If there were a league table of how often a house and family appear on TV or in the papers, an unexpectedly high entry would probably be the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Devon. Having featured in other programmes and even their own series, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken Country House Rescue this long to visit (Thursday 5 July, 20:00, Channel 4). Despite the bluff and occasionally hostile exterior of Francis Fulford, the Fulfords are a remarkable family – both this generation and the many which have come before them. The question is; with so few houses still lived in by the original families, will future Fulfords be able to stay in their notoriously imperfect house?
Great Fulford falls firmly in that category of houses which Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described as the ‘illustrious obscure‘; those many smaller, privately-owned houses which lie nestled in valleys and hidden by their own land – in this case, a not insubstantial 3,000-acres. Pevsner described it as ‘…a substantial courtyard mansion, larger than most in Devon though characteristic of the county in its reticent exterior and its patchy and undocumented history of rebuilding and remodelling…‘. With a core which stretches back to the 1500s, the house has grown and been embellished as funds and whims permitted creating a lengthy listing desciption which would make a larger house very proud. A major remodelling in the 1800s has been suggested as being to designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville but neither Pevsner nor Colvin mention this and the listing discounts it.
So although some aspects of the actual house remain a mystery, one aspect which is very clear is the remarkable endurance of the family, with the current owner, Francis Fulford, being the 26th (or 27th – he’s not sure) Fulford of Fulford, a line stretching back over 800 years. Very few families are able to trace back their lineage so far, even fewer are still in possession of the original family seat. Yet they do survive, despite the best efforts of tragedy and unforgiving tax regimes to unseat them.
One such family has featured on Country House Rescue before: the Kellys of Kelly, also in Devon, who have a proud history dating back to the 1100s. In 2010, Ruth Watson visited the beautiful if rapidly deteriorating Kelly House [more on that visit in this previous blog post: ‘A glimmer of hope‘] to find an owner almost in denial as to the decrepit state of their home. Proving that Country House Rescue can be a positive catalyst for change; the house is now slowly being restored with help from various students of architecture, surveying and other related fields. By contrast, the Fursdon family of Fursdon House (also in Devon!) have fully adapted their estate to offer all the usual activities which have ensured their beautiful 750-acre estate and elegant house (which, in a truly modern way, you can follow on Twitter, @fursdondevon, and Facebook) not only brings in an income but is also a home.
These smaller houses form the backbone of the local history of an area; so embedded that their name denotes the place. In a fascinating series of articles in ‘The Field‘ magazine, starting in 1984, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd toured the length and breadth of the UK seeking out these lesser known seats and their even more private owners. To read these amazing histories is to realise the depth of history which our nation enjoys, including:
So although not unique, the Fulfords are rare. In many ways the Fulfords are a refreshing alternative to the slick corporate manicure of many homes or the stately preservation of the National Trust (though all have their place). This is a notable family who have, against all odds, achieved something exceptionally rare amongst stately home owners. This has to be admired and although unconventional they are a fascinating part of the tapestry of our nation. Some part of me hopes that they achieve a beautiful equilibrium of succeeding enough to ensure the survival of the house, but not too much so as to compromise the character of their lives or Great Fulford.
One of the many uses to which our country houses have been successfully adapted to is that of schooling – from the grandest such as Stowe and Bryanston to the many smaller houses which have delighted and terrified children in equal measure for many years. Even as recently as April 2010, Wispers in Sussex, was sold to a London primary school as a satellite to their main campus. Yet for all the fond memories held by generations of youngsters, private schools and educational colleges are facing their own periods of austerity, forcing some to close. With closure comes a rare opportunity for a house to once again become a home – though such a move is fraught with practical, and sometimes political, challenges.
One of the bonuses of writing this blog is to discover houses so little known that, despite their obvious beauty, they seldom appear in books. Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire is a classic example of this. Currently a residential college, this stunning smaller William and Mary country house was built around 1678 for William Pynsent, a wealthy London barrister, who would have been well-aware of the latest architectural fashions. The architect is unconfirmed but, with the hipped roof and projecting, pedimented centrepiece, it appears to draw inspiration from houses such as Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire (though 7-bays to Horseheath’s eleven) designed by Sir Roger Pratt in 1663-5 (dem.1777), and also clear stylistic similarities with houses such as the north and south fronts of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire (built 1684-5, by Sir Christopher Wren) and Puslinch, Devon (a late proponent of the style, being built c1720). One curious anecdote, told to Sir John Julius Norwich, was that the house was substantially altered, creating the elegant east front, about twelve years after construction to designs by William Talman – but Colvin doesn’t mention it and no firm evidence has appeared to support this…so far.
Urchfont is a fascinating and enchanting smaller manor house which successfully plays the neat visual trick of looking larger than it is – at least from some angles. The two key views of the house are from the main road from the village, which gave a clear view of the east front and the road running below the south front (the house was once more visible; maps from 1880s show only a few clumps of trees, much fewer than there are now). If one only saw these two fronts, one might think this a large, cube-shaped house – but move round to the north and the house is clearly only one room deep on the east front. A lovely piece of social aggrandisement. The house passed through various families and was tenanted before being bought by another lawyer, Hamilton Rivers-Pollock, in 1928, who lived there until his death in 1941. It then became a home for London children suffering from tuberculosis, and was then bought in 1945 by Wiltshire County Council as a residential college. Now, faced with cutbacks, the council have decided to sell up, amid much local controversy, giving this beautiful house an opportunity to once again become a home.
Across the country in Monmouthshire, The Hill, as the name implies, sits rather proudly on the edge of Abergavenny. Built in the mid-18th century, the house sits in 20-acres of gardens (which are included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic
Interest in Wales) from a once larger estate, the residential spread of the town having crept up towards it. Sadly, poor planning has led to a small residential estate taking up the grounds to the east of the house, and further buildings associated with its time as a college now stand between them and the house. This makes it exceptionally unlikely that the house would become a single-family home again but potentially a high-quality development, replacing the modern buildings and respecting the grounds, could offer a workable solution.
On a larger scale, the curse of the associated buildings also blights Bedgebury Park, Kent. The original house of the estate, seat of the influential Culpepper family, financed by a flourishing iron business based on the clay-ironstone on which it sits, was to the east of the current grand mansion (now a lake), and played host to Elizabeth I, who visited in August 1573. The current house was built in 1688 for Sir James Hayes, a man who had become wealthy through his wife’s inheritance and financing the recovery of jewels and gold from a sunken Spanish ship. Sir John Cartier bought it in 1789 and added some impressive plasterwork and the chain of lakes on the estate. Following Cartier’s death, Bedgebury was bought by one of the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted men, Field Marshal Viscount Beresford. He commissioned Alexander Roos c.1838 and the subsequent extensive alterations and the addition of the cross wings to create the H-shape, obscured the red-brick original behind an impressive cladding of warm, honey-coloured sandstone ashlar, creating a house which positively glows in the sun. Inherited by Alexander Beresford Hope in 1854, he made his mark on the house by adding the impressive Neo-Classical stairhall and the striking mansard roof.
The house was bought by the Church Education Corporation with 200-acres in 1919, opening as a school with just five pupils in 1920. It quickly grew and new buildings were added in the grounds providing extra teaching and residential facilities, before closing in 2006. Now offered at £7.5m, the grade-II* house sits in a 90-acre estate awaiting its future. The brochure mentions that the local planning department are open to the idea of it becoming a single unit residence again – a possibly tempting prospect for a billionaire who needs an impressive house, a small estate, and doesn’t mind having to demolish the modern school buildings which have sprung up. Considering the quality of the interiors, this must surely be a feasible prospect, especially in light of the recent sale of Park Place for £140m which proved that there are those willing to pay exceptional prices for the best quality properties.
For those seeking to move into a former school which has been partially restored to the highest standards and now only requires the finishing touches (if you have a couple of million pounds available), then possibly the finest option would be Apethorpe, Northamptonshire. This fascinating Tudor/Jacobean/Elizabethan house has played a supporting role in royal entertainments for 500 years and features some of the finest plaster ceilings in the country – and became a particularly grand school between the late 1940s and 1982, when it closed. Bought by an absentee owner, it languished for years, flirting with dereliction. Finally, intervention by English Heritage brought it into their care and it’s currently for sale for offers around £5m (English Heritage reputedly spent £7m on the rescue so far), and would require another approximately £4m to complete the restoration. On an remarkable side note; the fact that Apethorpe was saved from the usual vandalism, arson and theft which so often afflicts empty buildings, was largely due to the tireless efforts of the caretaker, George Kelley, who carried on even though he wasn’t being paid to do so.
The most recent closure (at least partially) is of St Michael’s in Tawstock, Devon. Originally known as Tawstock Court, it was built in 1787 in a provincial Gothick style to replace an Elizabethan house which burnt down that same year. Although the staff and parents have made heroic efforts to save it, the concern for them is that the house will fall into the hands of developers who will convert it into flats – and considering the poor job most do of such a task, their concerns are very valid.
In these straitened times, sadly a number of parents and councils will be forced to economise and schools, usually private, may well close. Sad though this will inevitably be for the many current and former pupils, it does also offer a possibility that these houses may revert to their former role for which they were designed – and few would argue that the spectacular Marshcourt in Hampshire, designed by Lutyens, was better off as a school. However, as the roll call of struggling schools lengthens, it is important that the future of the often wonderful buildings, which gave each school their character, are given due priority to ensure an appropriate transition and restoration if the opportunity arises for them to return to being family homes.
Although country houses were built primarily as homes, an integral and important function was their use for entertaining. However, one dramatic change has been the nature of the guests and how they paid for their visits – and the birth of the refined country house holiday now regarded as the best the hospitality industry can offer. That said, running such a hotel is no guaranteed path to the wealth suggested by the lifestyle; with huge initial costs, large ongoing expenses and the elusive need for profitability leading to the recent troubles for the Von Essen hotel chain which had dominated this niche, including running the finest country house hotel – Cliveden, before collapsing under their own ambition. The chase for profitability has also led to some shocking schemes for building further accommodation which can be seen in the recent proposals for Wyreside Hall in Lancashire.
Country houses have long been used as accommodation for travellers, be they friends of the owning family or, more spectacularly in medieval and Renaissance periods, for the monarch. Often considered a great honour (supposedly there are more beds in which Queen Elizabeth I has apparently slept than nights she was alive), the occasion of a royal visit – or the possibility of one – would cause local aristocrats, or those aspiring, to refurbish suites of rooms such as at Burghley, Hatfield House, and Kirby Hall (even though Elizabeth I never came to the latter). Sometimes, the ruinous expense of hosting the royal retinue would sometimes leave the owner with a title but also debts they’d be paying off for decades.
The heights of country house entertaining were reached by the Victorians and Edwardians who popularised, amongst the aristocracy, the vast weekend house party. This led to houses being built or extended to create, in effect, large hotels. The key difference was the guests were pre-selected from a narrow social strata and were expected to ‘pay’ for the hospitality with reciprocal entertainment or with business or political favours. The greater the social elevation of the guests, so the number of staff required increased, leading to some houses, particularly at the cream of society, such as Eaton Hall and Clumber House, being greatly extended. Eaton Hall eventually numbered around 150 bedrooms ranging from those for the honoured guests down to the lowliest servants who would share dormitories. Sadly, it was these sizeable extensions and aggrandisements which were largely the reason for their demolition in the 20th-century in their hundreds as austerity hit home and these huge palaces became unaffordable.
Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the longest serving Regent and developed a highly cultivated habit of ‘weekending’ at country houses, especially his own at Sandringham, Norfolk. His preferences have been said to have laid the foundations for not only the practice of weekend visits but also for indulging with grand breakfasts followed by country activities such as shooting, followed by convivial dinners. Such was his reputation that some owners would fear a visit for the expense involved with one family, the Gurneys of Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, allegedly burning down a wing to forestall such a visit. By contrast, in 1902, when Edward VII visited Burton in Staffordshire an entire wing was built and named after him in his honour at Rangemore Hall.
Country house visiting had been a common activity for the travelling aristocrat in the Georgian era (a topic explored in a previous article ‘How tourism split a house from the estate‘). Often calling on those they knew, they would also call on the notable houses in an area (an acceptable enough practice to be included by Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice‘) – and the owners of these ‘show houses’ were happy to parade their good taste. By the beginning of the 18th-century, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Wilton and Burghley had become the ‘must-see’ houses for the country house tourist – later joined by Houghton, Holkham, Eaton Hall and Kedleston. Sadly, visitors weren’t always there for the educational opportunities of seeing some of the finest art in the world – as Horace Walpole lamented regarding the visitors to his father’s Houghton Hall, where he was a guide, the worst were the seers:
…they come, ask what such a room is called, in which Sir Robert lay, write it down, admire a lobster or a cabbage in a market-piece, dispute whether the last room was green or purple, and then back to the inn for fear the fish should be overdressed.
It’s the last line which is of particular interest – even the well-to-do Georgian guest would be staying in a nearby coaching inn unless they had family nearby. By the Victorian era, the nature and number of the guests had changed, but still the houses were private residences – until 1878 when the first country house became a hotel; Tregenna Castle near St Ives, Cornwall. The catalyst was the extension of the railway, and the purchasers of a initial lease on Tregenna, before buying the freehold in 1895, was the Great Western Railway who could not only provide the destination, but the means to get there.
The growth of a paying middle class in the Victorian and Edwardian eras created demand – but most importantly, both eras were about aspiration. The middle class may not have had the wealth to run a country house (and in the 1930s and 1950s, many owners didn’t either) but they certainly wanted to experience it. The glut of country houses which became available in the first half of the 20th-century presented many opportunities for the hospitality industry to cater for these new markets. For the upper classes, although many had been forced to sell up or move out, they still wanted to continue the lifestyle – though not necessarily alongside the nouveau riche. This created another market for the exclusive country club with clear social stratification driving the finest hotels to become bywords for extravagant elegance – something still clear today (though entry is more socially open) when one looks at hotels such as Cliveden or Stoke Park.
Though initially slow to take-off, the first half of the 20th-century saw a number of houses become hotels; in 1929, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire and North Bovey Manor, Devon (another for the Great Western Railway), Welcombe Manor, Warwickshire in 1931, Otterburn Tower, Northumberland and Studley Priory, Oxfordshire, both in 1947 and Greywalls in Scotland in 1948, to name but a few. Gravetye Manor was sold to Peter Herbert in 1957, when he paid £57,000 and charged £2 per night. One author reported that the 1995 Egon Ronay guide listed 220 country house hotels, and the Historic Houses Association estimated that a quarter of the country houses sold between 1972-1990 were converted into hotels. Though some have inevitably failed, the trend continues with one of the most recent being Coworth Park, built in 1776, opening in September 2010.
This potential re-use of the houses has not always been benign. The nature of hotels is that the bedrooms generate the income so the more you have the better for them – though usually not for the architectural cohesion of the house. In hotel terms, many houses would not be economic which has led to the building of large, and not necessarily sensitive, additions. Considering the original intentions of country house owners were to demonstrate their wealth and taste and to build a house to last, rarely are the modern extensions designed with anything approaching the same care and expense so there is an inevitable mismatch. Many a country house hotel is scarred with poor quality and visually flawed wings which are almost designed to detract from the main house – but then buildings designed by accountants never win prizes for beauty.
Although there is evidence of a greater sensitivity in recent years where new wings are tucked away from the main house and linked by corridors, it seems that there are still some owners who see the house as merely an ornament to put on the front cover of the brochure whilst they ruin the setting. It was hoped that the worst schemes were behind us but sometimes one is proposed which is so bad that it would be laughable if it didn’t threaten a fine (though currently not in the best condition) house – Wyreside Hall in Lancashire (hat-tip to Matthew Steeples for flagging this one up).
The house was originally built in the 17th-century but was remodelled in 1790 by the then owner, John Fenton Crawthorne, MP, to a design by the gifted architect, Robert Adam. Though the full scheme wasn’t implemented, the exterior benefited from a graceful symmetry with the drawing room, dining room and library also completed to his plans (though apparently no evidence of their decoration now remains). The now Grade-II house remained in the Garrett family until 1936 after which it became a school and then home for a local motorsport legend. The scheme that has now been proposed learns none of the lessons of sensitive hotel development (or any work involving heritage) over the last 50 years.
Yes, it really is that ugly. The design effectively doubles the size of the house and, as can be seen from the plan (scroll to page 44 – no direct link, sorry), the associated access roads, parking and ‘landscaping’ ruin the immediate setting of the house. The usual arguments have been made about this bringing jobs to the area but if we must sacrifice the very heritage which gives an area a distinct identity, which attracts tourists or the wealthy (who usually also spend money locally) then it’s a poor bargain. Wyre Council should throw out this and any subsequent plan which displays equally limited thinking and such an arrogant disregard for the architectural heritage of the area. As we’ve seen, country house hotels can work – but not when they are at the expense of the original building.
This is the last post for 2011 – 43 posts in total, now over 350 subscribers to the blog, nearly 210,000 pages served up; and 850 followers of @thecountryseat on Twitter, so all-in-all, a fairly impressive level of interest; thank you! Matthew
One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites. I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)? However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.
Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881). Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics. Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.
According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built. However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.
Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24. His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt. The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic. He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan. This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.
For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic. However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions. Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later. During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.
It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect. Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design. The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden. The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.
Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified. Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.
“Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree? Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element. Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior. The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.
By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification. Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of Burges‘ Castell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens. However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers. However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible. So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“. I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications. Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.
Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better. To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.
Despite the obvious deep and passionate interest society has with historic buildings every year the SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk Register highlights just how many properties are still under threat from neglect and those in power who believe the only good building is a new one with their name on the opening ceremony plaque. The 2011 BaR register – ‘Take a Chance on Me‘ – has just been published and sadly, as always, it contains some country houses which really deserve a better fate.
Perhaps the one of the most attractive, both architecturally and in terms of being a case for restoration is Blackborough Hall, near Cullompton in Devon. This elegant, if thoroughly dilapidated grade-II house, is a remnant of the grand building plans of the Earl of Egremont whose many-columned main house, Silverton Park, was demolished in 1902. The house is actually two, as when built in 1838, it formed one house at the front and a second at the rear for the local rector. In recent years it became a car scrap yard which covers most of the immediate grounds and would obviously need clearing first – though I suspect the costs could be made back through selling some of the classic cars. The house is currently for sale for a nice round £1m and has been listed with Winkworths who, after an initially poor showing, have now managed to put a few more photos and a floor-plan online.
Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire has a grade-II* listing putting it in the top 4% of buildings nationally but that hasn’t stopped it making an entry into the Register this year. Originally built in 1633 for the Earls of Harrington it was largely rebuilt in a ‘Gothick’ style c.1817 to designs by James Wyatt. Now owned and managed by Derbyshire County Council (who had a fairly poor record in the 20th-century of demolishing country houses in their ‘care’) it is today mostly vacant and with the Council now claiming it can’t afford to maintain it they are seeking a developer to get them out of a hole of their own making. Luckily an active local campaigning group – the Friends of Elvaston Castle – have been objecting to these plans and trying to force the Council to face up to their responsibilities – though perhaps there is an opportunity for someone else to come up with a viable plan.
Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria presents the interesting confusion of a Scots Baronial design in England. Built in the 1870s by a stubborn man, one Myles Kennedy, who wanted to buy Conishead Priory for £30,000, but who met an equally stubborn vendor who wouldn’t accept less than £35,000. Mr Kennedy may have come to regret his obstinacy when presented with the final bill which totalled nearly £45,000. The sum reflected the high quality of the workmanship, particularly the impressive High Victorian Gothic grand hall (scroll down) which originally had a fine staircase which was later removed when the house became a special school to make it easier to play indoor football (seriously, where do they find these people?!). The house then became a corporate headquarters during which it time it was restored to a high-standard before falling into neglect. Repeated enabling development proposals have been rejected (not that the council is against it) so this house either needs someone willing to restore the house on the back of a sensitive ED proposal – or, ideally, someone to rescue this house and make it a home again.
Another house which would make a fantastic home is Plas Gwynfryn in south Wales. This house has been featured before on this blog (‘Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd‘) which sparked some passionate debate in the comments about who the owner is – and that same unresolved question is why the house makes an appearance in the BaR this year. Built in 1866 to replace an earlier one, this distinctive house – described in the listing description as ‘romantically assymetrical’ – was a hospital in WWII, before becoming an orphanage and then a hotel before a serious fire in 1982 gutted it. Although in a derelict condition this house can be restored and would once again be a fine part of the local architectural heritage.
The Register is available from 1 June 2011 priced at £15 (£13 to Friends of SAVE) and can be ordered from the SAVE website. The BaR contains many other types of property so even if your budgets are less lavish than these house might require it is well worth having a look. Of course, SAVE does superb work across the country to protect our architectural heritage and I would strongly urge everyone to become a Friend to help support their efforts (well, I would say that as I’m on the Committee – but I’d also say it anyway!) which will also give you access to the online version of the BaR register which contains hundreds of other potential future success stories.
A more comprehensive list of country houses currently at risk can be found on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Houses at Risk‘
For some who inherit, the weight of family history can easily overcome the burden of running a historic home on a limited budget. As we saw in the previous episode of Country House Rescue at Trereife House in Cornwall, the desire to not be the generation which loses the ancestral home, a prospect which faced the Le Grice family who had been there since 1799. So imagine the weight of responsibility facing the Lucas-Scudamore family who have lived for ten centuries at Kentchurch Court in Herefordshire.
The house itself was originally a Saxon tower with further additions in the 14th-century. However, the main style of the house as it stands today is due to work commissioned from the famous Regency architect John Nash (b.1752 – d.1835). More importantly, Kentchurch is a significant as one of a number of houses built in the area around that time which were a visible expression of a new wave of architectural fashion; the Picturesque.
When thinking of Georgian architecture many think of the symmetrical classical façades and strictly proportioned Palladian designs which were so prevalent in that era. Yet one house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, was to be the catalyst for a new way of thinking, breaking these patterns and ushering in a more organic way of viewing architecture. This saw the house as part of a landscape with the design playing its part in the beauty of the view as much as the lakes, gardens and parkland. Originally an unremarkable house, it was bought in 1747 by the wealthy Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and fourth son of Walpole the Prime Minister, who was an astute observer of society, art, and architecture. Walpole contributed little to art but was particularly well read and as he pursued his academic studies decided to start experimenting with alterations to his house.
His original changes from about 1749 were uncontroversial and, importantly, followed the convention for symmetry. However, from 1753 onwards the interiors were fashioned in a gothic style with the help of what he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ comprising a few of his equally well-read friends. This experimentation was confined to the interiors until, in 1759, he broke with architectural convention and had a great circular tower constructed but which, radically, had no matching pair. The house was to continue to grow in a rather free fashion which can still be admired today (particularly so following the completion of phase one of a fantastic restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the World Monuments Fund). The house became famous, attracting day trippers in large numbers and spawned imitators; though it was James Wyatt’s Lee Priory (built 1785-90 – dem. 1955) which was said to the be first ‘child of Strawberry’. Also considered worthy, and also designed by Wyatt were the fantastical Fonthill Abbey (collapsed in 1825) for William Beckford, and Ashridge Park for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.
One man particularly taken with this new style was Richard Payne Knight, a Herefordshire MP and intellectual with a large inheritance. Using his wealth, in 1774 Payne Knight started the construction of a new home, Downton Castle, which bore similarities to Strawberry Hill, with the asymmetry and a large circular tower, and an irregular plan which was quite radical for the time. This house was a prototype for a new ‘castellated’ style of house which was to be popular for fifty years from about 1790. Driving this new style was the publication of three key books, the first two in 1794; ‘The Landscape, a Didactic Poem‘ by Payne Knight, and ‘Essay on the Picturesque‘, a brilliant reply in support by Uvedale Price (another local landowner), and, in 1795, ‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening‘ by the landscape-gardener, Humphrey Repton, who formed a successful and highly influential partnership with the architect John Nash that same year.
Nash had moved to Aberystwyth after his bankruptcy following a failed speculative buildings scheme in Bloomsbury in London. Yet, the contacts he was to make in Wales led to Nash becoming one of the leading architects of the Picturesque. The early development of his interest in the ideas of the movement can be seen when he designed a castellated triangular lodge for Uvedale Price sometime between 1791-4. He also worked for Thomas Johnes at the spectacular Hafod estate where Johnes had planted 3 million trees to paradoxically create a more ‘natural’ looking Picturesque landscape.
For Nash, the ideas he developed in that short period from 1790 until he left to go back to London in 1796, were what made him one of the most significant architects of the period. The influence of Downton Castle and Nash also created a strong regional collection of these mock castles – Garnons (dem. 1957), Saltmarshe Castle (dem. 1955), Goodrich Court (dem. 1950), Garnstone Castle (by Nash, built 1806-10 – dem. 1958) Hampton Court Castle (alterations 1830s-40s) and extending down to Devon where Nash designed perhaps one of his best creations; Luscombe Castle (built 1800-4), and into Cornwall, where he designed Caerhays Castle (built 1807-10).
By their very nature these were large houses and often a little impractical which sadly meant many were demolished. This is why Kentchurch Court is important – not only is an early work by Nash in the style of house which was to become his trademark, but it’s also one of the survivors of the tragedy of the many demolished country houses.
Perhaps the current Mrs Lucas-Scudamore should be grateful, in some ways, that their branch only inherited some fine carvings from the sale of the other much grander family seat, the grade-I Holme Lacy House (now a hotel) rather than the house itself with its 9 fine rooms with plaster ceilings which Pevsner though to be some of the best in the county. The story of Kentchurch Court today is a familiar one of a family with an incredible history and a fine house and estate struggling with the usual demands for maintenance and £120,000 per year running costs. Mrs Lucas-Scudamore and her two children (Mr Lucas-Scudamore being estranged and living away) battle on with determination but managing a house like this requires a money tree not a family tree – but this house is too important to be neglected.
Inheritance is a double-edged sword – for all the perceived luck of being given a large country house, the reality is that, in many cases, the house requires significant investment. For some, this is a chance to shine; to put in place the plans they had been making, or develop new talents and unexpected skills. For others it quickly becomes burden as it pushes them into situations they seem unprepared for – as it frequently proves on Country House Rescue. This week (27 March), heading back down to the south west, Ruth Watson visits Trereife House in Cornwall, to a house threatened by the odd schemes of the owner.
Trereife (pronounced ‘treeve’) nestles in the hills above Penzance, an neat pink hued Queen Anne house with an elegant parterre garden laid out below the south front. The original house was an Elizabethan farmhouse which was home to the Nicholls family, who had become wealthy landowners and minor gentry through farming and marriage. The first records of them is the marriage of William Nicholls (also known as William Trereife) in 1590, though it is thought the family had been in the area for several generations earlier. The design of the grade-II* house as we see it today is the result of an extensive rebuilding in 1708 which not only added the wonderful Queen Anne front with its hipped roof but also created some fine interiors with plasterwork ceilings, probably by travelling Italian workmen, who were known to have worked on several houses in the south west.
Architecturally, the echoes of the style of Trereife can be seen at the much grander Antony House for the much wealthier Carew family. The house was begun in 1718 shortly after Trereife’s remodelling and so is technically Georgian (Queen Anne died in 1714) but the basic form of the house is similar. Also Boconnoc House, near Lostwithiel, displays the same two-storey with dormer windows design as Trereife and Antony – though again for a much wealthier family, the Pitts. Boconnoc features later alterations in 1786 by Thomas Pitt, cousin of Pitt (the Younger) the Prime Minister, in conjunction with Sir John Soane, who he had met in Italy in 1778, which probably explains the serlian window to the projecting bay. Another house of a similar design was Dunsland House, Devon which was one of the most important houses in the area, with particularly fine plasterwork, which sadly burnt down in 1967. On a smaller scale than any of these, but possibly even more beautiful, is Great Treverran, near Fowey, a compact (one room deep) house built in 1704 but given a dose of grandeur with fine granite Ionic columns, it was last sold in 2003 for around £650,000 and is now wasted as a holiday cottage.
Trereife is a significant part of a great tradition of Cornish houses with a fine family history with connections to the Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt through Revd Charles Valentine Le Grice, affectionately known as ‘CV’. The house passed to the Le Grice family through inheritance in 1821 following the marriage of Mary Nicholls, whose son had died childless, to ‘CV’ in 1799. The house is now owned by Tim Le Grice, a solicitor who inherited the neglected house in 1986 from his grandmother and who now lives at Trereife with his family.
Sadly, Tim appears ill-equipped for the role as country house rescuer as a series of slightly eccentric – gypsy caravan theme park anyone? – or badly planned business ventures have taken up significant time and money with little to show for it. For the family, the £40,000 per year running costs were proving ruinous and so they turned to Ruth for advice; which is typically hard-hitting. Much as the family would rather avoid having their family finances shared with the nation this appears to be the only way to persuade Tim that he needs to draw on the skills and experience of his literary agent daughter to organise events and his wife to develop the potential for B&B and weddings within the house. Considering that the house now comes up well in Google searches as a venue for weddings and events it seems that Ruth was right – and has hopefully enabled another family to remain in their ancestral home.
Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland. A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.
The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.
Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one. The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges. His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style. Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh. By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced. Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.
The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres. The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968. Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways. His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.
When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”. Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.
Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode. Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”. Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.
The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics. From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.
According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree. Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702. He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.
The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855. The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem. On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon. His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917). Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:
“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”
The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her. In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913). Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.
Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907 the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.
Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house. Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.
The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley. Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.
The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub. Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.
Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit. Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.
Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries. A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside. Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.
English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage. Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984. As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire). It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses. Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?
Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.
One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837. The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building. Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture. Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.
The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition. Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building. Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf. Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.
Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society. Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house. It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit. However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.
Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage. It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.
The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use. These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments. Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?
It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex. These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.
All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer. Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.
I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.