The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

Make a date: the strange world of the calendar house

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims.  With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.

The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science,  mathematics and astronomy.  They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.

Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device.  Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare.   In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.

The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year).  So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.  It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.

Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)
Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)

One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors.  Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north.  Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole.  Who knows?  What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate.  What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim.  Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.

Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)
Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)

It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses.  Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys.  The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole.  After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.

Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)
Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)

The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country.  The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.

Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925.  A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I.  Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.

The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)
The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)

Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor.  Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers.  Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’.  It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.

Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors.  The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did.  Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.

Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most.  Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges.  As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.

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Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:

  • Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
  • Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.

Can anyone confirm these? Thanks, Matthew

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]