A stay in the country: country houses as hotels – and a bad plan

Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)
Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)

Although country houses were built primarily as homes, an integral and important function was their use for entertaining.  However, one dramatic change has been the nature of the guests and how they paid for their visits – and the birth of the refined country house holiday now regarded as the best the hospitality industry can offer.  That said, running such a hotel is no guaranteed path to the wealth suggested by the lifestyle; with huge initial costs, large ongoing expenses and the elusive need for profitability leading to the recent troubles for the Von Essen hotel chain which had dominated this niche, including running the finest country house hotel – Cliveden, before collapsing under their own ambition.  The chase for profitability has also led to some shocking schemes for building further accommodation which can be seen in the recent proposals for Wyreside Hall in Lancashire.

Country houses have long been used as accommodation for travellers, be they friends of the owning family or, more spectacularly in medieval and Renaissance periods, for the monarch.  Often considered a great honour (supposedly there are more beds in which Queen Elizabeth I has apparently slept than nights she was alive), the occasion of a royal visit – or the possibility of one – would cause local aristocrats, or those aspiring, to refurbish suites of rooms such as at Burghley, Hatfield House, and Kirby Hall (even though Elizabeth I never came to the latter).  Sometimes, the ruinous expense of hosting the royal retinue would sometimes leave the owner with a title but also debts they’d be paying off for decades.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The heights of country house entertaining were reached by the Victorians and Edwardians who popularised, amongst the aristocracy, the vast weekend house party.  This led to houses being built or extended to create, in effect, large hotels.  The key difference was the guests were pre-selected from a narrow social strata and were expected to ‘pay’ for the hospitality with reciprocal entertainment or with business or political favours.  The greater the social elevation of the guests, so the number of staff required increased, leading to some houses, particularly at the cream of society, such as Eaton Hall and Clumber House, being greatly extended.  Eaton Hall eventually numbered around 150 bedrooms ranging from those for the honoured guests down to the  lowliest servants who would share dormitories.  Sadly, it was these sizeable extensions and aggrandisements which were largely the reason for their demolition in the 20th-century in their hundreds as austerity hit home and these huge palaces became unaffordable.

Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)
Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)

Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the longest serving Regent and developed a highly cultivated habit of ‘weekending’ at country houses, especially his own at Sandringham, Norfolk.  His preferences have been said to have laid the foundations for not only the practice of weekend visits but also for indulging with grand breakfasts followed by country activities such as shooting, followed by convivial dinners.  Such was his reputation that some owners would fear a visit for the expense involved with one family, the Gurneys of Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, allegedly burning down a wing to forestall such a visit. By contrast, in 1902, when Edward VII visited Burton in Staffordshire an entire wing was built and named after him in his honour at Rangemore Hall.

Country house visiting had been a common activity for the travelling aristocrat in the Georgian era (a topic explored in a previous article ‘How tourism split a house from the estate‘).  Often calling on those they knew, they would also call on the notable houses in an area (an acceptable enough practice to be included by Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice‘) – and the owners of these ‘show houses’ were happy to parade their good taste.  By the beginning of the 18th-century, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Wilton and Burghley had become the ‘must-see’ houses for the country house tourist – later joined by Houghton, Holkham, Eaton Hall and Kedleston.  Sadly, visitors weren’t always there for the educational opportunities of seeing some of the finest art in the world – as Horace Walpole lamented regarding the visitors to his father’s Houghton Hall, where he was a guide, the worst were the seers:

 …they come, ask what such a room is called, in which Sir Robert lay, write it down, admire a lobster or a cabbage in a market-piece, dispute whether the last room was green or purple, and then back to the inn for fear the fish should be overdressed.

Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)
Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)

It’s the last line which is of particular interest – even the well-to-do Georgian guest would be staying in a nearby coaching inn unless they had family nearby.  By the Victorian era, the nature and number of the guests had changed, but still the houses were private residences – until 1878 when the first country house became a hotel; Tregenna Castle near St Ives, Cornwall.  The catalyst was the extension of the railway, and the purchasers of a initial lease on Tregenna, before buying the freehold in 1895, was the Great Western Railway who could not only provide the destination, but the means to get there.

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: sjm_1974 via flickr)
Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: SJM_1974 via flickr)

The growth of a paying middle class in the Victorian and Edwardian eras created demand – but most importantly, both eras were about aspiration.  The middle class may not have had the wealth to run a country house (and in the 1930s and 1950s, many owners didn’t either) but they certainly wanted to experience it.  The glut of country houses which became available in the first half of the 20th-century presented many opportunities for the hospitality industry to cater for these new markets.  For the upper classes, although many had been forced to sell up or move out, they still wanted to continue the lifestyle – though not necessarily alongside the nouveau riche. This created another market for the exclusive country club with clear social stratification driving the finest hotels to become bywords for extravagant elegance – something still clear today (though entry is more socially open) when one looks at hotels such as Cliveden or Stoke Park.

Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)
Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)

Though initially slow to take-off, the first half of the 20th-century saw a number of houses become hotels; in 1929, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire and North Bovey Manor, Devon (another for the Great Western Railway), Welcombe Manor, Warwickshire in 1931, Otterburn Tower, Northumberland and Studley Priory, Oxfordshire, both in 1947 and Greywalls in Scotland in 1948, to name but a few.  Gravetye Manor was sold to Peter Herbert in 1957, when he paid £57,000 and charged £2 per night.  One author reported that the 1995 Egon Ronay guide listed 220 country house hotels, and the Historic Houses Association estimated that a quarter of the country houses sold between 1972-1990 were converted into hotels.  Though some have inevitably failed, the trend continues with one of the most recent being Coworth Park, built in 1776, opening in September 2010.

This potential re-use of the houses has not always been benign.  The nature of hotels is that the bedrooms generate the income so the more you have the better for them – though usually not for the architectural cohesion of the house. In hotel terms, many houses would not be economic which has led to the building of large, and not necessarily sensitive, additions.  Considering the original intentions of country house owners were to demonstrate their wealth and taste and to build a house to last, rarely are the modern extensions designed with anything approaching the same care and expense so there is an inevitable mismatch.  Many a country house hotel is scarred with poor quality and visually flawed wings which are almost designed to detract from the main house – but then buildings designed by accountants never win prizes for beauty.

Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)
Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)

Although there is evidence of a greater sensitivity in recent years where new wings are tucked away from the main house and linked by corridors, it seems that there are still some owners who see the house as merely an ornament to put on the front cover of the brochure whilst they ruin the setting.  It was hoped that the worst schemes were behind us but sometimes one is proposed which is so bad that it would be laughable if it didn’t threaten a fine (though currently not in the best condition) house – Wyreside Hall in Lancashire (hat-tip to Matthew Steeples for flagging this one up).

The house was originally built in the 17th-century but was remodelled in 1790 by the then owner, John Fenton Crawthorne, MP, to a design by the gifted architect, Robert Adam.  Though the full scheme wasn’t implemented, the exterior benefited from a graceful symmetry with the drawing room, dining room and library also completed to his plans (though apparently no evidence of their decoration now remains).  The now Grade-II house remained in the Garrett family until 1936 after which it became a school and then home for a local motorsport legend.  The scheme that has now been proposed learns none of the lessons of sensitive hotel development (or any work involving heritage) over the last 50 years.

Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)
Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)

Yes, it really is that ugly.  The design effectively doubles the size of the house and, as can be seen from the plan (scroll to page 44 – no direct link, sorry), the associated access roads, parking and ‘landscaping’ ruin the immediate setting of the house.  The usual arguments have been made about this bringing jobs to the area but if we must sacrifice the very heritage which gives an area a distinct identity, which attracts tourists or the wealthy (who usually also spend money locally) then it’s a poor bargain.  Wyre Council should throw out this and any subsequent plan which displays equally limited thinking and such an arrogant disregard for the architectural heritage of the area.  As we’ve seen, country house hotels can work – but not when they are at the expense of the original building.

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Matthew Steeples’ original blog post is available here: ‘Adam would turn in his grave

Listed buildings description: ‘Wyreside Hall, Lancashire‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Planning application documents: ‘Ref 11/00840/LBC – Wyreside Hall‘ [Wyre Council]

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This is the last post for 2011 – 43 posts in total, now over 350 subscribers to the blog, nearly 210,000 pages served up; and 850 followers of @thecountryseat on Twitter, so all-in-all, a fairly impressive level of interest; thank you! Matthew

Merry Christmas!

Blicking Hall, Norfolk (Image: National Trust Picture Library / Alamy via Telegraph)
Blicking Hall, Norfolk (Image: National Trust Picture Library / Alamy via Telegraph)

Merry Christmas to you all!  I thought a snowy picture most appropriate even if at the moment it’s shaping up to be a warm Christmas rather than a white one.

As always, writing this blog is a pleasure not only for what I learn as I do the research but also from what others are kind enough to share via the comments and email.  It shows there really is a huge amount of interest in, and affection for, our country houses and that should never be forgotten.  Austerity is always an opportunity for some to make simplistic arguments about ‘big houses’. However, to deride hundreds of years of history, collecting, art, architecture, landscaping and the lives of those who have been involved with these beautiful buildings is the type of short-termism which led to the terrible destruction of the early 20th-century. If you know of a threat to a country house (beyond HS2!) then do let me know.

Again, apologies that I haven’t been able to post as much as I’d like to over the last couple of months but this is still a hobby and the day job can sometimes require temporary priority.  The good news is that normal service should be restored in the Spring with more posts on houses in the news exploring the architectural context so often ignored, and wider articles on some lesser known aspects of country houses.  Of course, there will hopefully be more on the TV, especially after the success of ‘Downton Abbey’, and I know there are further series of ‘Country House Rescue’ and ‘Restoration’ in the works.  A special mention should go to Dan Cruickshank and his ‘Country House Revealed’ series which, for me, was the highlight of the viewing year; superb photography, great commentary and access to some wonderful houses – fingers crossed it’s commissioned again.

Another special mention should go to the other new blogs on other aspects of country houses, some of which have started in the last year:

  • HandedOn – highly recommended look at some of the more obscure(d) houses
  • British and Irish Stately Homes – a comprehensive and remarkable archive of sightings of country houses. Run by Andrew, a frequent commenter on this blog.
  • Country House Reader – an eclectic look at houses, contents and customs

Please do keep emailing and commenting with news and updates – I read them all and try to reply promptly (though forgive me if there is a delay). If you use Twitter, more updates can be found there: @thecountryseat is designed to highlight other country house news which may not warrant a full post here but which are still worth a look (and they also appear on the homepage of the blog in the box top-right).

Once again, thank you for your support and continued interest and I look forward to sharing more about the fascinating architecture of our wonderful and spectacular country houses in 2012.

Matthew

A poor prognosis: Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire

Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)

Many of the houses featured in this blog are shown as a celebration of the brilliance of our architects and craftsmen in creating one of the finest bodies of buildings of their type in the world.  Yet, in abundance is, perhaps inevitably, failure; where an interesting house becomes a victim of circumstance, policy, incompetence or, sometimes, all of the above.  Great Barr Hall, once outside Birmingham, now encircled by advancing urbanisation, is a sad example of where a house can languish and deteriorate whilst deliberate vandalism and institutional lethargy condemn it to its fate – and unless something is done soon, Great Barr Hall will join the already far-too-long list of the lost country houses of England.

Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)
Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)

Despite its current sorry state, Great Barr Hall was once a sizable house – though precisely how large is unclear.  An early print in 1798 Stebbing Shaw’s ‘History and Antiquities of Staffordshire‘ shows a 11-bay castellated house with four corner turrets but the present house is 9-bays.  For comparison, it’s interesting to note the stylistic similarities with Syon House in west London, a seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, though it is also 9-bays wide and has an imposing porte cochere.

What is known is in the 1760s, Sir Joseph Scott, then head of a family line which had been in the area for 600 years, built a new house in a ‘gothick’ style.  The original architect is unknown but Stebbing Shaw describes how ‘The present possessor [Joseph Scott], about the year 1767, began to exercise his well known taste and ingenuity upon the old fabric, giving it the pleasing monastic appearance it now exhibits – and has since much improved it by the addition of a spacious dining room at the east end, and other rooms and conveniences‘. If Scott was his own architect, perhaps he was, in part, inspired by the remodelling of Syon House by Robert Adam which started in that same year.

Sir Joseph Scott’s original extensive works led to some financial difficulties and so, from 1785, he moved to the Continent and rented the house out.  The lease was taken by Samual Galton junior, a controversial Birmingham Quaker, banker,  gun manufacturer, and intellectual who hosted meetings of the Lunar Society at Great Barr Hall leading to it becoming a noted crossroads for industrial ideas, a crucible for the Midlands industrial growth and the wider Industrial Revolution.

Where Great Barr becomes particularly interesting from our point of view is with the arrival of the young architect John Nash and his business collaborator and famous landscaper, Humphrey Repton. Nash was there to provide the buildings which Repton needed to complete his  gardening visions. This worked well for both men; Nash was to pay Repton 2.5% for any work the latter passed his way so Nash charged his clients the then rather high fee of 7%, giving him a 4.5% fee. There is no record of Nash ever putting any work towards Repton – but Nash benefited with work on over one hundred estates. There seems to be some uncertainty as to exactly when Nash started working there but John Summerson gives the date as 1800 for the construction of a gothic archway to the adjacent chapel, but other works such as the gate lodges, an icehouse and a new steeple for the chapel started in 1797 and were probably also by Nash and Repton.

Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)
Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)

About this time, the house was also updated to create the appearance we can just make out today – but it hasn’t been confirmed that Nash was the architect.  However, there are tantalising clues that it could well be by him. Nash had been developing his particular style of Picturesque gothic during his time in Wales and had been applying it with varying degrees of success since then during alterations at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire, (1795) and at Corsham House, Wiltshire (1797 – a disaster due to poor workmanship with Nash’s work later demolished).  Yet, some of the architectural fingerprints of each of these can be seen in Great Barr.  Externally, one such feature is the crenellations applied to both the roof and the tops of the projecting towers, another is the hooded Elizabethan-style windows. Another interesting piece of the jigsaw is a house which Nash was working on in 1800 in Buckinghamshire,  Chalfont Park, which bears not only a superficial stylistic similarity but also one of form – a long rectangular main body with a projecting 3-bay centre.  However, Chalfont Park was also altered by Anthony Salvin in 1840 so it’s not possible to tell how much of the gothic detailing is Nash’s.

The Scott’s return in 1797 prompted the works of Repton and Nash before further work in 1830 and 1848 which included moving the entrance from the west side to the north.  In 1863, a chapel was built to a design thought to be by Sir George Gilbert Scott, though it was never consecrated and so became a billiard room.

The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'
The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'

The house remained with the Scotts until the house became a hospital for the mentally ill in 1918 following the death of Lady Bateman-Scott in 1909.  As is usual, the institutional nature of hospital use was not kind to the house.  Beyond the extensive network of buildings which marched across Repton’s parkland (and the south eastern corner of the estate being carved up by the M6 motorway), the house itself had a modern two-storey extension added in 1925 and in 1955 the clock tower, stables and much of the east wing were demolished.  In the 1960s, some sensitive architectural ‘genius’ removed the two splendid first-floor oriel windows which flanked the main entrance and inserted a pair of non-matching government-issue casement windows.

The current plight of Great Barr Hall can largely be laid at the door of Bovis Homes and John Prescott, formerly the Deputy Prime Minister, and the one who eventually signed off on the architectural blight that now affects the house.  Considering that the hospital buildings were in two distinct campuses, one to the north west and another to the north east, if there had to be development, replacing the buildings to the NW would have placed them furthest from the house, with the advantage of creating a more complete parkland around the house, with the possibility of re-instating, to some extent, the earlier Picturesque drive.  To hope that someone of Prescott’s aesthetic insensibilities would see such a solution was always forlorn but one might hope that someone on the local council or in English Heritage might have proposed a more sensitive outcome.  Sadly it was not to be and now a large development of 445 executive-style homes has been built, the closest being scarcely a hundred metres from the back of the house.  Worse, following the sale of the house to a building preservation trust, little progress has been made, with questions now being asked about the trust’s failure to restore it as promised earlier.  It was again put up for sale in May 2011 by the Trust at the unrealistic price of £2.2m with the option to buy a further 100-acres of parkland – with the threat of even more development.

Despite some architectural uncertainties, what is clear is that those charged with its care in the recent decades have failed.  Perhaps this is a broader failure of policy, that without an explicit mandate to determine that the architectural heritage must be managed, maintained and preserved as far as is possible, it will fall to all-to-fallible councillors to look beyond their own short-term interests; sadly, an unlikely prospect.  The NHS generally has a poor record of managing historical assets once it has no further use for them e.g Sandhill Park, and Stallington Hall are just two examples and don’t forget that Soane’s Moggerhanger survived despite the NHS, not because of it. A strong national policy should provide a clear strategy for preservation of heritage assets taken over by the state rather than just relying on existing listed buildings legislation.  In Great Barr Hall’s sad circumstance, one can only hope that someone will be able to extract the money owed as part of the enabling development, which can then be devoted to restoring this interesting and significant house so that it once again can be something for the local residents to be proud of, rather than the monument to NHS, central government and local council incompetence which it is today.

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Still for sale? (thanks to Andrew for spotting this): Great Barr Hall might still be for sale – there is a page with details but it’s not listed on the agent’s website: ‘Great Barr Hall‘. Now listed for £3m but with 150-acres but with another 100-acres of parkland by separate negotiation.   Considering the Building Preservation Trust paid just £900,000 for the entire site this seems a little odd – perhaps someone will enlighten us.

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Listing description: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

‘At Risk’ Register entry: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [English Heritage]

Recent history of house and some proposals for rescue

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