Inheritance is a double-edged sword – for all the perceived luck of being given a large country house, the reality is that, in many cases, the house requires significant investment. For some, this is a chance to shine; to put in place the plans they had been making, or develop new talents and unexpected skills. For others it quickly becomes burden as it pushes them into situations they seem unprepared for – as it frequently proves on Country House Rescue. This week (27 March), heading back down to the south west, Ruth Watson visits Trereife House in Cornwall, to a house threatened by the odd schemes of the owner.
Trereife (pronounced ‘treeve’) nestles in the hills above Penzance, an neat pink hued Queen Anne house with an elegant parterre garden laid out below the south front. The original house was an Elizabethan farmhouse which was home to the Nicholls family, who had become wealthy landowners and minor gentry through farming and marriage. The first records of them is the marriage of William Nicholls (also known as William Trereife) in 1590, though it is thought the family had been in the area for several generations earlier. The design of the grade-II* house as we see it today is the result of an extensive rebuilding in 1708 which not only added the wonderful Queen Anne front with its hipped roof but also created some fine interiors with plasterwork ceilings, probably by travelling Italian workmen, who were known to have worked on several houses in the south west.
Architecturally, the echoes of the style of Trereife can be seen at the much grander Antony House for the much wealthier Carew family. The house was begun in 1718 shortly after Trereife’s remodelling and so is technically Georgian (Queen Anne died in 1714) but the basic form of the house is similar. Also Boconnoc House, near Lostwithiel, displays the same two-storey with dormer windows design as Trereife and Antony – though again for a much wealthier family, the Pitts. Boconnoc features later alterations in 1786 by Thomas Pitt, cousin of Pitt (the Younger) the Prime Minister, in conjunction with Sir John Soane, who he had met in Italy in 1778, which probably explains the serlian window to the projecting bay. Another house of a similar design was Dunsland House, Devon which was one of the most important houses in the area, with particularly fine plasterwork, which sadly burnt down in 1967. On a smaller scale than any of these, but possibly even more beautiful, is Great Treverran, near Fowey, a compact (one room deep) house built in 1704 but given a dose of grandeur with fine granite Ionic columns, it was last sold in 2003 for around £650,000 and is now wasted as a holiday cottage.
Trereife is a significant part of a great tradition of Cornish houses with a fine family history with connections to the Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt through Revd Charles Valentine Le Grice, affectionately known as ‘CV’. The house passed to the Le Grice family through inheritance in 1821 following the marriage of Mary Nicholls, whose son had died childless, to ‘CV’ in 1799. The house is now owned by Tim Le Grice, a solicitor who inherited the neglected house in 1986 from his grandmother and who now lives at Trereife with his family.
Sadly, Tim appears ill-equipped for the role as country house rescuer as a series of slightly eccentric – gypsy caravan theme park anyone? – or badly planned business ventures have taken up significant time and money with little to show for it. For the family, the £40,000 per year running costs were proving ruinous and so they turned to Ruth for advice; which is typically hard-hitting. Much as the family would rather avoid having their family finances shared with the nation this appears to be the only way to persuade Tim that he needs to draw on the skills and experience of his literary agent daughter to organise events and his wife to develop the potential for B&B and weddings within the house. Considering that the house now comes up well in Google searches as a venue for weddings and events it seems that Ruth was right – and has hopefully enabled another family to remain in their ancestral home.
Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland. A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.
The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.
Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one. The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges. His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style. Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh. By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced. Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.
The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres. The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968. Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways. His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.
When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”. Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.
Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode. Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”. Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.
The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics. From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.
According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree. Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702. He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.
The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855. The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem. On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon. His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917). Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:
“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”
The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her. In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913). Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.
Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907 the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.
Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house. Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.
The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley. Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.
The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub. Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.
Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit. Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.
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.
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 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.
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.
The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively. The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought. As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!
The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.
Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate. The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.
Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral. Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements. Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.
The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967. Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.
Country House Rescue – Series 3
My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:
One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims. With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.
The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science, mathematics and astronomy. They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.
Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device. Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare. In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.
The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year). So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards. It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.
One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors. Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north. Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole. Who knows? What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.
The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate. What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim. Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.
It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses. Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys. The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole. After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.
The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country. The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.
Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925. A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I. Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.
Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor. Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers. Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’. It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.
Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors. The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did. Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.
Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most. Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges. As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.
Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:
Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heritage and the dedicated work of those who seek to rescue it can often be overlooked only to be occasionally thrust into the spotlight of TV – though this can be a useful promotion in these times of austerity. Sadly, the schedules seem to focus on heritage in bursts, giving us ‘The Restoration Man‘ and ‘Country House Rescue‘ at the same time but it’s good to know that their popularity encourages the programme makers to continue to commission this type of series. Of course these programmes need material so if you know anyone restoring a UK country house, please read on.
One of the most successful of the heritage programmes was the original ‘Restoration‘, a wonderful series presented by Griff Rhys Jones who has personal experience of restoring his own rural Welsh farmhouse. This series truly caught the attention of the public and raised awareness of the buildings at risk in their own areas. Keen to tap this interest again, Endemol, the production company behind ‘Restoration’, have a new series, ‘Restoration Home‘, ready for broadcast in Spring 2011 (and flagged up as a comment already on this blog) – though sadly without Griff as the presenter. The new series focuses on private owners and follows their restoration of ‘at risk’ houses as modern homes. Although the intention is that these will be sensitive restorations it will be interesting to see exactly what compromises and sacrifices are made in creating the home the owner wishes to achieve.
As a sign of the confidence that Endemol have in likely popularity of the series, they are already looking for houses to feature in a second series with, ideally, work starting in the next few months and reaching completion around March 2012. To quote Natasha Evans of Endemol Television:
“Each show will chart the restoration process by the owners of one house, as they restore their home to its former glory. Much as the original series, we’ll bring the property to life, setting it in its cultural and historic context. This is a major aspect of each show and will be interwoven with the restoration. At the same time, we’ll be looking at the different stages of its architectural styles.”
One of the key criteria is that the houses must be owned privately by those who are intending to live in them, that they are currently in need of a bit of love and attention, and that the owners are passionate about their house and specifically interested in the history of their house. So if you are undertaking your own project, or know someone who fits the criteria, please contact Natasha Evans on 0208 222 4326 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are inspired by these programmes and would like to find your own building at risk then one of the best places to start is the ‘Buildings at Risk Register‘ managed by the architectural heritage charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage. To access the register you need to subscribe but this will give you full access to the register of hundreds of properties in need of a sensitive owner.
If Blackborough House (pictured above) takes your fancy, it’s currently (January 2011) for sale with Winkworths for between £1m – £1.5m, but will require at least that (and probably more) spent again on it to restore it as a home.
One of the sadly almost inevitable side-effects of urban and industrial growth is the loss of more of our countryside. Sometimes it can be on a smaller scale for residential developments and industrial units but occasionally society’s plans are much grander and require a greater sacrifice. This has been shown with the publication of the latest proposed route for the new High Speed 2 rail project to provide a fast link between London and Birmingham. In previous generations, landowners could influence the path of developments such as roads or canals to their benefit but as their power has diminished so routes of these developments can now threaten the settings of our country houses.
The High Speed 2 railway is aiming to dramatically reduce the need for internal domestic flights in the UK by linking London to, first, the West Midlands, followed by Leeds and Manchester. The plan has always been controversial, requiring the loss of hundreds of homes in the urban areas around the terminals and also a significant loss of farmland. Following an initial proposal, the latest route was announced to the House of Commons on 20 December 2010 which reflected some concerns about the initial proposal. However, 13 of the 30 sections (yes, I have been through all of them!) contain a number of country houses and manors which will still be significantly affected by the plans.
One bit of good news is that fears over the proximity of the link to the wonderfully elegant West Wycombe Park (raised in a blog post in Oct 2009) have been alleviated as the new route is further away. However, another significant house will still be badly affected; the Georgian, grade-I listed, Edgcote House, Northamptonshire. The proposed route now slices through the remarkably unlisted grounds with the line passing just to the east of the ornamental lake which forms one of the main axial views from the house. Edgcote was built between 1747-1752 for London merchant Richard Chauncey by architect William Jones and featured as ‘Netherfield’ in the 1995 TV adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. The house and grounds form the centrepiece to a 1,700-acre estate which was bought for £30m in 2005. Interestingly, this value has not deterred the planners (who moved the line from the original position cutting across the lake) so it will be interesting to see if the owner submits a claim a for ‘statutory blight‘ [.pdf]. This gives the Secretary of State the option to buy the property at the current market value if the owner can show that they have been unable to sell due to the Government proposals, or only at a substantially lower value.
Amendments have also been made to protect another significant property; Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire. A grade-I listed house, now run as a hotel, it was built in the early 17th-century for the Hampden family but was later let to the exiled King Louis XVIII of France who lived there between 1809-14. Originally Jacobean, it was substantially enlarged and ‘Georgianised’ between 1759 and 1761 by the architect Henry Keene. Again, following initial concerns, the route has now been moved further away from the house so that it would not be visible and will benefit from extra earth works and planting to reduce the noise.
Another grade-I house which would have been worse affected if it hadn’t been blighted already is Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire. This imposing house, now converted into apartments, is part medieval, part Georgian designed by the talented Francis Smith of Warwick, exists in a seriously compromised setting with the Stoneleigh Park exhibition and conference venue built in one half of the immediate parkland. The proposed line will not only cut through the conference venue but also forever separate the house from the northern edge of the original park – though the massive scale of development already means this was never a house which was going to be returned to splendid isolation.
Another compromised house is Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire where the train will pass in front but quite some distance away. The house itself, a beautiful Baroque-style Georgian mansion was built in 1757 to a design by Benjamin Wyatt and remained the home of the Swinfen family for nearly 200 years. After the death of the last Swinfen in 1948 the land was sold and later a huge youth detention centre built to the immediate north-west with the house being left to deteriorate until it was converted into a hotel in the 1980s. Having a railway line in the middle distance is the least of the concerns for the setting of this house.
Despite the vocal complaints of Lord Rothschild it seems that the route will be quite far from their old family seat of Waddesdon Manor. However, Rothschild has become one of the leading opponents of the scheme – along with 16 other Conservative MPs whose constituencies will be affected.
With the rail route cutting across the countryside it was unavoidable that it would pass near to country houses, ironically which, of course, were often built to get away from the industrial blight. Other houses which now lie close to the proposed route include:
Berkswell Hall, Warwickshire – a grade-II* listed house now converted into apartments
Coleshill Manor, Birmingham – now offices and already suffering from being surround by motorways, the house will now have the line within metres, also necessitating the demolition of a new office complex next door.
The route also cuts across the old estate of the now demolished Hints Hall in Staffordshire – an elegant two-storey Georgian mansion with giant pilasters to enliven the facade. It’s unlikely that if the house had survived it would have prevented the proposed route but again, without the house, an estate becomes even more vulnerable.
These are just the houses affected by the first 120 miles of the proposed 355 mile scheme. If successful, we can expect more houses to be blighted as the route carves through the Midlands and up into Lancashire, shattering the peace and quiet that were the original reasons for the creation of these refuges from the industrial reality of the cities. Although progress can often bring benefits, in this case the price is being paid by our country houses as their parklands and estates are judged the path of least resistance.
Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff. Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished. However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel. These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.
The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously. A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home). These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.
Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings. Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.
In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”. Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good. For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland. This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details. Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.
A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout. An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804. Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m. With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself. However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.
Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it. His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms. Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire. His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.
Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell. Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community. He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings. Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.
It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50. Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting. However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.
Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses: