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]