When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage. If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.
Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“. Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742. This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765. Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).
Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor. However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations. However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns. The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston. The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.
So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.
However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory. Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.
At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm. Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments. In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use. Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens. To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.
The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m. However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London. It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance. It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.
Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold
Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire. Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice. Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.
And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.
More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]