Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)

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.

Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII
Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII

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.

Related story: ‘Developers draw up plan for country house‘ [Ilkley Gazette]

Background information: ‘Reusing historic hospitals‘ [Institute of Historic Building Conservation]

As predicted; Cherkley Court, Surrey now for sale

Cherkley Court, Surrey
Cherkley Court, Surrey

When the doors to Cherkley Court in Surrey closed to visitors in December 2009, it was thought that low visitor numbers had proved it uneconomic to keep the house and gardens open.  However, as predicted by a commenter to my original blog post [thanks Andrew], Cherkley Court is now for sale and has been launched with a double-page centre spread in the Sunday Times Home section today [19 Sept 2010].

If one was to try an define what might constitute a perfect trophy estate in Surrey, Cherkley Court might well tick most of the estate agents’ criteria.  The grade-II listed house, built c1870 (and rebuilt after a fire in 1893), is a four-storey, chateau-style mansion extending to over 24,000 sq ft with home cinema and five grand reception rooms, with nearly 400-acres of gardens and parkland.

The house is now for sale following a 7-year, £10m restoration of the house and grounds orchestrated by the architect Christopher Smallwood and David Mlinaric, the interior designer.  The house became a famous venue for parties under the ownership of Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) and his wife Gladys who lived there until her death in 1994.  It was her death which sparked a bitter legal dispute between beneficiaries of the will which has forced the sale.

So if you have £20m and don’t mind the restriction on not landing your helicopter in the grounds, have a word with Savills.

Property details: ‘Cherkley Court, Surrey‘ [Savills]

Listed building description: ‘Cherkley Court, Surrey

Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

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.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

In need of resuscitation: Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Eggleston/English Heritage)

Some houses languish for years slowly deteriorating, much to the annoyance of interested locals who care about their architectural heritage.  For some houses, the obstacle in the way can sometimes be a difficult owner, for others it’s just the sheer scale of the job. Certainly falling into the latter category is Firbeck Hall near Rotherham in South Yorkshire; once palatial home, then a country club, a hospital, and now a cause for serious concern.

Firbeck Hall was originally built in 1594 for William West, a wealthy lawyer who was also connected between 1580 to 1594 to Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury.  After his death in 1598 it passed through various branches of the family via inheritance until bought by Henry Gally in the late 18th-century.  It was his son, Henry Gally-Knight, who, in 1820, substantially remodelled and extended Firbeck in the Elizabethan style we see today. Sold in the mid-19th-century it passed through the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who sold it to Mrs Miles of Bristol who left it to the Jebb family who remained there until 1909 when it was put up for sale.  The early 20th-century was a particularly hard time for country house owners with falling rental and agricultural income affecting all landowners but particularly those caring for the architectural extravagances of previous owners.

Firbeck Hall was badly damaged by fire in 1924 but it’s fortunes improved when it was eventually sold in 1934 to businessman Cyril Nicholson who invested £80,000 (approx £4m – 2008 values) who created the premier country club in the nation, visited by royalty and celebrities.  World War II put an end to the gilded lifestyle and it became a hospital in 1943, a role it was to fulfil until c.1990 when it eventually closed.

Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)
Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Rookinella @ Pretty Vacant)

Since then the house has deteriorated significantly – despite it’s grade-II listing it has suffered from lead theft from the roofs, neglect, and a series of failed plans to rescue what is still one of the largest houses in the area with over 200 rooms.  It’s this last fact which is the root cause of the difficulties with any plans for conversion and restoration requiring significant financial resources which banks are unwilling to provide in these tough economic times.  Too large for private solutions, the house is also probably too large for our stretched national heritage organisations to take on (such as English Heritage did with Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire) – especially as the institutional use has degraded the interior.

The house was bought by a local construction firm in 1996 but little seemed to happen apart from further thefts and vandalism and with little reaction initially from Rotherham Council and active interest from a local conservation group, the ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall‘. However, a major theft in 2005 prompted a complete change of heart from the owner who forged links with a new conservation officer leading to new plans for conversion, active security and some remedial restoration works.  Although progress was slow, at least it was progress – until July 2009 when a fire broke out during works on the roof causing serious damage.  More bad news followed when the construction firm went into liquidation in May 2010 – joining the ranks of developers with grand plans who have been beaten by the scale of the task, as seen at Gwrych Castle in Wales.

There does seem to be a gap in the provision of solutions for larger houses where private initiatives are insufficient.  A more active local conservation department may have slowed the decay in the early stages but the longer houses of this size continue to be unused the greater the cost of restoration, reducing the chances that they can be saved.  Hopefully there is some hope for Firbeck Hall as the house was sold again in July 2010 – but as yet there’s no news as to future plans, or more importantly, how they will be financed.

Campaign group: ‘Friends of Firbeck Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Firbeck Hall, Yorkshire‘ [Heritage Gateway]

Cash in the attic: Chatsworth House sale

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Rob Rendell/Wikipedia)

Usually during times of economic hardship all areas of life suffer as disposable income is held rather than spent.  However, paradoxically the art market is currently on something of a high which has produced record prices at recent auctions.  For the country house owner faced with ever higher bills there has rarely been a better time to re-evaluate collections and contents and see if they too can raise some much needed funds or, as in the case of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to make space.

The Dukes of Devonshire have always enjoyed a privileged position as one of the UK’s premier aristocratic families.  Their fortune was set with the four advantageous marriages of Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527 – d. 1608) following the early deaths of her rich husbands. OF particular note was her second husband, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who in 1811 had inherited not only the title but eight major houses and estates including Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall (now National Trust), Devonshire House in London (demolished 1924), Chiswick House (now English Heritage), Lismore Castle (still owned by the Devonshires) and Bolton Abbey (owned by Devonshire family trust), Burlington House (now the Royal Academy of Arts), and Londesborough Hall in Yorkshire (demolished in 1819), totalling some 200,000 acres.  Chatsworth was considered her principal seat and has been for the Devonshire family ever since.  This meant that when earlier economically austere times led to the selling of other family properties such as Chiswick House and Devonshire House in London the contents of these houses were largely packed up and brought back to Chatsworth.

The current, 12th, Duke has now decided to follow the recently well-trodden path of the asset-rich aristocracy and clear out some of the accumulated contents of the storage areas and raise some welcome capital which will be ploughed back into the running of the estate.  The 20,000 items include a rare William Kent mantelpiece which is expected to go for around £300,000.  Recently up to £100m of art has been sold including an earlier sale by the Duke of Devonshire for £10m of a bronze statue, Ugolino Imprisoned with his Sons and Grandsons (around 1549), by Leonardo’s nephew Pierino da Vincia, a record-breaking Turner watercolour, Modern Rome—Campo Vaccino, from the Earl of Rosebury which made £29.7m, a 1.3-metre long, 81kg wine cooler from the Marquis of Lothian, a variety of works including a Rubens from Earl Spencer, and other sales by the Earl of Wemyss and March, the Earl of Jersey, and Lord Northbrook.

Whilst the current situation continues with rising costs not being met by investment income or from the revenue from opening up houses and estates it’s likely that we will continue to see a steady trickle of art flowing from the galleries of our stately homes into the private collections of the billionaires currently willing to pay record-breaking prices for the finest works.  Although this is in some respects regrettable, as long as the money is spent on the restoration and maintenance of our wonderful country houses then there is little cause for concern.  However, once the attics are empty or all the ‘non-core’ pictures have been sold then we may need to be worried as to what will be sold next. The worst outcome would be to have houses without estates or that we have a fine collection of stately homes in which visitor’s footsteps merely echo around empty state rooms.

More about the Chatsworth sale: ‘Chatsworth’s ‘lost’ treasures up for sale‘ [BBC News]

More about recent art sales: ‘Who is behind the great stately home art sell-off‘ [The Art Newspaper]

Bargains from difficult circumstances: country house reposessions

Sheriff Hutton Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Savills)
Sheriff Hutton Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Savills)

An article in the Sunday Times Home section (11 June 2010) includes two houses featured on this blog; one recently and one back in November 2009.  The story this week exposes that both are for sale as some of the grandest repossessions in the country with lenders forcing the sale.

Each of these houses when bought was probably the realisation of an aspiration many have to own a grand country house.  Yet, what goes up can come down and each owner has now been forced out of their dream.  The first house, Sheriff Hutton Hall in Yorkshire is a grade-I listed gem surrounded by 170-acres and indeed featured on this blog entitled ‘If I won the lottery…‘.  Originally built in the early 1600s as a hunting lodge before being remodelled in a lighter brick in 1732.  The outbuildings were constructed using quantities of stone and panelling from nearby Sheriff Hutton Castle, it also features richly decorated ceilings with plasterwork by John Burridge and Francis Gunby, who is also thought to have worked on the Dining Room at Temple Newsam in Leeds.

Sheriff Hutton Hall was sold in 1998 and became the northern branch of the East 15 acting school.  Today however, despite strenuous efforts by the owner, a secondary lender has called in their loan forcing the sale.  Originally for sale, through Savills, at offers over £5m (nearer £6m was apparently hoped for) the price has now dropped to £4.5m.

Sale details: ‘Sheriff Hutton Hall‘ [Savills]

Detailed architectural description: ‘Sheriff Hutton Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

The second property, Apartment One in Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, was only launched in Country Life magazine a few weeks ago and was featured here with the idea that it might be used as a starting point for the conversion of the house back to a single home (‘Conversion reversion: Wardour Castle‘).  Yet it now appears that it was the original project to convert this Georgian gem that has caused the current vendor’s difficulties.  The house, designed by James Paine, was built in the 1770s for the eighth Baron Arundell and was (and in some ways still is) the grandest and largest house of it’s era in Wiltshire.

After use as a school for thirty years until 1990 it had an uncertain future.  Nigel Tuersley then bought the grade-I listed house for £1m in 1992 and decided to convert the house into ten large apartments with Nigel retaining the largest in the centre of the house for himself.  However with property boom turning to bust the bank was unwilling to continue funding the project.  This first manifested itself when the same apartment, all 23,000 sq ft of it, was put on the market for £7m in 2008 – possibly a bit ambitious even at the time.  With the contents now removed (not that you can really tell as the interior was designed by the famous Minimalist architect John Pawson) the apartment now waits for someone with a more reasonable £2.75m through Strutt & Parker.

The house is another in a small but sadly growing list of ‘posh repossessions’ (those valued at over £1m) which show that dreams, however big, can still be brought down and that perhaps the hardest part of reaching the top is staying there.

Sale details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle‘ [Strutt & Parker]


Credit: original story in the Sunday Times Home section – 11 July 2010.  Story only available online to subscribers.

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