Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]