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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Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

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