Peckforton Castle, Cheshire, seriously damaged in arson attack

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

In the early hours of Sunday (19 June 2011) a serious fire broke out in the Drawing Room of grade-I listed Peckforton Castle and has gutted all three floors of that wing, affecting approximately 25% of the building. Sadly, it appears that this terrible destruction in one of the finest mock castles in the country is reported to be the result of an arson attack by the groom, apparently over the wedding bill.  That such a wonderful building could be damaged over something so stupid is beyond belief.  The full extent of the damage – and credit to the fire service for preventing it spreading – will only become truly apparent over the next few days.

Peckforton Castle sits on a Cheshire hill-top, facing down the medieval Beeston Castle on the neighbouring peak.  Yet, Peckforton is a Victorian creation for the 1st Lord Tollemache, who had commissioned Anthony Salvin to marry the conveniences demanded by a Victorian landowner with a scholarly re-creation of an ancient castle, creating the muscular skyline so visible today.  The style of the castle is a reflection of the character of Tollemache – vigorous sportsman, statesman, father to 24 children, and, above, benevolent landlord.  Tollemache had inherited the 26,000-acre estate through his grandmother, co-heiress of the 4th Earl of Dysart, and had particularly Victorian vision of how an estate should be run, saying “The only lasting pleasure to be derived from the possession of a landed estate is to witness the improvement of the social condition of those residing on it.” To this end, he reduced the size of each farm to 200-acres and rebuilt every farmhouse and labourers cottage on the estate at a cost of £280,000 (approx. £20m) and to each cottage he allocated a further 3-acres to help them grow their own produce.

The estate lacked a main house and so Tollemache went against the prevailing fashion of the time and commissioned an authentic re-creation of a medieval castle which was built between 1844 and 1850.  The fashion for sham castles had grown out of the Georgian Picturesque movement which applauded such visions of a castle – symbol of ancient chivalry – and landscape combined to create an aesthetically pleasing view. Yet, in demanding an accurate castle, Tollemache rejected many of the compromises that had previously characterised the lesser shams, such as having a great gatehouse but also acres of glass, which were being roundly criticised by architects such as Pugin who demanded architectural authenticity.

Courtyard, Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: Bob W / flickr)
Courtyard, Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: Bob W / flickr)

Tollemache’s architect was Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881), who, on the strength of the success of Peckforton, was commissioned to also work on Alnwick Castle and the Tower of London, and many more.  Salvin was the perfect architect for the job with his Victorian understanding of the romance of castles and the appeal of the Middle Ages but also a sound practical training with John Nash which gave him the skill to successfully, as Alfred Waterhouse wrote to Lord Tollemache in 1878, “…combine the exterior and plan of an Edwardian [Edward I] Castle with nineteenth-century elegance and comfort.

Castle Drogo, Devon (Image: wikipedia)
Castle Drogo, Devon (Image: wikipedia)

Faced with the choice between architectural accuracy and convenience most of Tollemache’s contemporaries opted for more fashionable styles leaving relatively few of these large-scale re-creations.  Other examples of ‘real’ sham castles include William Burges‘ designs for Lord Bute at Castell Coch, Belvoir Castle for the Dukes of Rutland, and the powerfully brooding Penryhn Castle, built between 1840-50, for George Hay Dawkins-Pennant.  The demand for an authentic castle then largely abates until Julius Drewe’s commission, built in the 1910s and 1920s, for Sir Edwin Lutyens which results in the wonderful Castle Drogo.  By their very nature, their stern exteriors make them untraditional country houses yet they hark back to the oldest form of home for the landed gentry, and a symbol of power and prestige.

Sadly, arson attacks on country houses are not unknown – witness the terrible devastation brought to Hafodunos Hall in Wales by two bored idiots in 2004. With Peckforton Castle, the success of the design, both as an exterior composition, but also for the practical yet impressive interiors is why the house is such an important part of the nation’s architectural heritage.  The house was only recently subject to a £1.7m restoration programme by the Naylor family who own it and have worked immensely hard to bring to life a house that had been empty since WWII.  Hopefully the damage will not turn out to be as extensive as feared – though estimates for restoration are already said to be around £1m.  The strength of the construction means that it will almost certainly be restorable and will hopefully again rise soon from the ashes of this terrible fire.

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News stories:

Listing description: ‘Peckforton Castle‘ [britishlistedbuildings]

A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive))
Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Two of the most important aspects of campaigning to save country houses are vigilance and visibility – and yet sometimes even this doesn’t always seem to bring about restoration any quicker when faced with a slow-moving owner. Braunstone Hall, a Georgian gem still with significant grounds but now swallowed up in the sprawl of Leicester, has been empty for over ten years but despite a vigorous campaign both in the media and online it still remains very much at risk.

Braunstone Hall, now grade-II listed, was built in 1776 (date on rainwater head) for the Winstanley family by the architect William Oldham (b. 1737 – d. 1814) who also designed an early Leicester racecourse grandstand (1770), Master’s House at Alderman Newton’s School (1789) and the New House of Correction (1803) – all though now demolished.  The red-brick house is two and a half storeys tall by five bays wide with a cornice and hipped roof.  The relatively simple front is enlivened with stone bands marking the ground and first floors with an impressive tripartite doorway with fluted columns, a small pediment and an elegant fanlight with arched glazing bars.  One further very distinctive feature is the giant blind recessed arch in the central bay – an architectural device which seems quite popular in Leicestershire with examples in Burbage, Belgrave House (also 1776), and the beautiful rectory at Church Langton (by William Henderson – 1760).  The interior is largely complete with some impressive detailing.

The Winstanley family bought the estate from the Hastings family in 1650 and remained there until forced out in the 1920’s by the pressure to build houses following the First World War.  Estates on the edge of existing towns and cities were eagerly eyed-up by local councils.  For some families, already facing financial hardships following the war this was a perfect opportunity to sell the family seat and relocate.  Others, including the Winstanleys in the shape of Major Richard Norman Winstanley, fought the prospect of compulsory purchase arguing that this was still a family home and the building work would undermine the value of his recently modernised house.  However, he was unsuccessful and so the house, gardens, parkland and further 949-acres were compulsorily purchased in 1925 for £116,500 (equivalent to £5.2m – 2008).  Most of the land was built over except for the house and 168-acres surrounding it which became a public park.  The house remained in council ownership and was first a secondary school, opening in 1932, before becoming a primary school a year later until it closed in 1996.

Since then the Leicester City Council has failed to either find a viable long-term use or adequately protect Braunstone Hall with the house falling victim to repeated acts of vandalism and arson.  The latter is the most worrying as the incidents have not only included fires outside the building but also now inside.  Over the last few years the Council have been making very slow progress towards finding a solution but, as always, they are claiming poverty when it comes to heritage projects.  A very active campaigning group has been set up on Facebook with the members regularly corresponding with councillors and reporting any damage or deterioration at the hall – effectively a dedicated ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ for the house.

The Council put the house up for sale on a 125-year lease in 2007 and had recently been negotiating to sell the house to a local businessman for conversion to a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. However this has been delayed by changes to what’s being offered in relation to the land for enabling development.  Each delay increases the risk that the local yobs will finally succeed in their mindless vandalism and burn down this elegant and important part of Leicester’s heritage.  If this happens the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of Leicester City Council and their apathy and indecisiveness over the last 14 years.

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

Detailed history of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [Leicester City Council]

Detailed description of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [English Heritage]