The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap). The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.
The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries. The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’. Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability. Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home. Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.
One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire. Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII. Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage. After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials. However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments. Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].
For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option. This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register. Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague. The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres. That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian house to be enjoyed for generations.
For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal. The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge. At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment. Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833. However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section. Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today. The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission). However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.
Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales. Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793. Of particular interest here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested. The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice. After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions. Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!
Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced. Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010). Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626. Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place. Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location. Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.
Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!
Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense. For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically. That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.