HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others

One of the major UK infrastructure projects of the next 20-30 years, assuming it gets the go-ahead, will be the construction of the long-awaited High-Speed 2 (HS2) railway line, linking London with some of the major cities of the North.  Any construction project on this scale was always going to upset someone, and the initial route for the first phase managed to rile not just those in the towns and cities but also those who care about the rural areas and our wonderful country houses, which faced being blighted by the new trains rushing through their once peaceful idylls.  With the announcement of the route of the next sections beyond Birmingham, have the planners learnt their lessons?

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) - threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) – threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement

There are undoubted merits in encouraging the use of greener transport options such as rail over other forms such as cars or planes. However, by their nature, high-speed trains rely on longer straight stretches and the easiest way to achieve this is by picking the most efficient route.  The particular challenge arises when that route involves beautiful countryside and an adverse impact on some of our finest country houses – and it was always going to cause a row.  An initial examination of the route in an earlier post (‘The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project‘) highlighted how surprisingly damaging some of the route choices had been.  When the final announcement came, although not perfect, the route was much improved and had mitigated many of the earlier concerns (‘The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced‘).

The good news is that the route for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds route shows a greater sensitivity than was shown in the first phase and, after skirting past the sites of the long-vanished Hams Hall (dem. 1920) and Willesley Hall (dem. 1953), it wisely follows existing major roads, minimising the blight to areas already affected.

However, there are a number of houses which are significantly affected as the line moves north and the meanderings of the road network are ironed out into straighter lines for the high-speed trains.  One of the first is the smaller Grade-II* manor house of Pooley Hall, on the edge of Polesworth, as the line cuts to the south of the motorway it takes it within a hundred metres, sacrificed to save the Pooley Fields country park.

Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)
Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)

The first significant country house to be affected is the attractive Grade-II* Langley Priory, near Diseworth, with the line cutting a rather dramatic slash through their 500-acre parkland, barely 200-metres to the west of  the main house.  Even the addition of a significant railway cutting, the close proximity of the house will inevitably have an adverse impact on what is currently a secluded and rural estate.  This will be an interesting test case for the generosity of the compensation scheme and how tightly it draws its boundaries and criteria for deciding the level of awards.

Further north, the line slices off the tail end of the western parkland at Thrumpton Hall, a wonderful Jacobean house with links to the Gunpowder Plot, which is the family home of the writer Miranda Seymour.  The house itself faces north and with the line passing nearly a kilometre to the west, the effect on this house should be minimal – and if one was to worry about existing blights, look south-west and the rather dramatic bulk of the Ratcliffe Soar power station dominates the skyline.

As HS2 emerges from Long Eaton, the route thankfully passes far to the west of the spectacular Wollaton Hall, but nearby, two smaller country houses which have so far escaped the ravaging pressures of urban development will now be drastically affected by this new development.  The first is Trowell Hall, originally built as a rectory in 1846 in a Jacobean Revival style, possibly by the architect Thomas Chambers Hine, it was then sold to a racehorse breeder in 1927.  It later became a dormitory for the workers at the M1 service station before again becoming a private home.  The new line will pass within 500-metres, though a high embankment may mitigate some of the effects. (Listing description: Trowell Hall, Nottinghamshire)

Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)
Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)

For Strelley Hall, a rather elegant smaller manor house, tucked away next to the local church, and now used as serviced offices, the route lines up almost straight past their back door but will dive into a tunnel just over the road.  Unfortunately for them, it appears that their newly built B&B business lies directly in the path of the new ‘cut & cover’ tunnel and so will have to be demolished.  Hopefully, once the work is over, and the trees and other planting have taken effect, the disturbance from the trains should be lessened but the disruption during the construction will be significant, especially with the loss of the B&B business.

The line now weaves a path through the outer edges of Nottingham passing far to the west of the impressive former home of Lord Byron, Newstead Abbey, but a bit closer to that long ‘At Risk’ country house, Annesley Hall, though still far enough to not be a concern.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The next section sees a routing decision which seems highly likely to be motivated by a desire to protect a country house.  Considering the scale of the project it would have to be a special house and it is; the line switches from the east side of the M1 [PDF] to continue on the west side, thus avoiding the need to go near the wonder that is Hardwick Hall, the incredible Grade-I listed seat of Bess of Hardwick, and which was famously immortalised in rhyme as ‘Hardwick Hall, more window than wall‘ (Pevsner preferred that version). Now owned by the National Trust, they must be relieved the planners have not chosen to pick a battle with them (unlike with parts of the first phase of HS2).

The line now heads out past the forlorn but still discernible grandeur of Sutton Scarsdale before nipping between the village of Renishaw and the railway line, thankfully preserving the parkland to the west of Renishaw Hall, seat of the famous Sitwell family and portrayed so beautifully by John Piper. After Sheffield, the village of Thorpe Hesley perhaps forces the line to the west, conveniently taking it further from the breathtaking Wentworth Woodhouse.  The last section up to the final destination of Leeds, skirts the various large towns, diving into green spaces and across parkland, such as at Methley, where if the grand Methley Hall had not been demolished in 1963, it might now look out on the final junction for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds branch.

All in all, the planners have seemingly learnt the lessons from their initial bruising encounters and have sought to find a route which deals more sensitively with the natural and built environment which already exists.  There are inevitably some houses which will be adversely affected and wherever possible this should be challenged to ensure that each intrusion can be fully justified, and where sustained, that appropriate compensation is paid.

This is just the first of the extensions to be examined; we will see shortly if the Birmingham to Manchester route holds any further threats to our country houses.

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Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]

Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head

Those who dream grand plans in their professional lives can be equally ambitious in their private lives too.  This can be particularly acute when their thoughts turn to building their own homes; that ultimate statement of wealth, ambition, and, they hope, taste.  When Harry Gordon Selfridge came to Britain he quickly spotted an opportunity to revolutionise the high-street shopping experience and he was prepared to invest to do so, starting with a flagship store on Oxford Street in London.  Yet, what perhaps fewer are aware of, was his plan to build a spectacular castle in Dorset – a personal vision of his to create a home which matched his ambition.

Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)
Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Harry Gordon Selfridge (b.1864 – d.1947) became a giant of the retail industry.  Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, his father was manager of the general store but abandoned his family and then Harry’s two brothers died young, leaving him an only child.  His mother struggled financially, and Selfridge, displaying a precociously enterprising talent started, aged 12, a magazine which made money through advertising whilst he worked at another store. He then worked in a bank, then insurance, before joining the store which became Marshall Field in Chicago, as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to junior partner, became wealthy and married a local socialite.

During a visit to London in 1906, Selfridge noticed that the UK retail experience significantly lagged behind the latest innovations in the US and so decided to bring those ideas to Britain.  In his typical style, he did this on a huge scale – his vast 50,000 sq ft store on Oxford Street was a bold statement as to the importance of shopping.  Built in a grand Classical Revival style which echoed that of other areas of Edwardian London, it was actually designed by an American architect, Daniel Burnham, who had been responsible for the influential ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ held in Chicago in 1893 which had embedded and popularised the Classical style in US architecture.

Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

The store was built in phases but to a unified overall design.  The first nine-and-a-half bays closest to the Duke Street corner were completed first, with the store opening in 1909 at a cost of £400,000. The western extension was then built between 1924-29, designed by Sir John Burnet, who had designed the strikingly similar King Edward VII gallery at the British Museum in 1905. Externally, the store as it was in 1929 is the store you see today – but in true Selfridge style, this wasn’t all.  Planned from the beginning, the final piece of this retail jigsaw was more decorative and an early indication of Selfridge’s ability to think big: a 450-ft tower to soar over both the store and London. After five years of lobbying, Selfridge had permission from the Portman Estates and Marylebone Council – now he just needed a design.  It had always been his policy to commission more than one architect on a project, enjoying the differing ideas and so he also employed the well-respected Philip Tilden (who had carved out a comfortable career creating a number of country houses such notably Port Lympne and Chartwell), as well as Burnet. Both architects produced a number of designs all in a broadly Classical idiom but with significant differences (see Tilden’s variations: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) -but none met with Selfridge’s approval and eventually he scrapped the idea, with only a plaster model to show for it. However, by this time, he had another commission for Tilden.

Between 1916-22, Selfridge took the lease on Highcliffe Castle, Dorset and enjoyed entertaining his wealthy friends from both London and the local area.  Yet, as was typical, this wasn’t enough and so he bought the nearby Hengistbury Head; a mile-long stretch of beautiful cliffs, wildlife, and ancient Bronze Age monuments.  Much to the alarm of the locals, he then announced that he would be building ‘the largest castle in the world‘. A showman’s boast perhaps (considering the competition!) but he set Tilden to work to make this dream a reality; which he did, lovingly creating a series of dramatic panoramas and hundreds of detailed individual designs.

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Selfridge, of course, had his own vision what this castle would look like – and the brief must have made Tilden shudder (inwardly, of course).  Although Selfridge was rigorously Classical in London, he wanted a true castle and so demanded a mix; a medieval fortress planned on Classical lines with ‘…mighty vistas, balance, and co-ordination of the parts‘.  From early 1919, Tilden created a wonderful series of perspectives which Clive Aslet describes as ‘…dreams of Piranesian grandeur and Watteau-like romance‘.  This architectural hybrid was something of a awkward marriage, the imposing mass of the castle fortifications interrupted by delicate Classical arcades, statues and details.

Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: 'The Last Country Houses' by Clive Aslet)
Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: ‘The Last Country Houses’ by Clive Aslet)

The basic plan involved four miles or ramparts with towers, a ‘small castle’ (to be completed first and lived in whilst the main part was completed) and a ‘large castle’ on higher ground.  This ‘large castle’ was to include (beyond the usual living accommodation), a Gothic hall, a 300-ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from that at Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long corridors and galleries for pictures, tapestries and other objet d’art, and at least 250 suites of rooms for guests.  Even the small castle would have been a significant project and the proposals for the main castle firmly moved this plan out of reality and into fantasy considering that, although wealthy, a building on this scale (the plans had to be drawn at 1:64) might even have caused the Morgans, Vanderbilts or Carnegies of this world to think twice – and they were many times richer than Selfridge.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Although Tilden must have quickly realised that this scheme would never be built in full, and at best only a small portion may be created, he took the commission seriously.  Each month he would travel to see Selfridge either in London or at Highcliffe and update him on the progress of the designs.  Selfridge would often have a selection of his millionaire friends in attendance who would pore over the developments and offer their encouragement and suggestions.  These intellectual gatherings even started to give Selfridge a slim reputation that he was a connoisseur in the grand tradition of earlier country house patrons.

Sadly, Selfridge’s personal life and fortune had both suffered over the years.  His beloved wife had died of influenza in 1918, after which he became increasingly reckless; lavishly entertaining, gambling and taking up with a pair of sisters who performed on stage.  In the decade after his wife died he reputedly ran through an $8m fortune and, combined with the financial impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, his wealth could no longer support his lifestyle. So, in 1930, he sold 300-acres of Hengistbury Head to the local council, including covenants still in force today that ironically stipulated that the land could not be built on (though, optimistically, he did retain 33-acres).  By the mid-1930s he was all but penniless and in 1939 he was forced to retire from Selfridges, eventually moving to a small flat in Putney and travelling around on the buses, before dying at home in May 1947, his grandiose plans for the largest castle in the world, a mere memory.

In many ways, H. Gordon Selfridge’s life was a remarkable series of triumphs and frustrations.  His early years clearly led him to a preference for the grandiose statements and a desire to accumulate the trappings of those he considered his social rivals who may have looked down on his humble beginnings.  Of course, he wasn’t the only department store owner with grand ambitions which ran far ahead of his budget – Lutyens‘ original design for the dramatically beautiful Castle Drogo, Devon for Julius Drew, owner of the Home and Colonial Stores, was three times larger than the completed building.  However, the sheer scale of Selfridge’s plans for Hengistbury Head increasingly looked more like an ‘after-dinner’ exercise; something to show and discuss with his wealthy friends rather than something he seriously intended to build.  In this way, he was a consummate showman with an ability to think grand dreams, which is to be applauded. However, in some ways we get the best deal; he didn’t get to create an oversized ego-driven building on a beautiful section of coastline but we do get to admire the incredibly detailed designs which Tilden laboured on for over half a decade to amuse Selfridge’s ambition.

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A new drama called ‘Mr Selfridge‘ on ITV in the UK on the life of H. Gordon Selfridge starts on 6 January 2013 – hence this article.

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More of Philip Tilden’s designs: ‘Hengistbury Head‘ [RIBA Library Drawings Collection]