With so many country houses lost in the twentieth century, almost any alternative which saved them from the demolition crew was to be welcomed; no matter how drastic. For some this meant institutional use but for many others of all sizes the solution was conversion into flats and apartments – though with varying degrees of success. However, as these properties come on to the market, is it perhaps time to consider converting them back into the single, glorious houses they were intended to be?
Launched this week (16 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is the principal apartment in what is considered James Paine’s finest creation; Wardour Castle, a supremely elegant essay in Palladian architecture.
Built from 1770 – 76, for the eighth Lord Arundell the most impressive feature is a breath-taking central stairwell with first-floor gallery which Pevsner called ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’ and which forms the core of Apartment One which is now for sale. Wardour Castle house has proved to be adaptable becoming Cranborne Chase School in 1960 until it closed in 1990 when it was then converted into ten apartments. As the divisions appear to have respected the natural sections of the house this seems to be a good example of where someone could convert the house back to a single home.
There are many examples of houses being rescued by conversion. SAVE Britain’s Heritage have long campaigned to protect these houses and have worked in conjunction with one of the leading architects, Kit Martin, in supporting conversion. A 1983 SAVE report entitled ‘The Country House: to be or not to be’, written by Kit Martin and Marcus Binney, includes particularly interesting studies of how these houses could be sensitively converted. These show that although almost any country house could be sensitively adapted some are naturally more suitable particularly where the overall layout of the house is symmetrical, shallow and long.
The study was an important milestone in the practice of country house conversion and saved many houses from complete loss or inappropriate use including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, the grade-I Northwick Park in Gloucesterhire, Dingley Hall in Northamptonshire. The sensitive approach they championed now means that it should be possible to consider converting a house back if the right opportunity arose. It should be said that some houses are never going to be converted back due to a variety of factors including there being too many apartments involved such as at Thorndon Hall in Essex which contains 37 flats, or where not enough land has been retained to make the unified house valuable enough to justify reversion.
Perhaps the idea of reversion becomes more realistic where more than one part of the same house comes on the market at the same time such as recently happened with grade II*-listed Ampthill Park House, Bedfordshire. Built by the Cambridge architect Robert Grumbold in 1687-9 and completed by John Lumley of Northampton in 1704-6, with major additions by Sir William Chambers in 1769 it is certainly one of the most impressive houses in the county. It was rescued from dereliction by conversion into just four large houses; two of which were put on the market in April 2010, the largest of which includes most of the principal rooms.
Although it’s nice to dream about these houses becoming single homes probably the biggest obstacles are not only being able to secure the other apartments but also that the value of the individual properties may be greater than the value of the unified house. However, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that someone with deep pockets and a desire to restore a house could take on one of these conversion reversions and recreate a superb country house.
Property details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [Strutt & Parker] – £2.75m
Detailed architectural description: ‘Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [English Heritage: Images of England]