Country House Rescue: school’s out – High Elms Manor, Herts

High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)
High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)

If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win ‘Highly Commended’ for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house on the edge of Watford, Hertfordshire, which is the next destination of Ruth Watson and Country House Rescue. The house is an interesting example of the various pressures which can affect country houses and the solutions having experienced almost the complete range over the last century with the new owners adding a few more.

Built sometime before 1813 and once the centre of a 500-acre estate, High Elms Manor originally enjoyed fine rural seclusion, its nearest neighbours the St Pancras Industrial School and Metropolitan District Asylum to the west (now demolished and built over) and Bucknalls, a Victorian manor house now home to the Buildings Research Establishment, to the east.  Originally known as High Elms Manor, it was changed to Garston Manor in 1895, though the current owner has apparently decided to go back to using the original name; even if it’s not the one used by Channel 4.

Relentless urban growth over the last 100 years pushed housing estates and industry right up to the boundaries of many country estates – and usually then overwhelmed them.  The sad pattern was often industry moving closer and blighting the views, then the air, ruining the very attributes which had been their reason for being built in the first place.  As workers followed industry so more land was needed for housing and so estates on the edges of towns were particularly vulnerable (as they still unfortunately are today).

Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Watford has already lost one major house – Cassiobury – to just these pressures, though this was much closer to the centre of the modern town and was lost back in 1927. The long-time seat of the Capel family, Earls of Essex, who built a fine house which was altered by Hugh May c.1674-80 and which boasted superb interiors, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and which was later ‘Gothicised’ by James Wyatt (c.1800).  Visited by Country Life magazine in 1910 it was still rural:

“‘…set in great and delightful grounds and surrounded by a grandly timbered park. Therein is peace and quiet; the aloofness of the old-country home far from the haunts of men reigns there still, and Watford and its rows of villas and its busy streets is forgotten as soon as the lodge gates are passed’.”

Yet by 1922 the house and 458-acre park were for sale and were bought in 1927 by a consortium of local businessmen who stripped the house for materials, sold the carvings to museums and private collectors and then demolished the house, with residential estates over-running that once rural idyll.  Sadly this was the case for so many of our demolished country houses.

High Elms Manor, being further north, escaped these immediate pressures.  The house became home to the Watney brewing family around 1870, who commissioned alterations which enlarged the house.  The house was then sold to the Benskins, another family of brewers, before it was bought in 1911 by Walter Bourne, co-founder of the Oxford Street department store Bourne & Hollingsworth (now split into retail units and offices – history (scroll past the odd photos at top of the page)), who made further changes around 1920, shortly before his death in 1921.  Stafford Bourne, one of the sons of the founder, described High Elms as:

“…one of the finest and most dignified medium-sized estates in the county of Hertfordshire.”

With fine and interesting interiors, this was a house built for entertaining and accommodating large numbers of guests and visitors.  This was to perhaps save the house from demolition as the house was sold once again after Walter Bourne’s death and took on another of the many uses our country houses have been adapted for and became a medical rehabilitation unit, still known as Garston Manor.  It remained in this role until the 1990s when the council, faced with rising maintenance costs, abandoned it and left it to decay.

Sadly, although boarded up, the house suffered from repeated vandalism and theft, with roof lead and floorboards proving particularly attractive.  When the now-owner Sheila O’Neill came to view the house it was a daunting prospect:

‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state…”

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Thankfully, as many other country houses have discovered, they can be rescued from such a parlous state.  High Elms was now adapted to that familiar role for a country house; that of being a school.  There is a long and fine tradition of our country houses educating future generations in grand adapted ballrooms and dining rooms.  In cases such as the spectacular Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, (now being wonderfully restored by the Stowe House Preservation Trust with backing from the World Monuments Fund) it almost certainly saved it from demolition.  Stowe is an especially grand example of the country house as a school but there are hundreds across the UK, each doing their bit to preserve our architectural heritage – though sadly the necessary ancillary buildings can sometimes detract from the setting.

Thankfully though, in the case of High Elms Manor, the needs of the school have been accommodated within the 80-odd rooms of the house with, for example, the ballroom serving as a gymnasium.  However, a house of this size requires significant funding not only in terms of capital investments in the house but also just to meet the £75,000 per year running costs.  Having bought it for £500,000, Sheila O’Neill estimates she has poured at least that much again in her quest to restore the house.  Faced with her own need for a replacement hip, and the relatively low profits from running her Montessori school, Mrs O’Neill has turned to Ruth to provide guidance as to how to make more from the not-very-successful wedding hire business and for any other tips. With strong local competition from the incredibly pretty Hunton Park, it seems that it is the posse of daughters who appear to hold the key to maintaining and improving their situation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Garston Manor‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Interview with Sheila O’Neill: ‘Country House Rescue in Garston‘ [Hertfordshire Life]

If a moat floats your boat: for sale; Playford Hall and Giffords Hall, Suffolk

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)

Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation.  Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters.  These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.

Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers.  The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage.  However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles.  As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner.  As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.

Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)
Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)

The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent.  This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.

Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house.  The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations.  At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp.  The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).

Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house.  Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.

H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example.  This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles.  Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;

“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.  When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes.  Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)

So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).

Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style.  The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII.  The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.

Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling.  The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect.   Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.

So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.

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For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.

For those looking to visit, a handy list: ‘Manors in England‘ [Britain Express]

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

The future of the country house? Alderbrook Park, Surrey

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

Within any established pattern there is always the shock of the new. Most people when asked to imagine an English country house will usually think of red-brick Jacobean or light-stone Georgian but the design of new country houses is always in flux and what has gone before is no guarantee of what will come. Following World War II, the aftermath of which led to the demise of many large houses, the fashion changed to have a smaller but more modern house – one which required fewer staff and perhaps used more contemporary architectural language; however much it was derided by others.

Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)
Queen's House, Greenwich (Image: Bill Bertram / wikipedia)

The nature of architectural innovation has usually been one of gradual change – subtle at first and then growing bolder.  For example, Palladianism is widely seen to have arrived rather dramatically with the building of the Queen’s House in Greenwich in 1616 to a design by Inigo Jones.  Jones had recently studied Palladian architecture in Rome for three years and this commission was his chance to put this into practice.  One can imagine the surprise of Londoners, long used to timber, gables, and red-brick, to the square, stuccoed, and very white, Queen’s House.  Yet Sir John Summerson argues that there is evidence of Palladianism in the plan of Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, built in the 1590s by Robert Smythson.  Here, the placing of the hall on the central axis of the main entrance and the colonnades between towers front and back, echo the layout of Palladio’s Villa Valmarana featured in his Second Book of Architecture, making Hardwick the first known use of Palladio by an English architect.  This quiet use would have meant that visitors would have become accustomed to a symmetrical, regularised interior, paving the way for the same style to appear externally.

As much as the role of ‘architect’ took time to develop, so to did the responses to their work.  In 1624, Sir Henry Wotton, writing in his ‘Elements of Architecture‘, bemoaned the lack of ‘artificiale tearmes’ – that is, language with which to describe architecture.  Yet William Webb, writing in 1622, managed to praise the then new Crewe Hall in Cheshire, saying that the owner, Sir Randolph Crew;

“…hath brought into these remote parts a modell of that most excellent for of building which is now grown to a degree beyond the building of old times for loftiness, sightlines and pleasant habitation…”

So, ever since we’ve had architects, we’ve had critics (who were also sometimes architects); Jones, Wren, Ruskin, Pugin, Morris, Lutyens, Pevsner, etc have all made their opinions known.  Overseas visitors were also apt to compare what they had seen.  Jean Barnard le Blanc, visiting in 1737-8, was well educated and travelled and critical of the emerging use of Italian designs in England saying;

“These models have not made the English architects more expert; for whenever they attempt to do anything more than barely to copy, they erect nothing but heavy masses of stone, like of Blenheim Palace…”

As the language developed and architecture became more academic it became more rigorous and perhaps dry, with light relief afforded by more waspish commentators such Sacheverell Sitwell.

So why are some houses criticised more than others?  It seems that houses which appear without the ground being prepared before them suffer most.  The shock of the new is unmitigated and particularly where there is a strong local vernacular, the language of the new house will be a greater change.  More broadly, where a house is seen to be breaking with old traditions and what is seen as the ‘appropriate’ style for a family or an area, criticism can be swift and strong.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for the Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

One example of this is Eaton Hall in Cheshire following the unfortunate demolition between 1961-63 of the vast Victorian masterpiece designed by Alfred Waterhouse.  The loss of the house left a gaping hole at the centre of the estate with large gardens and long tree-lined avenues leading to nowhere.  The 5th Duke decided to rebuild and commissioned his brother-in-law, the architect John Dennys, to design a very modern replacement.  The resulting house, although striking, was regarded as unsuccessful, with John Martin Robinson saying,

“The sad fact is that, while from a distance the new Eaton has some of the classic Modern impact of the Corbusier dream…close up it is rather disappointing…”

Yet rather than criticising the house for not being in the traditional language of the English country house, Robinson is saying that it’s not Modern enough.  Others disagreed, with perhaps the most amusing response coming from the Duke of Bedford before it was even built.  Writing in 1970 after the unveiling of the design, he wrote;

“I was interested to see…a sketch model of Eaton Hall.  It seems to me one of the virtues of the Grosvenor family is that they frequently demolish their stately home [Waterhouse’s being the third on the site]. I trust future generations will continue this tradition if this present edifice, that would make a fine office block for a factory on a by-pass, is constructed.”

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

In more recent times, one design which met with critical acclaim but was perhaps a step too far was the Ushida Findlay design for Grafton New Hall, Cheshire.  Their house was a response to a 2001 RIBA competition to ‘design a country house for the 21st century’.  In creating their radical ‘star-fish’ layout they were rejecting the established patterns and trying to create a new response to the same requirements for the functions of a country house.  Yet the house never found a patron and, tellingly, the house now being constructed is a classic of modern Palladianism, designed by the pre-eminent Classical architect, Robert Adam.

There are, of course, many other examples of intelligent but unpopular designs for modern country houses – for example, Wadhurst Park in Sussex for TetraPak billionaire Hans Rausing.  And it’s in this constant stylistic flux into which Lakshmi Mittal has pitched the very radical designs for his new house on the 340-acre Alderbrook Park estate which he bought four years ago for £5.25m.  The original house by Richard Norman Shaw for the Ralli family was demolished in 1956 as too large, with a poor, inadequate substitute built in the 1960s.  The estate was sold with the express intention of demolishing this house and in its place Mittal is proposing a £25m, carbon neutral ‘eco-home’.  To help achieve this, the design of the house is driven by the functional requirements to minimise heat loss, to be cooled by natural ventilation, and have hot water provided by pyramid chimneys which incorporate solar thermal collectors which will help also vent heat in summer.  This house is a rejection of the idea of the house as an aesthetic construct in a particular architectural style but is more Corbusier-like; a ‘machine for living’ – a somewhat depressing prospect.

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

So what does the future hold?  The natural course of the development of the country house has been its adaptation to the whims and preferences of the owners.  As younger generations have taken the reins they’ve chosen different and perhaps more fashionable styles – and without change we wouldn’t have the Georgian mansions or Lutyens to love. However, each of the previous styles could be seen as natural evolution which reused a broad architectural vocabulary which was instantly recognisable as distinctively rural.  What seems to jar with the very modern designs is that they seem to use a more urban, industrial language to interpret the form of the country house.  This seems to sit somewhat uneasily with our preconceived notions as to what a country house should look like – but who knows, perhaps in 50 years maybe it’ll be accepted and appreciated and we’ll be concerned about the next stylistic evolution.  I still prefer Georgian Palladian.

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

Going to the country: the country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 1

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)
Houghton Hall, Norfolk (Image: Dennis Smith / Geograph)

Those in important political roles have often sought to escape the pressures of office by escaping to the calm and tranquillity of the countryside.  This has been particularly true of the holder of the most important role; that of Prime Minister.  With early PMs drawn from the aristocracy, their backgrounds provided them with a seat which became a natural refuge but was also an important part of their political identity.  However, as their origins changed, so too did the nature of the country retreat.  However, for all PMs the country retreat has been a fairly constant feature – though not all aspired to live in grandeur.

To make this broad survey more digestible I’ve split this into PMs by ruling monarch, starting from when the role of Prime Minister was first recognised in 1721 under King George I.

The first holder of the office, Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, was the epitome of the aristocratic leader.  Walpole was born at Houghton Hall in Norfolk – though the house was a more modest one before Sir Robert engaged Colen Campbell in 1722 to rebuild it, creating one of the finest Palladian houses in the country.  The second PM was Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who also employed Colen Campbell in 1726 to create a more modest home; Compton Place in Sussex.

The seat of Henry Pelham, who became the 3rd PM in 1743, was (according to Howard Colvin) Esher Place in Surrey which he bough in 1729. In 1733, he commissioned William Kent, who was also to create some garden buildings for Claremont for the Duke of Newcastle (see below), to add wings to the original house, Wolsey’s Tower, in a Gothic style.  The wings and garden buildings at Esher have now been demolished but drawings survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Pelham was succeeded as PM by his older brother, Thomas Pelham-Holles, the 1st Duke of Newcastle, whose main seat was Claremont in Esher, Surrey which he had bought from Sir John Vanbrugh who had built a ‘very small box’ as his own home.  The Duke then commissioned Vanbrugh to extend the house, adding two large wings.  This house was subsequently demolished as unfashionable by Clive of India who had bought the estate in 1768 following the Duke’s death, before being rebuilt in the Palladian style we see today.   The Duke also had other homes including in Halland, Sussex, an area the Pelham family had dominated since 1595 when they first bought land there.  Halland Place was also sold in 1768 and later demolished for materials.  [Originally I gave Welbeck Abbey as his seat but it was, in fact, inherited by the Holles Earls of Clare branch of the family creating a bitter feud.  A more detailed history of the feud is given by dennis in this comment below (thank you for the correction).]

One of the most fascinating houses in the country, particularly due to the extensive tunnelling work commissioned by the 5th Duke, but also one of the least known due to the reclusiveness of the Bentinck family and then later due to its role as the Army Sixth Form college which ensured military-level privacy. The house was largely the work of Sir Charles Cavendish who was given the house and estate by his mother, the remarkable Bess of Hardwick. [Corrected in response to comment below]

To complete the list of aristocratic PMs during the reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760), the last was William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire who lived in the peerless Chatsworth in Derbyshire – then, as now, one of the finest of our large country houses.  Interestingly, at the same time as he took on the role of PM in 1756, he also engaged in building at Chatsworth employing James Paine to add a new office wing and court (later replaced by Sir Jeffry Wyatville), a stable block, a bridge in the park, a bridge at Beeley, a water mill and also alterations to interiors of the house – though this work was not to be completed until 1767, long after his time as PM finished in 1757.

One notable feature of all the first PMs was they were all Whigs, a party nicknamed the ‘Country Party’ for their support was strongest in the shires and amongst the great landowners.  Unsurprisingly, these leaders were already managing vast estates which naturally came with sizeable houses which reflected their status – which then gave them the authority to aspire to be PM.  At this time, elections were rather crude affairs with the major landowners having MPs in their pockets due to ‘rotten boroughs‘ which gave the landowner a disproportionate, not to mention undemocratic, influence in the Houses of Commons.  Their country houses were therefore not a symptomatic trapping of power, something that they had aspired to and then acquired, but, in fact, were the foundation of the power which had secured them the position in the first place.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Architecturally, the apparently only acceptable styles were either Palladian or Classical which reflected the political nature of the landowners – symmetry, structure, proportion and the use of the correct orders would have appealed to those who were against monarchical absolutism (which would have challenged their own power) but also reflected a societal structure which ensured their wealth and status.  The Whigs were also closely associated with the Church of England and, as such, would not have entertained the idea of building their houses in the ‘Catholic’ Gothic style, and anyway, with the neo-Gothic movement only really starting in the 1740s it would be several decades before it gained real influence.

So the early years of the role of PM was dominated by the existing ruling class; the great landowners who now shifted from trying to solely influence events through the levers of Royal favouritism (though their support of the Hanoverian succession and therefore King George wasn’t overlooked) to the use of Parliament – though on their terms.  The houses which had often been built to attract and impress a visiting monarch in the hope of securing influence now shifted to helping build alliances with other landowners – and what better way than creating a home they would feel comfortable in? Architecture had become a key part of the political landscape; a physical expression of certain values but also part of a supporting cast which would build the alliances which elevated men to be Prime Minister.

Next: a change of King, and a new PM.

List of UK Prime Ministers

Thanks to Andrew for the original suggestion for this survey

The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project

One of the sadly almost inevitable side-effects of urban and industrial growth is the loss of more of our countryside. Sometimes it can be on a smaller scale for residential developments and industrial units but occasionally society’s plans are much grander and require a greater sacrifice. This has been shown with the publication of the latest proposed route for the new High Speed 2 rail project to provide a fast link between London and Birmingham.  In previous generations, landowners could influence the path of developments such as roads or canals to their benefit but as their power has diminished so routes of these developments can now threaten the settings of our country houses.

The High Speed 2 railway is aiming to dramatically reduce the need for internal domestic flights in the UK by linking London to, first, the West Midlands, followed by Leeds and Manchester.  The plan has always been controversial, requiring the loss of hundreds of homes in the urban areas around the terminals and also a significant loss of farmland.  Following an initial proposal, the latest route was announced to the House of Commons on 20 December 2010 which reflected some concerns about the initial proposal.  However, 13 of the 30 sections (yes, I have been through all of them!) contain a number of country houses and manors which will still be significantly affected by the plans.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One bit of good news is that fears over the proximity of the link to the wonderfully elegant West Wycombe Park (raised in a blog post in Oct 2009) have been alleviated as the new route is further away.  However, another significant house will still be badly affected; the Georgian, grade-I listed, Edgcote House, Northamptonshire.  The proposed route now slices through the remarkably unlisted grounds with the line passing just to the east of the ornamental lake which forms one of the main axial views from the house.  Edgcote was built between 1747-1752 for London merchant Richard Chauncey by architect William Jones and featured as ‘Netherfield’ in the 1995 TV adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  The house and grounds form the centrepiece to a 1,700-acre estate which was bought for £30m in 2005. Interestingly, this value has not deterred the planners (who moved the line from the original position cutting across the lake) so it will be interesting to see if the owner submits a claim a for ‘statutory blight‘ [.pdf]. This gives the Secretary of State the option to buy the property at the current market value if the owner can show that they have been unable to sell due to the Government proposals, or only at a substantially lower value.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

Amendments have also been made to protect another significant property; Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  A grade-I listed house, now run as a hotel, it was built in the early 17th-century for the Hampden family but was later let to the exiled King Louis XVIII of France who lived there between 1809-14.  Originally Jacobean, it was substantially enlarged and ‘Georgianised’ between 1759 and 1761 by the architect Henry Keene.  Again, following initial concerns, the route has now been moved further away from the house so that it would not be visible and will benefit from extra earth works and planting to reduce the noise.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)

Another grade-I house which would have been worse affected if it hadn’t been blighted already is Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.  This imposing house, now converted into apartments, is part medieval, part Georgian designed by the talented Francis Smith of Warwick, exists in a seriously compromised setting with the Stoneleigh Park exhibition and conference venue built in one half of the immediate parkland.  The proposed line will not only cut through the conference venue but also forever separate the house from the northern edge of the original park – though the massive scale of development already means this was never a house which was going to be returned to splendid isolation.

Another compromised house is Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire where the train will pass in front but quite some distance away.  The house itself, a beautiful Baroque-style Georgian mansion was built in 1757 to a design by Benjamin Wyatt and remained the home of the Swinfen family for nearly 200 years.  After the death of the last Swinfen in 1948 the land was sold and later a huge youth detention centre built to the immediate north-west with the house being left to deteriorate until it was converted into a hotel in the 1980s.  Having a railway line in the middle distance is the least of the concerns for the setting of this house.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Despite the vocal complaints of Lord Rothschild it seems that the route will be quite far from their old family seat of Waddesdon Manor.  However, Rothschild has become one of the leading opponents of the scheme – along with 16 other Conservative MPs whose constituencies will be affected.

With the rail route cutting across the countryside it was unavoidable that it would pass near to country houses, ironically which, of course, were often built to get away from the industrial blight.  Other houses which now lie close to the proposed route include:

  • The Vache (image), Buckinghamshire
  • Pollard Park House – a 1903 house built to a Lutyens design.
  • Classical Shardeloes, built between 1758-66 for William Drake MP by the architect Stiff Leadbetter would also suffer from the high speed line cutting across the main view from the house.
  • Grade-II* Doddershall House would be within a couple of hundred metres of the line on which up to 18 trains per hour are expected to rush past at speeds of up to 400kph.
  • Chetwode Manor
  • Oatley’s Hall
  • Berkswell Hall, Warwickshire – a grade-II* listed house now converted into apartments
  • Coleshill Manor, Birmingham – now offices and already suffering from being surround by motorways, the house will now have the line within metres, also necessitating the demolition of a new office complex next door.

The route also cuts across the old estate of the now demolished Hints Hall in Staffordshire – an elegant two-storey Georgian mansion with giant pilasters to enliven the facade.  It’s unlikely that if the house had survived it would have prevented the proposed route but again, without the house, an estate becomes even more vulnerable.

These are just the houses affected by the first 120 miles of the proposed 355 mile scheme.  If successful, we can expect more houses to be blighted as the route carves through the Midlands and up into Lancashire, shattering the peace and quiet that were the original reasons for the creation of these refuges from the industrial reality of the cities.  Although progress can often bring benefits, in this case the price is being paid by our country houses as their parklands and estates are judged the path of least resistance.


More information: High Speed 2 [wikipedia]

The growth of smaller country houses: Harewood Park, Herefordshire

The size of a country house was traditionally the physical embodiment of the wealth (or aspirations) of the owner.  Yet as the role of the country house changed and the emblems of power altered, new, smaller forms of houses to emerge for both the aristocracy and minor gentry.  The acceptability of a smaller house was to prove valuable in the financial crises of the 20th-century – though this is not to say that the later houses lacked anything in terms of quality of interiors or the richness of the architectural language used outside.

Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)
Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)

Wealth was obviously the most important consideration when deciding on the size of the house.  However, the learned sophistication of many of the lesser aristocracy meant that although their funds may not be able to provide a palace, they were well-versed in the aesthetics of good (often Classical) architecture. This meant they were able to commission or design for themselves coherent and elegant smaller houses, giving us the much-coveted Queen Anne or Georgian smaller houses we see today up and down the country, such as Puslinch House in Devon.

The considerations in the 20th-century were also financial but driven by a different set of demands.  The financial pressures of the early part of the century, particularly the agricultural slump and the Wall Street crash, naturally limited the size of the houses built (though not all e.g. Gledstone Hall by Sir Edwin Lutyens built in 1926). Yet, the changing social climate also meant that not only was it considered somewhat insensitive to build such large palaces, it was also unnecessary as the houses no longer required so many bedrooms to accommodate the now vanished armies of staff and house guests who used to turn up for the large weekend parties.

Hurtwood Edge, Surrey
Hurtwood Edge, Surrey

Yet smaller didn’t have to mean less interesting as architects faced up to the new challenges with intelligent interpretations of Georgian, whilst others sought to experiment with different styles, such as at the now grade-II listed Hurtwood Edge in Surrey, where the builder/architect Arthur Bolton created an Italian villa in the English countryside.

In the immediate period following World War II, many larger houses, having been requisitioned and mistreated, were demolished, but the families often retained the ancestral estate but now required a new seat.  The tight restrictions on materials, particularly for ‘luxury building’ under the Socialist Attlee government, naturally limited the ambitions of the owners.  Yet the election of Conservatives in 1951 ushered in the gradual lifting of the restrictions until their abolition in 1954 which allowed a new wave of construction.  The war seemed to have had a lasting effect – or maybe fear of a future Socialist government enacting a tax based on house size – as many of the houses were significantly smaller than those in previous eras.

Eaton Hall by John Dennys for Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)
Eaton Hall by John Dennys for Duke of Westminster (Image: Kathryn Gammon)

An example of this is Eaton Hall, seat of the Dukes of Westminster, where, following the demolition between 1961-63 of Sir Alfred Waterhouse’s high Gothic-Revival masterpiece, it was decided that a new house should be built.  The commission went to John Dennys, who happened to be the Duke’s brother-in-law, for a starkly modern house which sat cross-wise on the main axis of the old house.  Unfortunately in this case the new house was overwhelmed by the grandeur of the setting, appearing too small against the remaining buildings and the as the focus for the grand gardens.  Worse, the house was unsuccessfully remodelled again in the late 1980s in an almost French chateau-style to create a larger house.

In recent years, planning restrictions have usually limited the size of new houses (though not always; see my recent post on large houses).  The lack of architecturally educated clients has naturally led to a growth in crass, ugly smaller country houses, but all is not lost as determined clients are still able to demand and produce good designs, such as the one proposed for Harewood Park in Herefordshire, now mooted as the potential marital home for Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Harewood Park (proposed), Herefordshire (Image: Craig Hamilton Architects)
Harewood Park (proposed), Herefordshire (Image: Craig Hamilton Architects)

Ever since the Harewood Park estate was bought by the Duchy of Cornwall in 2000 as part of a larger purchase of 12,000 acres, rumours had been circulating that it would be for one of the Princes.  The original house had been demolished in 1959 so the expectation was that another would have to be built if it was to have such a role.  Considering the views of the Prince of Wales on modern architecture there was little surprise when a planning application was submitted in 2006 for a strongly Classical small country house by Craig Hamilton Architects.

Craig Hamilton originally prepared three designs but the final design (shown above) complements the existing stables and is perhaps the most interesting and the one successfully submitted for approval.

The house is based around the motif of the triumphal arch but, apparently drawing on the influence of Sir John Soane, it presents a simplified version rather than the more decorated versions often seen.  Soane was schooled in the Classical style but re-invented the language to create a new direction for Neo-Classicalism; a much simpler version with an emphasis on the effective use of space and most importantly, light.  Soane spent several years in Italy and was well-versed in Roman architecture and incorporated the three-arch motif into his designs, notably the entrance front to his own house at Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, west London, and in one of his most impressive commissions for the old Bank of England (scandalously demolished in the the 1920s) as seen in the internal Lothbury Court.

The new Harewood Park is an inventive extension of this Soanian language and it’s encouraging that the planners had the courage to approve what will surely be one of the most interesting smaller country houses built in the UK.  Sadly, I suspect that for security reasons, we won’t see the house featured in Country Life but I keep my fingers crossed.


Competition: nominate your choice for ‘England’s Favourite House’

Competition: 'England's Favourite House'
Competition: 'England's Favourite House'

This seems a good moment to mention the competition to find the best smaller country house (i.e. with less than seven bedrooms).  Most people have a favourite and usually it’s not so much the grand palaces of Chatsworth or Blenheim but the smaller houses of our local areas which form part of our local heritage.  The competition is being run by Country Life magazine and Savills the estate agents and the house should be in private ownership and not currently for sale. The deadline is Wednesday 24 November 2010 so submit your suggestions as soon as possible.

To nominate a house simply either print this form [pdf] and send it in or email favourite_house@ipcmedia.com

More information: ‘England’s Favourite House‘ [Country Life]



The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

For all the traditional antipathy towards the French, the influence of their architecture has been felt throughout Britain’s country houses.  Although initially the use of the French architectural vocabulary was a sign of wealth and education only available to the best families, the style was regarded as sullied by the later, more energetic, constructions of the Victorians – an association which still sadly lingers today.

The first wave of Anglo-French design started in the Elizabethan period; a time when it was acceptable to display one’s knowledge conspicuously. The French style, with its dramatic rooflines, dovetailed with the traditional English manor house and its own profusion of gables and chimneys.  Houses such as Burghley in Northamptonshire made dramatic use of the style with the central, three-storey pavilion, dated 1585, based on the French triumphal arch but oddly includes a traditional mullioned window on the third floor. Burghley was the product of the owner, Lord Burghley, an architectural enthusiast who as far back as 1568 was known to have been writing to France to obtain specific architectural books.

This early use of the French style was relatively restrained – probably more by the conservatism of the ruling gentry who were most likely to be building these houses.  Yet, our impressions now are more strongly influenced by the bolder, more assertive French style which was so popular during the Victorian era – though this same popularity was to also lead to it being derided.

The first of the Victorian nouveau-riche were keen to be accepted by society and so built houses which largely followed the same designs used by the local families.  The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 led to a rush across the Channel leading to a revival of interest in French design, particularly in relation to interiors, such as the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, built c.1825.  By the mid-nineteenth century this was being more confidently expressed in dramatic houses which sought to boldly make their mark.

The second French Renaissance was influenced by lavish works such as the new block at the Louvre in Paris, built between 1852-70.   However, there were earlier examples such as the complete Louis XV chateau at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, designed by the owner Earl de Grey, built in 1834-39, and Anthony Salvin’s French roofs added to Oxonhoath in Kent in 1846-47.  Yet, after the Louvre, the fashion gathered pace with designs such as R.C. Carpenter’s redesign of Bedgebury in Kent in 1854-55, and Salvin’s work at Marbury Hall in Cheshire in 1856-8.  Less successfully, the architect Benjamin Ferrey built Wynnstay in Denbighshire for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn which, for all its dramatic high roofs and pavilions, was thought rather gloomy.  Another dramatic, albeit slightly awkward, design was that of Plas Rhianfa, Wales, built in 1849, which seems to mix both Scots baronial and French, whilst Sir Charles Barry completed a more successful use of the two styles at Dunrobin Castle for the Dukes of Sutherland in 1845.  Also of note was Nesfield’s design for Kinmel Hall, described as a Welsh ‘Versailles’.

These houses were largely for the existing gentry who found the impressive skylines met their needs for a dramatic statement as was fashionable at the time.  With the fashion spreading into London and being used for luxury hotels, clubs and offices it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would wish to emulate in the country the world they already enjoyed.  The last burst of ‘aristocratic French’ could be seen in the designs for Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, 1865-68 for Lord Boston, Alfred Waterhouse’s Eaton Hall in Cheshire, 1870-72 for the Duke of Westminster, and T.H. Wyatt’s Nuneham Paddox in Warwickshire for the Earl of Denbigh, built in 1875.  From around this time, its fashionability declined.

One of the earliest of this new wave was Normanhurst in Sussex, built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey, son of the famous railway contractor.  Reputedly, Lady Ashburnham from nearby Ashburnham Place (note the very different architectural style of house) would snootily refer to him as ‘that train driver over the hill’.  In Worcestershire, the equally dramatic red-brick Impney Hall – later Chateau Impney – was built in 1869-75 for local salt tycoon John Corbett, who employed Auguste Tonquois, who had extensive experience around Paris.  In County Durham, the foundation stone of the Bowes Museum, originally designed to be part-home also, was laid in 1869 for John and Josephine Bowes.  Designed by Jules Pellechet with J.E. Watson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the house reflected their love of France but also made a statement as to their wealth – and possibly sought to hide their less-than-solid social position as illegitimate son of an Earl and an actress.  In Yorkshire, the additions to Warter Priory were considered unsuccessful, either due to the strange proportions or because the style had simply fallen out of favour.  More successfully, St Leonard’s Hill, Berkshire, was transformed from a Georgian house in the mid-1870s to create a dramatic chateau visible from Windsor Castle.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Interestingly though, perhaps the most famous of the English chateau was also one of the latest.  Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to a design by French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, mixing elements from various famous French chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Anet.  The last of these grand French imports was Halton House, designed by William R. Rogers and built in 1882-88, also in Buckinghamshire and also for a Rothschild, Alfred Charles; Baron Ferdinand’s cousin.  Equally grand, this house also featured a wonderful winter garden, though this was sadly demolished to make way for an accommodation block for the RAF who bought the house and turned it into an officer’s mess.

Perhaps one of the final straws as to the desirability of the French style was the spectacular collapse of the Victorian financier Baron Grant who, in 1875, spent over £270,000 (approx. £20m) building a huge house in Kensington before his crimes were exposed in 1879 with the subsequent public disgrace, and the demolition the house in 1883.  Such a high-profile scandal and its flash monument would have been felt in society and tarnished the style for no-one would wish to be associated with such disgrace.  However, fashion would have played a more significant role, with taste moving on to new styles, leaving these extravagant mementos to an earlier, brasher architectural exuberance which now give us an unexpected glimpse of France in the British countryside.


Credit: a wonderful insight into the period is Mark Girouard’s ‘The Victorian Country House’ which was most useful in the research for this post.

For more information on Chateau Impney; ‘Chateau Impney – the story of a Victorian country house’ by John Hodges

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses: