Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park, Devon

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics.  From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.

According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree.  Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702.  He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.

Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)
Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image: tapeleygardens.com)

The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855.  The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem.  On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon.  His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917).  Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:

“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”

The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her.  In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913).  Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.

Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907  the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.

Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house.  Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.

The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley.  Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.

The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub.  Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.

Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit.  Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.

Official site: Tapeley Park, Devon

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park

Lifting the curse of Hampton Gay manor house

 

Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire
Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire (Image: Robert Silverwood on flickr)

 

The fire which gutted the largely unaltered Elizabethan Hampton Gay manor house in 1887 was seen as the retribution of a curse said to have been put on the house when the inhabitants refused to offer help and shelter when the Paddington-to-Birkenhead Express crashed nearby in 1874.  The fire tore through the building leaving nothing but a shell which has stood for nearly 150 years.  However, with continuing structural deterioration threatening its very survival, an application has been submitted to restore it as a new home.

Even ten years ago the idea of restoring a historic ruin would have probably been immediately refused by English Heritage but over the last decade a series of interesting restorations have shown that ruins need not always remain that way.  This re-evaluation was probably a result of the realisation that it is almost impossible to fully arrest deterioration to a building which is not in use.  However, there is a strong incentive for an owner to ensure that his home remains secure and watertight.

One example of this new permissiveness is Eggesford House in Devon.  Formerly the home of the Earls of Portsmouth, this house, built between 1820-30, was abandoned in preference for their Hampshire estates in 1911 and put up for sale in 1913. It was eventually bought by a local man who slowly stripped it of anything usable in the 1920s leaving a derelict shell.  In the early 1980s it was expected that within a few years the last remaining walls would collapse leaving no sign of the grand house.  However it (plus 80-acres) was sold in the 1990s for around £300,000 to the architect Edward Howell who created a huge new house within the existing walls which successfully uses the old room heights to create Regency-style proportions in a very modern house.

Another project which was driven forward by sheer determination was that of Hellifield Peel in Yorkshire whose story was told as part of a 90-minute special edition of Grand Designs.  At it’s core a 14th-century fortified tower, it had been modernised in the Georgian period but abandoned in the 1950s until it was a roofless shell.  With dereliction threatening total loss, English Heritage decided to allow conversion – albeit with some serious stipulations regarding the archaeology. Architect Francis Shaw had always wanted to live in a castle and this was a labour of love – certainly only someone very dedicated would continue after seeing the central spine wall collapse into hundreds of tons of rubble.  However, anyone who sees the house today would probably agree that English Heritage made the right choice.

Astley Castle in Warwickshire was another ancient home ravaged by a fire in 1978 and a fast deteriorating ruin which the Landmark Trust, with grant support from English Heritage, are in the process of rescuing.  Their plan involves the insertion of a smaller house into the shell of the castle to support the walls and provide holiday accommodation thus ensuring an income to provide a secure future for this historic house.

So the plans for Hampton Gay aren’t as radical as some might believe. However, the 18th-century passion for the ‘Picturesque’ – an appreciation for natural environments and particularly for ruins – is still influential today and some may object to this interference in what is considered one of the most beautiful views in Oxfordshire.  However, without significant intervention there is a real risk that the ruin would simply collapse and be lost forever.  So if the choice is between losing an atmospheric ruin or allowing restoration it seems that the current preference from the official bodies is that the latter is to be allowed – although the heavy restrictions will hopefully ensure that only well-funded restorers with a sympathetic understanding of the building will undertake these projects.  This raises some tantalising prospects; perhaps one day we may even see Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire as a home once again?

Story: ‘Grand design for ruins‘ [Witney Gazette]