Country House Rescue – Series 4: Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire

Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire (Image: Craufurdland Castle)
Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire (Image: Craufurdland Castle)

The style of country houses enjoys huge variety, be it Classical, a Palladian essay in symmetry, or perhaps Gothic, decorated with tracery and spandrels, or an old timber-framed hall house, beams twisted with age, but perhaps one defining feature common to all is their almost complete departure from the need for defence.  The ancient seat of the lord was often, by necessity, a muscular castle yet, by the 16th-century, England was enjoying a peace which rendered such concerns redundant.  Yet Country House Rescue’s visit this week (19 July, 20:00, Channel 4) to Craufurdland Castle in Ayrshire is a reminder that the need for one’s home to offer protection from assault continued much later in Scotland and the Border regions, leaving a rather special legacy of still inhabited tower houses and castles.

The first castles erected by the Normans were often simply a ‘motte and bailey’ design with timber defences which required frequent replacement as they deteriorated.  This led to the building of more durable stone castles which also gave greater scope for a more decorative appearance – though many features, such as the crenellations and arrow slits, were also part of the very lethal defences (a good English example of this is Wingfield Castle in Suffolk – decorative but deadly).  The accommodation for the lord and his family took second place to the military requirements and had to adapt to fit in.  Yet, the relative peace enjoyed in England by the 15th-century meant that some were abandoned as the owners sought greater comfort outside the massive walls.

Map of tower houses in Great Britain and Ireland built between 14thC - 17thC
Map of tower houses in Great Britain and Ireland built between 14thC – 17thC (Source: RCAHM in ‘The Decline of the Castle’ by M.W. Thompson)

By 1311, Robert I of Scotland felt secure enough to mount regular raids south, not with the intention of capturing and holding land but simply to pillage it.  With Edward II distracted by his own difficulties, a fortified house became a necessity and it has been estimated that around 270 tower houses were built.  These strong towers look to be keeps of the type associated with southern castles but they are distinctive in that they lack the usual gatehouses, corner towers, moats and defensive curtain walls.  Typically these towers were twenty to sixty feet square and between two to five storeys high, and although often rectangular, often had annexes added giving an ‘L-shaped’ (e.g. Muchalls Castle) or ‘Z-shaped’ plan (e.g. Castle Fraser). They often featured bartisans (turrets), had raised main entrances protected by grills (called a yett), and crenellations – all good enough to defend against at least a raid, if not a full scale siege. One of the largest examples of these type of houses is Comlongon Castle in Dumfriesshire; built in the 15th-century with its turrets and machiolations and walls 12-foot-thick at the base.

Comlongon Castle, Dumfriesshire (Image: Comlongon Castle)
Comlongon Castle, Dumfriesshire (Image: Comlongon Castle)

Construction of these houses increased from the 14th-century (as opposed to a decline in the south) but the point of most interest is that they were still being built in significant numbers in the 17th-century (e.g. Craigievar Castle; completed in 1626), by which time the English nobility were embracing a very different style for their homes.  The towers described above were contemporary to the courtyard houses and halls with cross wings being built in the more peaceful English counties where such defensive concerns were irrelevant (see the map above).  The concerns of the late-medieval gentry were in ensuring that their accommodation reflected the appropriate social hierarchy.  A survey in 1387 of Keevil Manor, Wiltshire (linked image shows house as rebuilt in 1580) includes a list of rooms including a hall, a capital chamber, smaller chambers, a chapel, kitchens, buttery etc – but no mention of martial defences, only a gatehouse which was as much for show as security.  This was still the case by the mid-15th century as shown by another survey, this time of Shute House in Axminster, which again was planned around a series of courtyards but was essentially outward facing (NB. the surviving portion of the house is now owned by the National Trust and can be rented for short breaks). For an international contrast; Rambures Castle, Somme, in northern France was also being built around the beginning of the 15th-century – but the French had a completely different social attitude towards castles, granting them much higher status than any other form of noble residence.

Shute House, Axminster c18th-century (Image: Charmouth history website)
Shute House, Axminster c18th-century (Image: Charmouth history website)

Between 1500-1700, the English architectural tradition clearly branches away from the military-based residence and firmly embraces the principles of the country house as we would understand and recognise them today.  Whilst in England, houses took on first the influence of Palladio via Inigo Jones, then through the English Baroque, then into Georgian, it is only at this point, following the Act of Union in 1707 which established sustained peace, did the Scottish architectural narrative start significantly to pick up the more relaxed forms of the country house (though Drumlanrig Castle – built between 1670-1690 – would be difficult to describe as defensive).

Ironically, in the Victorian era, the new fashion for all things Scottish led to a resurgence of interest in the older forms of ‘Scots Baronial’ architecture. This was then wrapped up in layers of romanticism in the popular writings of Sir Walter Scott, leading owners to commission houses they thought were ‘authentically’ Scottish. The results were often spectacular; creating picturesque visions of turrets, battlements, gatehouse and the instantly identifiable bartisan turrets.

Old tower, Craufurdland Castle (Image: 'Famous Scottish Houses - The Lowlands' by T. Hannan)
Old tower, Craufurdland Castle (Image: ‘Famous Scottish Houses – The Lowlands’ by T. Hannan)

So where does Craufurdland Castle come in this history? Interestingly, it has a stake in the earliest forms of the authentically Scottish tower house but also features later additions. The Craufurd family have lived on this site since 1245 but the core of the castle is said to date from the 11th-century.  The tower to the right of the central block on the west end is the oldest part, just three windows pierce the thick walls, but was later altered to add crenellations and a roof with crow-stepped gables.  The main entrance is dominated by a 19th-century addition; a grand entrance added between 1830-40 (architect unknown) with a Gothic doorway with the family coat of arms set in a panel above it, leading up to an imposing tower with small corner turrets.  The large ecclesiastical windows give the impression that one is looking at a small church.  The interior today tries to make a virtue of the lack of ancestral clutter. The house was rented out for many years and the current generation have taken a more modern approach to the decor which unfortunately doesn’t always match up to the beautiful and imposing rooms in which it has been placed.

Craufurdland Castle before 19thC alterations (Image: RCAHMS)
Craufurdland Castle before 19thC alterations (Image: RCAHMS)

With nearly 800 years of history behind them, the current owner, Simon Craufurd, has had an especially heavy responsibility passed to him.  This is a Category-A listed castle with rich associations to many of the leading figures of Scottish history, wonderful stories of a tunnel which thwarted the attacking English, and a tale of helping King James I fight off a gang of bandits.  The family again appear to be willing to listen to Simon Davis as evinced by the new website, launched to coincide with the broadcast, which lists many activities available including accommodation, mountain bike trails, mud running (!), a dog hotel, a cafe, fisheries, and even burials.  This is a determined attempt at diversification – perhaps one of the broadest seen so far in Country House Rescue, and the Craufurds will hopefully build sustainable businesses to ensure that this fascinating house and family are able to remain together for future generations.

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Official website: ‘Craufurdland Castle

Want to stay there? Craufurdland Castle: Accommodation

Follow them on Facebook: ‘Craufurdland Castle‘ [facebook.com – login required]

Official listing: ‘Craufurdland Castle‘ [RCAHMS]

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 6 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Series 4: Meldon Park, Northumberland

Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)
Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)

One of the joys of Country House Rescue is to bring to light some of the lesser known houses. The subject of this week’s edition (12 July, 20:00, Channel 4), Meldon Park in Northumberland, can certainly be said to be one of the ‘illustrious obscure‘.  This is also perhaps an apt description of the architect, who was one of the most prolific in the north east of England yet surprisingly little known beyond that, though the house also features later work by another who was certainly famous. Yet, such noble associations do not pay the bills so, despite a 3,800-acre estate, the Cookson family have called in the services of Simon Davis to provide ideas to help keep the house in the family.

Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)
Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)

Meldon Park is certainly an elegant essay in the neo-Classical; golden brown sandstone in a compact and elegant design with some superb subtle detailing which denotes the hand of a finer architect.  The entrance front, though only three bays wide, features a grand porch with four free-standing (or ‘tetrastyle prostyle’ if you’d prefer the architectural terms) Ionic columns, projecting from a slight recession of the middle bay, with the corners of the building marked by shallow pilasters.

The architect of the now grade-II* Meldon Park was the regionally prolific John Dobson (b.1787 – d.1865) – a name famous in the north east but, due to his geographic focus, one less known nationally.  Dobson was born in Chirton, County Durham, and showed an early talent for drawing which led, at the age of 15, to his becoming a pupil of leading Newcastle architect David Stephenson.  On completing his studies in 1809, Dobson moved to London to develop his skills further, studying under the famous watercolourist John Varley. In London, Dobson became friends with the artist Robert Smirke and his two architect sons Robert (who designed the main facade of the British Museum) and Sydney (who later married Dobson’s daughter).  Despite the urging of his friends to stay in London, Dobson moved back to Newcastle where he established his practice, becoming (reputedly) the only architect between York and Edinburgh, except for Ignatius Bonomi in Durham.

Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)
Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)

Dobson proved to be an exceptionally capable architect; not only could he produce beautiful and convincing watercolours of proposed projects, he was also technically competent, to the extent that his daughter claimed he ‘…never exceeded an estimate, and never had a dispute with a contractor‘. Dobson is perhaps best remembered for designing much of central Newcastle, and in particular, the beautiful curved train shed at the Central station.  Despite his urban output, Dobson was also extensively involved in projects outside of the towns, designing or altering over sixty churches and more than a hundred country houses; the latter principally commissioned by the beneficiaries of the wealth of the Industrial Revolution. Dobson was a rare architect in that he was competent in designing in both the picturesque style of Tudor Gothic (such as at Beaufront Castle and Jesmond Towers) and the classical style of the Greek Revival – and it was in the latter that he truly excelled. Although Howard Colvin praises his careful siting of the houses, high-quality finish and precise and scholarly detailing, he thought Dobson had a tendency to exaggerate the scaling, creating an overall look which might be considered bleak. Yet, this is more an academic criticism; those today looking on the many houses he worked on would consider them to be handsome examples of the flourishing of the country house which resulted from the new wealth in the north east.

Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Meldon Park was to be one of Dobson’s finest of his Greek Revival designs.  Built in 1832 for Isaac Cookson, at a cost of £7,188 1s 1d (about £5m today if compared with average earnings), it was a sizeable house with extensive service accommodation and extending to a beautiful Orangery, even if the main house was comparatively small.  That said, the rooms are bright and well-proportioned with a grand Imperial central staircase, with its deep coffered ceiling described by Pevsner as being ‘the size of one in a London club‘.  The staircase was later reworked by no lesser figure than Sir Edwin Lutyens, who replaced the original metal balustrades with wooden ones and added decorative plaster panels.

Isaac Cookson was the third generation to manage the family manufacturing interests and had taken charge of his father’s glass works, developing them into one of the country’s leading makers, along with a very successful chemical works.

Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)
Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)

Cookson had previously employed Dobson to design part of a speculative urban development in Newcastle and combined with his earlier country house work at neighbouring Mitford Hall, Longhirst (with its striking entrance portico) and Nunnykirk halls, Dobson was a natural choice when looking to create his refined country seat.

As owners of a glass works, it was natural that the house would be well-lit; the bright interior a result of the large windows which graced the main rooms on the south and east sides.  Yet, Meldon Park actually marks a turning point.  The brilliant Mark Girouard, writing in Country Life in 1966, pointed out that:

In rooms like this, one realises just how much Georgian architecture developed in the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as windows grew bigger and more and more effort was made to link the inside of the house visually with the landscape.  Meldon shows the development at its final stage; soon a reaction was to begin and the Victorians turned away from the sun and immersed themselves in increasing gloom.   In this as in other aspects Meldon represents in a very convincing way, the last flowering of the Georgian country house tradition.

So Meldon Park represents not only the work of one of the finest architects to have worked in the north east but also marks a key point in the development of British architecture; the high-water mark of Georgian elegance before the more insular and muscular Victorian style swept over the north of England.  The house is also one of those rare survivals where it is still owned and lived in by descendants of the person who commissioned it, sitting in its own huge estate.  This is a house which seems to be clearly loved by the owners who have worked incredibly hard to ensure they can remain there especially when the house is less of an attraction for visitors as previous generations had sold the art collection.  Judging by their new website and other news stories about their expanded and diversified activities it seems that they were also willing to listen to Simon Davis’ advice and act on it and such pragmatism can only be applauded and will hopefully be rewarded.

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Official website: ‘Meldon Park

Photos from Country Life: Meldon Park [Country Life Picture Library]

Listed building description: ‘Meldon Park, Northumberland‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Want to stay there? Meldon Park: East Wing Apartment

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 5 [Channel 4]

For more information about the architect: ‘John Dobson 1787-1865: Architect of the North East‘ – Thomas Faulkner & Andrew Greg

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Great Fulford, Devon

Great Fulford, Devon
Great Fulford, Devon

If there were a league table of how often a house and family appear on TV or in the papers, an unexpectedly high entry would probably be the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Devon.  Having featured in other programmes and even their own series, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken Country House Rescue this long to visit (Thursday 5 July, 20:00, Channel  4).  Despite the bluff and occasionally hostile exterior of Francis Fulford, the Fulfords are a remarkable family – both this generation and the many which have come before them.  The question is; with so few houses still lived in by the original families, will future Fulfords be able to stay in their notoriously imperfect house?

Great Fulford falls firmly in that category of houses which Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described as the ‘illustrious obscure‘; those many smaller, privately-owned houses which lie nestled in valleys and hidden by their own land – in this case, a not insubstantial 3,000-acres.  Pevsner described it as ‘…a substantial courtyard mansion, larger than  most in Devon though characteristic of the county in its reticent exterior and its patchy and undocumented history of rebuilding and remodelling…‘. With a core which stretches back to the 1500s, the house has grown and been embellished as funds and whims permitted creating a lengthy listing desciption which would make a larger house very proud. A major remodelling in the 1800s has been suggested as being to designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville but neither Pevsner nor Colvin mention this and the listing discounts it.

So although some aspects of the actual house remain a mystery, one aspect which is very clear is the remarkable endurance of the family, with the current owner, Francis Fulford, being the 26th (or 27th – he’s not sure) Fulford of Fulford, a line stretching back over 800 years. Very few families are able to trace back their lineage so far, even fewer are still in possession of the original family seat.  Yet they do survive, despite the best efforts of tragedy and unforgiving tax regimes to unseat them.

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

One such family has featured on Country House Rescue before: the Kellys of Kelly, also in Devon, who have a proud history dating back to the 1100s.  In 2010, Ruth Watson visited the beautiful if rapidly deteriorating Kelly House [more on that visit in this previous blog post: ‘A glimmer of hope‘] to find an owner almost in denial as to the decrepit state of their home.  Proving that Country House Rescue can be a positive catalyst for change; the house is now slowly being restored with help from various students of architecture, surveying and other related fields. By contrast, the Fursdon family of Fursdon House (also in Devon!) have fully adapted their estate to offer all the usual activities which have ensured their beautiful 750-acre estate and elegant house (which, in a truly modern way, you can follow on Twitter, @fursdondevon, and Facebook) not only brings in an income but is also a home.

Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)
Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)

These smaller houses form the backbone of the local history of an area; so embedded that their name denotes the place.  In a fascinating series of articles in ‘The Field‘ magazine, starting in 1984, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd toured the length and breadth of the UK seeking out these lesser known seats and their even more private owners.   To read these amazing histories is to realise the depth of history which our nation enjoys, including:

So although not unique, the Fulfords are rare.  In many ways the Fulfords are a refreshing alternative to the slick corporate manicure of many homes or the stately preservation of the National Trust (though all have their place).  This is a notable family who have, against all odds, achieved something exceptionally rare amongst stately home owners.  This has to be admired and although unconventional they are a fascinating part of the tapestry of our nation.  Some part of me hopes that they achieve a beautiful equilibrium of succeeding enough to ensure the survival of the house, but not too much so as to compromise the character of their lives or Great Fulford.

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Further articles:

Francis Fulford’s Blog

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 4 [Channel 4]