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]