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