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 restoration or a recreation: Knightshayes Court, Devon

Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Matthew Beckett)

For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside.  A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.

Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth.  The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites.  A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.

Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting.   So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?

Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘.  His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes.  Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap.  Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.

Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect.   Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room.  With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.

In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling.  Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace.  Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.

However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls.  So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier.  The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.

The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period.  The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go.  This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.

This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].

The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)
The Burges Room - Knightshayes Court, Devon (Image: Britain's Finest)

So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes?  In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work.  But whose earlier work?  The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored.  Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.

So is this mere architectural theme park-ism?  Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.

Visitor information: ‘Knightshayes Court, Devon‘ [National Trust]