The greatest threat: fire strikes at Tidmington House, Warwickshire

Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)
Tidmington House, Warwickshire (Image: Philip Halling/Geograph)

With sad co-incidence, having recently posted about how owners respond to fires in country houses, news comes through that Tidmington House in Warwickshire was badly damaged whilst undergoing renovations.

Tidmington was built in the early 17th-century but was re-fronted in the 18th-century giving it a pleasing and elegant facade, which is visible from the road. Distinctive gables top a neat front which successfully mixes Elizabethan elements with the classical.  The recessed central section runs from a smaller middle gable featuring a Diocletian (or thermal) window, above a first floor tripartite Venetian window, sometimes known as Palladian or Serlian after the two architects most associated with popularising it, with finally the two wings being joined by a Tuscan colonnade.  Two 1-bay pavilions extend to the left and right, providing a clever balance to the height of the main house.

The grade-II* listed house was once the home of Thomas Beecham, 2nd son of the famous conductor, before being put up for sale in 2009 for £3.95m by the owners who had moved there in 1988.  The house was then given a glowing write-up in The Times by Marcus Binney who relished the bold use of colour; the sky-blue library, the jade green dining room – but I wonder if the bold colours in the house contributed to the situation as it was during renovations by the new owners that the fire started.

The blaze is reported to have badly damaged the first floor where the fire started and also part of the ground floor but hopefully a majority of the 8,500 sq ft house will have been spared from the flames – though the inevitable smoke and water damage will have spread beyond the immediate blaze.  Again, it shows that insurance companies are right to demand to be told when works are taking place as it is so often during renovations when these fires seem to break out – please don’t let this be another workman being careless with a blow-torch.

More details: ‘Country house is hit by fire‘ [Cotswold Journal]

After the fire, the difficult choices: Raasay House, Scotland

Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)
Raasay House, Scotland (Image: BBC News)

When Raasay House on the Isle of Skye Raasay was largely destroyed by a huge fire in January 2009 just days before it was due to reopen following a £4m refurbishment, the locals and owners vowed to quickly rebuild the house as it was.  Fire has always been one of the major threats to our country houses and when it strikes the responses to the destruction can vary greatly – particularly in the modern era.

For many country house owners in the 16th-19th-centuries immediate rebuilding was the favoured response if funds allowed – either to re-create the original house or sometimes to build an entirely new one.  Raasay House was built in 1746 for the clan Macleod after the previous house, built in the 1500s, was deliberately burnt down in 1745 in the wave of retribution which followed the Battle of Culloden.  The house, extended in the 1870s, was run as an outdoor pursuits centre and was an important part of the economy on the Isle of Skye Raasay.  This meant the response was largely on the basis of local economics which required the house to be rebuild to support the business, apparently not for its intrinsic architectural value.  However, the Scottish grade-A listing (equivalent to the English grade-I) means that the ‘new’ Raasay will be a faithful recreation of the original house as it was before the fire.

Although country house owners have long rebuilt, the principle that the house will be strictly rebuilt exactly as it was is, in some ways, a modern response as heritage legislation requires full salvage of any architectural fragments with the presumption of restoration.  Insurance companies also pay out for recreation of the old building, not the construction of a new one.  So responses now are sometimes based on the architectural or heritage value, and sometimes due to the constraints placed on the owners.  The wishes of the owners also play an important part with some looking to recreate whilst others follow the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who state:

Although no building can withstand decay, neglect and depredation entirely, neither can aesthetic judgement nor archaeological proof justify the reproduction of worn or missing parts. Only as a practical expedient on a small scale can a case for restoration be argued.

– SPAB manifesto

The 1992 fire at Windsor Castle destroyed large sections of the State Apartments including the Crimson and Green Drawing Rooms, the Queen’s Private Chapel and St George’s Hall.  It was quickly decided by the Restoration Committee (headed by Prince Philip) that many of the rooms would be restored to as close as possible their original state with only a few modern rooms and the Queen’s Private Chapel to be restored in a modern style.

However, no lesser organisation than the National Trust also has firmly followed the faithful re-creation approach, particularly following the devastating 1989 fire at Uppark, Sussex.  Although the dramatic pictures of the fire would suggest total loss, brave efforts by staff saved the majority of the contents of the house and the fire was found to have only destroyed the attic and first floors whilst severely damaging the ground floor.  It was then announced by Martin Sekers, the National Trust’s Regional Director for the Southern Region, that “We feel that enough survives to justify total restoration.”.  So how much has to survive to warrant re-creation?  A spirited public debate at the time brought forward opposing views such as that expressed by the respected architecture critic Deyan Sudjic who argued in an article in the Sunday Correspondent (17 Sept 1989) that:

“…it won’t actually be Uppark no matter how skilful the work of the 20th Century craftsman who seek to recreate it. What tourists come to see will, in fact, be a replica, one which could be said to diminish those fragments which actually are authentic…”

However, other eminent architectural historians such as Dan Cruikshank came out strongly in favour of recreation principally from the point that it provided the opportunity to re-learn old techniques and provide a model in their use.  Andor Gomme argued that a recreated Uppark would be the only appropriate way to show the rescued contents in an appropriate setting.  Gomme also highlighted that in previous cases where a house owned by the National Trust had burnt down (the incomparable Coleshill, Berkshire in 1953 and Dunsland House, Devon in 1967) the decision at the time to demolish what remained was later deeply regretted.

So for public organisations the clear preference is strongly in favour of re-creation despite the claims of the modernist and the SPAB that such an approach is to miss an opportunity or is simply fake.  Yet, for private country house owners, their long-held preference has been to simply restore as much as possible – even if just the walls were left standing.

When Knepp Castle, Sussex was gutted by fire in 1904, work started in 1905 to recreate John Nash’s original design.  Similarly after fires at Bramham Park in 1828, Duncombe Park in 1879, Stourhead in 1902, Monzie Castle in 1903 and Sledmere in 1911, the owners all worked to faithfully recreate the houses to the state as they had been.  For houses such as Lees Court in Kent which was almost completely destroyed in 1911 (scroll to last image) the house was just rebuilt using what remained of the outer walls.

So is restoration the best approach?  Although there is danger that the new work might be a poor pastiche of the earlier work, to just discard what has been salvaged and what remains and to only allow modern work would seem to be overly dogmatic.  However, it will only work if any restoration is of the highest quality to avoid any chance that what is produced is merely a lifeless reproduction.  Owners over the last 400-years when faced with a greater or lesser degree of loss have often sought to restore and to continue that tradition today is to draw on a much longer history than to rely only on the intellectual restrictions of the later purists.

Full story: ‘Fire damaged Raasay House to rise from ashes‘ [BBC News]

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]

Phoenix for sale: Beaurepaire House, Hampshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd

Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

It’s often been said that there are no problem buildings, just problem owners.  However, an even more difficult situation is where the house is ‘orphaned’ because no legitimate owner can be found.  This can make it doubly frustrating for those looking to buy and restore a property who are forced to sit by and watch a building deteriorate as the search goes on to find the owner.  This also highlights something of a legislative loophole as having no known owner also prevents the council serving an ‘Urgent Works Notice’ to force repairs thus ensuring that the house will continue to deteriorate. Which brings us to Plas Gwynfryn; an orphan with good prospects if adoption takes place quickly.

The grade-II listed Plas Gwynfryn is another of the many Welsh country houses built to serve the minor gentry, with their increased wealth from the Victorian industrial boom.  The estate had been inherited from a childless uncle by Owen Jones Ellis-Nanney in 1819, and he hugely increased the size of his lands by purchasing the neighbouring Plas Hen estate. On his death it passed to his son, Hugh John Ellis-Nanney.  Having been educated at Eton and Oxford and, on his 21st birthday, now owner of a huge estate, Hugh was the epitome of the eligible bachelor and wanted a house to reflect his status.

The old house was demolished in 1866 and the new house was completed by 1876 at the then astronomical cost of £70,000 (approximately £3m in today’s money).   The design, by architect George Williams, was regarded as very fashionable to the extent that the house was featured in ‘The Builder’ magazine in June 1877.  Hugh was very active in local politics and in 1895 almost beat the local Liberal candidate, the future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, losing by only 194 votes.  Almost by way of consolation Hugh was given a baronetcy and happily lived out his days at Plas Gwynfryn, dying in 1925, with his wife following in 1928.  As their only son had died aged just eight, the house was inherited by their daughter who moved out to Plas Hen.  The house was then let to the Church of Wales before being sold off in 1959 when the estate was broken up.

It then became a hospital and then a hotel before a mysterious fire entirely gutted it in 1982.  Since then it has stood as an empty shell, slowly deteriorating, and is now in serious danger of collapse with the tower a particular risk.  Almost no work has been done on the house except for a brief period when a conservation-minded squatter moved in and started work.  This prompted the only known appearance by the apparently Canadian owner who appeared in a local court during eviction proceedings.   Since then nothing has been heard of the owner and the local council, though aware of the situation, seem powerless to act unless the owner can be found.  A local developer, Aaron Hill, who has completed other historic restorations, is keen to find the owner and buy Plas Gwynfryn with a view to fully restoring it as a family home – which would surely be the best outcome.

Although rare, this example shows that despite the combined efforts of the local Council and a potential buyer an owner can remain a mystery, thwarting well-intentioned efforts to rescue a house before it deteriorates beyond the point of repair.  If there is a legislative loophole it must be closed to prevent any other houses languishing in such a way.

Perhaps councils could be given the legal power to compulsorily purchase when a house is at risk of complete loss, with the money held in escrow in case the owner should appear. Councils are often reluctant to use their powers of compulsory purchase as they become legally responsible for repairs but surely in cases like this with an owner desperate to take the house on, the risk to the public purse is very low. The power would have to only be used in extremis when all other avenues had been exhausted but at least it would give a tool of last resort to ensure that more of our heritage is not lost just because a problem owner can’t be located and forced to honour their responsibilities.

If you are the owner and you happen to read this, please do get in contact with either me or the Council or SAVE Britain’s Heritage who would be more than happy to help get the process of rescuing this house under way.

Anyone with deep pockets? Country houses at risk today

It seems remarkable that between the popularity of country houses as tourist attractions or business or simply as homes that any would be at risk.  Yet as the 2010 SAVE Britain’s Heritage Building’s at Risk Register shows there are still a broad selection of fine houses which, for various reasons, are in need of someone with a desire to restore part of our heritage, lots of dedication, and pretty deep pockets.

Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)
Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)

One of the saddest is the case of Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire – a county which has lost so many of it’s fine old country houses already.  Fire is still one of the main reasons a house can quickly go from being a secure home to an ‘at risk’ shell.  Grade-II listed Nocton Hall is a warm honey-coloured stone house built for the 1st Earl of Ripon in 1841 to replace the original Jacobean house which burnt down in 1834.  After a stint as an RAF hospital in WWII it became a residential home before being bought by a property developer.  Unfortunately no development took place and the house was allowed to slowly deteriorate before a serious fire severely damaged what had been a perfectly good house.  Still sitting in its own gardens and parkland and near the village Nocton Hall cries out to be restored either as a h,otel or ideally as a grand family home.

Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

To look at the photo, Barmoor Castle in Northumberland looks in pretty good shape – but a picture can hide as much as it shows.  The first issue with Barmoor is that it actually is unused and sits in the middle of a caravan park which has been established in the grounds. Inside, there is some water damage as the roof has been leaking – although recent work, part funded by English Heritage, has alleviated this for the moment. Barmoor was built in 1801 around an older tower by the architect John Patterson of Edinburgh in a castellated Gothic Revival style for Francis Sitwell, in whose family it remained until 1979 when it was sold along with 200-acres.  The current owners have operated the caravan park since then but didn’t live in the house or use it leading to it’s current neglected state.  This is a classic example of where a house could be rescued from an inappropriate use, restored and enjoyed as a fine country house as was intended.

St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

St Botolphs Mansion in Pembrokeshire was built in the early 1800’s for General Richard Le Hunt is a house in need of a use rather than repair.  The Doric porch and neat window architraves create an interesting facade which would normally ensure that such a house would be jealously fought over if it came to market.  However it is now owned by the nearby oil refinery (the proximity probably ruling out residential use) but they are exploring options as to how to make use of this elegant Georgian house – perhaps as a conference facility might be more appropriate.  Either way, this is a house which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Other country houses of note in the report include the Grade-II* listed Plas Machen nr Newport, the surviving portion of the 15th-century house of the Morgans who moved up in the world to Tredegar House, which is for sale. Also for sale, since 2007, is Benwell Towers in Newcastle which was a country house when built but is now suburban, achieving fame in later life as the set for the kid’s TV series ‘Byker Grove’.

Even if your pockets can’t stretch to a country house there are many other buildings seeking a saviour so do order your copy of ‘Live or Let Die‘ and certainly consider joining SAVE Britain’s Heritage to help to preserve our architectural legacy for future generations.

‘Live or Let Die’: the 2010 Buildings at Risk Register

'Live or Let Die' - 2010 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register
'Live or Let Die' - 2010 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register

For anyone interested in architectural conservation the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk Register‘ will always trigger ‘what if’ moments as you contemplate possibly taking on a forlorn building which catches your eye.  Yet the Register should also inspire some concern and disappointment that once again so many wonderful buildings are at risk in the first place.

The 2010 report, entitled ‘Live or Let Die‘, again provides a fascinating snapshot of a broad collection of buildings which we are now at risk of losing.  Some are merely unused and crying out for sympathetic conversion, others are more extreme and would require great quantities of time and money – but they would deliver the most incredible homes or workplaces once finished.  And remember, estate agents almost always value good quality, well-restored period properties higher than a similar but modern property in the same area.

The report features over a hundred properties from the large country houses such as St Botolph’s mansion, in Herbrandston, which was built in the early 1800s, but is now empty and deteriorating.  Other substantial houses include the house featured on the cover; Northwold Manor in Northwold, Norfolk.  However, it’s not just houses, but mills, schools, libraries, town halls and many more.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been successfully campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architects, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment. It has published a Buildings at Risk Register for England and Wales since 1989 and has had many successes and is responsible for saving many buildings we love today.  Even if you can’t take on a property, if you wish to support their work, please consider becoming a Friend of SAVE and you will not only receive discounts on publications, but newsletters and access to the online version of the Register featuring over a thousand properties in need of care.

Order your copy today: ‘Live or Let Die – 2010 Buildings at Risk Register‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive))
Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Two of the most important aspects of campaigning to save country houses are vigilance and visibility – and yet sometimes even this doesn’t always seem to bring about restoration any quicker when faced with a slow-moving owner. Braunstone Hall, a Georgian gem still with significant grounds but now swallowed up in the sprawl of Leicester, has been empty for over ten years but despite a vigorous campaign both in the media and online it still remains very much at risk.

Braunstone Hall, now grade-II listed, was built in 1776 (date on rainwater head) for the Winstanley family by the architect William Oldham (b. 1737 – d. 1814) who also designed an early Leicester racecourse grandstand (1770), Master’s House at Alderman Newton’s School (1789) and the New House of Correction (1803) – all though now demolished.  The red-brick house is two and a half storeys tall by five bays wide with a cornice and hipped roof.  The relatively simple front is enlivened with stone bands marking the ground and first floors with an impressive tripartite doorway with fluted columns, a small pediment and an elegant fanlight with arched glazing bars.  One further very distinctive feature is the giant blind recessed arch in the central bay – an architectural device which seems quite popular in Leicestershire with examples in Burbage, Belgrave House (also 1776), and the beautiful rectory at Church Langton (by William Henderson – 1760).  The interior is largely complete with some impressive detailing.

The Winstanley family bought the estate from the Hastings family in 1650 and remained there until forced out in the 1920’s by the pressure to build houses following the First World War.  Estates on the edge of existing towns and cities were eagerly eyed-up by local councils.  For some families, already facing financial hardships following the war this was a perfect opportunity to sell the family seat and relocate.  Others, including the Winstanleys in the shape of Major Richard Norman Winstanley, fought the prospect of compulsory purchase arguing that this was still a family home and the building work would undermine the value of his recently modernised house.  However, he was unsuccessful and so the house, gardens, parkland and further 949-acres were compulsorily purchased in 1925 for £116,500 (equivalent to £5.2m – 2008).  Most of the land was built over except for the house and 168-acres surrounding it which became a public park.  The house remained in council ownership and was first a secondary school, opening in 1932, before becoming a primary school a year later until it closed in 1996.

Since then the Leicester City Council has failed to either find a viable long-term use or adequately protect Braunstone Hall with the house falling victim to repeated acts of vandalism and arson.  The latter is the most worrying as the incidents have not only included fires outside the building but also now inside.  Over the last few years the Council have been making very slow progress towards finding a solution but, as always, they are claiming poverty when it comes to heritage projects.  A very active campaigning group has been set up on Facebook with the members regularly corresponding with councillors and reporting any damage or deterioration at the hall – effectively a dedicated ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ for the house.

The Council put the house up for sale on a 125-year lease in 2007 and had recently been negotiating to sell the house to a local businessman for conversion to a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. However this has been delayed by changes to what’s being offered in relation to the land for enabling development.  Each delay increases the risk that the local yobs will finally succeed in their mindless vandalism and burn down this elegant and important part of Leicester’s heritage.  If this happens the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of Leicester City Council and their apathy and indecisiveness over the last 14 years.

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

Detailed history of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [Leicester City Council]

Detailed description of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [English Heritage]

Lifting the curse of Hampton Gay manor house

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astley Castle rises from the ashes

Astley Castle, Warwickshire

The devastating fire which tore through Astley Castle not only ended it’s use as a hotel but also seemed to mark the end as a building.  However, a remarkable project by the Landmark Trust is seeking to once again restore life to this battered shell.

Although never a proper ‘castle’, Astley was designed as a fortified manor house (see also the beautiful Compton Wynyates nearby). This original house was built largely by the Grey family but it was slighted following the execution of Lady Jane in 1554.  The house was rebuilt in 1600 by a new owner, Edward Chamberlain, and it eventually became part of the Newdigate family’s Arbury Hall estate, with a new ‘Gothick’ stable block added in the 18th-century – but with little done to the house itself.  The grade-II* listed castle was leased out as home for most of in the 20th-century until the 1960s when it became a hotel until the fire destroyed it, leaving it as a deteriorating ruin for the next 30 years.

The Landmark Trust has been attempting to find a solution to this situation since the 1990s, originally looking at plans for a full restoration, but which unfortunately proved too costly.  The continued decline of the building fabric gave fresh impetus to their efforts as it was realised that without urgent work the house as a structure would be lost forever.  In 2005, the Trust held a competition to find a design for accommodation to be created within the shell as sensitively as possible, which could then be used as a holiday let.  The winning design from the architects Witherford Watson Mann will create a modern two-storey structure in the oldest part of the castle, with the first-floor living spaces enjoyed spectacular views across the parkland.  A £500,000 £1.47m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus earlier fund-raising, has taken the Trust to within just £134,000 of the total project cost of £2.3m, and great progress has been made on the scheme. What’s particularly impressive about this project is that it has enabled a full architectural survey of the house, which has revealed many fascinating features as the rubble has been cleared and the later Victorian additions are removed.

The Landmark Trust has a strong record of taking on derelict listed buildings, converting them, and finding a long-term sustainable use for them – usually as unusual holiday accomodation.  Although it’s not been possible to fully restore Astley Castle as a home it is encouraging to see it being consolidated and enhanced with a sensitive modern addition which will provide the opportunity for others to experience this amazing part of our architectural heritage which was so nearly lost.

More details: ‘Astley Castle‘ [The Landmark Trust]