What may come? Ireland’s country house property crash

Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)
Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)

One side effect of the exceptionally buoyant Irish property market which made areas of Dublin as expensive as central London was a similar rise in value of their country houses.  Now with the drastic drop in property values, Irish country houses have proven to be far from immune and offer a useful indicator of what might happen in a similar situation on this side of the Irish sea.

The country house market in Ireland truly rode the boom when property became a sure-fire route to riches in the republic.  Houses which had been neglected for many years were suddenly ‘discovered’, bought and lavishly refurbished as private houses for the newly wealthy.  This is actually unsurprising as a key aspiration for anyone acquiring riches over the last 400 years has been to establish themselves in a rural domain.  Owning land was the route to power since time immemorial with greater acreage giving greater influence.  Despite the breaking of that link in the UK between 1870 and 1920 (and most decisively with the passing of the Lords Reform Bill of 1911) the idea of the country estate as the acme of achievement had become embedded as the ultimate status symbol.  Therefore any boom in the economy has usually led to a rush to the country.

Ireland’s situation was slightly different in that, unlike in the UK with it’s stricter planning laws, the purchase of a country house was also viewed with residential development potential in mind. For those projects which completed this meant that the house was simply a means to an end leaving fine houses stranded in the middle of a new suburb (many of which are now half-empty) thus ruining a perfectly good house. This also meant that some houses were bought with over-inflated ‘development value’ built into the price.

So now the crash has hit, what has happened to the houses?  For those owners who were simply in the family home and managed to sell a few acres for development they have ‘won’ as they still have their house and estate but also gained money to sustain the estate and complete much needed restoration and improvements.  For others who didn’t capitalise there must be a certain disappointment as they’ve gone from lying in bed thinking about how the house is now worth ten times what it was a few years ago, back to lying awake wondering how to pay the bills again.

Worse though are those who paid hyped prices and now are stuck either with a home they may have paid for but which is now worth much less than they paid for it – country houses prices can race ahead of the trend in a bull market but can easily do the same when it falls.  On a positive note, for those owners who can afford to, they are likely to stay longer than otherwise they might, providing stable ownership and perhaps a commitment to invest in the estate to sustain what value they can.  For those who bought on finance or who now lack the funds to meet the running costs they may now be forced to sell at a loss.  Declines of 30-50% aren’t unheard of, even for the very best properties.  The Lyons Demesne, one of the finest estates in Ireland and former home of Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, is currently for sale with 600-acres at €50m, down from its former valuation of €80m.  Even on the less stratospheric level, Bellamont Forest, the first Palladian house in Ireland (and ridiculously beautiful) was initially marketed at €10m but is now offered at €7.5m.

So what could happen over here?  UK country houses prices, certainly for the best properties, have risen dramatically over the last 10-20 years.  However, that rise has been on the back of a broader boom in the economy which, despite some aspects turning out to be smoke and mirrors, did actually generate real money. In addition, the commodity value of UK farmland which has risen from £2,000 per acre to around £7,000 per acre has also provided a stronger capital base for the estates.  The natural British caution does have its advantages.

The dangers are where owners are left with over-priced houses unable to meets the cost of maintenance and there is the risk that basic tasks are put off leaving the houses at risk from any number of ailments such as water ingress due to blocked gutters.  Unfortunately government austerity means that at a time when local councils need to be most vigilant they are going to be less likely to fund the necessary heritage conservation staff.

Country houses are never immune from the challenges of the wider economy but they can also be insulated if the owner has the resources to weather the storm.  Luckily for the UK, many owners are in a strong position but there is always the danger that the over-excited may get carried away and over-pay leading to problems if the property market weakens. The situation in Ireland should be watched as a useful case study in the dangers of an over-heated market.

Full story: Crash-landed gentry [ft.com]

If in doubt, rent: Faringdon House, Oxfordshire

Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Renting a property has long been associated with those starting out on the property ladder but there is a long history of country houses, large and small, being tenanted for long periods of time.  Now the focus is very much on the sale of country houses with rentals being in the shade of their high-spending counterparts but there are still many fine houses available to those wishing to experiment with the country life or as a short-term solution.

Jane Austen was well-known for reflecting the social conventions of the aristocracy in her work and it’s interesting that one of the main characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the wealthy Mr Bingley, rents ‘Netherfield House’ whilst he considered which house and estate he would establish himself in.  This again is a pattern that still holds true today with those seeking to move to either a new area or out of town, renting to get a better understanding of an area.  These opportunities are available today where houses such as Puddletown Manor in Dorset are available for rent (£9,000 pcm) but also for sale (£6m) at the same time.

Country houses have been let for a variety of reasons.  One of the most common was simply that it might be a subsidiary seat and rather than simply leave it empty it was often let as a source of income.  Sometimes this included the entire working estate so that the new occupant could fully assume the role and responsibilities of the country gent.  Increasingly though in the Victorian era the house was let separately from the estate which would continue to be managed and run by the original family.  This was often the preferred option for the newly wealthy who aspired to the status and amenity of a ‘country seat’ but did not require the estate to generate an income.

This is why houses such as the Faringdon House in Oxfordshire [pictured above] are attractive as they allow someone else to simply move in (albeit for a significant monthly rent of £10,000) and enjoy a grade-I listed Palladian villa without the added burdens of ownership.

Letting was a handy solution when the family finances were insufficient for they themselves to live there.  The Marquess of Lansdowne became first Governor General of Canada and then Viceroy of India from 1883-1894 specifically to improve his financial position and keep hold of his estates.  These jobs came with benefit of government accommodation which freed up the family seat for letting.  In a letter to his mother he explained,

“India means saving Lansdowne House for the family.  I should be able while there not only to live on my official income, but to save something every year.  If I can let Lansdowne House, I might by the time  I come home have materially reduced the load of debt which has become so terrible an incubus to us all…”.

(n.b. when the Marquess refers to Lansdowne House, he is referring to Bowood House rather than their London townhouse of the same name which was sold by the family in 1783.)

The Second World War also offered a convenient escape route for some owners as country houses were taken over by evacuated schools who then stayed on such as at Motcombe House in Dorset.  Although the use of country houses as schools had been an established practice for many years (the 1920s saw Stowe, Canford and Bryanston all become schools) the widespread use during wartime meant that it gained even greater acceptability.   For the Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse who had seen his spectacular house vandalised by troops and a vindictive Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, ordering the needless open cast mining of the gardens right up to the house, it was all too much and he let the house to become a training college for female PE teachers.

The letting of country houses has a long and varied history but it has mostly been driven by the need for country house owners to maximise their incomes.  Once the country house had ceased to be the physical embodiment of local political power following the reforms of the early 20th-century it became easier for families to simply move out and bring in tenants turning a costly extravagance into revenue.

Property details: ‘Faringdon House, Oxfordshire‘ [Knight Frank]

In need of resuscitation: Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)

Some houses languish for years slowly deteriorating, much to the annoyance of interested locals who care about their architectural heritage.  For some houses, the obstacle in the way can sometimes be a difficult owner, for others it’s just the sheer scale of the job. Certainly falling into the latter category is Firbeck Hall near Rotherham in South Yorkshire; once palatial home, then a country club, a hospital, and now a cause for serious concern.

Firbeck Hall was originally built in 1594 for William West, a wealthy lawyer who was also connected between 1580 to 1594 to Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury.  After his death in 1598 it passed through various branches of the family via inheritance until bought by Henry Gally in the late 18th-century.  It was his son, Henry Gally-Knight, who, in 1820, substantially remodelled and extended Firbeck in the Elizabethan style we see today. Sold in the mid-19th-century it passed through the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold it to Mrs Miles of Bristol who left it to the Jebb family who remained there until 1909 when it was put up for sale.  The early 20th-century was a particularly hard time for country house owners with falling rental and agricultural income affecting all landowners but particularly those caring for the architectural extravagances of previous owners.

Firbeck Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1924 but it’s fortunes improved when it was eventually sold in 1934 to businessman Cyril Nicholson who invested £80,000 (approx £4m – 2008 values) who created the premier country club in the nation, visited by royalty and celebrities.  World War II put an end to the gilded lifestyle and it became a hospital in 1943, a role it was to fulfil until c.1990 when it eventually closed.

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)

Since then the house has deteriorated significantly – despite it’s grade-II listing it has suffered from lead theft from the roofs, neglect, and a series of failed plans to rescue what is still one of the largest houses in the area with over 200 rooms.  It’s this last fact which is the root cause of the difficulties with any plans for conversion and restoration requiring significant financial resources which banks are unwilling to provide in these tough economic times.  Too large for private solutions, the house is also probably too large for our stretched national heritage organisations to take on (such as English Heritage did with Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire) – especially as the institutional use has degraded the interior.

The house was bought by a local construction firm in 1996 but little seemed to happen apart from further thefts and vandalism and with little reaction initially from Rotherham Council and active interest from a local conservation group, the ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall‘. However, a major theft in 2005 prompted a complete change of heart from the owner who forged links with a new conservation officer leading to new plans for conversion, active security and some remedial restoration works.  Although progress was slow, at least it was progress – until July 2009 when a fire broke out during works on the roof causing serious damage.  More bad news followed when the construction firm went into liquidation in May 2010 – joining the ranks of developers with grand plans who have been beaten by the scale of the task, as seen at Gwrych Castle in Wales.

There does seem to be a gap in the provision of solutions for larger houses where private initiatives are insufficient.  A more active local conservation department may have slowed the decay in the early stages but the longer houses of this size continue to be unused the greater the cost of restoration, reducing the chances that they can be saved.  Hopefully there is some hope for Firbeck Hall as the house was sold again in July 2010 – but as yet there’s no news as to future plans, or more importantly, how they will be financed.

Campaign group: ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire‘ [Heritage Gateway]

A justifiable replacement? Parkwood House, Surrey

Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)
Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Peter Lind & Co)

There is a long tradition of replacing country houses going back hundreds of years ever since the first non-fortified mansions were built in the early Tudor period. Since 1974 when the V&A exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ did so much to highlight the hundreds which had already been lost across the UK and particularly in England the presumption has rightly been against the demolition of country houses – a position which this blog very firmly supports.  Yet to stop the replacement entirely could be seen as preventing the improvement of existing estates and seems to presume that no modern architect could match the skill of those who went before.  The case of Parkwood House in Surrey could be a useful case study in showing that replacement can be ‘creative destruction’.

Since 1800, of the nearly 1,800 English country houses which have been lost, over 150 have been replaced by a new house.  In the austere times of the post-WWII era, the new house was often smaller and easier to manage.  However, before 1930, houses which were demolished were often replaced by much larger houses to reflect the newly established status of the modern captains of industry and finance or to mark an inheritance.

Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)
Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire (Image: RIBA)

This process of renewal could strike again and again – I think the record is held by the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire which has had seven principal houses of varying sizes including the infamous Fonthill Abbey which replaced the superb Fonthill Splendens. James Wyatt’s Fonthill Abbey is widely regarded as one of the most interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) houses ever built in the UK – yet its creation led to the destruction of the old house.  Do we deny country house architects the ability to develop and improve just to preserve every older country house regardless of its merits?  Is it worse to stagnate estates with unsuitable (or unsightly) houses or must new houses only be built where a house has already been lost or on greenfield sites?

Parkwood House in Surrey is unlisted – and probably rightly so.  Built in the late nineteenth-century, it is, in the words of the architects of the new house “…an unremarkable and diluted essay in the ‘Old English’ or ‘Arts and Crafts’ style of the time” – but of course they would say that.  However, looking at it architecturally, there does seem little to recommend it – a rambling house, pebble-dashed, with an unexciting entrance front with an only slightly more interesting garden front.  The house is not connected with any noted architect, nor any particularly notable family (the only one of interest is the Australian 1st Baron Ballieu who was living there in the 1950s). The house then became the Rank Hovis conference and training centre with all that damage that entails during institutional conversion.

Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)
Proposed Parkwood House, Surrey (Image: Candy & Candy)

Planning permission was originally submitted in September 2007 and approved in November 2007 – a remarkably quick approval which might indicate that the planners had few qualms about the loss of the house.  In fact it might be said that Parkwood is simply a big house a countryside setting – and ‘big’ does not automatically mean it is of merit.  However, if the new house designed by the eminent Robert Adam Architects was not of such a high quality would the presumption fall on the side of retaining the old house?  The new house is an elegant essay in the use of the Palladian vocabulary to create a design which obviously provides the space and comfort that someone who would live in such a house would demand but is also architecturally interesting.  This is no mere cobbling together of a few weak ideas – this is a house which would rightly enter the list of good country houses in Surrey.  Robert Adam Architects are one of the leading practices in the country working in the Classical style and have completed other similar projects such as this house in Surrey which also replaced an earlier country house or this house in Sussex.

So if we can be confident that the new house would be high quality replacement is it justified to demolish the existing house?  In this case, as the earlier property is so unremarkable it would seem that the 91-acre estate would be better served through the keeping alive of the tradition of country house replacement – but this can only be justified where the original house is unlisted and of a poor design and the new house would be of the highest quality.  Demanding the destruction of one house to provide another has a long tradition but is a very risky path and any such application must be open closely scrutinised to ensure that we are not simply throwing away architecturally interesting houses just to build hideous ‘McMansions‘ where bigger is automatically assumed to be better.

Credit: thanks to Andrew for flagging this up.

More details and images: ‘Parkwood Estate, Surrey‘ [Candy & Candy]

More work by Robert Adam Architects: Residential portfolio

Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]

Bargains from difficult circumstances: country house reposessions

Sheriff Hutton Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Savills)
Sheriff Hutton Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Savills)

An article in the Sunday Times Home section (11 June 2010) includes two houses featured on this blog; one recently and one back in November 2009.  The story this week exposes that both are for sale as some of the grandest repossessions in the country with lenders forcing the sale.

Each of these houses when bought was probably the realisation of an aspiration many have to own a grand country house.  Yet, what goes up can come down and each owner has now been forced out of their dream.  The first house, Sheriff Hutton Hall in Yorkshire is a grade-I listed gem surrounded by 170-acres and indeed featured on this blog entitled ‘If I won the lottery…‘.  Originally built in the early 1600s as a hunting lodge before being remodelled in a lighter brick in 1732.  The outbuildings were constructed using quantities of stone and panelling from nearby Sheriff Hutton Castle, it also features richly decorated ceilings with plasterwork by John Burridge and Francis Gunby, who is also thought to have worked on the Dining Room at Temple Newsam in Leeds.

Sheriff Hutton Hall was sold in 1998 and became the northern branch of the East 15 acting school.  Today however, despite strenuous efforts by the owner, a secondary lender has called in their loan forcing the sale.  Originally for sale, through Savills, at offers over £5m (nearer £6m was apparently hoped for) the price has now dropped to £4.5m.

Sale details: ‘Sheriff Hutton Hall‘ [Savills]

Detailed architectural description: ‘Sheriff Hutton Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

The second property, Apartment One in Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, was only launched in Country Life magazine a few weeks ago and was featured here with the idea that it might be used as a starting point for the conversion of the house back to a single home (‘Conversion reversion: Wardour Castle‘).  Yet it now appears that it was the original project to convert this Georgian gem that has caused the current vendor’s difficulties.  The house, designed by James Paine, was built in the 1770s for the eighth Baron Arundell and was (and in some ways still is) the grandest and largest house of it’s era in Wiltshire.

After use as a school for thirty years until 1990 it had an uncertain future.  Nigel Tuersley then bought the grade-I listed house for £1m in 1992 and decided to convert the house into ten large apartments with Nigel retaining the largest in the centre of the house for himself.  However with property boom turning to bust the bank was unwilling to continue funding the project.  This first manifested itself when the same apartment, all 23,000 sq ft of it, was put on the market for £7m in 2008 – possibly a bit ambitious even at the time.  With the contents now removed (not that you can really tell as the interior was designed by the famous Minimalist architect John Pawson) the apartment now waits for someone with a more reasonable £2.75m through Strutt & Parker.

The house is another in a small but sadly growing list of ‘posh repossessions’ (those valued at over £1m) which show that dreams, however big, can still be brought down and that perhaps the hardest part of reaching the top is staying there.

Sale details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle‘ [Strutt & Parker]


Credit: original story in the Sunday Times Home section – 11 July 2010.  Story only available online to subscribers.

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register

For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

One of the greatest of the UK’s country house architects was Sir Edwin Lutyens – a man with undoubted talent who was also able to use thoroughly modern techniques of collaboration and media exposure to boost his career and win business.  His main media connection was the tireless promotion of his work by Country Life magazine which was, in no small part, due to his close friendship with the founder and editor Edward Hudson.  So when Hudson needed to restore and modernise a manor house he’d bought it was inevitable who he would call on.   Plumpton Place in Sussex is now considered to be one of Lutyens’ best country houses and it’s for sale.

Lutyens (b. 1869 – d. 1944) was a master at the creation of houses which evoked what many would have in their minds as the ‘ideal’ country house.  He was able to marry the romanticism of the Arts & Crafts movement to his own clear ideas as to how a house should look both inside and out.  A strong proponent of using local materials he, more importantly, was able to use them in innovative ways which made his houses distinctive.

Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)
Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)

A classic example of this was his use of chalk at Marsh Court in Hampshire which gave this house a brilliant white appearance, and which contrasted with small tiles of knapped flint set into the walls and the red-brick chimneys.  Marsh Court (finished in 1904 and for sale in 2007 for around £13m) was the last of Lutyens’ ‘Tudor’ style houses but it would never be considered an old house – again showing his genius of matching local materials with an assured architectural design.

Much of Lutyens’ fame can be attributed to the unstinting support he received from Edward Hudson who had cleverly exploited the growing urban middle-classes interest in a nostalgic view of ‘olde’ England and the country lifestyle.  Founded in 1897 it chronicled not only the best of the grand old country seats but also sought to keep the tradition alive at a time when the lifestyle was beginning to come under threat. One of his writers was the renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll who had met Lutyens in 1889 and had collaborated with him to create some of the best regarded house-and-garden compositions in the country.  Jeykll introduced Lutyens to Edward Hudson in 1899 thus creating a life-long friendship between the two.  To Hudson, Lutyens’ ability to create these idealistic visions of country life were the perfect material for his magazine.  Coupled with the extensive use of their distinctive, high-quality black & white photos it provided an unrivalled opportunity for Lutyens to built fame with the middle-classes but also advertise his talents to the aspirational wealthy or the existing gentry.

Hudson was a man to put his money where his magazine was and commissioned Lutyens to work on three houses; Deanery Gardens, Lindisfarne Castle and Plumpton Place – all now considered to be Lutyens’ best work.  Hudson had bought Plumpton, a derelict, moated manor house, in 1928 for £3,300, to be used as a weekend retreat and a place to entertain.  In some ways Lutyens’ work there was a surprising contrast to the grand Classical-style banks and corporate work he was engaged with in London and elsewhere.  Lutyens created a new route to the house which used a theatrical sense of surprise to hide the house except for glimpses through arches and trees.  Inside the most notable addition was that of a music room with huge, almost mullioned, windows with small panes of glasses set into wooden frames rather than the then fashionable steel, flooding the room with light.

The house was bought in 1983 for £800,000 by an American venture capitalist called Tom Perkins who has since lavished ‘millions’ on careful restoration.   So if you have £8m, this is a rare opportunity to live in a genuine Lutyens masterpiece which has played its own part in shaping our national impression as to what a country house should look like.

Property details: ‘Plumpton Place, Sussex‘ [Knight Frank]

For sale for the first time in 1000 years: Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire

Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)
Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)

It has been estimated that there are approximately 2,000 large country houses in the UK with decent size estates  (over 100 acres) – but very few are still in the hands of the family which originally built them. Yet despite the many sales over the years it’s still possible for a house and land to remain with one family for many hundreds of years – though that is now coming to an end for Shakenhurst Hall in Shropshire, seat of the Meysey family for much of the last 1000 years and now on the market for the first time at £12m.

The lands were first given to a French Baron, Roger de Toeni, for his help in the conquest of Britain in 1066.  It has then passed through inheritance through various members of the Meysey family except when it passed for period to a godson in the 20th-century and then his wife, before being bequeathed to Michael Severne, a descendent of the Meyseys.  On his death in 2007 it passed to his only daughter Amanda who died of cancer in 2008 leaving the house and estate to her husband.

The grade-II listed Georgian house, built in the 1790s but with a 16th-century core, is now up for sale as it faces that age-old difficulty of an estate no longer providing sufficient income to maintain the house – and neither of their two sons are in a position to take it on.  Michael Severne had run a successful plastics business from outbuildings on the estate but with his death the business folded.  Interestingly this mirrors the challenges faced by country house owners in the 19th-century who relied also on a single source of income, agriculture, who were hit particularly hard by the 1870s depression in farm produce prices and land values.

Land has always been regarded as the most important asset (even if mortgaged) and so when faced with the choice of economising, selling land, or selling paintings or books it was usually the latter which went first.  This lead to the rise of the art sales particularly from the 1890s until the 1930s which dealers such as Joseph Duveen exploited as they extracted exquisite Old Master Italian paintings and others by the finest English artists which would then be shipped to the United States. Here a new class of exceptionally wealthy financiers and industrialists such as Hearst, Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller would compete to secure the finest works of art before donating them to eponymous public galleries.

Although this did leave significantly smaller collections for some houses it did sometimes provide the finance to either diversify into investments or tide them over until agriculture recovered in the 1930s – although for some it merely delayed the more unpalatable choice of demolition which unfortunately was the outcome for hundreds of houses in the UK.  With demolition now thankfully out of the question an owner is left with few options and it can be easier to simply sell up which is what appears to be the case with Shakenhurst Hall.

Sad though it is that such a long connection is to come to an end, here’s hoping the next owner will respect the 1300-acre estate, the history and the house to create a rewarding new chapter for this elegant ‘minor’ country house.

Property details: ‘Shakenhurst Hall‘ [Savills]

PS: it’s interesting that two houses should be available which look so alike. I was struck by just how similar Shakenhurst Hall is to Peatling Parva Hall in Leicestershire which is currently on the market for £4.75m.  Interestingly the latter only took on it’s current form after alterations in 1910 after the Arts-and-Crafts architect Detmar Blow added two bays to the original house.  Was this just a coincidence of architects thinking alike or had Blow seen either Shakenhurst or something similar?

Property details: Peatling Parva Hall [Knight Frank]