The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively. The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought. As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!
The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.
Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate. The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.
Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral. Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements. Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.
The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967. Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.
Country House Rescue – Series 3
My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:
One rather unscientific barometer of the health of the country house market is the thickness of Country Life magazine as it comes through the letterbox each week. After the thinning of the issue in the run-up to Christmas it’s always pleasing to feel the first weighty edition of the new year. Yet, though this week’s issue (2 March) boasts ’70 pages of property for sale’ it’s remarkable that the estate agents have so few significant country houses to offer and of those that are there, it seems, along with last week’s issue, the largest houses are relaunches.
One of the most interesting is grade-II listed Pyrford Court, Surrey. Originally built in 1910 for the 2nd Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness brewing family, it was one of a group of houses built around that time on the profits of beer (along with Polesden Lacey, Elveden Hall, and Bailliffscourt). The land was sold to Lord Iveagh by his father-in-law, Lord Onslow, whose family had owned the area since the 17th-century. The house was designed by Clyde Young who had also worked at Elveden, another seat of the Guinness family, though the sensitively designed wings were added in 1927-29 by J.A. Hale of Woking to designs by Lord Iveagh. The stylish neo-Georgian house is an elegant red-brick composition which originally sat in a 1,000-acre estate – though sadly now reduced to just 21-acres. Lord Iveagh died in 1967 and the house sat empty until sold in 1977 – apart from a brief burst of fame as a location in the 1965 film ‘The Omen’. The house then became an old people’s home with all the attendant damage until the current owners started their seven-figure restoration.
Pyrford Court was originally launched on the market in January 2010 for an ambitious £20m, a staggering rise in valuation from the £3.25m paid in 2000 and from the £8m asking price when it was offered for sale in 2002 (reduced, a year later, to £6.5m). Yet this proved too much for the market to take; even for a ‘super-prime’ house within 25 miles of central London, and despite the high-quality restoration of the impressive interiors. It subsequently languished and has now been promoted with a double-page advert – though the price is ‘on application’ meaning we won’t yet know quite how far the price has dropped. However, looking at the other houses Savills have for sale in the area this is by far the most interesting and attractive house.
Another impressive house is the classically elegant, red-brick Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire. Although the architect hasn’t been confirmed, the fact that it is virtually identical to Hatton Grange in Shropshire by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, means it can probably be attributed to him. The house was built in the late 1750s for Bartholomew Richard Barneby, probably using the £3,000 brought to him through his marriage in 1756 to one Betty Freeman. The Barneby family had owned the estate since the 15th-century and were to own it until 1946 when John Talbot Lutley (who was a descendent of the Barneby family) left the house and 1,200-acre estate to the National Trust. Col. Lutley was a no-nonsense man who, on hearing of the NT country houses scheme, wrote them a short letter in 1938 saying that as he was a bachelor whose heirs were rather distant, would they be interested?
James Lees-Milne was duly dispatched – and almost rejected it on sight as it wasn’t pure Georgian due to some relatively small Victorian alterations. However, after a tour of the estate and on seeing the beautiful Lower Brockhampton Manor, he felt that the latter two would be fine additions for the Trust – even if the big house would be a drain. It was duly left to the NT in 1946 following the Colonel’s death. Neither the house nor the contents were of sufficient quality to justify retaining or opening to the public so they sought to let it. Unfortunately no private tenant wished to take it on, usually citing its remoteness, however in 1985 an insurance company let the house as offices and undertook a comprehensive restoration programme. After they moved out in 1996 it was again restored as a private home and is now available with just 8-acres but surrounded by the rest of the NT-owned estate. Interestingly the house is listed under the ‘Sales’ section of the Jackson-Stops & Staff website but I suspect this is due to it being leasehold – again ‘price on application’ so the price of the privilege is unknown, but the house has been advertised since last summer so it may be cheaper than before.
Perhaps the most surprising house to still be available is the grand Ebberly House, Devon. Rather than the expected provincial house, this is a house which displays remarkable architectural sophistication. Described by Pevsner as ‘unusual and attractive’, whose distinctive rounded ends ‘hint at the variety of room shapes inside; a provisional echo of the interest of contemporary architects such as Nash and Soane’. Designed by Thomas Lee of Barnstaple, a pupil of Sir John Soane, the grade-II* house compensates for it’s remoteness with a fantastic house set in a fine 250-acre estate. Offers in excess of £4m on the back of a postcard to Savills in Exeter.
Perhaps there are some clever marketing plans being hatched at the estate agents which means that rather than pushing their best properties in the first big property edition of Country Life of 2011 they’re saving them for…when? Bonuses have just been announced and those looking to buy are probably active so perhaps there is just a general scarcity of significant country houses coming to the market. Does this indicate 2011 will be rather thin for the agents as uncertainty limits buyers to the super-rich looking for somewhere in London or will the market pick up and a slew of new houses soon be released to whet our appetites?
The size of a country house was traditionally the physical embodiment of the wealth (or aspirations) of the owner. Yet as the role of the country house changed and the emblems of power altered, new, smaller forms of houses to emerge for both the aristocracy and minor gentry. The acceptability of a smaller house was to prove valuable in the financial crises of the 20th-century – though this is not to say that the later houses lacked anything in terms of quality of interiors or the richness of the architectural language used outside.
Wealth was obviously the most important consideration when deciding on the size of the house. However, the learned sophistication of many of the lesser aristocracy meant that although their funds may not be able to provide a palace, they were well-versed in the aesthetics of good (often Classical) architecture. This meant they were able to commission or design for themselves coherent and elegant smaller houses, giving us the much-coveted Queen Anne or Georgian smaller houses we see today up and down the country, such as Puslinch House in Devon.
The considerations in the 20th-century were also financial but driven by a different set of demands. The financial pressures of the early part of the century, particularly the agricultural slump and the Wall Street crash, naturally limited the size of the houses built (though not all e.g. Gledstone Hall by Sir Edwin Lutyens built in 1926). Yet, the changing social climate also meant that not only was it considered somewhat insensitive to build such large palaces, it was also unnecessary as the houses no longer required so many bedrooms to accommodate the now vanished armies of staff and house guests who used to turn up for the large weekend parties.
Yet smaller didn’t have to mean less interesting as architects faced up to the new challenges with intelligent interpretations of Georgian, whilst others sought to experiment with different styles, such as at the now grade-II listed Hurtwood Edge in Surrey, where the builder/architect Arthur Bolton created an Italian villa in the English countryside.
In the immediate period following World War II, many larger houses, having been requisitioned and mistreated, were demolished, but the families often retained the ancestral estate but now required a new seat. The tight restrictions on materials, particularly for ‘luxury building’ under the Socialist Attlee government, naturally limited the ambitions of the owners. Yet the election of Conservatives in 1951 ushered in the gradual lifting of the restrictions until their abolition in 1954 which allowed a new wave of construction. The war seemed to have had a lasting effect – or maybe fear of a future Socialist government enacting a tax based on house size – as many of the houses were significantly smaller than those in previous eras.
An example of this is Eaton Hall, seat of the Dukes of Westminster, where, following the demolition between 1961-63 of Sir Alfred Waterhouse’s high Gothic-Revival masterpiece, it was decided that a new house should be built. The commission went to John Dennys, who happened to be the Duke’s brother-in-law, for a starkly modern house which sat cross-wise on the main axis of the old house. Unfortunately in this case the new house was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the setting, appearing too small against the remaining buildings and the as the focus for the grand gardens. Worse, the house was unsuccessfully remodelled again in the late 1980s in an almost French chateau-style to create a larger house.
In recent years, planning restrictions have usually limited the size of new houses (though not always; see my recent post on large houses). The lack of architecturally educated clients has naturally led to a growth in crass, ugly smaller country houses, but all is not lost as determined clients are still able to demand and produce good designs, such as the one proposed for Harewood Park in Herefordshire, now mooted as the potential marital home for Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Ever since the Harewood Park estate was bought by the Duchy of Cornwall in 2000 as part of a larger purchase of 12,000 acres, rumours had been circulating that it would be for one of the Princes. The original house had been demolished in 1959 so the expectation was that another would have to be built if it was to have such a role. Considering the views of the Prince of Wales on modern architecture there was little surprise when a planning application was submitted in 2006 for a strongly Classical small country house by Craig Hamilton Architects.
Craig Hamilton originally prepared three designs but the final design (shown above) complements the existing stables and is perhaps the most interesting and the one successfully submitted for approval.
The house is based around the motif of the triumphal arch but, apparently drawing on the influence of Sir John Soane, it presents a simplified version rather than the more decorated versions often seen. Soane was schooled in the Classical style but re-invented the language to create a new direction for Neo-Classicalism; a much simpler version with an emphasis on the effective use of space and most importantly, light. Soane spent several years in Italy and was well-versed in Roman architecture and incorporated the three-arch motif into his designs, notably the entrance front to his own house at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, west London, and in one of his most impressive commissions for the old Bank of England (scandalously demolished in the the 1920s) as seen in the internal Lothbury Court.
The new Harewood Park is an inventive extension of this Soanian language and it’s encouraging that the planners had the courage to approve what will surely be one of the most interesting smaller country houses built in the UK. Sadly, I suspect that for security reasons, we won’t see the house featured in Country Life but I keep my fingers crossed.
Competition: nominate your choice for ‘England’s Favourite House’
This seems a good moment to mention the competition to find the best smaller country house (i.e. with less than seven bedrooms). Most people have a favourite and usually it’s not so much the grand palaces of Chatsworth or Blenheim but the smaller houses of our local areas which form part of our local heritage. The competition is being run by Country Life magazine and Savills the estate agents and the house should be in private ownership and not currently for sale. The deadline is Wednesday 24 November 2010 so submit your suggestions as soon as possible.
Country houses are often launched on the market to catch either bonus money early in the year or those looking to move before the summer. However, circumstances or owner preference can lead to some interesting houses being given a promotional push in the autumn (usually through Country Life magazine) to catch those who fancy Christmas in front a different log fire. So, here’s a quick round-up of some of the better country houses currently for sale.
Easily one of the most impressive houses is one that has always been a sign for me that I’m nearly home when travelling back to Devon on the train. Just outside Exeter is the beautiful grade-II* listed Upton Pynes, which, despite the very English sounding name, bears a striking resemblance to a French chateau. Built c.1700 by Hugh Stafford with very sympathetic later additions, this large but elegant house sits in a commanding position in the Exe Valley, perfectly positioned to catch the sun throughout the day, giving the red-brick façades a warm glow. Described by Pevsner as “…an excellent example of the stately double-pile house that became popular after the Restoration but is relatively rare in Devon.”, the interior features a particularly grand entrance hall created as part of alterations in 1852 by the architect Ambrose Poynter for Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (later the Earl of Iddesleigh). The main interiors of the house, including an enfilade of rooms on the south front and a notable library, largely dates from 1700. The house also has the claim that it was the one Jane Austen had in mind when describing ‘Barton House’ in ‘Sense & Sensibility’. The house still requires some restoration but will definitely reward whoever completes this grand project.
Sometimes a grand house designed by an interesting architect can remarkably remain unlisted, as is the case with the Edwardian Crendle Court in Dorset which was designed by Walter H. Brierley (b.1862 – d.1926) who has been described as ‘the Yorkshire Lutyens’. A prolific architect, he designed over 300 buildings including schools, churches and several country houses including the elegant neo-Georgian Sion Hill Hall in Yorkshire. Brierley was a versatile architect able to work successfully in various styles though with a preference for ‘Wrenaissance’ – a modern re-working of the architectural language of Sir Christopher Wren. Crendle Court was built in 1909 and features elaborate ornamental plasterwork in the main reception rooms by George Bankart, and sits, well, more luxuriates, in 270-acres of grounds. Considering the architect and the quality English Heritage ought to send someone round to evaluate and spot list it before it gets ruined by someone with more money than taste.
Other significant houses available were launched earlier but are now being promoted following price cuts. One such house is the grade-II* listed Rudby Hall in Yorkshire, which was originally given a guide price of £3.5m but now is offered at £2.75m. Designed by Anthony Salvin in 1838 for the 10th Viscount Falkland, who originally called it Leven Grove, but by the late 19th-century it was known as Skutterskelfe Hall before being given its present name by the company which owned it in the 1990s. The house was restored in the 1980s and comprises the main house but with the ancillary buildings converted into let accommodation bringing in a handy £50,000 p/a – so long as you don’t mind sharing your gardens, grounds and woodlands with them.
For those who fancy something more baronial, then Blairquhan Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland may be perfect. The core of the property is a tower house built in 1346 but was later given a new front by William Burn in 1820-24 to provide the imposing if slightly stern façade we see today. The estate was noted for it beauty with Lord Cockburn writing in 1844: “I rose early…and surveyed the beauties of Blairquhan. It deserves its usual praises. A most gentleman-like place rich in all sorts of attractions – of wood, lawn, river, gardens, hill, agriculture and pasture.”. What more could a squire desire?
Most of these houses seem to be with Savills so to even things up, and to include a house I’m surprised hasn’t sold already, is Beaurepaire in Hampshire. The house was featured on the blog in more detail (‘Phoenix for sale: Beaurepaire House, Hampshire‘) when it was first launched in June this year. The house is what remains after a devastating fire in 1942 destroyed the main block of the house, leaving the current service wing which was extensively refurbished and remodelled after WWII to give the elegant house which is for sale today. Approached down a long drive, what guest couldn’t fail to be impressed by the wonderful gates designed by Sir John Soane which guard the entrance over the moat? Sitting in a 250-acre estate, the £8m price tag is probably justified for the area – and the owner is apparently in no rush to sell so don’t expect any big price cut soon.
For all the wonderful work the National Trust has done over the last hundred years saving numerous country houses from demolition, one criticism that has been levelled at it is the almost artificial atmosphere it has created inside. A recent visit to Knightshayes Court in Devon has also highlighted an interesting series of judgements as to how far an interior should be restored, even to the point of creating a room which was planned but never executed.
Knightshayes Court sits in an elevated and enviable position above the market town of Tiverton where the Heathcoat Amory family had the factory which generated their wealth. The family fortune was created by the Loughborough-based John Heathcoat (b.1783 – d.1861) inventor of a revolutionary industrial lace-making machine who moved to Tiverton in 1816 after all 55 machines were smashed by drunken Luddites. A caring man, he ensured the workers were well-housed and the children educated, and the factory became the largest lace-making factory in the world, employing 1,100 workers.
Knightshayes Court, however, was built by his grandson, John Heathcoat Amory (b.1829 – d.1914), whose father had married the only daughter of John Heathcoat, and had added his father-in-laws surname on inheriting. Although politically active, being knighted in 1874, he had sufficient time to indulge the usual pastimes of the wealthy Victorian aristocrat, particularly hunting. So why would a provincial hunting gent commission a house from an eccentric medievalist, such as William Burges?
Burges (b.1827 – d.1881) has been described by Mark Girouard as ‘one of the most Gothic of the Gothicists‘. His spectacular remodelling of Cardiff Castle, and the creation of the fantastical Castell Coch, both for the immensely wealthy 3rd Marquess of Bute, allowed him free reign to indulge his bold and imaginative decorative schemes. Burges worked to a relatively simple philosophy that “No rule can be deduced except the golden one; whatever looks best is best‘ which combined with his other aphorism ‘Money is only a secondary concern in the production of first rate works…There are no bargains in art‘, meant that his work was never going to be cheap. Yet Heathcoat Amory chose him – but the suspicion is that it was his wife Henrietta who made the choice, perhaps on the back of family connections which included the 2nd Lord Carrington for whom Burges had remodelled Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire (now flats), in the late 1850s-early 1860s.
Perhaps John Heathcoat Amory had only given broad instructions as to what he wanted and had left his wife to chose the aesthetics – either way, as paymaster, Sir John would later regret not taking perhaps a closer interest in the choice of architect. Construction of the house started in 1869 and the exterior of the house was built almost exactly to Burges’ original design, with the exception of the reduced height of the great tower and a re-orientation of the billiard room. With the shell completed in July 1870, at a cost of £14,080 (approx. £1m today), the Architect magazine observed that for completion ‘…the actual cost will be something more.‘ – a classic in the canon of architectural understatements as Burges had reserved his most incredible work for the interior.
In 1873, Burges presented the family with a 57-page album of detailed drawings which depicted everything from floor to ceiling. Faced with such a grand and lavish scheme the Heathcoat Amorys abandoned Burges’ scheme, apart from the stone and wood carving, and, in 1874, brought in the cheaper but very talented John Diblee Crace. Crace was the fifth generation of architectural decorators and between 1875 and 1882 he completed the interior of the house in his own more restrained but still colourful designs. The last additions to the house were an extra floor to the service wing in 1885 and a Smoking Room in 1902.
However, in the 1930s and 1950s, when appreciation for Victorian exuberance was at its lowest, the Heathcoat Amorys retreated from the bold colour schemes, removing fireplaces, screen and bookcases and covering or repainting ceilings and walls. So when the National Trust took over in 1973 the house was very different, and less architecturally interesting, than the one of a century earlier. The guide book, to its credit, does an admirable job of spelling out what is original, what was originally planned, what Burges executed, what Crace did, and what the National Trust has restored – and, perhaps more controversially, has recreated.
The obvious question when deciding on restoration is what particular period you pick as the ‘authentic’ period. The National Trust took over Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire in 1987, easily one of the finest Adam houses in the country, but by 1994 the then Lord Scarsdale was complaining that the NT had decided that anything post-1760 had to go. This led to the emptying of rooms, the repainting of others to how they thought Adam had painted them, and the removal in the grounds of anything not thought to have been put there by the first Lord Scarsdale and Robert Adam.
This is in contrast to the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) who state: “In the architectural context “restoration” means work intended to return an old building to a perfect state. It can be the unnecessary renewal of worn features or the hypothetical reconstruction of whole or missing elements; in either case tidy reproduction is achieved at the expense of genuine but imperfect work.“[source].
So was the National Trust wrong to strip back the layers of changes? In view of the fascinating end result and the relative rarity of Burges country houses it can be argued that this work rescued what remained and cleverly exposed the earlier work. But whose earlier work? The guidebook explains that most of the interior is by Crace, and it’s his work which has been restored. Yet upstairs in ‘The Burges Room’, the National Trust took it a step further and took Burges unexecuted plan for that room and created it as it imagined it would have looked.
So is this mere architectural theme park-ism? Perhaps as it has be made clear what has been created from scratch there is less risk of confusion, but considering how few read the guidebook in detail (or at all), the National Trust has the unenviable choice between respecting all the changes or presenting a more visually interesting house but with necessary compromises in architectural integrity. On balance, there has to be a very strong case to take such a course of action otherwise we risk seeing recreations of idealised or imagined versions of houses rather than the rich and varied buildings which have honestly adapted and changed as family homes over time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house. Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.
A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall. In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains. The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).
Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.
For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town. From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.
One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success. When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house. However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont. Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple. At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.
The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex. The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage. The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s. After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism. However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.
So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them. Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.
When Raasay House on the Isle of Skye Raasay was largely destroyed by a huge fire in January 2009 just days before it was due to reopen following a £4m refurbishment, the locals and owners vowed to quickly rebuild the house as it was. Fire has always been one of the major threats to our country houses and when it strikes the responses to the destruction can vary greatly – particularly in the modern era.
For many country house owners in the 16th-19th-centuries immediate rebuilding was the favoured response if funds allowed – either to re-create the original house or sometimes to build an entirely new one. Raasay House was built in 1746 for the clan Macleod after the previous house, built in the 1500s, was deliberately burnt down in 1745 in the wave of retribution which followed the Battle of Culloden. The house, extended in the 1870s, was run as an outdoor pursuits centre and was an important part of the economy on the Isle of Skye Raasay. This meant the response was largely on the basis of local economics which required the house to be rebuild to support the business, apparently not for its intrinsic architectural value. However, the Scottish grade-A listing (equivalent to the English grade-I) means that the ‘new’ Raasay will be a faithful recreation of the original house as it was before the fire.
Although country house owners have long rebuilt, the principle that the house will be strictly rebuilt exactly as it was is, in some ways, a modern response as heritage legislation requires full salvage of any architectural fragments with the presumption of restoration. Insurance companies also pay out for recreation of the old building, not the construction of a new one. So responses now are sometimes based on the architectural or heritage value, and sometimes due to the constraints placed on the owners. The wishes of the owners also play an important part with some looking to recreate whilst others follow the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who state:
Although no building can withstand decay, neglect and depredation entirely, neither can aesthetic judgement nor archaeological proof justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Only as a practical expedient on a small scale can a case for restoration be argued.
The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle destroyed large sections of the State Apartments including the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Queen’s Private Chapel and St George’s Hall. It was quickly decided by the Restoration Committee (headed by Prince Philip) that many of the rooms would be restored to as close as possible their original state with only a few modern rooms and the Queen’s Private Chapel to be restored in a modern style.
However, no lesser organisation than the National Trust also has firmly followed the faithful re-creation approach, particularly following the devastating 1989 fire at Uppark, Sussex. Although the dramatic pictures of the fire would suggest total loss, brave efforts by staff saved the majority of the contents of the house and the fire was found to have only destroyed the attic and first floors whilst severely damaging the ground floor. It was then announced by Martin Sekers, the National Trust’s Regional Director for the Southern Region, that “We feel that enough survives to justify total restoration.”. So how much has to survive to warrant re-creation? A spirited public debate at the time brought forward opposing views such as that expressed by the respected architecture critic Deyan Sudjic who argued in an article in the Sunday Correspondent (17 Sept 1989) that:
“…it won’t actually be Uppark no matter how skilful the work of the 20th Century craftsman who seek to recreate it. What tourists come to see will, in fact, be a replica, one which could be said to diminish those fragments which actually are authentic…”
However, other eminent architectural historians such as Dan Cruikshank came out strongly in favour of recreation principally from the point that it provided the opportunity to re-learn old techniques and provide a model in their use. Andor Gomme argued that a recreated Uppark would be the only appropriate way to show the rescued contents in an appropriate setting. Gomme also highlighted that in previous cases where a house owned by the National Trust had burnt down (the incomparable Coleshill, Berkshire in 1953 and Dunsland House, Devon in 1967) the decision at the time to demolish what remained was later deeply regretted.
So for public organisations the clear preference is strongly in favour of re-creation despite the claims of the modernist and the SPAB that such an approach is to miss an opportunity or is simply fake. Yet, for private country house owners, their long-held preference has been to simply restore as much as possible – even if just the walls were left standing.
When Knepp Castle, Sussex was gutted by fire in 1904, work started in 1905 to recreate John Nash’s original design. Similarly after fires at Bramham Park in 1828, Duncombe Park in 1879, Stourhead in 1902, Monzie Castle in 1903 and Sledmere in 1911, the owners all worked to faithfully recreate the houses to the state as they had been. For houses such as Lees Court in Kent which was almost completely destroyed in 1911 (scroll to last image) the house was just rebuilt using what remained of the outer walls.
So is restoration the best approach? Although there is danger that the new work might be a poor pastiche of the earlier work, to just discard what has been salvaged and what remains and to only allow modern work would seem to be overly dogmatic. However, it will only work if any restoration is of the highest quality to avoid any chance that what is produced is merely a lifeless reproduction. Owners over the last 400-years when faced with a greater or lesser degree of loss have often sought to restore and to continue that tradition today is to draw on a much longer history than to rely only on the intellectual restrictions of the later purists.
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.
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:
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.