The front line: the campaigners for country houses

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries.  A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside.  Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.

English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage.  Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984.  As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire).   It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses.  Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?

Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.

One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837.  The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building.  Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture.  Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition.  Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building.  Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf.  Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.

Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society.  Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house.  It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit.  However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.

Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage.  It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.

The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use.  These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments.  Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?

It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex.  These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.

All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer.  Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.

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I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.

– Matthew

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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

A country seat of learning: Wispers, Sussex

Wispers, Sussex
Wispers, Sussex (Image: Daily Mail)

There has been a long tradition of country houses being converted to schools.  Indeed, the practice has saved many hundreds from being demolished all together, denying us today the pleasure of houses such as Stowe and Bryanston.  In recent years fewer houses have passed into institutional use with a preference for modern school buildings.  However, despite some difficulties in the last couple of years for private schools, the recent sale of Wispers in Sussex has shown that there is still the appetite for the country house based school.

Grade-II listed Wispers was built in 1874-76 by Richard Norman Shaw for stockbroker Alexander Scrimgeour and was sold in 1928 to the Bedford estate for Dame Mary Russell (the wife of the 11th Duke of Bedford) as a weekend retreat to which she added the huge eastern wing in the 1930s.  Dame Mary was known as ‘The Flying Duchess’ due to her interest, later in life, in aviation which led to her regularly flying her Tiger Moth – including from the Bedford’s main home, Woburn Abbey, to Wispers.  To help accommodate her new mode of transport, at the same time as the new wing was being added to the house, she had an airplane hanger built as well.  Dame Mary’s love of flying did eventually lead to her death when, at the age of 71 in 1937, her plane disappeared over the North Sea as she flew from Woburn to Cambridge.

Following her death, the house was sold in 1939 and became a school known as St Cuthman’s before West Sussex council bought it as a special needs facility.  After this closed in 2003, the house was sold and a planning application lodged to convert the main house into 7 flats with other buildings on the estate being either converted or demolished.  However, this plan was never implemented and after lying empty for 6 years was sold for £3m (against an original asking price of £4.5m) with 20 of the original 35 acres in April 2010 to Durand Primary, near Brixton, South London. The school was able to use the profits from its successful leisure and student accommodation business to provide Wispers as a weekly boarding environment for secondary age pupils.

Educational use has saved many country houses from being demolished or converted – though sometimes the alterations required or the heavy wear and tear on these buildings could be quite damaging.  When English Heritage took on Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire they discovered light switches and other fittings had been poorly installed, usually by simply hacking through the plasterwork.  However, on balance, these minor issues are the lesser of two evils compared to possible complete loss.  It’s not known precisely how many country houses have been used for educational purposes at some point in their lives (and many took on this role temporarily in WWII, most famously Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) but it certainly shows the versatility of our country houses.  Use as a school can also help preserve a house so that one day it might possibly be converted back to being a home.

More details: ‘Inner-city school buys mansion to keep pupils safe from knife crime‘ [Daily Mail]