and the resulting answers, which were clearly in favour of the preservation of these open spaces – and later the houses – eventually led to the creation of the National Trust, which is now the current owner of Knole, and very unlikely to ever close the gates again.

Full story: ‘Living it large with 365 rooms‘ [The Sunday Times]

National Trust: ‘Knole, Kent

Ferne Park, Wiltshire: the building of a modern Classical masterpiece

Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)
Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)

The English country house is considered our greatest contribution to the field of architecture – the unified vision of house and landscape combined with fine interiors, superb furnishings and exceptional art collections.  Yet in the 20th-century, it seemed that after Lutyens we largely lost our ability to excel in their creation – the new country houses seemed shadows of our earlier confidence, lacking the grand flair, and certainly the detailing, which had so defined the Georgian Classical house.  This was partially due to financial circumstances but also due to the influence of modernism which sought to re-interpret the country house in a new language – and it often didn’t translate well.

Yet, there are signs that given the right client and the right architect, we can again create the sort of country houses which will be admired in 200 years. Country Life magazine this week (5 May 2010) features one of the best country houses to be built in the last 70 years; Ferne Park in Wiltshire, winner of the Georgian Group award for the Best Modern Classical House in 2003.

This is a house built in the finest traditions of the English country house – with its clear use of the Palladian vocabulary but skilfully reinterpreted for the location and the needs of the client, Lady Rothermere.  The architect responsible, Quinlan Terry, has been responsible for some excellent buildings but this may well be his best.  The new house, built in 2000-2, was on the site of a previous Georgian mansion called Ferne House which was demolished in 1965 having fallen into a poor condition.  By rebuilding on the same site, Terry had a setting which was simply waiting for a new house to be created.

The local authority had already set the requirement that the new house must be Classical so both client and architect drew on other houses they knew such as Came House (Dorset) and Castletown Cox (Ireland), and were able to develop a distinctive plan for the site.  The house also cleverly has contrasting fronts with the dramatic views to the north matched by the stately columns and pediment, whilst the south, with the gentler views into Dorset, using a simpler facade.

Ferne Park has revived hope that it is possible to build a successful Classical house which is recognisably a continuation of the the glorious Georgian traditions which have created so many of the houses we love today.

More pictures of the house: Ferne House, Wiltshire [Quinlan & Francis Terry, Architects]

Part II of the article will be published in the 12 May 2010 edition of Country Life.

If you thought ‘The Restoration Man’ projects a bit small-fry; try Overstone House

Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)
Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)

Although hated by Samuel Loyd who commissioned it, Overstone House is fondly remembered by the generations of girls who were taught there after it became a school.  A vast, rambling property, it was sold to an obscure evangelical religious group who lived there until a devastating fire in April 2001 destroyed the main part of the house – although Loyd might have been quite relieved.

Overstone House replaced the earlier Overstone Hall and was built in 1862 for the banker Samuel Loyd, who became Lord Overstone for services to finance.  His wife  was keen to have a property commensurate with their status and so her husband decided to rebuild on a grand scale.  However, he inexplicably picked the unknown architect William Milford Teulon (brother of the more famous Gothic revivalist Samuel Sanders Teulon) who was instructed to design with a mixture of Elizabethan and Renaissance features.  This choice led to the creation of one of the most derided houses created in the Victorian era.

Both Girouard and Pevsner were uncomplimentary with the latter describing it as ‘drearily asymmetrical’.  However, the most damning verdict  came from Samuel Loyd himself, who, in what could be regarded as a wonderfully amusing piece of architectural criticism, said:

“The New House I regret to say, is the cause of unmitigated disappointment and vexation.  It is an utter failure – We have fallen into the hands of an architect in whom incapacity is his smallest fault.  The House tho’ very large and full of pretension – has neither taste, comfort nor convenience.  I am utterly ashamed of it … the principal rooms are literally uninhabitable – I shall never fit them up … I grieve to think that I shall hand such an abortion to my successors.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Loyd’s wife died before the project was finished leaving him with this rather large problem – which he promptly ignored by going and living with his daughter at Lockinge house in Berkshire where she had become Lady Wantage. Loyd must have eventually finished it as, on his death in 1883, it passed to Lady Wantage who, along with her husband, used it regularly during the hunting season until 1901.  After her death it was tenanted until sold to become a girls school in 1929.

It remained a girls school until 1979 when the pressures of looking after such a vast pile became too much and it was eventually sold to the New Testament Church of God for £100,000 in 1980 who are the current vendors.  The devastating fire in 2001 destroyed approximately 60% of the building including all the principal rooms and the impressive carved staircase.  Parts of the grade-II listed house remained in use as an old people’s home but the rest became a concern, leading to it being added to the ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.

However, the house is now for sale as a grand project with the opportunity to create a truly palatial home – the original house contained 119 rooms totalling around 20,000 sq ft.  The local council’s preference is that it become a single house – but to do so would require someone with big ideas and very deep pockets, willing to spend at least £5-10m on restoration on top of the £1.5m to buy the house and 50-acres.  However, as the main cause of Loyd’s distress has now been destroyed, this is great opportunity for someone to perhaps create a house which might meet with greater approval.

For anyone with the necessary funds and Kevin McCloud on speed-dial, please call Robert Godfrey of Bidwells (01604 605050).

A detailed history of the house is available on the Overstone School for Girls website.

More details: ‘Property restoration project: Overstone Hall, Northampton‘ [Daily Telegraph]