HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 2 – Birmingham to Manchester: a delicate dance with one mis-step

Having looked at the impact on country houses of the first branch of the next phase of the HS2 line between Birmingham and Leeds (‘HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others‘) it’s clear that the damaging heritage choices which marred the plans for the first phase between London and Birmingham have been largely avoided.  Can this new spirit be successfully continued as the line tries to find a path to Manchester through a landscape shaped by the many country houses in the area?

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The line emerges from the urban sprawl of Birmingham and swings past Lichfield into the Staffordshire countryside, equidistant between the rivers Trent and Blithe, well to the west of the remains of Hamstall Hall with its beautifully weathered gateway, and Blithfield Hall, which now sits next to the Blithfield reservoir. It also sweeps past well to the north of the first of the great estates on the route, the grand Shugborough Park. The core of the house was built in 1693, but the house house seen today was largely the creation of the architect Thomas Wright, between 1745-48, followed in 1794, by Samuel Wyatt who added the dramatic, ten-column portico. Across the river, the splendid Tixall Gatehouse (to the demolished, later Tixall Hall) also can continue in its peaceful repose.

Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)
Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)

Sadly, a poor route decision follows immediately after, with the line cutting within 400 metres to the south-west [PDF] of the grand front of Ingestre Hall (historical details here).  A former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, the house is a wonderful example of the Jacobean tradition, that short period which developed the drama of the Elizabethan house with classical principles, combining architectural flamboyance with symmetry.  Although Ingestre is no longer a home, and the park a golf course, the embankments of the HS2 line may not be enough to mitigate a serious incursion into the environs of this house.

Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)
Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)

The route continues to the north of Swynnerton, placing the village between the trains and the beautiful seat of Lord Stafford, Swynnerton Hall, which still sits in a 3,000-acre estate. After Newcastle-under-Lyme, the line passes to the east of Doddington Hall, still the seat of the old Staffordshire family, the Broughton-Delves.  The route continues northward, neatly bisecting Winsford and Middlewich, passing to the east of the impressive but now hugely over-developed Bostock Hall with its housing estate at the back.

Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)
Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)

As HS2 heads into Cheshire, the delicate dance to avoid the grand houses and their estates requires some deft footwork. Knutsford is surrounded by important houses but importantly, for us, the line passes west of the beautiful Tabley Hall and estate, which was so atmospherically painted by J.M.W. Turner (the painting can be seen at Petworth in Sussex).  One of the finest examples of the work of John Carr, the house replaced Tabley Old Hall which remained on the estate and was incorporated as an eye-catcher in the landscape as a picturesque ruin.  Also untroubled is Viscount Ashbrook’s family seat of Arley Hall, also well to the west of the line.  Similarly, the ever-grand Tatton Park, once seat of the Egerton family, now owned by the National Trust, and its thousand acres of parkland are kept well clear of the line.

Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)
Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)

Past Knutsford and heading towards Altrincham, the line splits with one branch curving gently west away from another National Trust property, Dunham Massey. Following this line, heading north of Lowton, the attractive small family home of the Byrom family, Byrom Hall, built in 1713, loses its rural outlook and will instead be at the edge of a rolling stock maintenance depot at the end of that line.  The other branch heads south of Altrincham and heads towards Manchester, skirting the edge of the city but by now the semi-urban fringe is no longer the setting for country retreats and so the line passes into the city without any further threats.

So again, the route of HS2 from Birmingham has avoided many of the pitfalls of the first phase and has mostly been able to step lightly around the historic estates which have brought such beauty to our landscapes.  However, the one mis-step is around Ingestre Hall, where the line will create a dramatic slash through the parkland and perhaps impinge on the future ability of the house to be rescued from its current use as an arts centre and golf course to one day become a home again.  This is unlikely if the economics of conversion and restoration are upset by the overall value of the house and estate being seriously compromised by HS2.  With farmland to the south, it would make sense to move the route just another couple of hundred metres to ensure tranquillity for this fine house.  Overall though, the planners at Arup and Mott Macdonald ought to be congratulated on plotting a sensitive course through a difficult landscape and one hopes that the final plan maintains this.

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Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register

Doddington Hall pyramid proposal

Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: doddingtonhall.com)

The financial pressures of owning a country house usually mean that the priority always has to be the main building with little left over for the kinds of follies, garden buildings and ‘eye-catchers’ which were a common enhancement in previous centuries.

Over the last few decades there have only be a few notable additions to parklands including the strikingly modern garden pavilion designed by I.M. Pei for the Keswicks in Wiltshire.  However even this has a practical use but in the spirit of landscapers such as ‘Capability’ Brown, a proposal has been submitted for a new pyramid to be built as an ‘eye-catcher’ at the end of a 1km walk at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire.  Doddington is a beautiful, symmetrical, red-brick house designed by the celebrated Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson.  It also has the rare distinction of being one of the few houses to have never been sold since it was completed in 1600.

Fingers crossed that this interesting proposal will be approved and completed to continue an important tradition of folly building in English gardens.

Full story: ‘Plans for pyramid at Doddington Hall‘ [Lincolnshire Echo]