If a moat floats your boat: for sale; Playford Hall and Giffords Hall, Suffolk

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)

Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation.  Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters.  These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.

Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers.  The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage.  However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles.  As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner.  As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.

Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)
Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)

The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent.  This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.

Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house.  The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations.  At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp.  The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).

Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house.  Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.

H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example.  This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles.  Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;

“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.  When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes.  Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)

So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).

Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style.  The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII.  The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.

Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling.  The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect.   Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.

So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.

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For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.

For those looking to visit, a handy list: ‘Manors in England‘ [Britain Express]

Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)
Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

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Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.