Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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14 Responses to Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

  1. Stoker Devonshire says:

    Hardwick Hall is now much less visible from the M1 than it was as the trees on the east side of the motorway have grown up and now, when in leaf, pretty much screen the house from the road….it’s a pity for the motorists but better for the visitors to the house

    • countryhouses says:

      Thank you for your comment. Indeed it’s a shame for the motorist to only catch a fleeting glimpse but hopefully it might not only improve the view from the house but also reduce the noise levels from the road – I’ll check when I visit!

      Matthew

  2. fugitive ink says:

    In a marginally better world, some commissioning editor would already have you hard at work on the book-length version of this blog, creating a book about the state of country houses today which would be both better informed, and more unapologetically opinionated, than the usual coffee-table treatment. At which point, you might have coupled the present post to some equivalent thoughts about the relationship between country houses and the railways.

    Travelling up to Newcastle recently, I was very struck by the way in which, while some country houses shelter discreetly in their parks, others stand out proudly, facing the railway from some high ridge with a directness that felt almost confrontational. Then one thinks of Lord Salisbury at Hatfield, and his attitude towards the railways … but then it’s always better to leave us wanting more than feeling we’ve read too much. In any event, thanks for an excellent, thought-provoking post.

    • countryhouses says:

      Thank you – you’re very kind. Perhaps one day I may have the opportunity to do a book – could be fun!

      We obviously both had the same thought as I was intending to see what interesting angles there might be in the relationship between the landowners and developing transport networks. Watch this space.

      Matthew

  3. stephenm says:

    ‘For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate .. as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.’
    Here’s a current example of just such a local tussle, involving the large but relatively obscure Berwick House estate and Shropshire county planners. The longstanding Angell-James family of the very splendid (and splendidly-not-open-to-public) Berwick House [see] are less than amused at the prospect of the A5607 which borders the eastern edge of the park being expanded into a ‘Relief Road’ serving Shrewsbury. Son Henry explains…

    • Andrew says:

      A nice aerial view of Berwick House and its surrounding countryside (click on the half-circular arrows on the top-left of the image to view the house from 4 different sides):

      http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=ssn7hggs1322&scene=53637986&lvl=2&sty=b

    • countryhouses says:

      Thanks Stephen, that’s an excellent example. This shows that modern planners are still marking out routes unsympathetic to a local area even today. Sadly the value of having a well-maintained green lung for a town is still just seen as a convenient pathway for road-building regardless of the environmental degradation. Unfortunately it is the minor estates which are being targeted by the planners apparently in the hope they might not be able to put up much resistance.

      The responses from the official organisations are textbook examples of ‘government-ese’ being used to justify the despoliation of a local landmark simply to try and plug some notional gap in economic output. Surely not everything of natural and architectural value has to fall before people realise that imaginative thinking is the way to solve any perceived gap in productivity, not simply building more roads which carve through the precious landscapes which have been nurtured for hundreds of years.

  4. Andrew says:

    A satellite view of Chillington Hall estate (chillingtonhall.co.uk), with the Greek Temple on the south side of The Pool, north of the M54, shows that the motorway could have been placed further south of the Temple:

    http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=52.653322,-2.215204&spn=0.023457,0.065875&t=h&z=15

    • countryhouses says:

      Thanks Andrew – indeed it does seem that if the road had been routed south of Codsall Wood it would have not added much to the distance but would have preserved the Chillington Hall lake and setting. Again, this seems to be an example of the planners drawing the most convenient line, divorced from the damaging reality on the ground.

  5. Andrew says:

    Spare a though for the motorway-locked Coleshill Hall (http://www.coleshillmanor.info) east of Birmingham, built in 1873 and Grade II listed, which is surrounded by the M6 and M42 on all four sides. Understandably it is now a business park, having been a hospital – http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=52.503279,-1.730196&spn=0.011769,0.032938&t=h&z=16

  6. Andrew says:

    For those who enjoy looking at stately homes and estates using the various satellite image websites, then the Virtual Globetrotting (VGT) website may be a useful tool:
    http://virtualglobetrotting.com/category/buildings/stately-homes
    http://virtualglobetrotting.com/category/buildings
    VGT is an atlas of the best satellite, aerial and street view imagery from around the world submitted by community members via Google Maps, Bing Maps and Yahoo Maps (including personal ground photos). However, it does not easily allow filtering by country or region within its categories, so it may be a bit frustrating differentiating the UK houses from the rest of the world (if you know the rough location, then use the Map View feature). Its forums also have interesting comments on the developments of the satellite image websites, such as the Goggle rollout of its 45° Imagery:
    http://virtualglobetrotting.com/forums/showflat.php/Cat/0/Number/8050/an/0/page/0#8050

  7. Andrew says:

    Another example of the fickle finger of motorway planning is the Wetherby Grange estate in West Yorkshire (http://www.leodis.net/display.aspx?resourceIdentifier=20041018_20826357). The good news was that the A1(M) kindly swerved to the west to avoid the main grounds:
    http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=53.914197,-1.376424&spn=0.022775,0.065875&t=h&z=15
    The bad news was that the early 19th century Grade II listed South Lodge was not so lucky (marked as KD Systems), being encircled by the diverted ring road, which could have been easily shifted 100 yards to the west to maintain the integrity of the estate boundary and its straight tree-lined entrance drive (especially as the ruined Grade II listed north West Lodge was already cut-off from the estate):
    http://maps.google.co.uk/?ie=UTF8&ll=53.906256,-1.377153&spn=0.002847,0.008234&t=h&z=18

  8. Pingback: The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project | The Country Seat

  9. Andrew says:

    Kinnaird House near Larbert in Falkirk, Scotland, was not so lucky even though it is Category B listed, being right beside the M9 and its intersection with the M876. At least the house was saved from Government institutional use in 1977 by John Russell.

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