In the early hours of Sunday (19 June 2011) a serious fire broke out in the Drawing Room of grade-I listed Peckforton Castle and has gutted all three floors of that wing, affecting approximately 25% of the building. Sadly, it appears that this terrible destruction in one of the finest mock castles in the country is reported to be the result of an arson attack by the groom, apparently over the wedding bill. That such a wonderful building could be damaged over something so stupid is beyond belief. The full extent of the damage – and credit to the fire service for preventing it spreading – will only become truly apparent over the next few days.
Peckforton Castle sits on a Cheshire hill-top, facing down the medieval Beeston Castle on the neighbouring peak. Yet, Peckforton is a Victorian creation for the 1st Lord Tollemache, who had commissioned Anthony Salvin to marry the conveniences demanded by a Victorian landowner with a scholarly re-creation of an ancient castle, creating the muscular skyline so visible today. The style of the castle is a reflection of the character of Tollemache – vigorous sportsman, statesman, father to 24 children, and, above, benevolent landlord. Tollemache had inherited the 26,000-acre estate through his grandmother, co-heiress of the 4th Earl of Dysart, and had particularly Victorian vision of how an estate should be run, saying “The only lasting pleasure to be derived from the possession of a landed estate is to witness the improvement of the social condition of those residing on it.” To this end, he reduced the size of each farm to 200-acres and rebuilt every farmhouse and labourers cottage on the estate at a cost of £280,000 (approx. £20m) and to each cottage he allocated a further 3-acres to help them grow their own produce.
The estate lacked a main house and so Tollemache went against the prevailing fashion of the time and commissioned an authentic re-creation of a medieval castle which was built between 1844 and 1850. The fashion for sham castles had grown out of the Georgian Picturesque movement which applauded such visions of a castle – symbol of ancient chivalry – and landscape combined to create an aesthetically pleasing view. Yet, in demanding an accurate castle, Tollemache rejected many of the compromises that had previously characterised the lesser shams, such as having a great gatehouse but also acres of glass, which were being roundly criticised by architects such as Pugin who demanded architectural authenticity.
Tollemache’s architect was Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881), who, on the strength of the success of Peckforton, was commissioned to also work on Alnwick Castle and the Tower of London, and many more. Salvin was the perfect architect for the job with his Victorian understanding of the romance of castles and the appeal of the Middle Ages but also a sound practical training with John Nash which gave him the skill to successfully, as Alfred Waterhouse wrote to Lord Tollemache in 1878, “…combine the exterior and plan of an Edwardian [Edward I] Castle with nineteenth-century elegance and comfort.”
Faced with the choice between architectural accuracy and convenience most of Tollemache’s contemporaries opted for more fashionable styles leaving relatively few of these large-scale re-creations. Other examples of ‘real’ sham castles include William Burges‘ designs for Lord Bute at Castell Coch, Belvoir Castle for the Dukes of Rutland, and the powerfully brooding Penryhn Castle, built between 1840-50, for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant. The demand for an authentic castle then largely abates until Julius Drewe’s commission, built in the 1910s and 1920s, for Sir Edwin Lutyens which results in the wonderful Castle Drogo. By their very nature, their stern exteriors make them untraditional country houses yet they hark back to the oldest form of home for the landed gentry, and a symbol of power and prestige.
Sadly, arson attacks on country houses are not unknown – witness the terrible devastation brought to Hafodunos Hall in Wales by two bored idiots in 2004. With Peckforton Castle, the success of the design, both as an exterior composition, but also for the practical yet impressive interiors is why the house is such an important part of the nation’s architectural heritage. The house was only recently subject to a £1.7m restoration programme by the Naylor family who own it and have worked immensely hard to bring to life a house that had been empty since WWII. Hopefully the damage will not turn out to be as extensive as feared – though estimates for restoration are already said to be around £1m. The strength of the construction means that it will almost certainly be restorable and will hopefully again rise soon from the ashes of this terrible fire.
- ‘Peckforton Castle: groom held over historic hotel arson ‘after wedding bill row’ [dailytelegraph]
- ‘Wedding guests flee exclusive country house hotel after claims bridegroom started fire following ‘row over the bill’ [dailymail]
Listing description: ‘Peckforton Castle‘ [britishlistedbuildings]