So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

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.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

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:

 

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]

Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)

Our country houses have always been adaptable as changing fashions or functions required they accommodate new ways of living or roles.  One role which quite a few houses have taken on is that of hospital – either privately or as a fully-fledged part of the NHS – though this use has not always been sympathetic.  However, as the modern health service centralises to larger sites it seems some country houses are re-emerging to become homes again.

Hospitals were traditionally monastic, centred on the abbeys and convents but these were obviously scarce.  The ill were treated in large dormitories although some established houses in the country away from the main abbey to care for the mentally ill.  However the dismantling of the religious orders during the Reformation from 1536, meant that increasingly the burden for care of the pauper sick fell to secular civic bodies, with towns creating their own hospitals.  This model persisted until the 17th-century when private benefactors became increasingly prominent, donating funds and buildings for the care of the ill.

One of the earliest country houses to be converted was the partially completed Greenwich Palace. Originally a Tudor royal house, it had become derelict during the English Civil War, so in 1664 Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a replacement but which was only partially completed.  It was this building which Queen Mary II, who had been affected by the sight of the wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered to be converted to a navel hospital in 1694, to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and later Sir John Vanbrugh.

Possibly inspired by the royal example, other country houses were donated or converted for use as hospitals.  However, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t particularly suitable with one Irish physician, Edward Foster, complaining in 1768 that ‘In general, Houses have been rented for Hospitals, which are as fit for the Purposes, as Newgate for a Palace‘.  By the 1850s hospital design was beginning to emerge as a distinct branch of architecture -Florence Nightingale wrote to an officer of the Swansea Infirmary in 1864 saying that a hospital was a difficult to construct as a watch; no building ‘requires more special knowledge‘.  From this time, the country houses themselves became less important than the space they offered with the house itself being used as accommodation or offices. However, for the treatment of respiratory illness the clear country air was considered part of the cure with houses being acquired as tuberculosis sanatoria such as at Moggerhanger Park in Bedfordshire originally designed by Sir John Soane for the Thornton family.

The First World War necessarily required country houses to come back into medical use due to the terrible consequences of the strategy of attrition through trench warfare in WWI which created large numbers of wounded.  Without a national health service there were fewer hospitals able to cope with the seriously disabled or even those simply convalescing.  Many country houses were pressed into service, their clean country air and fine grounds considered most helpful to rest and recuperation. During WWII, fewer houses were used as military hospitals as changes in military tactics led to many fewer casualties than expected.  However, a significant number were used either by the military or as civilian replacements for urban hospitals which it was feared would be bombed.

Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII
Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII

For country house owners, given the possible options of who might take over their house, the bed-ridden were infinitely preferable to the bored squaddies who wreaked such havoc at other houses (apparently housing art treasures was first preference, evacuated schools second, hospitals third).  This reality plus a genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI.  On the civilian side, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire became a maternity hospital as was Battlesden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Stockeld Park and Farnley Hall, both in Yorkshire. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire became a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating ‘cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses’.

After the war many houses were returned to their owners in such terrible disrepair that unfortunately hundreds were demolished.  Others continued in their wartime roles with some such a Poltimore House in Devon becoming hospitals after the war when two local GPs recognised the need for more bedspaces and so took over the old seat of the Bampfyldes until it was nationalised after the creation of the NHS in 1948.  There were also many War Memorial hospitals, founded by public subscription after WWI, which often made use of a country house. The nationalisation of these hospitals gave the NHS many of the country houses it has today – although it is relatively few overall as less than 5% of all their buildings are grade II* or grade I listed.  Of the historic ‘therapeutic’ landscapes it manages, seven are included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

However, sometimes these country houses and their settings can escape and revert to being homes, either through conversion or, if the houses has been lost, replacement.   Bretby Hall in Derbyshire, built between 1813-15 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for the Earl of Chesterfield, was an orthopaedic hospital until the 1990s when the main house was converted into flats, as was the High Victorian Wyfold Court in Berkshire.  Harewood Park in Hertfordshire was demolished in 1959 after use as hospital in WWII but the estate has been bought by the Duchy of Cornwall with proposals for an elegant and very impressive new Classical house by Craig Hamilton Architects.  A similar plan has been put forward for the 57-acre site of the former Middleton Hospital in Yorkshire with the permission requiring the demolition of various redundant buildings from its former use to restore the site.

Sadly though, sometimes the NHS fails to adequately look after the houses it has in its care.  As the trend has moved towards large, new hospitals so the historic elements have been overlooked or abandoned as new hospitals are built elsewhere. As funding for new hospitals is not dependent on the sale of the old site and the house, sadly they can be neglected or subject to inappropriate development as has been the case with the grade-II listed Stallington Hall in Staffordshire, which became a home for the mentally ill in 1928, but after it closed has been vandalised and neglected with a housing development built inappropriately close to the house across the lawn, forever ruining it as a country house –  a poor payback for years of public service.

Related story: ‘Developers draw up plan for country house‘ [Ilkley Gazette]

Background information: ‘Reusing historic hospitals‘ [Institute of Historic Building Conservation]

As predicted; Cherkley Court, Surrey now for sale

Cherkley Court, Surrey
Cherkley Court, Surrey

When the doors to Cherkley Court in Surrey closed to visitors in December 2009, it was thought that low visitor numbers had proved it uneconomic to keep the house and gardens open.  However, as predicted by a commenter to my original blog post [thanks Andrew], Cherkley Court is now for sale and has been launched with a double-page centre spread in the Sunday Times Home section today [19 Sept 2010].

If one was to try an define what might constitute a perfect trophy estate in Surrey, Cherkley Court might well tick most of the estate agents’ criteria.  The grade-II listed house, built c1870 (and rebuilt after a fire in 1893), is a four-storey, chateau-style mansion extending to over 24,000 sq ft with home cinema and five grand reception rooms, with nearly 400-acres of gardens and parkland.

The house is now for sale following a 7-year, £10m restoration of the house and grounds orchestrated by the architect Christopher Smallwood and David Mlinaric, the interior designer.  The house became a famous venue for parties under the ownership of Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) and his wife Gladys who lived there until her death in 1994.  It was her death which sparked a bitter legal dispute between beneficiaries of the will which has forced the sale.

So if you have £20m and don’t mind the restriction on not landing your helicopter in the grounds, have a word with Savills.

Property details: ‘Cherkley Court, Surrey‘ [Savills]

Listed building description: ‘Cherkley Court, Surrey

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]

More on this story:

More information:

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.

The danger of interpretation: Abbotsford House, Scotland

Abbortsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)
Abbotsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)

For Abbotsford House in Scotland, home of the famous author Sir Walter Scott, the recent news that it was to receive a £4.85m Heritage Lottery Fund grant is the sort of news which should be welcomed as that level of funding can usually remedy any necessary maintenance or repairs.  However, the grant is not actually to be spent on the house (despite headlines such as ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]) but mainly on a new, separate visitors centre.

Sir Walter Scott (b.1771 – d.1832) played a key part creating a literary context for the developing Picturesque movement which sought to reject the rigid formality of the Georgians and create a more organic architecture, which he developed in the construction of his own house.

The theory of the Picturesque raised the importance of how one ‘felt’ about a scene or view – a definite break with the austere, ‘correct’ classicism which so dominated.  The exploration of more fluid forms had started in the 1750s and had been adopted by such noted figures as Sir Horace Walpole for his own house at Strawberry Hill in Surrey.  However it was a local Surrey parson, the Rev. William Gilpin, whose guidebooks were to lead the way for those who came afterwards such as Herefordshire squires Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight who had the funds to realise these ideas.

Inspired in part by the idealised landscapes of the artists Nicholas Poussin or Claude Lorrain, architects sought to provide an almost ‘arcadian’ vision of buildings integrating naturally with an environment, forcing them to think of the building and environment as a whole rather than simply viewing their particular work in isolation. This also affected the plan of the house, with rooms now being aligned along the best viewing lines rather than simply lined up. One architect who took on this new style was John Nash who met Uvedale Price in about 1790 during Nash’s time in Wales.  Price was at the time building a small summer house and Nash, after meeting him, proposed a typical villa – a design antithetical to Price’s own philosophy.  Price instead guided Nash to design a new house where rooms followed views, and the overall design echoed its rocky coastal location; as he wrote ”The form of it is extremely varied from my having obliged him [Nash] to turn the rooms to different aspects‘.  Castle House, sadly demolished in 1897, was a watershed in the rejection of the dominant Georgian style and Nash quickly developed new designs based on these radical principles which became his distinctive ‘cottage orne‘ style.

Sir Walter Scott didn’t set out to link literature and architecture – in fact his ‘Waverley’ novels were simply a quick way to make some money after financial difficulties.  The books, which he initially wrote anonymously, were the first truly successful historical fiction, and brought Scott considerable wealth and, once his authorship was known, praise.  It was this wealth that enabled him to set about creating his ideal house.  Raised in the Scottish borders he had a close affinity for the natural landscape and so the Picturesque style would have appealed.  However, Scott ensured the existing designs for Abbotsford House had a distinctly Scottish twist, creating what is known today as the ‘Scots Baronial’ style so closely associated with our romantic notions of Scotland today.

Scott bought a small farmhouse in 1811 and engaged William Atkinson (b.c1774 – d.1839) who, between 1814-24, created the house we see today.  Atkinson was not considered one of the best ‘Gothick’ architects, with Howard Colvin thinking that his designs lacked the elegant charm of the 18th-century work and the scholarly accuracy of the 19th-century.  However at Abbotsford, the architectural vocabulary he employed – steeply pitched slate roofs, turrets, bartizans, and crowstepped gables – became the standard language of Scots country houses for anyone not following the Classical style.

So Abbotsford House is an architectural genesis – the first of it’s kind.  It seems a shame to lavish millions on a separate interpretation centre in a modern design which will only compete with the existing architecture of the house and estate.  It’s also a competition the new building is unlikely to win.  Perhaps it would be better for the money to be spent on sensitively incorporating the displays and materials from Scott’s life and work into the home he so lovingly and thoughtfully created.

More details: ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]

Official website: ‘Abbotsford House

Background: the Picturesque movement [Wikipedia]

What may come? Ireland’s country house property crash

Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)
Bellamont Forest, Ireland (Image: Knight Frank)

One side effect of the exceptionally buoyant Irish property market which made areas of Dublin as expensive as central London was a similar rise in value of their country houses.  Now with the drastic drop in property values, Irish country houses have proven to be far from immune and offer a useful indicator of what might happen in a similar situation on this side of the Irish sea.

The country house market in Ireland truly rode the boom when property became a sure-fire route to riches in the republic.  Houses which had been neglected for many years were suddenly ‘discovered’, bought and lavishly refurbished as private houses for the newly wealthy.  This is actually unsurprising as a key aspiration for anyone acquiring riches over the last 400 years has been to establish themselves in a rural domain.  Owning land was the route to power since time immemorial with greater acreage giving greater influence.  Despite the breaking of that link in the UK between 1870 and 1920 (and most decisively with the passing of the Lords Reform Bill of 1911) the idea of the country estate as the acme of achievement had become embedded as the ultimate status symbol.  Therefore any boom in the economy has usually led to a rush to the country.

Ireland’s situation was slightly different in that, unlike in the UK with it’s stricter planning laws, the purchase of a country house was also viewed with residential development potential in mind. For those projects which completed this meant that the house was simply a means to an end leaving fine houses stranded in the middle of a new suburb (many of which are now half-empty) thus ruining a perfectly good house. This also meant that some houses were bought with over-inflated ‘development value’ built into the price.

So now the crash has hit, what has happened to the houses?  For those owners who were simply in the family home and managed to sell a few acres for development they have ‘won’ as they still have their house and estate but also gained money to sustain the estate and complete much needed restoration and improvements.  For others who didn’t capitalise there must be a certain disappointment as they’ve gone from lying in bed thinking about how the house is now worth ten times what it was a few years ago, back to lying awake wondering how to pay the bills again.

Worse though are those who paid hyped prices and now are stuck either with a home they may have paid for but which is now worth much less than they paid for it – country houses prices can race ahead of the trend in a bull market but can easily do the same when it falls.  On a positive note, for those owners who can afford to, they are likely to stay longer than otherwise they might, providing stable ownership and perhaps a commitment to invest in the estate to sustain what value they can.  For those who bought on finance or who now lack the funds to meet the running costs they may now be forced to sell at a loss.  Declines of 30-50% aren’t unheard of, even for the very best properties.  The Lyons Demesne, one of the finest estates in Ireland and former home of Tony Ryan, founder of Ryanair, is currently for sale with 600-acres at €50m, down from its former valuation of €80m.  Even on the less stratospheric level, Bellamont Forest, the first Palladian house in Ireland (and ridiculously beautiful) was initially marketed at €10m but is now offered at €7.5m.

So what could happen over here?  UK country houses prices, certainly for the best properties, have risen dramatically over the last 10-20 years.  However, that rise has been on the back of a broader boom in the economy which, despite some aspects turning out to be smoke and mirrors, did actually generate real money. In addition, the commodity value of UK farmland which has risen from £2,000 per acre to around £7,000 per acre has also provided a stronger capital base for the estates.  The natural British caution does have its advantages.

The dangers are where owners are left with over-priced houses unable to meets the cost of maintenance and there is the risk that basic tasks are put off leaving the houses at risk from any number of ailments such as water ingress due to blocked gutters.  Unfortunately government austerity means that at a time when local councils need to be most vigilant they are going to be less likely to fund the necessary heritage conservation staff.

Country houses are never immune from the challenges of the wider economy but they can also be insulated if the owner has the resources to weather the storm.  Luckily for the UK, many owners are in a strong position but there is always the danger that the over-excited may get carried away and over-pay leading to problems if the property market weakens. The situation in Ireland should be watched as a useful case study in the dangers of an over-heated market.

Full story: Crash-landed gentry [ft.com]

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.