The Royal country house honeymoon

So the happy Royal couple, our new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have taken just the long weekend for their honeymoon leaving an interesting question as to whether they are breaking with the tradition of spending their first days of marriage in an British country house?  With the twin demands of luxury and privacy, the country houses of the UK have often proved particularly attractive, though Royal palaces even more so.

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Gail Johnson / flickr)

In an earlier age, the Royal family would often simply use one of their own palaces as a convenient venue.  Already secure and well-established for the great demands of catering and supporting a King or Queen, they had a natural advantage.  One often used has been Hampton Court Palace, in Surrey, one of the finest Royal residences ever built and a worthy equal to the splendour of Versailles.  Construction started in 1514 by Thomas Wolsey, an Archbishop of York, who built a palace which rivalled any that King Henry VIII then possessed.  With over a 1,000 rooms and accommodation for 280 guests, Wolsey wisely answered, when asked by the King in 1526 why he had built such a magnificent house, “To show how noble a palace a subject may offer to his sovereign.”

Having now taken ownership, Henry then embarked on his own ambitious programme, adding a third courtyard and stamping his mark on all aspects of the palace. It was in this sprawling residence which he enjoyed at least two of his honeymoons; with Jane Seymour, his third wife, in 1537, and with Kathryn Howard, his sixth, who he married at Hampton Court in 1543.  Due to his unhappiness with the looks of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and the very short marriage (Jan-July 1540), it seems unlikely that he would have made any significant arrangements and so possibly used Hampton Court as his most convenient palace near London.

Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary I, also spent her honeymoon with Philip I at Hampton Court  in 1544. It was used again by King James I on his marriage to Henrietta Maria in 1625 and then by Charles II and Katherine of Braganza in 1662.

Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)
Rycote Park (Palace), Oxfordshire (Image: Thame History)

Henry VIII obviously had several opportunities to honeymoon, though his first was more a working tour as, following his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1501, he was sent to Ludlow Castle to preside over the Council of Wales and the Marches. His second, with Anne Boleyn in 1533, was at Shurland Hall, Isle of Sheppey in Kent, which has recently become the 70th building to be rescued by The Spitalfields Trust (and which is currently for sale).  His honeymoon with Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, in 1540, was spent at Rycote Park, in Oxfordshire. It’s not entirely clear who originally built this Tudor mansion but it certainly of a status to attract the Royal couple.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1745, but was rebuilt before being emptied in a contents sale in 1779, and then sold for materials in 1807.

The tradition of the Royal family using their own houses has largely continued, though in more recent times they have also used suitable private houses as the retinues required have shrunk making it unnecessary to require a palace.

Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS)
Taymouth Castle, Scotland (Image: RCAHMS) - click for more images of interior

Queen Victoria and HRH Prince Albert enjoyed only a mini-honeymoon of three days in 1840, which was spent at Windsor Castle. The Queen, unwilling to ignore her duties and responsibilities as monarch which require frequent contact with her ministers, wished to stay close to London – even if her husband might have preferred a quieter break further away.  They did take a belated honeymoon in 1842 to Scotland where they stayed at the impressive Taymouth Castle, seat of the Marquesses of Breadalbane, owners of one of the largest estates covering 450,000-acres, which took over 40 years to build and had only recently been completed but to standard above almost any other seat in Scotland.  Designed by James Gillespie Graham, it was a convalescence home in WWII and a school but is currently unused whilst negotiations continue about turning it into a ‘seven star’ hotel.

Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Polesden Lacey, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

In the early part of the 20th-century, King George VI and his new bride, later the Queen Mother, stayed in 1923 with the remarkable society hostess, Mrs Ronald Greville, at her country retreat Polesden Lacey in Surrey (now National Trust).  An accomplished hostess, Mrs Greville and her staff were well used to catering for the cream of society.  Once home to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, after his death it was largely demolished and rebuilt by Thomas Cubitt in 1821 as, essentially, a neo-classical seaside villa.  After being bought by the Grevilles in 1906, she employed Mewes and Davis, architects of the Ritz, to remodel the interior.  The new opulence was matched by with an equal measure of intimacy, with rooms flowing between each other and the outside to create a fluid social space lined with portraits by Lely, Raeburn and Reynolds and cabinets full of Meissen china – a perfect venue for a Royal honeymoon.  Continuing the tradition started by Queen Victoria, they also spent time in Scotland at Glamis Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Strathmore, and that of the future Queen Mother.

Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)
Balmoral Castle, Scotland (Image: Stuart Yeates / flickr)

On her marriage in 1947, our current monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, continued this practice and stayed at Broadlands in Hampshire, one of the best mid-sized Georgian houses, which largely appears to day as it was when it was finished in 1766. Elizabeth II also stayed at the family’s Scottish estates at Balmoral Castle and Birkhall, which were also destinations for the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 along with Birkhall which also used by Prince Edward and Sophie Wessex in 1999 and by the Prince of Wales and Camilla in 2005.

Alternatively, if they do wish to go abroad, they have the examples of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, in 1937, who spent three months at Castle Wasserloenburg in Austria, or Princess Anne who, in 1973, chose to spend her honeymoon cruising in the West Indies.  So, seeking peace and security, perhaps we’ll see the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge take a short break in a smaller country house before spending time in Scotland – or perhaps jetting off, but either way is in keeping with a long history of Royal honeymoons.

For sale: ‘Shurland Hall, Kent‘ [Jackson-Stops & Staff]

Thanks to Andrew for his help.

Country House Rescue: Pen-Y-Lan, Wales

Pen-Y-Lan, Wales (Image: Channel 4)
Pen-Y-Lan, Wales (Image: Channel 4)

This week’s episode of Country House Rescue seems to have found one of the most anonymous houses I have come across, with so little information available about it. Perhaps, however, this is indicative of the rather quiet existence so many smaller country houses do enjoy.  Yet, as Ruth Watson discovers (as she has in so many inherited houses), quiet enjoyment and a commitment to a house and the estate by the owner does not translate into being able to look after it.

Pen-Y-Lan is situated at the head of a bucolic valley, in the centre of its 500-acre estate, which straddles the English/Welsh border – indeed Cheshire Shropshire is at the bottom of the hill and across the river.  The house was originally built in 1690 by one of the founders of Lloyds bank, though as Quakers they suffered extreme persecution in Wales and moved to Birmingham in 1689, so I suspect the house was more a rural retreat or symbolic connection as the family’s main homes were in and around Birmingham.  The house was then sold to the Holloway family in 1849, where it has been passed down through the generations to the current owner, Emma Holloway.

The grade-II listed house is in the regionally popular Regency gothic style – essentially a five by four bay house which was re-modelled in 1830 to add crenellations, hood moulds over the windows, decorative turrets, and an imposing entrance.  We have already looked at the particularly strong Welsh Regency gothic tradition in a previous post about Kentchurch Court, which although in Herefordshire, was very much a part of that movement.  In fact, in some ways, King Edward I could be said to have been one of the strongest architectural influences in the Wales. It was his chain of 17 mighty castles which stretched across the country ensured continuing conflicts necessitating defensible houses which filtered out in later years in the architectural vocabulary of the Picturesque movement which drew heavily on castle features such as crenellations, arrow slits, turrets, towers and battlements.

The difficulties in controlling the Welsh were first experienced by the Romans who also were forced to built extensive fortifications and, in fact, established the pattern of requiring large garrisons to defend themselves and the settlers.  The later autonomy granted to the very powerful Marcher lords, who were given the task of securing peace through marriage, trade or force of arms, ensured that the language of building in Wales was mostly either defensive or small-scale.  To help prevent any local challenges to the King’s authority the Marcher lords were mainly English (comprising the Earls of Chester, Gloucester, Hereford, Pembroke and Shrewsbury) whose estates were very much centred around their English seats and the court in London – even if the wealth generated made them some of the richest families in the country.

Penrhyn Castle, Wales (Image: NTPL/Geoff Morgan)
Penrhyn Castle, Wales (Image: NTPL/Geoff Morgan)

One notable feature of Wales is how few large estates there were.  Considering the size and wealth of the nation, the fact that it was mostly ruled through local clans (where not owned more directly by the Marcher lords) meant that their wealth would limit them to building fine, but smaller, manor houses (for example Gwydir Castle – there is also a superb account of its restoration: ‘ Castles in the Air‘).  This has meant that there are few ‘stately homes’ in the same sense that there are in England. A survey in Country Life magazine in the mid-1960s suggested that of the 200 estates examined, only about 20 would be regarded as ‘stately homes’.  However, within those 20 are such notable houses as Chirk Castle (now National Trust), Erddig (National Trust), Gwrych Castle (now a ruin), Hawarden Castle (still Gladstone family home), Penrhyn Castle (National Trust), Powis Castle (National Trust), Plas Newydd (National Trust), Vaynol (privately owned) and Wynnstay (now flats) – all in north Wales. In the south, the main seats were Dynevor Castle (National Trust), Fonmon Castle (still Boothby family home), Golden Grove (empty), Penllyn Castle (unknown!), Penrice Castle (private home), Stackpole Court (demolished 1963) and Tredegar Court (council owned).  Sadly, as shown in Thomas Lloyd’s ‘Lost Houses of Wales‘, over 350 Welsh country houses were demolished, mainly in the latter half of the 20th-century, as poor finances combined with blinkered Socialism meant that many were lost with little protest.

This means that the smaller Welsh country houses of minor gentry, tucked away in the rolling valleys, should be treasured all the more.  Sadly, as in the case of Pen-Y-Lan, when faced with an owner who had to take out a £300,000 loan for urgent repairs when she inherited in 2007, yet, as she admits “I have absolutely zero business acumen, whatsoever“, creates significant challenges.  Pen-Y-Lan is in a state of considerable disrepair which will require something of a miracle if the owner, Emma Holloway, is to overcome her lack of business skills to pay off the debt, restore the house, and preserve it to hopefully hand it on to the next generation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Pen-Y-Lan‘ [Channel 4]

Official website: ‘Pen-Y-Lan‘ or follow them on Facebook

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

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Before you comment…

This particular episode of Country House Rescue was one of the most controversial and provoked much reaction when broadcast and every time it is repeated – some are in sympathy and many not.  This is one family doing what they thought was best and perhaps the editing of the show was designed to present a particular angle.  Either way, the purpose of the comments on this blog are to contribute useful information, particularly anything related to architecture, and so I won’t permit comments I think are intemperate/abusive.  Thank you for your understanding.

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Country House Rescue: spectacular spats – Hill Place, Hampshire

Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

The challenges of inheritance have been a recurring theme throughout Country House Rescue.  The obvious challenges are perhaps more tangible; taking on the new house, contents, gardens and the related discoveries – for good or ill.  Yet part of the nature of inheritance is often the bequeathing of disappointment to others who expected to benefit or who disagree with the choices of the new owners.  Country House Rescue this week (17 April) visits Hill Place in Hampshire where Ruth Watson’s skills seem to be in demand to placate some disgruntled aunts rather than to simply identify business opportunities.

Hill Place is an elegant, grade-II listed Georgian villa, built in 1791 on the back of wealth made in India.  The architect is unknown but there is a beautiful simplicity to it, with each side five bays wide with a canted three-bay projection on the entrance front and a graceful three-bay bow front to the south.  The style is in the fine traditions of Sir John Soane and there are even suggestions that it may have been by the man himself.   At some stage, a mansard roof was added and then later removed, leaving an unfortunate flat roof with the stub end of the staircase still rising to a small access extension.  Overall, this is a particularly neat example of the smaller country villa which was to prove so popular at that time.  However, what is of particular interest that the current owner, Will Dobson, inherited the house due to his grandparent’s commitment to the tradition of primogeniture – that of the eldest male inheriting, which, in Will’s case, meant the bypassing of his grandparent’s four daughters, which is the cause of the strife in the programme.

The rules of inheritance in the UK have ensured that ownership of country houses, estates and contents can be passed down as a unified possession.  This has ensured a multi-generational continuity which has benefited the country by embedding a very long-term perspective to plans and that a culture of paternalism was fostered; the spirit of noblesse oblige. Ironically, in France, the Napoleonic code demands equal shares for all potential inheritors, forcing the break-up and sale of large estates, preventing the same depth of connection between the nobility and society.  Yet, for this culture to be preserved it is important that the estate is kept together – especially as it usually has to fulfil its traditional role of funding the main house.

Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)
Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)

Yet inheritance has caused incredible friction for hundreds of years between those favoured by those who inherit and those who do not, leading to extreme outcomes and court cases.  One example of the former was Knighton Gorges, a manor house on the Isle of Wight, where, in 1821, the owner George Maurice Bisset had the entire ancient house demolished to ensure that his heir (his daughter or nephew – accounts vary) wouldn’t be able to cross his threshold even after his death, their having angered him through an unauthorised marriage.  In Kent, Lynsted Park was originally a huge Elizabethan E-plan house built for Sir John Roper, later Lord Teynham, in 1599, but an inheritance dispute between two Roper brothers in the 1800s led to the one living there demolishing all but the entrance porch (later Georgian additions created the current house) as he thought he would lose the case and have to give the house to his brother.

Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous litigation from inheritance was that surrounding William ‘the Rich’ Jennens which reputedly took nearly 120 years before the cases finished being heard and was also thought to be the inspiration for Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – though recent scholarly opinion now discounts that. The Jennens family had created a huge family fortune as ‘ironmasters’ in Birmingham but due to a lack of heirs and, more importantly, a will, when William died intestate in 1798, his fortune (including houses such as Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire and Acton Place, Suffolk) was passed to three distant – though very aristocratic – relatives.  This was the catalyst for a small cottage industry of claimants who all thought themselves related and therefore due a share of the inheritance.  This was partly due to a popular fad at the time for novels to feature an unexpected inheritance – though, in real life, it was usually just the lawyers who became richer.

So, inheritance can often be a mixed blessing, laden with expectations and complications.  A recent survey by Country Life magazine (6 April 2011) found that 61% of current owners were concerned that estates stay in the family – with only 25% not bothered if their heir were to sell (it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between whether those in the latter group were also those whose family had owned for the least time).  For some, it’s particularly important to ensure that the family name is preserved. In the same Country Life article, David Fursdon, whose family have been on the Fursdon estate in Devon since 1289, highlights that after 750 years in single ownership the pressure is on to ensure that a male heir is produced to provide that continuity (though with three sons he should be OK).

Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)
Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)

Primogeniture, or full inheritance by the eldest son, has been the rule for hundreds of years.  It was expected that all other children either had to marry or make their own fortune or living with the second son often going into the Army and the third to the clergy.  The strict rules may now be relaxing with parents choosing the child most inclined and best equipped to take on the inheritance – the Country Life article highlights how Holker Hall in Cumbria will be inherited by the middle child, Lucy Cavendish, who has moved back to the estate to learn the ropes before her parents ‘retire’ and move out in a few years time.

The challenge for families such as the Dobson’s is ensuring that the one who inherits feels they have complete ownership and is able to take decisions for the good of the house and estate without sniping from other quarters.  It is no light responsibility to be the owner of a country house and the Dobson’s should be thanked for taking on such a lovely home when others might have simply sold up and enjoyed the spoils.  Here’s hoping they can truly make a success of the house as a business to ensure that they can also pass it on to future generations.

Country House Rescue: ‘Hill Place‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Official website: ‘Hill Place

Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

Country House Rescue: school’s out – High Elms Manor, Herts

High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)
High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)

If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win ‘Highly Commended’ for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house on the edge of Watford, Hertfordshire, which is the next destination of Ruth Watson and Country House Rescue. The house is an interesting example of the various pressures which can affect country houses and the solutions having experienced almost the complete range over the last century with the new owners adding a few more.

Built sometime before 1813 and once the centre of a 500-acre estate, High Elms Manor originally enjoyed fine rural seclusion, its nearest neighbours the St Pancras Industrial School and Metropolitan District Asylum to the west (now demolished and built over) and Bucknalls, a Victorian manor house now home to the Buildings Research Establishment, to the east.  Originally known as High Elms Manor, it was changed to Garston Manor in 1895, though the current owner has apparently decided to go back to using the original name; even if it’s not the one used by Channel 4.

Relentless urban growth over the last 100 years pushed housing estates and industry right up to the boundaries of many country estates – and usually then overwhelmed them.  The sad pattern was often industry moving closer and blighting the views, then the air, ruining the very attributes which had been their reason for being built in the first place.  As workers followed industry so more land was needed for housing and so estates on the edges of towns were particularly vulnerable (as they still unfortunately are today).

Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Watford has already lost one major house – Cassiobury – to just these pressures, though this was much closer to the centre of the modern town and was lost back in 1927. The long-time seat of the Capel family, Earls of Essex, who built a fine house which was altered by Hugh May c.1674-80 and which boasted superb interiors, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and which was later ‘Gothicised’ by James Wyatt (c.1800).  Visited by Country Life magazine in 1910 it was still rural:

“‘…set in great and delightful grounds and surrounded by a grandly timbered park. Therein is peace and quiet; the aloofness of the old-country home far from the haunts of men reigns there still, and Watford and its rows of villas and its busy streets is forgotten as soon as the lodge gates are passed’.”

Yet by 1922 the house and 458-acre park were for sale and were bought in 1927 by a consortium of local businessmen who stripped the house for materials, sold the carvings to museums and private collectors and then demolished the house, with residential estates over-running that once rural idyll.  Sadly this was the case for so many of our demolished country houses.

High Elms Manor, being further north, escaped these immediate pressures.  The house became home to the Watney brewing family around 1870, who commissioned alterations which enlarged the house.  The house was then sold to the Benskins, another family of brewers, before it was bought in 1911 by Walter Bourne, co-founder of the Oxford Street department store Bourne & Hollingsworth (now split into retail units and offices – history (scroll past the odd photos at top of the page)), who made further changes around 1920, shortly before his death in 1921.  Stafford Bourne, one of the sons of the founder, described High Elms as:

“…one of the finest and most dignified medium-sized estates in the county of Hertfordshire.”

With fine and interesting interiors, this was a house built for entertaining and accommodating large numbers of guests and visitors.  This was to perhaps save the house from demolition as the house was sold once again after Walter Bourne’s death and took on another of the many uses our country houses have been adapted for and became a medical rehabilitation unit, still known as Garston Manor.  It remained in this role until the 1990s when the council, faced with rising maintenance costs, abandoned it and left it to decay.

Sadly, although boarded up, the house suffered from repeated vandalism and theft, with roof lead and floorboards proving particularly attractive.  When the now-owner Sheila O’Neill came to view the house it was a daunting prospect:

‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state…”

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Thankfully, as many other country houses have discovered, they can be rescued from such a parlous state.  High Elms was now adapted to that familiar role for a country house; that of being a school.  There is a long and fine tradition of our country houses educating future generations in grand adapted ballrooms and dining rooms.  In cases such as the spectacular Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, (now being wonderfully restored by the Stowe House Preservation Trust with backing from the World Monuments Fund) it almost certainly saved it from demolition.  Stowe is an especially grand example of the country house as a school but there are hundreds across the UK, each doing their bit to preserve our architectural heritage – though sadly the necessary ancillary buildings can sometimes detract from the setting.

Thankfully though, in the case of High Elms Manor, the needs of the school have been accommodated within the 80-odd rooms of the house with, for example, the ballroom serving as a gymnasium.  However, a house of this size requires significant funding not only in terms of capital investments in the house but also just to meet the £75,000 per year running costs.  Having bought it for £500,000, Sheila O’Neill estimates she has poured at least that much again in her quest to restore the house.  Faced with her own need for a replacement hip, and the relatively low profits from running her Montessori school, Mrs O’Neill has turned to Ruth to provide guidance as to how to make more from the not-very-successful wedding hire business and for any other tips. With strong local competition from the incredibly pretty Hunton Park, it seems that it is the posse of daughters who appear to hold the key to maintaining and improving their situation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Garston Manor‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Interview with Sheila O’Neill: ‘Country House Rescue in Garston‘ [Hertfordshire Life]

Country House Rescue: the weight of history – Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire

Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)
Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)

For some who inherit, the weight of family history can easily overcome the burden of running a historic home on a limited budget.  As we saw in the previous episode of Country House Rescue at Trereife House in Cornwall, the desire to not be the generation which loses the ancestral home, a prospect which faced the Le Grice family who had been there since 1799.  So imagine the weight of responsibility facing the Lucas-Scudamore family who have lived for ten centuries at Kentchurch Court in Herefordshire.

The house itself was originally a Saxon tower with further additions in the 14th-century.  However, the main style of the house as it stands today is due to work commissioned from the famous Regency architect John Nash (b.1752 – d.1835).  More importantly, Kentchurch is a significant as one of a number of houses built in the area around that time which were a visible expression of a new wave of architectural fashion; the Picturesque.

Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)
Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)

When thinking of Georgian architecture many think of the symmetrical classical façades and strictly proportioned Palladian designs which were so prevalent in that era.  Yet one house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, was to be the catalyst for a new way of thinking, breaking these patterns and ushering in a more organic way of viewing architecture. This saw the house as part of a landscape with the design playing its part in the beauty of the view as much as the lakes, gardens and parkland. Originally an unremarkable house, it was bought in 1747 by the wealthy Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and fourth son of Walpole the Prime Minister, who was an astute observer of society, art, and architecture. Walpole contributed little to art but was particularly well read and as he pursued his academic studies decided to start experimenting with alterations to his house.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)

His original changes from about 1749 were uncontroversial and, importantly, followed the convention for symmetry.  However, from 1753 onwards the interiors were fashioned in a gothic style with the help of what he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ comprising a few of his equally well-read friends.  This experimentation was confined to the interiors until, in 1759, he broke with architectural convention and had a great circular tower constructed but which, radically, had no matching pair.  The house was to continue to grow in a rather free fashion which can still be admired today (particularly so following the completion of phase one of a fantastic restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the World Monuments Fund). The house became famous, attracting day trippers in large numbers and spawned imitators; though it was James Wyatt’s Lee Priory (built 1785-90 – dem. 1955) which was said to the be first ‘child of Strawberry’.  Also considered worthy, and also designed by Wyatt were the fantastical Fonthill Abbey (collapsed in 1825) for William Beckford, and Ashridge Park for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.

Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)
Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)

One man particularly taken with this new style was Richard Payne Knight, a Herefordshire MP and intellectual with a large inheritance.  Using his wealth, in 1774 Payne Knight started the construction of a new home, Downton Castle, which bore similarities to Strawberry Hill, with the asymmetry and a large circular tower, and an irregular plan which was quite radical for the time.  This house was a prototype for a new ‘castellated’ style of house which was to be popular for fifty years from about 1790.  Driving this new style was the publication of three key books, the first two in 1794; ‘The Landscape, a Didactic Poem‘ by Payne Knight, and ‘Essay on the Picturesque‘, a brilliant reply in support by Uvedale Price (another local landowner), and, in 1795, ‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening‘ by the landscape-gardener, Humphrey Repton, who formed a successful and highly influential partnership with the architect John Nash that same year.

Nash had moved to Aberystwyth after his bankruptcy following a failed speculative buildings scheme in Bloomsbury in London.  Yet, the contacts he was to make in Wales led to Nash becoming one of the leading architects of the Picturesque.  The early development of his interest in the ideas of the movement can be seen when he designed a castellated triangular lodge for Uvedale Price sometime between 1791-4.  He also worked for Thomas Johnes at the spectacular Hafod estate where Johnes had planted 3 million trees to paradoxically create a more ‘natural’ looking Picturesque landscape.

For Nash, the ideas he developed in that short period from 1790 until he left to go back to London in 1796, were what made him one of the most significant architects of the period. The influence of Downton Castle and Nash also created a strong regional collection of these mock castles – Garnons (dem. 1957), Saltmarshe Castle (dem. 1955), Goodrich Court (dem. 1950), Garnstone Castle (by Nash, built 1806-10 – dem. 1958) Hampton Court Castle (alterations 1830s-40s) and extending down to Devon where Nash designed perhaps one of his best creations; Luscombe Castle (built 1800-4), and into Cornwall, where he designed Caerhays Castle (built 1807-10).

Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)
Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)

By their very nature these were large houses and often a little impractical which sadly meant many were demolished.  This is why Kentchurch Court is important – not only is an early work by Nash in the style of house which was to become his trademark, but it’s also one of the survivors of the tragedy of the many demolished country houses.

Perhaps the current Mrs Lucas-Scudamore should be grateful, in some ways, that their branch only inherited some fine carvings from the sale of the other much grander family seat, the grade-I Holme Lacy House (now a hotel) rather than the house itself with its 9 fine rooms with plaster ceilings which Pevsner though to be some of the best in the county.  The story of Kentchurch Court today is a familiar one of a family with an incredible history and a fine house and estate struggling with the usual demands for maintenance and £120,000 per year running costs.  Mrs Lucas-Scudamore and her two children (Mr Lucas-Scudamore being estranged and living away) battle on with determination but managing a house like this requires a money tree not a family tree – but this house is too important to be neglected.

Country House Rescue: ‘Kentchurch Court‘ [Channel 4]