Possibly for sale – a landmark for landowners: Crichel House, Dorset

Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)
Crichel House, Dorset (Image: BNPS / Daily Mail)

When to believe the rumours? Occasionally one of the old families will decide that they no longer wish to hold onto the estate which has been the family seat for many years – sometimes centuries. When these estates come to market they usually attract a significant price-tag which truly reflects their beauty, significance and acreage.  If the unconfirmed rumours which feature very prominently on page 2 of the Sunday Times (26 June 2011) are to be believed, then the Marten family of Crichel House in Dorset have decided to sell – almost 60-years after the family won a decision against the government of the day which became a landmark in the rights of landowners against government.

Crichel House is widely regarded as one of the best houses in the county – indeed, John Julius Norwich states that it “…possesses the most spectacular series of state rooms in all Dorset.“.  Crichel started off as a modest house in 1743; hastily built to replace a charming Elizabethan house which was burnt down in 1742.  This smaller seat of a country squire – brick-built and just five bays by seven – was for Sir William Napier, who left it to his nephew, Humphry Sturt, in 1765.  Sturt had inherited not only his uncle’s house and wealth but had also married well. He didn’t feel the house was grand enough for a man of his fortune, and so embarked on an impressive rebuild, creating a house “…so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of a mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman.” (Hutchin’s ‘History of Dorset‘ – 1774).

Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)
Dining Room, Crichel House, Dorset (Image: A. E. Henson / Country Life Picture Library)

Sturt, using an unknown architect (though thought to be from nearby Blandford), effectively wrapped a new house around the old one to the east and the west, and linking the two on the south front with an impressive recessed portico and suite of rooms on the first floor.  However, the need to accommodate the dimensions of the old house created a slightly cramped feeling to the first floor elevations.  However, all is forgiven by the splendid interiors which are, in parts, a curious mix of early Georgian created late (e.g. the staircase, the library), and fashionable later Georgian, particularly in the stunning Hall, Dining Room and Drawing Room where Adam-style plasterwork reigns.  The latter rooms were probably designed by James Wyatt who was working nearby at Milton Abbey and at Bryanston.  The Dining Room is considered the finest room in the house; a coved ceiling framing delicate plasterwork and decorative panels in the style of Cipriani and Angelica Kauffmann.

So, how did part of the Crichel estate become so significant that it became immortalised as a set of planning procedures known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’? In part, it was due to the bureaucratic arrogance of the post-War era which meant the Civil Service felt able to deal rather high-handedly with anyone, and particularly landowners who were not popular under Attlee’s socialist government. In 1937, 742-acres of Crichel Down had been compulsorily bought as part of a larger area for use as a bombing range. Churchill had given a very public commitment in the House of Commons in 1942 that land purchased in this way would be offered back to the original owners once it was no longer required for the original purpose.

Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)
Hinton Ampner, Dorset (Image: ec1jack / flickr)

However, there was an even greater danger of compulsory purchase for houses which had been adapted for wartime use under the ‘Requisitioned Land and War Works Act (1945)’ (sections 8 & 9 Geo. 6 c.43 in case you were wondering!) which gave officials the right to buy, regardless of the wishes of the former owner or any previous assurances. At Hinton Ampner in Hampshire where Ralph Dutton (the 8th and last Lord Sherborne), having just finished an extensive remodelling in 1939 only to be turfed out by a girls school, received a letter saying that the Royal Observatory were interested as a new Royal Observatory.  Dutton took the day off work at the Foreign Office and was on the doorstep when the officials arrived and gave an impassioned speech about the importance of the house, how it had been in the family for generations and that losing it would be akin to an amputation. The officials apparently looked somewhat embarrassed but gave no sign of retreating until a short note arrived a little later confirming that they were taking Hurstmonceaux Castle instead.

At Crichel Down, the government had decided to retain the land as a new model farm.  Lt-Cdr George Marten (who had married Mary Sturt, the only child of the 3rd Lord Alington), began a vigorous one-man campaign to examine the conduct and procedures of the relevant departments.  In doing so, he exposed a series of administrative errors as officials tried to evade the requirement to offer back the land and retain it for the government’s use.  Eventually, in 1954, public and press criticism led to the minister in charge, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigning in one of the first examples of a minister taking responsibility even though he had not been involved in the earlier decisions and the land was sold back to the Martens.  To avoid a repeat of such failings, new planning rules regarding compulsory purchase were drawn up which are today known as the ‘Crichel Down Rules’ and are a vital part of the framework protecting landowners from the sometimes autocratic decisions of officials.

The death of Mary Marten in 2010 (her husband pre-deceased her) led to the recent sale of some of the contents of the house including a small collection of Asian jade ornaments which raised some £12.5m.  However, if the rumours are right, the rest of the house and 5,000-acre estate are also quietly on the market with an estimated price tag of around £100m, which, if it sold as a whole estate, would make it the most expensive sale ever outside of London.  It’s always a regret when families no longer wish to keep an estate which has been in the family for centuries, however, with the demands of sibling equality it is understandable that each of the six children – five females, one male – should wish to share their inheritance.  It would be a wonderful outcome if it could be bought in its entirety and remain one of the most important estates in Dorset, with the glorious Crichel House at it’s heart.

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Update – 7 July 2013: Crichel House has been sold

Daily Mail confirms that the house plus 400-acres has been bought by Richard L. Chilton, a US hedge fund billionaire.  Initial reports indicate that he is a ‘conservationist’ having rescued other houses in the States so it seems promising that he is the right buyer; one with both the right attitude and pockets deep enough to do the house justice.  Though sadly it’s the end of an era for the Marten family, one hopes that this next phase will see the house restored to its former glory.

And if Mr Chilton happens to read this, it would be great to get your perspective – please do email me.

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More images – both interior and exterior: ‘Crichel House, Dorset‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

Going to the country: more country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 2

The first part of this series, highlighted the aristocratic background of our early Prime Ministers – Earls and Dukes abound.  This meant that a country house was just where they had been brought up and simply regarded as home rather than the aspirational purchase.  It also highlighted that the architectural tastes of the PMs reflected their political beliefs with a strong preference for the Classical, representing structure and order.

So, to continue the tour of country houses of Prime Ministers, this time those who served  under George III (1760–1820):

Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)

The first was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Originally a man of rather limited means who only acquired great wealth following his marriage to the rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu. The family seat was Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; at the time a small Queen Anne house which burnt down in 1877 to be replaced by the Gothic palace we see today.  With his later wealth and prominence the Earl created two fine new country houses.  On his retirement as PM, he bought Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire in 1763 and in 1767 commissioned Robert Adam to create a large neoclassical mansion which, although this was never fully realised, the resulting house (now a hotel) is still sizable.  The wings are a later addition but faithful to Adam’s original conception. Ill health later forced a move to the Dorset coast and having bought a clifftop position he built High Cliff “to command the finest outlook in England.“.  Unfortunately it was a little to fine, the crumbling cliff not only necessitated the demolition of the house in the late 1790s, it also led to the Earl’s death in 1792 due to a fall whilst picking plants.

He was succeeded as PM in 1763 by George Grenville who was born, and lived, at the family seat, Wotton House, Buckinghamshire.  He is one of only nine PMs who did not become a peer on leaving office.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

If there was a competition for the most impressive house of Prime Ministers then Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham would be feeling rather confident.  His family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, is one of the largest private country houses in Britain with a main front extending to over 600ft. Built over a 25-year period, the house exemplifies the grand palaces which became possible in Georgian England. Faced with the usual pressures on later owners, plus vindictive coal mining, the family moved out and the house was leased as a teacher training college but since 1999 it has been the home of architect Clifford Newbold and his family who have been undertaking a massive and very impressive restoration programme.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham was brought up in great comfort from the proceeds of the sale of the Regent Diamond by his father.  As the younger son, Pitt would not inherit the family seat and so made his own way, choosing politics and becoming PM in 1766.  His country residence was the relatively modest Hayes Place in Kent, which he had built after he bought the estate in 1757.  He later sold it in 1766 to Horace Walpole who encased the house in white brick and enlarged it before selling back to Pitt in 1768 on his retirement.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished and houses built on the land.

Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)
Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)

Another Prime Ministerial seat to suffer later loss was Euston Hall in Suffolk seat of Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton who succeeded William Pitt.  The Dukes of Grafton were very wealthy with extensive land holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and London.  Euston Hall had been extensively remodelled by the Palladian architect Matthew Brettingham for the 2nd Duke between 1750-56.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1902 which destroyed the south and west wings, which were subsequently rebuilt on the same plan but then demolished again by the 10th Duke in 1952.  It should also be noted that the Dukes also owned the splendid Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, designed by William Kent, though it was tenanted and therefore the Dukes never lived there.

William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne had the splendid fortune to be brought up in one of the finest of Georgian country houses, Bowood House in Wiltshire, which also became a scandalous loss when it was demolished in 1955/56.  Remodelled for the 1st Earl by Henry Keene between 1755-60, the house also featured interiors by Robert Adam, who also altered Keene’s original portico to create a much grander version.  Afterwards the stables were converted to function as the main house where the 9th Marquess of Lansdowne (as the Earls became) still lives today.

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)

The next PM, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which had also been the home of an earlier PM, his relative Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  As stated in Part 1, this is a fascinating house which has often been overlooked due to the fact that it has been rarely open to the in the last 100 years, public tours having finished in 1914. Extensive work was carried out between 1742-46 by the relatively unknown architect John James who reconstructed the south wing and remodelled the west front for Henrietta, Countess of Oxford.  The west front was subsequently changed again in 1790 to designs by Sir Humphry Repton.  The Dukes of Portland also had a southern seat at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, though this house was replaced in 1865 by the 12th Duke of Somerset who by then owned the estate.

In contrast to the vast wealth and aristocratic status of the preceeding PM, William Pitt the Younger was able to bring political heritage; his father also having served in the same role. In stark contrast to the size and splendour of Welbeck, his country home was Holwood House in Kent, a modest mansion set in 200-acres for which Pitt paid £7,000 in 1783 before commissioning Sir John Soane to alter and enlarge it in 1786 and 1795.  Soane’s work here led to Pitt recommending him for the work to build what was to be one of Soane’s masterpieces; the Bank of England building which was so sadly demolished in the 1920s.  Holwood was also to be demolished, in 1823, to be replaced by a much grander house designed by Decimus Burton.

The country houses of Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth have both largely now vanished under the sprawl that is Reading University.  Addington had a low-key record as PM and his houses were equally modest.  Although on becoming PM Addington moved into the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, his main seat was Woodley House, Berkshire, which had been built in 1777 before being bought by Addington in 1789. At the same time, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Bulmershe Court which was then tenanted, before falling into disrepair in the 19th century leading to two-thirds of it being demolished. Woodley House was used by the Minstry of Defence during WWII but subsequent dereliction led to its demolition in 1960.

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville, as well as abolishing slavery, also created one of the most elegant of the houses in this series; Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire.  Built in 1795 and designed by Samuel Wyatt (b.1737 – d.1807) with later work by Charles Heathcote Tatham (b.1772 – d.1842), it was Grenville’s refuge, describing it as ‘deep sheltered from the world’s tempestuous strife‘. The grounds were also lavished with attention with Grenville planting 2,500 trees, and creating numerous walks which took in the superb views and even going as far as to remove a hill which blocked the view to Windsor Castle.  Tragically, devastating fires in 1990 and 1997 left a ruined shell but it has been recently rebuilt as a series of luxury apartments.

The only PM to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, never really had a country seat of his own but had grown up in Enmore Castle, Somerset though he would never inherit as he was the second son of second marriage.  Only a small section of the main house now remains after it was largely demolished in 1833, but originally Enmore, built c1779, was one of the largest houses in the county.  In later life, Perceval lived in a large house called Elm Grove on the south side of Ealing Common in London – though at the time this would have been quite a rural area but not quite enough to classify this as a true country house.

The final PM under George III was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who again chose to live close to London, though in a country house, at Coombe House in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey.  Originally Tudor, this brick house was replaced with a Georgian mansion which was later altered by Sir John Soane, including the addition of a library.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished with houses now covering the site.

So although the Gothic revival movement had started in the 1740s and was the main alternative to the dominant Classical architectural style, even by the 1820s, it did not reflect the tastes of any of the Prime Ministers.  Considering the system still echoed the exclusions of the Reformation with its explicit rejection of all things ‘catholic’ (architectural, theological, political) it was unlikely to change, especially as the Catholic Emancipation Bill wasn’t passed until 1828.  Architecture was taken an expression of belief and so to favour the Gothic could potentially have given the wrong signals.

Next: Prime Ministers under George IV and William IV

List of UK Prime Ministers

An autumn flutter: country houses currently for sale

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.

Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)
Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)

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.

> More information: ‘Upton Pynes, Devon‘ £3.25m, 37-acres [Savills]

Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)
Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)

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.

> More information: ‘Crendle Court, Dorset‘ £6.95m, 270-acres [Savills]

Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

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.

> More information: ‘Rudby Hall, Yorkshire‘ £2.75m, 10-acres [Carter Jonas]

Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)
Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)

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?

> More information: ‘Blairquhan Castle, Scotland‘ £4.85m, 670-acres [Savills]

Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)

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.

> More information: ‘Beaurepaire, Hampshire‘ £8m, 250-acres [Knight Frank]

Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)
Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

More on this story:

More information:

Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.

If in doubt, rent: Faringdon House, Oxfordshire

Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Renting a property has long been associated with those starting out on the property ladder but there is a long history of country houses, large and small, being tenanted for long periods of time.  Now the focus is very much on the sale of country houses with rentals being in the shade of their high-spending counterparts but there are still many fine houses available to those wishing to experiment with the country life or as a short-term solution.

Jane Austen was well-known for reflecting the social conventions of the aristocracy in her work and it’s interesting that one of the main characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the wealthy Mr Bingley, rents ‘Netherfield House’ whilst he considered which house and estate he would establish himself in.  This again is a pattern that still holds true today with those seeking to move to either a new area or out of town, renting to get a better understanding of an area.  These opportunities are available today where houses such as Puddletown Manor in Dorset are available for rent (£9,000 pcm) but also for sale (£6m) at the same time.

Country houses have been let for a variety of reasons.  One of the most common was simply that it might be a subsidiary seat and rather than simply leave it empty it was often let as a source of income.  Sometimes this included the entire working estate so that the new occupant could fully assume the role and responsibilities of the country gent.  Increasingly though in the Victorian era the house was let separately from the estate which would continue to be managed and run by the original family.  This was often the preferred option for the newly wealthy who aspired to the status and amenity of a ‘country seat’ but did not require the estate to generate an income.

This is why houses such as the Faringdon House in Oxfordshire [pictured above] are attractive as they allow someone else to simply move in (albeit for a significant monthly rent of £10,000) and enjoy a grade-I listed Palladian villa without the added burdens of ownership.

Letting was a handy solution when the family finances were insufficient for they themselves to live there.  The Marquess of Lansdowne became first Governor General of Canada and then Viceroy of India from 1883-1894 specifically to improve his financial position and keep hold of his estates.  These jobs came with benefit of government accommodation which freed up the family seat for letting.  In a letter to his mother he explained,

“India means saving Lansdowne House for the family.  I should be able while there not only to live on my official income, but to save something every year.  If I can let Lansdowne House, I might by the time  I come home have materially reduced the load of debt which has become so terrible an incubus to us all…”.

(n.b. when the Marquess refers to Lansdowne House, he is referring to Bowood House rather than their London townhouse of the same name which was sold by the family in 1783.)

The Second World War also offered a convenient escape route for some owners as country houses were taken over by evacuated schools who then stayed on such as at Motcombe House in Dorset.  Although the use of country houses as schools had been an established practice for many years (the 1920s saw Stowe, Canford and Bryanston all become schools) the widespread use during wartime meant that it gained even greater acceptability.   For the Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse who had seen his spectacular house vandalised by troops and a vindictive Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, ordering the needless open cast mining of the gardens right up to the house, it was all too much and he let the house to become a training college for female PE teachers.

The letting of country houses has a long and varied history but it has mostly been driven by the need for country house owners to maximise their incomes.  Once the country house had ceased to be the physical embodiment of local political power following the reforms of the early 20th-century it became easier for families to simply move out and bring in tenants turning a costly extravagance into revenue.

Property details: ‘Faringdon House, Oxfordshire‘ [Knight Frank]

Phoenix for sale: Beaurepaire House, Hampshire

Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Launched this week ( 23 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is a fine, grade-II* listed, moated manor house set in nearly 250 acres of Hampshire.  Open the first set of impressive wrought iron gates and follow the drive down to the ancient moat and through the second, equally impressive, set of white painted gates over the wooden bridge. Before you stands a beautiful red-brick manor house – but why is the house set in one small corner of the island? Why does the drive lead over the moat but unusually not to the middle of the house?  And why does that tower look a bit new?

The answer to all these questions is that Beaurepaire House, as it now stands, is what remains of an important and beautiful manor house which burnt down in 1942 after a chimney fire.    What happened subsequently is an interesting example of how disaster need not lead to the loss of the whole house or the estate.

Beaurepaire House, Hampshire before the fire (Image: Lost Heritage: England's Lost Country Houses)
Beaurepaire House, Hampshire before the fire (Image: Lost Heritage: England's Lost Country Houses)

Beaurepaire House has royal connections having been visited twice, once by Henry VIII in 1531 and then by his daughter Elizabeth I during her visit to The Vyne.  The moat itself dates from 1369 but the original house was built in the 16th-century but was badly damaged during the Civil War and was only rebuilt in 1777.  The design of the new Georgian ‘Gothick’ house followed the rare structure of having a square core with castellated corner turrets.  There are relatively few examples of these houses – and the ones we have today are all ruined to some degree (Ruperra Castle, Wales / Lulworth Castle, Dorset) or lost entirely (Compton Bassett House, Wiltshire).

At the time of the fire the house was owned by one of the richest men in the country, Sir Strati Ralli, but wartime building restrictions prevented restoration. After the war the estate was owned by Lady Sherfield and in 1965 she decided to restore the remaining servant’s wing as a house and commissioned the well-known architect Tom Bird, who had restored many other country houses, to make the house habitable.  Bird decided to add a sympathetic tower, which continued the existing architectural style, to the fire-damaged southern flank of the remaining wing to not only provide structure but also to improve the proportions of what was left.  The addition was less than 10% of what remained but successfully ensured that the house was able to rise again from the ashes of the fire to retain the role it had enjoyed for hundreds of years as the centrepiece to an impressive country estate.

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Property details: Knight Frank seem to have forgotten to put the details on their website.   Nevermind, here’s a link to all the Hampshire houses they’re selling in the hope that they soon add it in: Knight Frank: Hampshire

The relative cost of your English country house

Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)
Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

So you’ve decided you really want a country house.  Nothing too big; more a residential estate than a working or sporting one so perhaps just 48 acres. Luckily your four-bed house in the best part of Fulham is worth £1.75m so you can sell up and surely move straight into your dream rural arcadia? Unfortunately a recent survey by upmarket estate agents Savills has shown that you might need just a bit more money than that.

As always, proximity to London is the key factor in determining how far your money will stretch.  With the Russians and Middle Eastern families not willing to be too far from the cultural delights of Bond Street the price of a decent country house with 48 acres in Surrey tops the table.  To secure a decent small estate in the nicest parts would require between £15m-£20m but a similar property in Hampshire would set you back just £10m on average.

So with the those two counties ruled out, where next?  The Cotswolds have always been popular with the corresponding effect on prices but if Hampshire is too expensive then unfortunately you’re also out of luck in Gloucestershire with the average there hitting £12m – but north Oxfordshire might look attractive with the average of between £7m-£8m.

Distance from London reduces prices but with broadband making working from your country home on Friday possible Dorset or Wiltshire are still very attractive but more affordable – but you’ll still have to expect to pay between £4.5m-£5m.  Fewer transport options make East Anglia even cheaper with a country house in Norfolk going for around £3.25m – which makes the pretty Great Hockham Hall [pictured above], a grade-II listed Queen Anne house built in 1702 and with 47.66 acres, almost a bargain at £2.95m.

So where could you trade in your Fulham house for a small country estate? Step forward Lincolnshire where the average is the lowest in England at ‘just’ £1.75m-£2.25m. So proving that everything is relative it seems that even the high prices of London don’t always directly translate into a ticket to the country life unless you’re willing to go where the market takes you.

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Source: research by Savills (but listed not on their website) and reported in The Times ‘Bricks & Mortar’ property supplement on Friday 18 June (but their website doesn’t allow access so no link there either).

If you are interested in the rest of the report or the averages for other counties I’m guessing the best contact is Alex Lawson at Savills (Rural Research) on +44 (0) 20 7409 8882 or email alawson@savills.com.

How to lose money on a country house: Compton Bassett, Wiltshire

Compton Bassett House, Wiltshire (demolished 1929)
Compton Bassett House, Wiltshire (demolished 1929)

The news that Robbie Williams is to sell his country house, Compton Bassett in Wiltshire, for a potential £1m loss shows that with the wrong property it is still possible to buck the generally rising trend in prices by overpaying in the first place.

The current Compton Bassett House is, to be honest, fairly unappealing.  The original Compton Bassett (pictured) was a fine and elegant house built by Sir John Weld of Dorset in 1674 (the same year he died). Interestingly, the house bears a strong similarity to the Weld family’s main country seat, Lulworth Castle in Dorset, built as a hunting lodge in 1610 by Thomas Howard, 3rd Lord Bindon, and bought by Humphrey Weld (John’s elder brother) in 1641, but sadly gutted in a devastating fire in 1929.  Lulworth was also a hunting lodge and had strong projecting circular towers rather than the square ones at Compton Bassett.  As Humphrey Weld died (in 1684) without a male heir, Lulworth Castle passed to John’s son William who seems to have chosen it as his family seat and sold Compton Bassett.  After several owners it was bought in 1721 by the Heneage family who remained there until it was sold in 1929.

That period was a dark time for the country house in the UK with many being demolished. The house was bought by Captain Sir Guy Benson who sadly decided that he would rather live in the stables and so this wonderful house was levelled and the stables converted in 1935.  Unlike other successful conversions of stables, this one was obviously designed as a functional building and lacked the grace of so many of the stable buildings we can still see today and so did not lend itself to being the main house.   Not that it has stopped various owners over the years trying.

Compton Bassett, Wiltshire (former stables) (Image: Panoramio)
Compton Bassett, Wiltshire (former stables) (Image: Panoramio)

The latest project was started in 1998 by the then owner Paul Cripps and was to take six months and cost £500,000 but ended up taking three years and costing £3m.  The house was then launched on the property market in 2007 at an eye-watering £8.5m (no doubt to try and recover some of the lavish overspending on the interior) for the house plus 71-acres.  After languishing for many months Robbie finally bought it for £8.1m but never really settled here, preferring his life in the US.  So now it is back on the market with Savills (but not listed on their website) for a reported asking price of £7.5m – but once you factor in all the costs involved from buying and selling, Robbie should be about a million down from when he bought it.  This also assumes he’d get that price – losses could rise if, remarkably, there was someone else out there who liked the look of the house but decided that it was still too expensive and drove the price down further.  To be honest, when compared with some of the other properties Savills have available in Wiltshire for around £6m (e.g. Langley House or Midway Manor) why anyone would chose this one is beyond me.

[I would normally link to the house on the estate agent’s website but Savills appear to have forgotten to put it on .  Or maybe they’re embarrassed.  So here’s a link to the other, much nicer, properties are also selling: Savills: Wiltshire]

*Update*

Savills have got over their embarrassment / lethargy and added Compton Bassett to their website so if you have £7.5m and really feel that this house is the best way to spend it (Really? Seriously?) then have a look at the details: Savills: Compton Bassett

The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section

Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)
Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)

The usual spring rush of country houses coming to market has been later this year – a combination of the hangover from the uncertainty in the market of the last couple of years along with that of the General Election.  That traditional shop-window of the country house – the Home section of the Sunday Times – has this week (16 May 2010) heralded what it sees at the start of the rush by including three pages of those for sale.

For those who like their country houses to look traditional from the outside but prefer a more modern interior then the Grade-II listed, six-bedroom Sandley in Dorset, set in 178-acres, might be perfect – if you have the necessary £9m.  The owners decided that the rather ‘quaint’ style of the house was not for them and so they spent ‘a couple of million pounds’ and over two years to strip it back and then make it look very ‘London’.  Personal taste is the final arbiter for whether you think this is a good thing – but not all tastes are the same and it can mean that the appeal of the country house is taken to new markets.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

However, if your tastes are more usual and traditional then there are other options. Holt Manor in Wiltshire, set in 94-acres, mixes both old and new with a more traditional interior cleverly concealing the latest in sound, television and security systems.  With parts dating back to the 12-th century, the Grade-II listed house has been thoroughly modernised whilst still being a recognisably English country house. £5.95m [Holt Manor: Knight Frank]

If, however, you are looking for a more architecturally impressive house, the Ebberly House, near Winkleigh in Devon, could well be the house for you.   Designed by Thomas Lee, a student of Sir John Soane, Ebberly was described by Pevsner as an ‘unusual and attractive house’ and was the first to sell in Devon for over £1m when it sold in 1997.  The Grade-II* listed house possibly benefited from Soane’s personal influence as he was working nearby at Castle Hill which may explain the elegant, and very Soanian, top-lit oval stair hall with its fine cantilevered wooden staircase and curved doors, or the drawing room divided using three shallow arches. Set in  250-acres it has a wonderful estate featuring 20-acres of woodland, estate cottages generating £20,000 p/a in rental income, and spectacular views across to Dartmoor. It was also given an excellent and detailed write-up in Country Life – always a good seal of approval.  [Ebberly House: Savills]

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Perhaps one of the most interesting of the houses featured is unfortunately only given a photo and no details is Chapel Cleeve Manor in Minehead, Somerset. Perhaps now not strictly a country house as it only has 7-acres, at £1.695m for 17+ bedrooms, it may seem a bargain for someone who wants to live in a country house but doesn’t want the responsibility of an estate. Although such a situation a hundred years ago could have led to the demolition of the house as happened to so many others. Yet, with so much wealth now generated without the need for a large estate to support the house, it’s now entirely reasonable for someone to take on and enjoy such a pleasing Gothic-Revival house. The house has been used as a conference venue for a number of years but with careful restoration this could be rescued from commercial use and be a spectacular home for someone who requires a lot of space. [Chapel Cleeve Manor: Webbers]

So has the rush started?  Nobody really knows and asking estate agents is never an exact science.  Several house which have been launched recently are still waiting to find new owners but the right house launched at the right time for the right price usually does find the right buyer.

Full story: ‘The landscape has changed‘ [The Sunday Times: Home section]

Ferne Park, Wiltshire: the building of a modern Classical masterpiece

Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)
Ferne House, Wiltshire (Image: Q&F Terry, Architects)

The English country house is considered our greatest contribution to the field of architecture – the unified vision of house and landscape combined with fine interiors, superb furnishings and exceptional art collections.  Yet in the 20th-century, it seemed that after Lutyens we largely lost our ability to excel in their creation – the new country houses seemed shadows of our earlier confidence, lacking the grand flair, and certainly the detailing, which had so defined the Georgian Classical house.  This was partially due to financial circumstances but also due to the influence of modernism which sought to re-interpret the country house in a new language – and it often didn’t translate well.

Yet, there are signs that given the right client and the right architect, we can again create the sort of country houses which will be admired in 200 years. Country Life magazine this week (5 May 2010) features one of the best country houses to be built in the last 70 years; Ferne Park in Wiltshire, winner of the Georgian Group award for the Best Modern Classical House in 2003.

This is a house built in the finest traditions of the English country house – with its clear use of the Palladian vocabulary but skilfully reinterpreted for the location and the needs of the client, Lady Rothermere.  The architect responsible, Quinlan Terry, has been responsible for some excellent buildings but this may well be his best.  The new house, built in 2000-2, was on the site of a previous Georgian mansion called Ferne House which was demolished in 1965 having fallen into a poor condition.  By rebuilding on the same site, Terry had a setting which was simply waiting for a new house to be created.

The local authority had already set the requirement that the new house must be Classical so both client and architect drew on other houses they knew such as Came House (Dorset) and Castletown Cox (Ireland), and were able to develop a distinctive plan for the site.  The house also cleverly has contrasting fronts with the dramatic views to the north matched by the stately columns and pediment, whilst the south, with the gentler views into Dorset, using a simpler facade.

Ferne Park has revived hope that it is possible to build a successful Classical house which is recognisably a continuation of the the glorious Georgian traditions which have created so many of the houses we love today.

More pictures of the house: Ferne House, Wiltshire [Quinlan & Francis Terry, Architects]


Part II of the article will be published in the 12 May 2010 edition of Country Life.