The glory of the great hall; Dundarave, Co. Antrim

Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland - for sale, June 2012, £5m (Image: Savills)
Dundarave, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland – for sale, June 2014, £5m (Image: Savills)

Where is the centre of a country house? For some it may be a favoured study or library, or a sunlit parlour facing the gardens. Yet, from the time of the earliest large residential buildings, the great hall has often enjoyed that rare status of being at the core of daily life. However, as times changed, so too did the function, becoming less a space for the whole household to meet and eat, more a statement about the wealth and status of the owner.  The Victorians were keen revivalists for the patterns and forms of ancient aristocratic life and although few used their halls for dining, their role as an impressive reception area, both for receiving guests and entertaining, meant that some embraced the opportunity for grandeur, as can be seen in the recently launched for sale, Dundarave, Co. Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

A medieval country house still reflected the social arrangements of a castle with the lord and his family congregating in the central hall as this was safest and also warmest.  As the designs of homes changed from fortifications to the form we recognise today, the family would still wish to be seen and to entertain in the grandest space in the house.  It was also still probably the warmest.  The huge processions of the Tudor monarchs required a large enough area to accommodate the existing household plus the royal retinue and to have such a capacity was a sign of prestige.  The great hall was therefore as much a practical space as it was a statement of the wealth and power of the owner, as shown by the lavish construction, including spectacular hammer-beam roofs, such as at Eltham Palace (built in 1470s) and Burghley (built much later in 1578 – and the last to have an open timberwork roof), and windows with glass.

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire - view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)
Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire – view of the inside of the great hall (Image: © d-kav / flickr)

For the Elizabethans, the great hall was becoming increasingly symbolic, with Burghley the last extravagant flourish of that earlier age.  For houses closely associated with the monarchy or the favoured courtiers, the decorative opportunities that a space such as a great hall offered were irresistible.  At Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire, built between 1580-88 by the brilliant Robert Smythson, a soaring central tower was designed to not only be topped by a prospect room from which to watch the hunting but also to contain a lofty interior, rising 50ft to a hammer-beam roof (though this one is decorative rather than structural).  Already the role of the great hall as a daily practical space was diminishing in favour of a more exhibitionist one.

Montacute, Somerset - View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)
Montacute, Somerset – View of the Great Hall, looking towards the screen which separates the Hall from the Screens Passage (Image: ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie)

Just over ten years later, in c.1601, the completion of the great hall at Montacute, Somerset, marked the first clear departure in design.  Although at the ground level it still had the same traditional features – porch, screen, bay window, steps at the high end – this hall was only a single story, rejecting the customary double-height space.  The hall was still an important part of the house with the other rooms designed to lead from it, but decisively its role as the daily venue for the entire household to meet and eat together had passed.  Instead the hall became less a space for living and more a space for occasional entertaining; for banquets, balls, and concerts.

Plan showing transverse hall - Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)
Plan showing transverse hall – Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire. c1595 (Image: Andor Gomme / Alison Maguire)

The hall was often the centrepiece of the ‘polite’ rooms for guests which formed the main front to a house.  This meant that the main entrance would usually lead to a screens passage separating it from one end, with the hall orientated east-west (especially in H-plan houses).  As the overall plan of country houses started adopting the double-pile, this arrangement was increasingly awkward and so the hall was re-orientated to north-south, often running through the centre of the house, as can be seen in one of the earliest examples of a transverse hall at Worksop Manor Lodge, Nottinghamshire, also designed by Robert Smythson, in c.1595 (which has been shockingly treated over the last 20 years, including a suspicious fire in 2007).  Although exterior fashions were changing to a more austere form, houses such as Forty Hall, Enfield, built in 1629, were still organised internally around a recognisable great hall.

Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The next major change was the elevation of the bedroom into a formal receiving room, a French practice adopted by Charles II after his return at the Restoration in 1660. This is reflected in the layout of Hampton Court Palace, as redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren between 1689–1700, where the state apartments form the centre of the procession towards the presence of the king (though the existing great hall, added in 1532-35, was the last to be built for a monarch).  This fashion had already been adopted by other members of the court, with Charles II’s friend and minister, the Duke of Lauderdale, having created a state apartment  in 1672 at Ham House, Surrey (though, as a rebuilding of an earlier house, it still retained a great hall).

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With the decline in the importance of the hall, it seemed almost inevitable that it would be used as a convenient setting for the ever grander staircases so beloved by the Georgians or even just as a convenient circulation space to pass through between the fine rooms. The broadening of wealth to those who made their money from trade and therefore preferred to live closer to the cities, led to the development of the villa.  Adapted from the Italian model, most famously those of Palladio and Scamozzi, there was neither space nor the social requirement for a great hall.  Chiswick House, designed in 1726, by the arch-Palladian Lord Burlington, had a central octagonal hall.  In larger houses, such as New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, built 1769-76, is one of the finest examples of the Georgian interpretation of the hall, a cathedral-like space, with curved staircases leading to a columned gallery with a circumference of 144-ft.  Of course, for those favouring the gothic, a great hall was still a core statement of lineal antiquity and so was still included in the plans, leading to beautiful examples such as the Gothic Hall for Henrietta Howard, Countess of Oxford, at Welbeck Abbey in 1751, or as at Ashridge House, Hertfordshire for the Duke of Bridgewater built between 1803-17, decorated with statues of kings.

It was those same intentions to either emphasise a family’s existing heritage or to give the impression that a family had a distinguished past, which led to a broader revival of the great hall in the Victorian era.  By having the benefit of eight centuries of the development of the great hall, a family would be able to design for accuracy, for comfort, but almost always for show. Fuelled by romantic visions of the past by books such as Joseph Nash‘s 4-volume ‘Mansions of England in the Olden Time‘, published in 1839-49,  the hall was now to be a grand display of whatever values they wish to imprint on this most useful of architectural motifs.

A late-Georgian recreation was at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire, in 1830, where the Elizabethan great hall was reinstated.  In 1836, two examples were started independently with accurate medieval revival great halls at Alton Towers, Staffordshire for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and the other for Eustace Tennyson D’Eyncourt at Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire.  Each of these represent the two strands to the historic revivalism; Alton Towers being a religious statement, designed by A.W.N. Pugin, and Bayons Manor, of giving substance to a family line. Pugin was one of the keenest exponents for the revival of the great hall. A gothic evangelist who promoted the style as the only true architecture for the country as it was linked to a pre-Reformation England of Roman Catholicism.  The great hall was a symbol of a paternal system which Pugin related strongly to and which could be incorporated into daily life through the use of a great hall where the family could meet and the estate tenants and workers could be fed.

Derelict great hall in 1960s - Bayon's Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)
Derelict great hall in 1960s – Bayon’s Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: W.T. Jones via Drakes Family)

The great hall at Bayons Manor was equally impressive as Pugin’s but was designed by Anthony Salvin. He had probably developed an affection for them whilst working on the restoration of the one at Brancepeth Castle, Co. Durham, in 1829 at the start of his career, throughout which he would create other notable examples including at Harlaxton (1831-38), Mamhead House (1835), and Peckforton Castle (1844). Firmly in the ‘family heritage’ camp is Arundel Castle, West Sussex, where between 1893-98 a vast Baron’s Hall was built, perhaps one of the closest recreations in form and spirit of the medieval great hall.  Although designed by renowned gothic scholar and architect Charles A. Buckler, he worked in exceptionally close co-operation with the 15th Duke, to whom a near constant stream of designs and decisions were passed for his comment and approval. This work was designed to emphasise the great age of the Norfolk family, a re-assertion of their status as one of the premier ducal families.

However, as the nature of the ownership moved increasingly towards those owners whose wealth came from industry and finance rather than landowning, so the need to entertain in large numbers such as the estate workers was less common.  Houses were often for weekend entertaining; smaller groups of business and political associates who would wish to dine in convivial intimacy conducive to discussion.  The role of the great hall moved back towards being a circulation space at the centre of the house, a place where pre-dinner drinks may be served but little more – though, equally, it still had to amaze.

Great Hall - Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)
Great Hall – Dundarave, Co. Antrim, N. Ireland (Image: Savills)

The hall was often the first room your guests stepped into and so it had to create that all important first impression of your wealth and status.  Lofty, substantial rooms were created with muscular columns, galleries, niches for statues, and space for art.  It’s in this tradition that Dundarave was built between 1846-49 to designs by Sir Charles Lanyon. This top-lit space evokes something of the grand Roman baths and certainly fulfils the requirement to thrill.  The house is currently for sale and I imagine that potential buyers will step through the closed hallway, step out into the great hall and express similar amazement as has been the intention of all owners who have used spaces such as this for centuries; to impress.

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Sales particulars: ‘Dundarave, Co. Antrim‘ [Savills] – £5m, 549-acres

Article: ‘Selling off the holiday home for £5 million‘ [The Irish Times]

England’s most ‘at risk’ country houses; English Heritage 2013 report

Though he his House of polish’t marble built
Yet shall it ruine like the Moth’s fraile cell.*

Nymans, West Sussex - gutted by fire in 1947 (Image: sjr60 via flickr)
Nymans, West Sussex – gutted by fire in 1947, now a romantic ruin (Image: sjr60 via flickr)

There is a long tradition of the romanticisation of ruins and decay, but watching once grand houses slide into dereliction is thankfully now seen as a failure; on the part of the owner, and of the official bodies charged with the preservation of our shared architectural heritage. With those local experts disgracefully being seen as expendable by councils, it’s important that English Heritage has produced the 2013 ‘Heritage at Risk Report‘ [PDF] – a sad national roll call from which the priority sites list contains a surprising selection of country houses.

To be included in the list is not to say that a house is derelict, but is more a reflection that there are concerns about the long-term future of the house and current signs of deterioration.  Owners can often find that there are significant projects which require substantial investment which may not be currently possible through their own means, though inclusion on the ‘Priority’ list does open doors to grants and other funding.

Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)
Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps one of the best known to appear is Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, a Victorian fantasy that is now faced with a modern reality.  Home to the Lytton family since 1492, the house was originally a mid 16th-century courtyard house before losing three sides in 1811, leaving just the west wing which was remodelled externally in 1820 and 1843 in the Tudor-revival style, with interior alterations by Lutyens in 1907 (see Listing description for details).  Still a family home, the Lytton-Cobbolds (as they now are) have worked hard to open the grade-II* house and, famously, host vast pop concerts in the park.  Major grant-funded repairs in the late 1990s restored half the house, but now, as a priority case, a further £240,000 has been allocated for works on the roof and to restore the upper rendering and two pinnacles.

Sockburn Hall, County Durham (Image: Sockburn Hall Project)

For an estate once reputedly tormented by a dragon, the modern threats to Sockburn Hall, Darlington were much more prosaic, but which have meant years of restoration work.  The current house was built in 1834 for the younger brother of Sir William Blackett (1758-1816) in whose family it remained until sold in 1920.  A varied ownership history led to the period which left it in the current damaged state, when the house was owned by two sisters who were later convicted of keeping many dogs in terrible conditions in Sockburn Hall.  The accumulated excrement rotted the floors and a lack of maintenance led to water ingress.  New owners and a dedicated team of volunteers have rallied and started restoration, part-funded by English Heritage grants, though work clearly has some way to go before the house will be safe again.

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

Scraptoft Hall, Leicestershire has long been a cause for concern, faced as it is with threats from the weather, vandals and poor local planning decisions.  Originally built in the 1720s, this elegant smaller house, although still on the edge of Leicester, had earlier suffered the usual short-sighted urban development, which now encroaches on it and its condition had deteriorated significantly.  However, the setting of the house is still worth preserving, though previous proposals would have unsympathetically left it as a mere architectural bauble in the middle of a much larger development.  Sadly, in 2010, despite going against English Heritage advice, the local planning department, council, and MP, were all happy to cast this fine piece of local architectural heritage onto the scrapheap of their own inadequate vision.  A reduced scheme was approved in July 2013, which although at a more appropriate scale, still contains some regrettable choices such as separating the house from the lake and ruining the approach to the hall by lining the drive with houses (See Planning Documents: Presentation Layout). This plan will result in the house being restored as eight apartments, but neither the local council or the developer can claim any sort of credit from this outcome.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

For anyone stumbling across the Gothic Revival majesty of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, it might seem as thought they had found a university rather than a house – in fact, they had found one of the most remarkable buildings of the Victorian age.  On inheriting in 1833, Charles Scarisbrick embarked on a huge project to embellish his home, initially spending £5,500 between 1836-1846 on old antique carvings.   As one of the oldest Recusant families, the Scarisbricks had an affinity to the Gothic style and one of the reasons for the Hall’s grade-I listing is the creation in 1812-16 of the first new domestic ‘great hall’, to designs by Thomas Rickman and John Slater. One of the key reason for the highest listing is that the house is one of the greatest surviving examples of the work of A.W.N. Pugin, especially after the ruination of his masterpiece, Alton Towers.  Pugin was the architect who thought Gothic was the only ‘true’ architectural path for a Christian nation and, although Charles Scarisbrick initially only asked for a garden seat and a fireplace, Pugin eventually re-designed the interiors before being asked to alter the exterior, creating a more picturesque aspect.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire - the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire – the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)

Pugin died in 1852, and Charles Scarisbrick in 1860, after which, Charles’ sister inherited and employed Pugin’s son, Edward Welby, to continue the alterations including the spectacular tower – though without the planned clock so rendering it somewhat pointless.  The house passed out of the family in 1872, and was eventually sold for demolition in 1962 but became a school instead, a role it retains today. However, a mounting repair bill (estimated at £2.46m in 2008) has led to the house being added to the ‘at risk’ register, with particular concern about the main hall, and east and west wings.  On all counts, this is a remarkable house and warrants close monitoring and support to ensure that this magnificent example of the Gothic Revival doesn’t fall into a more parlous state.

An estate can contain many more buildings than just the main house, such as stables or follies, which form an important part of the a part of the character of an estate, but which can also become at risk. Below are examples from the same priority report:

In more positive news, although the grade-I Castle Goring, West Sussex, is included in the list, it also notes that this remarkable house has been sold and work to rectify the maintenance backlog has now started.  Congratulations to the South West and West Midlands regions which have no country houses or related buildings included in the 2013 list.

These Registers are a valuable opportunity to highlight the ongoing threats to our shared national architectural heritage, for although many of these country houses and buildings are in private ownership, we all enjoy the wider benefit of their beauty and history. If anyone demands justification as why anyone should care, why we should protect them, just ask them to imagine our country without them.

Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham (Image: Webb Aviation)
Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham which also feature on the ‘Priority’ list (Image: Webb Aviation)

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Full list (PDF): ‘Heritage at Risk Register – 2013‘ [English Heritage]

Previous blog post: ‘How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

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* – Quote by Gaston Boissier, ‘Rome and Pompeii‘ (1896), as quoted in ‘The Pleasure of Ruins‘ by Rose Macaulay