How tourism split a house from the estate: Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)

A small advert tucked away in a recent Country Life marks the final split of a house from it’s estate. With the sale of the parkland associated with Warwick Castle in Warwickshire, another house loses control over an important asset – though this separation is very much tied up with the history of the opening of country houses to tourists, and this castle in particular.

Country house visiting is perhaps thought of as a more modern phenomenon but Warwick Castle was one of the first houses to be truly exploited as a tourist attraction with visitors coming in significant numbers from 1815 onwards. The growth of the industrial Midlands in the Victorian era and consequently a growing middle class seeking excursions, shifted the pattern of ‘show-houses’ (that is, ones regularly open to the public when the family were absent or on specific days) northwards, away from the more aristocratic 18th-century London-Bath axis.  The Midlands were particularly well provided for with many houses open to the public from the 1850s including Eaton Hall, Chatsworth House, Haddon Hall, Newstead Abbey, and Belvoir Castle amongst perhaps a hundred.  This reached a peak in the 1880s when the most popular houses would receive tens of thousands of visitors a year, reflecting a popular interest in the houses of ‘Olden Time‘ as popularised by writers such as Joseph Nash and Sir Walter Scott.

Warwick Castle, with it’s prized medieval origins, was particularly popular – to the extent that not opening it was considered unthinkable.  That the public expected to be allowed to see inside these houses could be shown in a comment in the Daily Telegraph in 1871 which said:

An Earl of Warwick who would make his whole castle his own in the spirit of an inhospitable curmudgeon, who would shut out all eyes but his own from the feast within those walls, is a being so opposed to every English tradition that it is difficult to realise him.

For the aristocratic owners, economics certainly played a stronger role than any sense of public generosity.  For some, having a popular house in the country was no inconvenience as, such as at Dunster Castle in Somerset, it was remarked in 1845; ‘The owner, an inveterate Bachelor, lives in London and hardly ever comes here‘.

Especially convenient for trippers from Birmingham and the nearby resort of Leamington Spa, Warwick Castle was hosting as many as 6,000 visitors per year in 1825-26 and when the Earl of Warwick’s housekeeper died in 1834 she was said to have left £30,000 earned from tips.  Yet it was the devastating fire of December 1871 which firmly moved the castle from being simply a home to a business. The fire destroyed the family apartments but luckily left the oldest parts of the castle untouched.  The Earl of Warwick’s financial situation meant that he simply could not afford to restore the house to its former glory, a prospect which scared the local tradespeople, fearing the loss of the tourist trade and so a restoration fund was created.  However, to ensure the Earl’s pride was not dented it was presented as recognition of the burden he bore as owner of a national treasure.

However, a furious response from no lesser figure than John Ruskin marked the start of a backlash, saying ‘If a noble family cannot rebuild their own castle, in God’s name let them live in the nearest ditch till they can‘.  Behind this was the growing social democratic movement which moved from support of national treasures privately-owned towards a more socialist belief that national assets ought to be owned by the ‘people’.  The purchase of Aston Hall by Birmingham Council in 1864 as a public museum and park was no doubt playing on the minds of both certain radical sections of society and Lord Warwick – though for different reasons.  The appeal eventually raised £9,000 which paid for restoration by Anthony Salvin but the importance of opening the house as an attraction was highlighted as a way of not only funding costs but also as a way of keeping the public happy that they had ‘access’ to what they now felt of as ‘theirs’.

From this point, the house was never really a private home again.  The Earl and his son embraced the tourist industry but in 1885 closed the castle for a year to re-organise the showing on a more commercial basis.  Gone were the old servants acting as guides; in came professionals paid for by the one shilling admission tickets.  The new system was a success, with 20,000 visitors in the first full year of the new regime.  The new domestic arrangements were confirmed by the 5th Earl who inherited in 1893 and preferred to live at his wife’s estate Easton Lodge in Essex.  In the same year, the castle staged its first historical pageant, which was repeated on a grander scale in 1906.  The 6th Earl, who took over in 1924, further promoted the tourist business, pushing visitors to a peak in 1930 of over 80,000.  Even during the war years, there were over 10,000 visitors in 1943-44, and numbers had recovered to their pre-war peak by 1949-50.

All this increasingly showed that the wider estate, for all its charms – landscaped by Capability Brown in 1747 and much admired by Horace Walpole, it was considered secondary to the primary purpose of the enterprise; to get people into the castle. When the 8th Earl decided to abandon Warwick Castle once and for all in 1978, selling it to the Madame Tussauds group which underlined just how much a tourist attraction it had become, the estate was included but farmed by tenant farmers leaving the grounds as a mere sideshow.  The 679-acres now under offer (guide price: £3m) is the bulk of the estate bar a few acres around the castle.  Land and house have been separated as assets and are unlikely to be reunited. This leaves a house without control of the setting which, although sidelined, has been an important part of what made it into such a popular tourist attraction, and leaving fans of our country houses sad that another has been split up in this way.

Property details: ‘Warwick Castle Park, Warwickshire‘ [John Shepherd]

For more history on country house tourism I can strongly recommend ‘The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home’ by Peter Mandler which proved very useful in relation to this article.

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

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

When bling attacks: Ollerton Grange, Cheshire

Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)

A constant danger for smaller, less historic – but no less attractive – country houses is when the local area becomes more fashionable with an influx of newer, brasher ideas which can be unsympathetic to the original designs. Ollerton Grange in Cheshire, now for sale for an eye-watering £30m with Knight Frank, could be seen as a example of what happens when a small country house meets a large amount of money.

From the picture the house has echoes of the early East Anglian Prodigy houses such Blicking Hall with the neat gables and rambling roofline, built in 1619-27.  Yet Ollerton Grange is a fairly modern construction, built in 1901 by the Manchester architect John Brooke for Cyril Lowcock.  The neo-Tudor style was popular in the Arts & Crafts period with it’s evocation of ancient history which the newly rich were keen to adopt.  The octagonal tower with its ogee cap is the main feature of the entrance front with the gables, mullioned windows, and tall, diagonally-set chimneys following its lead.

The house, plus 141 acres, was bought in 2000 by the heir to the Matalan empire, Jamey Hargreaves for between £5m-10m and he has since spent an estimated £20m over the last ten years.  To his credit he has spared no expense on restoring the main house with fine quality Arts & Crafts panelling set off by some excellent quality antiques.  This reflects the fact that he confesses to having been a reader of Country Life magazine since the age of eight – despite the inevitable joking from his family in the terrace house where he grew up.

Plunge pool, Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Plunge pool, Ollerton Grange, Cheshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Yet if this was the only work to have taken place all would be well.  However, the house is situated in the area of Cheshire known as the ‘Golden Triangle’ inhabited by footballers and their girlfriends.  The prevailing interior style is brash and flashy with an emphasis on gadgets and gimmicks.  At Ollerton Grange this has manifested itself in a huge pleasure complex to the north of the house which more than doubles the original size of the house. This features a full spa, a pool with retractable roof, a red-tiled plunge pool with sculpted aluminium ceiling [pictured], sauna, steam room – with the ability to seal all this off from the main house with a steel shutter during the big house parties.

Credit to Mr Hargreaves for not butchering the original house to fit it in these facilities but is it right that now fully half the space of the new extended house is this modern ‘pleasure-dome’? The photos of the exterior of the house all focus on the original house because, I suspect, the exterior of the new wing will not match the careful architectural composition of John Brooke’s original.  This is not to be snobby but merely to highlight that although a house can be restored to within an inch of it’s life, that doesn’t mean that other alterations may not compromise the overall setting.  Planners have to tread a fine line between allowing necessary and hoped for alterations but perhaps there should be a greater emphasis on ensuring that any new extension continues using the architectural vocabulary of the original house to harmonise the overall look of the property.

Property details: ‘Ollerton Grange‘ [Knight Frank]

Source credit: original story ‘Tangerine Dream’ in the Home section of The Sunday Times – 27 June 2010.

Staley Hall to be restored – sort of

Stayley Hall, Stayleybridge

There appears to be an end in sight for the sorry saga of the neglect of Staley Hall in Staleybridge.  After being derelict for over 50-years, the grade-II listed, 400-year old house has been subject to indifference and some council apathy which has led to arson and massive deterioration in the fabric of the building.  All that remains now are the outer walls – all roofs, interior walls, floors, and decoration have been lost.  The building has reached such a poor condition that – although it pains me to say it – the developer’s proposal to demolish the shell and then reconstruct it as the facade for apartments does seem to be the only viable solution.

All this might have been avoided if the local council had taken this issue in hand at any time over the last few decades – such negligence is unfortunately all too common up and down the country as hard-pressed planning departments face budget and manpower cuts.  Unfortunately it’s the nation’s heritage which pays the price.

Full story: ‘‘Saddest house in England’ to be turned into flats‘ [Crain’s Manchester Business]

Bewsey Old Hall becomes developer’s excuse

cheshire-bewseyoldhall
Bewsey Old Hall

It’s a familiar story; an old house with a bit of ground has become a bit dilapidated but rather than it being carefully restored as a single family home a developer snaps it up as an ‘opportunity’.  Despite the obvious wealth of Cheshire (or perhaps because of it) approval has almost been given for Bewsey Old Hall to not only be converted into seven apartments but for *48* more units in six other blocks to be built on stilts in the grounds.  So the house goes from being the excuse to enable building to a mere architectural fascinator in the centre of large scale development.

Luckily the local councillors have collected thousands of signatures opposing the plans and are fighting a rearguard action despite the decision of the Government planning inspector who has crazily approved this vandalism. One final hope is that a parcel of Government-owned land which is required to enable the development may yet not be sold.  If the council are successful, here’s hoping that someone with money can buy the house and land and bring this house back to life.

Full story: ‘Last gasp to save Bewsey Old Hall‘ [This is Cheshire]

Drug farm in rented country house

Showing that there are always new threats to country houses, the police recently raided a cannabis factory which had been created in Cheshire.

Field House in Hoole had been rented but no sooner had the tenants moved in than they blacked out the upper windows, installed a hosepipe-based irrigation system from the kitchen sink, and planted a huge cannabis plantation on the upper floors.  As has been seen with suburban houses which have been similarly converted, the owners will now face a massive bill to restore the damage from water saturation, ruined floors, destroyed ceilings, holes in walls to accomodate wires and pipes etc.

Full story: ‘Huge cannabis factory uncovered at £2.4m mansion rented by criminal gang‘ [Daily Mail]