Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)
Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

More on this story:

More information:

Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.

The greatest threat: fire strikes at Tidmington House, Warwickshire

Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)
Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)

With sad co-incidence, having recently posted about how owners respond to fires in country houses, news comes through that Tidmington House in Warwickshire was badly damaged whilst undergoing renovations.

Tidmington was built in the early 17th-century but was re-fronted in the 18th-century giving it a pleasing and elegant facade, which is visible from the road. Distinctive gables top a neat front which successfully mixes Elizabethan elements with the classical.  The recessed central section runs from a smaller middle gable featuring a Diocletian (or thermal) window, above a first floor tripartite Venetian window, sometimes known as Palladian or Serlian after the two architects most associated with popularising it, with finally the two wings being joined by a Tuscan colonnade.  Two 1-bay pavilions extend to the left and right, providing a clever balance to the height of the main house.

The grade-II* listed house was once the home of Thomas Beecham, 2nd son of the famous conductor, before being put up for sale in 2009 for £3.95m by the owners who had moved there in 1988.  The house was then given a glowing write-up in The Times by Marcus Binney who relished the bold use of colour; the sky-blue library, the jade green dining room – but I wonder if the bold colours in the house contributed to the situation as it was during renovations by the new owners that the fire started.

The blaze is reported to have badly damaged the first floor where the fire started and also part of the ground floor but hopefully a majority of the 8,500 sq ft house will have been spared from the flames – though the inevitable smoke and water damage will have spread beyond the immediate blaze.  Again, it shows that insurance companies are right to demand to be told when works are taking place as it is so often during renovations when these fires seem to break out – please don’t let this be another workman being careless with a blow-torch.

More details: ‘Country house is hit by fire‘ [Cotswold Journal]

A salute to determination: Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire

Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)
Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)

Love is a strange emotion which by chance can leave a person very attached to something.  For Clare and Mark Oglesby the object of their affections is the elegant Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire, which, after five years hard work and a substantial budget has been rescued from dereliction and possible development.

Goldsborough Hall was built between 1601-1625 for Sir Richard Hutton, a London judge who used his wealth to establish himself in Yorkshire and was High Sheriff in 1623.  The internal plan of the house is interesting as it features a lateral corridor on all three floors and originally included fashionable features Sir Richard probably learnt of from his London friends such as a long gallery which useful for exercise in the inclement weather. Slightly unusually it was on the first floor (though not uniquely as Beaudesert, Condover Hall, and Treowen House also have this) when they were normally on the upper floors as, high up, their excess of glass gave visitors the most impressive view of the house – see, most famously, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.

The house was then rebuilt in the mid 18th-century for Richard Byerley before being bought by the Earls of Harewood, the Lascelles family, who employed the famous architect John Carr of York to remodel the interior in 1764-5, whilst he was also working on their main house, Harewood.  Goldsborough features numerous mementos of the family with their crest embedded in rainwater heads and in stained glass.  The house remained in the Lascelles family until 1965 when it was sold to pay death duties.  It then became a school, a private home, a hotel and then nursing home before being put up for sale in 2003 when the Oglesby’s first saw it but had their offer rejected.  At that time the house was still in good condition but this had changed dramatically when the estate agent contacted them again in 2005 to say it was between them and a developer. They successfully bid but now, just two years later, water was running down the 17th-century oak staircase and the panelling in the library, and the house lacked heating or working plumbing.  Undaunted, over the last five years they have spent around £2m on the restoration which has now rescued this wonderful house from ruin and is back to being a family home which pays it way by hosting weddings.

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)
Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)

Another house which needed work and has now been restored explicitly as a wedding venue and family home is Rise Hall, also in Yorkshire.  Set in a beautiful small park laid in the 1770s, the grade-II* listed seat of the Bethell family was rebuilt between 1815-25, though the architect is disputed with some claiming it’s by Robert Abraham (whose eldest daughter was conveniently married to the owner, Baron Westbury) but more likely, as given by Howard Colvin, it was by Watson & Pritchard who also designed a Doric lodge for the house in 1818.  The slightly austere, 9-bay ashlar Georgian facade is dramatically enlivened by a full-height, tetra-style Ionic portico.  Inside the house features a top-lit staircase hall and some neoclassical decoration with an Adam-style dining room.  The house remained in the Bethell family until 1946 when they moved into the former rectory, now Rise Park, and let the house to the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine, who ran a Catholic boarding school there until 1998.

The house was then bought as a second home by Sarah Beeny, star of many property restoration TV shows.  She and her husband used the house for many years but realised that the 97-room house was simply too large to function as just a weekend retreat and it also needed to pay for its own restoration. Beeny seems to take a rather hard-headed approach – unsurprisingly given her background – but is committed to achieving the right result. The location ruled out use as a hotel so they decided that they would convert it into a wedding venue in just eight months as part of a TV show called ‘Beeny’s Folly‘ which will be broadcast in Autumn 2010 on Channel 4.  This will be a chance for the wider public to get a real insight into just how much work is required to restore and maintain a stately home.  Who knows, it might even inspire someone with deep pockets and hopefully a sympathetic attitude, to find and fall in love with a one of our other country houses at risk and bring it back to life as a home.

Full story on Goldsborough Hall: ‘We’ve moved from our 4-bed detached to an 80-room stately home‘ [Daily Express]

Official website: ‘Goldsborough Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Rise Hall, Yorkshire

More buildings at risk: ‘Live and Let Die – 2010 Buildings at Risk Register‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

History repeating: the National Trust for Scotland

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: StaraBlazkova/Wikipedia)

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) is one of the largest landowners north of the border with 130 properties, including 26 castles, palaces and country houses, and over 78,000-acres. Yet like a feckless son who has inherited plenty but isn’t living up to his responsibilities and squandering his inheritance, so the NTS has been ignoring its duties and now has to face the financial reality of their mistakes – with possibly far-reaching consequences for its country houses.

For many landowners, the 1920s and 30s were a lavish time. Yet, often the land which provided the income was heavily mortgaged and although this could cover expenses it usually left little in reserve. Landowners were ranked according to their acres which led to many to over-extend themselves – leaving them vulnerable if a crisis arose. Although the First World War had had a devastating impact on the lives of many both in the big house and on the estate, for those who came through it must have seemed that life might be able to be resumed from before the war. However, life had changed and although some owners were able to see this and adapt, others refused to face financial facts leading to lavish and unsustainable overspending. This later manifested itself with the massive land and art sales of the 1930s as financial recklessness raced right up to the front door of the main house and forced out the owners.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) was formed in 1931, over 30 years after its southern sibling.  It now runs 130 attractions which include some of the finest country houses in Scotland such as Haddo HouseCulzean Castle, and Pollok House.  However, in marked contrast to the National Trust for England and Wales, the NTS hit a £13m financial blackhole in 2009 which led to staff redundancies, the selling of their Edinburgh HQ, and worst of all, the mothballing of various properties.  A formal, independent review of the NTS has just been published which makes it clear that they had been living in much the same way as the country house owners of the early 20th-century and now largely faces the same choices they had.

Like those dissolute owners in the 1920s and 30s who initially refused to face reality, the NTS have finally admitted that they have been living beyond its means and would now require a significant cash injection to cover its debts. For the country house owner in the 1920s and 30s they could always hope to marry an American heiress – but with this option denied to the NTS they’ll have to beg from the public.

Interestingly the NTS has also admitted that just 12 of its 130 properties are fully endowed, leaving the other attractions to have to make up the shortfall. The southern National Trust have, since 1968, used a complex calculation known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which takes account of the probable cost of repairs and maintenance, likely revenues, wages costs etc to assess what level of endowment they would have to receive from the donor before they could agree to accept a house and has led to them rejecting many on that basis.

It seems that the NTS have abandoned this sound practice and over-extended themselves. It has also admitted it doesn’t even have a complete asset register of what properties it actually owns or a list of the necessary repairs to maintain the properties.  So like the owners of the houses who suddenly faced a dramatic downturn in the economy and their income, they are faced with some stark choices which the struggling owner in the 1930s would recognise well: sell or turn over some properties to other uses.

The owner in the 1930s also had the option to demolish or abandon a house and many hundreds were lost over the next couple of decades. Thankfully this option is not open to the NTS so what’s likely to happen? Unlike the National Trust for England and Wales, not all the Scottish properties are ‘inalienable’ meaning they could be sold.  The NTS have however said that no property of architectural significance would be – so we are unlikely to see Culzean Castle in the local estate agents window but some of the smaller country houses may be tenanted on a long term basis.  Some may also turned over to other organisations for community use – though this has a naturally detrimental impact on the fabric of the house through increased wear and tear.

The NTS has shown that, as usual, it’s the owner who’s the problem not the houses.  Even an organisation which has admittedly done much to preserve and protect country houses in Scotland over the last 80 years can become part of the problem.   Let’s hope that they take this opportunity to reform the ‘byzantine’ governance structure which has led them into this crisis and that it creates a leaner, more financially stable organisation better able to look after the country house treasures they have inherited.

More details: ‘NTS to be told: sell treasures or go bust‘ [The Scotsman]

In need of resuscitation: Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)

Some houses languish for years slowly deteriorating, much to the annoyance of interested locals who care about their architectural heritage.  For some houses, the obstacle in the way can sometimes be a difficult owner, for others it’s just the sheer scale of the job. Certainly falling into the latter category is Firbeck Hall near Rotherham in South Yorkshire; once palatial home, then a country club, a hospital, and now a cause for serious concern.

Firbeck Hall was originally built in 1594 for William West, a wealthy lawyer who was also connected between 1580 to 1594 to Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury.  After his death in 1598 it passed through various branches of the family via inheritance until bought by Henry Gally in the late 18th-century.  It was his son, Henry Gally-Knight, who, in 1820, substantially remodelled and extended Firbeck in the Elizabethan style we see today. Sold in the mid-19th-century it passed through the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold it to Mrs Miles of Bristol who left it to the Jebb family who remained there until 1909 when it was put up for sale.  The early 20th-century was a particularly hard time for country house owners with falling rental and agricultural income affecting all landowners but particularly those caring for the architectural extravagances of previous owners.

Firbeck Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1924 but it’s fortunes improved when it was eventually sold in 1934 to businessman Cyril Nicholson who invested £80,000 (approx £4m – 2008 values) who created the premier country club in the nation, visited by royalty and celebrities.  World War II put an end to the gilded lifestyle and it became a hospital in 1943, a role it was to fulfil until c.1990 when it eventually closed.

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)

Since then the house has deteriorated significantly – despite it’s grade-II listing it has suffered from lead theft from the roofs, neglect, and a series of failed plans to rescue what is still one of the largest houses in the area with over 200 rooms.  It’s this last fact which is the root cause of the difficulties with any plans for conversion and restoration requiring significant financial resources which banks are unwilling to provide in these tough economic times.  Too large for private solutions, the house is also probably too large for our stretched national heritage organisations to take on (such as English Heritage did with Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire) – especially as the institutional use has degraded the interior.

The house was bought by a local construction firm in 1996 but little seemed to happen apart from further thefts and vandalism and with little reaction initially from Rotherham Council and active interest from a local conservation group, the ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall‘. However, a major theft in 2005 prompted a complete change of heart from the owner who forged links with a new conservation officer leading to new plans for conversion, active security and some remedial restoration works.  Although progress was slow, at least it was progress – until July 2009 when a fire broke out during works on the roof causing serious damage.  More bad news followed when the construction firm went into liquidation in May 2010 – joining the ranks of developers with grand plans who have been beaten by the scale of the task, as seen at Gwrych Castle in Wales.

There does seem to be a gap in the provision of solutions for larger houses where private initiatives are insufficient.  A more active local conservation department may have slowed the decay in the early stages but the longer houses of this size continue to be unused the greater the cost of restoration, reducing the chances that they can be saved.  Hopefully there is some hope for Firbeck Hall as the house was sold again in July 2010 – but as yet there’s no news as to future plans, or more importantly, how they will be financed.

Campaign group: ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire‘ [Heritage Gateway]

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register

Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd

Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

It’s often been said that there are no problem buildings, just problem owners.  However, an even more difficult situation is where the house is ‘orphaned’ because no legitimate owner can be found.  This can make it doubly frustrating for those looking to buy and restore a property who are forced to sit by and watch a building deteriorate as the search goes on to find the owner.  This also highlights something of a legislative loophole as having no known owner also prevents the council serving an ‘Urgent Works Notice’ to force repairs thus ensuring that the house will continue to deteriorate. Which brings us to Plas Gwynfryn; an orphan with good prospects if adoption takes place quickly.

The grade-II listed Plas Gwynfryn is another of the many Welsh country houses built to serve the minor gentry, with their increased wealth from the Victorian industrial boom.  The estate had been inherited from a childless uncle by Owen Jones Ellis-Nanney in 1819, and he hugely increased the size of his lands by purchasing the neighbouring Plas Hen estate. On his death it passed to his son, Hugh John Ellis-Nanney.  Having been educated at Eton and Oxford and, on his 21st birthday, now owner of a huge estate, Hugh was the epitome of the eligible bachelor and wanted a house to reflect his status.

The old house was demolished in 1866 and the new house was completed by 1876 at the then astronomical cost of £70,000 (approximately £3m in today’s money).   The design, by architect George Williams, was regarded as very fashionable to the extent that the house was featured in ‘The Builder’ magazine in June 1877.  Hugh was very active in local politics and in 1895 almost beat the local Liberal candidate, the future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, losing by only 194 votes.  Almost by way of consolation Hugh was given a baronetcy and happily lived out his days at Plas Gwynfryn, dying in 1925, with his wife following in 1928.  As their only son had died aged just eight, the house was inherited by their daughter who moved out to Plas Hen.  The house was then let to the Church of Wales before being sold off in 1959 when the estate was broken up.

It then became a hospital and then a hotel before a mysterious fire entirely gutted it in 1982.  Since then it has stood as an empty shell, slowly deteriorating, and is now in serious danger of collapse with the tower a particular risk.  Almost no work has been done on the house except for a brief period when a conservation-minded squatter moved in and started work.  This prompted the only known appearance by the apparently Canadian owner who appeared in a local court during eviction proceedings.   Since then nothing has been heard of the owner and the local council, though aware of the situation, seem powerless to act unless the owner can be found.  A local developer, Aaron Hill, who has completed other historic restorations, is keen to find the owner and buy Plas Gwynfryn with a view to fully restoring it as a family home – which would surely be the best outcome.

Although rare, this example shows that despite the combined efforts of the local Council and a potential buyer an owner can remain a mystery, thwarting well-intentioned efforts to rescue a house before it deteriorates beyond the point of repair.  If there is a legislative loophole it must be closed to prevent any other houses languishing in such a way.

Perhaps councils could be given the legal power to compulsorily purchase when a house is at risk of complete loss, with the money held in escrow in case the owner should appear. Councils are often reluctant to use their powers of compulsory purchase as they become legally responsible for repairs but surely in cases like this with an owner desperate to take the house on, the risk to the public purse is very low. The power would have to only be used in extremis when all other avenues had been exhausted but at least it would give a tool of last resort to ensure that more of our heritage is not lost just because a problem owner can’t be located and forced to honour their responsibilities.

If you are the owner and you happen to read this, please do get in contact with either me or the Council or SAVE Britain’s Heritage who would be more than happy to help get the process of rescuing this house under way.

Is Mentmore Towers finally for sale?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

After various legal battles it seems that Mentmore Towers, one of the finest country houses in the UK may be for sale.  Part of the property empire of Simon Halabi, who was declared bankrupt in April 2010, it was bought with the intention of turning it into six-star country hotel with the ‘In and Out Club’ as the London clubhouse.  The plans were thwarted by the global financial crisis which not only reduced the market for such a venture but also the financing.  Now with the recent £150m sale of Halabi’s prime London West End estate, which included the ‘In and Out Club’, putting Mentmore on the market is the next logical stage of the disposals.

The only source for this story is a blog post by Christian Metcalfe who writes the Legal blog on the Estates Gazette website which has enough details to make it sound very plausible.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers was built between 1852-54 for Baron Mayer de Rothschild as one of several country houses built for the Rothschild family in the area.  Designed by Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the neo-Renaissance house was inspired by the Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses such as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.  Inherited by the Baron’s wife and then his daughter, it then passed to her husband, the Earl of Rosebery, following her early death.  It remained in the Rosebery family until the death of the sixth Earl in 1973 when the then Government stupidly turned down the offer of the house and world-class collections in lieu of death duties, triggering one of the finest country house sales of the 20th-century.  The house plus 81-acres was then sold in 1977 for £220,000 to the Transcendental Meditation foundation as a meditation centre, who cared for the house until it was sold in 1997 to Simon Halabi.  Since then little work has been done on the house and there have long been fears for its condition with English Heritage placing it on the ‘At Risk’ register.

The house is now apparently being quietly offered for sale, by as yet unknown estate agents, for around £16m – but no details on how much land would be included.  At that price, the house would be a bargain on square footage basis alone – but it would require a huge financial commitment from the new owner to not only restore the house but maintain it in the future, ideally as a family home.  The Rothschild’s have remained very much involved with the estate so perhaps this is their opportunity to bring it back into the family – although with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild living at nearby Ascott House perhaps Nat Rothschild, the incredibly successful hedge fund manager said to be worth around £300m, might like to take a look?

Original blog story published June 7, 2010 3:35 PM: ‘Will the real estate agent please stand up, please stand up‘ [Estates Gazette] – @Christian: if I do find out who the estate agent is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Anyone with deep pockets? Country houses at risk today

It seems remarkable that between the popularity of country houses as tourist attractions or business or simply as homes that any would be at risk.  Yet as the 2010 SAVE Britain’s Heritage Building’s at Risk Register shows there are still a broad selection of fine houses which, for various reasons, are in need of someone with a desire to restore part of our heritage, lots of dedication, and pretty deep pockets.

Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)
Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)

One of the saddest is the case of Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire – a county which has lost so many of it’s fine old country houses already.  Fire is still one of the main reasons a house can quickly go from being a secure home to an ‘at risk’ shell.  Grade-II listed Nocton Hall is a warm honey-coloured stone house built for the 1st Earl of Ripon in 1841 to replace the original Jacobean house which burnt down in 1834.  After a stint as an RAF hospital in WWII it became a residential home before being bought by a property developer.  Unfortunately no development took place and the house was allowed to slowly deteriorate before a serious fire severely damaged what had been a perfectly good house.  Still sitting in its own gardens and parkland and near the village Nocton Hall cries out to be restored either as a h,otel or ideally as a grand family home.

Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

To look at the photo, Barmoor Castle in Northumberland looks in pretty good shape – but a picture can hide as much as it shows.  The first issue with Barmoor is that it actually is unused and sits in the middle of a caravan park which has been established in the grounds. Inside, there is some water damage as the roof has been leaking – although recent work, part funded by English Heritage, has alleviated this for the moment. Barmoor was built in 1801 around an older tower by the architect John Patterson of Edinburgh in a castellated Gothic Revival style for Francis Sitwell, in whose family it remained until 1979 when it was sold along with 200-acres.  The current owners have operated the caravan park since then but didn’t live in the house or use it leading to it’s current neglected state.  This is a classic example of where a house could be rescued from an inappropriate use, restored and enjoyed as a fine country house as was intended.

St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

St Botolphs Mansion in Pembrokeshire was built in the early 1800’s for General Richard Le Hunt is a house in need of a use rather than repair.  The Doric porch and neat window architraves create an interesting facade which would normally ensure that such a house would be jealously fought over if it came to market.  However it is now owned by the nearby oil refinery (the proximity probably ruling out residential use) but they are exploring options as to how to make use of this elegant Georgian house – perhaps as a conference facility might be more appropriate.  Either way, this is a house which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Other country houses of note in the report include the Grade-II* listed Plas Machen nr Newport, the surviving portion of the 15th-century house of the Morgans who moved up in the world to Tredegar House, which is for sale. Also for sale, since 2007, is Benwell Towers in Newcastle which was a country house when built but is now suburban, achieving fame in later life as the set for the kid’s TV series ‘Byker Grove’.

Even if your pockets can’t stretch to a country house there are many other buildings seeking a saviour so do order your copy of ‘Live or Let Die‘ and certainly consider joining SAVE Britain’s Heritage to help to preserve our architectural legacy for future generations.