The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there.  This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices?  Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.

Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village)
Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village) – click for an excellent history of the house

The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses.  With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939.  Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion.  This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey.  A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished.  However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors.  Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.

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

One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.  A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase.  The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.

Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)
Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)

Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war).  The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780.  This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.

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

The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose.  The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s.  In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate.  Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful.  The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars.  It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.

Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)
Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)

The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house.  Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK.  The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.  What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.  If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use.  Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant.  Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from "A New Display of the Beauties of England" (London : 1776-1777))
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from “A New Display of the Beauties of England” London,  1776-1777) – click to see full size image

Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent.  The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue.  However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home.  One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history.  The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret.  The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999.  Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.

Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful.  It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.

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Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort.  Nice photos but quite lacking in details.

Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.

N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.

A silver lining to an industrial cloud; the Mersey mansions of the Victorian elite

To join the landed gentry you previously needed to have no connection with the vulgar business of actually making money. Even if you had bought a significant house and estate, to be truly accepted (and not be cast off into social Siberia) a gentleman would have to sell all his business interests and retire to live off the proceeds.  Yet, times changed and as it became acceptable to mix business and pleasure, so the requirements of the new gentry altered as they became unwilling to be too far from their sources of wealth, particularly around the great Victorian cities.  Smaller country houses and weekend villas with reduced estates sprang up to meet this new demand, with Liverpool being a prime example of these forces.  Later, as the cities grew, fortunes waned and housing pressures increased, many of these houses were lost; yet, occasionally, a rare survivor appears such as Calderstones Park Mansion House in Liverpool.

Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)
Harewood House, Yorkshire (Image: Lee Elvin via flickr)

The Georgian era truly challenged the mystique of inherited wealth and royal patronage being the primary route to social elevation (though both helped).  Money talks, and the vast wealth being created, and the men making it, could not be ignored.  No family exemplified this more than the Lascelles family of Yorkshire. Although the family had been in the county for many years, their purchase of the Harewood estate in 1739 for £63,827 (for an estate of 6000-8000 acres) was with wealth generated only relatively recently.  Henry Lascelles (b. 1690 – d. 1753) had made his fortune largely between 1715 and 1730 as a plantation owner, victualling contractor and Collector of Customs in Barbados. It was his son, Edwin, who, having inherited his father’s vast fortune, set about, between 1759-71, building the grand house we see at Harewood today, to designs by John Carr of York who had already built the stables.  The vast expense of paying Carr, plus Robert Adam for the interiors, Angelica Kauffman and Biagio Rebecca for internal decorative painting, Thomas Chippendale for the superb furniture, and ‘Capability’ Brown for the beautiful grounds hardly made any serious dent in the family fortune.  On Edwin’s death in 1795, he reportedly had an income of £50,000 per year, of which half came from the West Indies business interests.  It was this mercantile wealth which established one of the great houses of the 18th-century, elevated the family to the peerage and enabled them to become a local political force, all in the space of just 60 years – something not possible on the limited and sometimes uncertain income of an estate alone.

Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Picture gallery, Dawpool, Cheshire (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

The 19th-century only saw this trend accelerate with the great wealth of the cities now a serious challenge to the old inherited wealth of the land. This was especially true since, following political reform, land holdings were not always necessary to secure power and influence.  Now the owners could indulge their preferences, as not all of them, having been born, brought up, educated, worked and having made their fortunes in the cities, would feel a natural attachment to the countryside, beyond the social cachet it brought.  Rising land values from the mid-19th-century also would have been a factor which might have put off the hard-headed businessman – better value to invest in the most luxurious house possible.  Yet, the allure of the country seat was still strong as a recognised symbol of success so around each major Victorian city could be found these mini ‘pleasure’ estates; with Liverpool being a classic example.

Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004
Hafodunos Hall, Wales in 1954 (Image: RCAHMW) - burnt out in 2004

For some, their fortunes financed the Victorian version of the Lascelles, with the acquisition of large estates and the building of the great houses away from the dirt and noise of the cities, such as at Hafodunos Hall (sadly burnt out by morons in 2004) by George Gilbert Scott for H.R. Sandbach (son of a Liverpool West India merchant). Yet for some of these gentleman there was no shame in being near to the industrial heart which pumped their fortunes – but that didn’t mean they had to compromise on luxury or convenience. Soon, many large houses with small estates populated the edges of the city.  Writing in 1873, the journalist Patricius Walker said:

Crowds of comfortable and luxurious villas besprinkle the country for miles round Liverpool, inhabited by ship-owners, ship-insurers, corn merchants, cotton brokers, emigrant agents, etc, etc, men with “on foot on sea, and one on shore,” yet to one thing constant ever – namely, money-making – and therein duly successful.

These captains of industry and commerce were also able to take advantage of the newly developed railways; becoming early commuters, able to spend the day at the office yet still escape at the end, back to their slice of bucolic charm.

The merchant palaces of Liverpool were, broadly, either those which were built as villas with substantial gardens near the large pleasure parks such as Sefton, or, taking advantage of the rail links, based outside the city in areas such as a the Wirral, just across the Mersey.

Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)
Holmestead, Cheshire (Image: openlyJane via skyscrapercity)

One particularly fine example of ‘rural urban’ villa was Holmestead on Mossley Hill, set in its own extensive grounds just to the east of the elegant and very desirable Sefton Park.  What is remarkable is that many of the larger houses still survive, albeit in an altered form; some becoming flats or care-homes.  The house was originally built in the 1840s in a Gothic style and effectively doubled in size in 1869-70 by the then owner, Michael Belcher, a local cotton broker. Urban ‘society’ of the newly wealthy mirrored the practices of those in the countryside as shown by William Imrie, owner of the house at the turn of the 19th-century and formerly of the famous White Star line, and also a patron of the Arts-and-Crafts movement.  He held regular concerts in his music room – a grand space, decorated with William Morris’ ‘Acanthus‘ pattern wallpaper, with the imposing ‘The Tree of Forgiveness‘ by Edward Burne-Jones on one wall, and Spencer Stanhope’s ‘Why Seek Ye the Living Amongst the Dead‘ on another. Remarkably, the house has survived and is still a single family home.

Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)
Dawpool, Cheshire - dem. 1927 (Image: H Bedford Lemere, Bedford Lemere & Co / copyright: English Heritage/NMR)

One of the grandest houses of them all was also connected to the White Star Line.  Dawpool was the pet project of Thomas Henry Ismay, the man who built a company large enough to launch the Titantic. Although was not conceived as the centre of a landed estate, it was certainly designed to showcase the power of his empire.  Designed by the leading architect, Richard Norman Shaw, the house, started in 1882, was a monument to Ismay’s wealth and meant to last – the local red sandstone was finely shaped and even the screws being finest brass.  The house took four years to build at a cost of over £50,000 – equivalent to over £3.5m today, a colossal sum compared to the average £80 per year the skilled ship-worker took home. Yet, the house was to survive less than half a century. After Ismay’s death in 1899, the widowed Mrs Ismay said that the house had given her husband pleasure every day – but without that driving force, it languished before being sold, becoming an orthopaedic hospital in WWI, before being sold again, and then demolished in 1927 [more history and photos available on Lost Heritage: Dawpool].

Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)
Calderstones House, Liverpool (Image: Liverpool Confidential)

Although some have been demolished and most of the houses have lost their extensive grounds, one rare survivor, Calderstones House, gives a rare insight into the once-gilded edges of Liverpool.  The now grade-II listed house was built in 1823 for Joseph Need Walker, a lead shot manufacturer, who built an elegant late-Georgian design (architect unknown) with a Doric portico which looked out over carefully tended gardens and parkland.  In 1875, the house and grounds were sold for £52,000 to Charles MacIver, a shipping magnate who had spent 35 years with the Cunard Line. The house and grounds were sold in 1902 to the Liverpool Corporation for £42,000 and became one of the city’s finest parks (John Lennon apparently used to hang about there) with the house used as offices for their Parks departments with a public tea-room and, to the rear, a stage for concerts.

Faced with severe budget cuts, Liverpool Council are now exploring what options are available, with a sale the preferred outcome.  Sadly, it is extremely unlikely to become a home again; to carve out sufficient space and access from a public space would be extremely controversial, with security a further worry.  The two most likely options are that it is taken on as a public facility with commercial aspects such as concerts and refreshments, or that it will languish, becoming progressively more dilapidated.  Sadly, local government generally has often shown a rather careless attitude to heritage assets in their care -though in recent years they have improved markedly from the 1950s and 60s when some (Derbyshire being particularly notorious) would simply demolish the historic buildings, especially country houses.

The current period of austerity is forcing councils to re-examine their assets and objectively analyse the most cost-effective way of operating – a process open to the risk of losing elements of what makes an area locally distinctive.  This is especially true when ‘heritage’ and ‘arts’ are seen (falsely) as relatively ‘high-brow’ interests – this creates a challenge for everyone to be aware of what their councils own, and to monitor whether there are any signs of them seeking to cut corners and creating conditions which threaten the heritage assets.  They hold these in trust for the local area and, if necessary, councils need to be forcefully reminded of their obligations to this generation and the ones which follow to care for the built environment which contributes so much to local identity.

Articles:

Further reading: Merchant Palaces: Liverpool and Wirral Mansions Photographed by Bedford Lemere (Photographers of Liverpool) (disclosure: this is an Amazon associates link – the price you pay is the same but I’m experimenting to see if I can help offset costs with Amazon affiliate links).

A stay in the country: country houses as hotels – and a bad plan

Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)
Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stoke Park Country Club and Resort)

Although country houses were built primarily as homes, an integral and important function was their use for entertaining.  However, one dramatic change has been the nature of the guests and how they paid for their visits – and the birth of the refined country house holiday now regarded as the best the hospitality industry can offer.  That said, running such a hotel is no guaranteed path to the wealth suggested by the lifestyle; with huge initial costs, large ongoing expenses and the elusive need for profitability leading to the recent troubles for the Von Essen hotel chain which had dominated this niche, including running the finest country house hotel – Cliveden, before collapsing under their own ambition.  The chase for profitability has also led to some shocking schemes for building further accommodation which can be seen in the recent proposals for Wyreside Hall in Lancashire.

Country houses have long been used as accommodation for travellers, be they friends of the owning family or, more spectacularly in medieval and Renaissance periods, for the monarch.  Often considered a great honour (supposedly there are more beds in which Queen Elizabeth I has apparently slept than nights she was alive), the occasion of a royal visit – or the possibility of one – would cause local aristocrats, or those aspiring, to refurbish suites of rooms such as at Burghley, Hatfield House, and Kirby Hall (even though Elizabeth I never came to the latter).  Sometimes, the ruinous expense of hosting the royal retinue would sometimes leave the owner with a title but also debts they’d be paying off for decades.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The heights of country house entertaining were reached by the Victorians and Edwardians who popularised, amongst the aristocracy, the vast weekend house party.  This led to houses being built or extended to create, in effect, large hotels.  The key difference was the guests were pre-selected from a narrow social strata and were expected to ‘pay’ for the hospitality with reciprocal entertainment or with business or political favours.  The greater the social elevation of the guests, so the number of staff required increased, leading to some houses, particularly at the cream of society, such as Eaton Hall and Clumber House, being greatly extended.  Eaton Hall eventually numbered around 150 bedrooms ranging from those for the honoured guests down to the  lowliest servants who would share dormitories.  Sadly, it was these sizeable extensions and aggrandisements which were largely the reason for their demolition in the 20th-century in their hundreds as austerity hit home and these huge palaces became unaffordable.

Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)
Sandringham, Norfolk (Image: Sandringham Estate)

Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, was the longest serving Regent and developed a highly cultivated habit of ‘weekending’ at country houses, especially his own at Sandringham, Norfolk.  His preferences have been said to have laid the foundations for not only the practice of weekend visits but also for indulging with grand breakfasts followed by country activities such as shooting, followed by convivial dinners.  Such was his reputation that some owners would fear a visit for the expense involved with one family, the Gurneys of Northrepps Hall in Norfolk, allegedly burning down a wing to forestall such a visit. By contrast, in 1902, when Edward VII visited Burton in Staffordshire an entire wing was built and named after him in his honour at Rangemore Hall.

Country house visiting had been a common activity for the travelling aristocrat in the Georgian era (a topic explored in a previous article ‘How tourism split a house from the estate‘).  Often calling on those they knew, they would also call on the notable houses in an area (an acceptable enough practice to be included by Jane Austen in ‘Pride and Prejudice‘) – and the owners of these ‘show houses’ were happy to parade their good taste.  By the beginning of the 18th-century, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Chatsworth, Wilton and Burghley had become the ‘must-see’ houses for the country house tourist – later joined by Houghton, Holkham, Eaton Hall and Kedleston.  Sadly, visitors weren’t always there for the educational opportunities of seeing some of the finest art in the world – as Horace Walpole lamented regarding the visitors to his father’s Houghton Hall, where he was a guide, the worst were the seers:

 …they come, ask what such a room is called, in which Sir Robert lay, write it down, admire a lobster or a cabbage in a market-piece, dispute whether the last room was green or purple, and then back to the inn for fear the fish should be overdressed.

Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)
Tregenna Hotel, Cornwall (Image: lindad4a via flickr)

It’s the last line which is of particular interest – even the well-to-do Georgian guest would be staying in a nearby coaching inn unless they had family nearby.  By the Victorian era, the nature and number of the guests had changed, but still the houses were private residences – until 1878 when the first country house became a hotel; Tregenna Castle near St Ives, Cornwall.  The catalyst was the extension of the railway, and the purchasers of a initial lease on Tregenna, before buying the freehold in 1895, was the Great Western Railway who could not only provide the destination, but the means to get there.

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: sjm_1974 via flickr)
Cliveden, Buckinghamshire (Image: SJM_1974 via flickr)

The growth of a paying middle class in the Victorian and Edwardian eras created demand – but most importantly, both eras were about aspiration.  The middle class may not have had the wealth to run a country house (and in the 1930s and 1950s, many owners didn’t either) but they certainly wanted to experience it.  The glut of country houses which became available in the first half of the 20th-century presented many opportunities for the hospitality industry to cater for these new markets.  For the upper classes, although many had been forced to sell up or move out, they still wanted to continue the lifestyle – though not necessarily alongside the nouveau riche. This created another market for the exclusive country club with clear social stratification driving the finest hotels to become bywords for extravagant elegance – something still clear today (though entry is more socially open) when one looks at hotels such as Cliveden or Stoke Park.

Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)
Gravetye Manor, Sussex (Image: Patrick Baty)

Though initially slow to take-off, the first half of the 20th-century saw a number of houses become hotels; in 1929, Theobalds Park, Hertfordshire and North Bovey Manor, Devon (another for the Great Western Railway), Welcombe Manor, Warwickshire in 1931, Otterburn Tower, Northumberland and Studley Priory, Oxfordshire, both in 1947 and Greywalls in Scotland in 1948, to name but a few.  Gravetye Manor was sold to Peter Herbert in 1957, when he paid £57,000 and charged £2 per night.  One author reported that the 1995 Egon Ronay guide listed 220 country house hotels, and the Historic Houses Association estimated that a quarter of the country houses sold between 1972-1990 were converted into hotels.  Though some have inevitably failed, the trend continues with one of the most recent being Coworth Park, built in 1776, opening in September 2010.

This potential re-use of the houses has not always been benign.  The nature of hotels is that the bedrooms generate the income so the more you have the better for them – though usually not for the architectural cohesion of the house. In hotel terms, many houses would not be economic which has led to the building of large, and not necessarily sensitive, additions.  Considering the original intentions of country house owners were to demonstrate their wealth and taste and to build a house to last, rarely are the modern extensions designed with anything approaching the same care and expense so there is an inevitable mismatch.  Many a country house hotel is scarred with poor quality and visually flawed wings which are almost designed to detract from the main house – but then buildings designed by accountants never win prizes for beauty.

Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)
Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Lancaster Guardian)

Although there is evidence of a greater sensitivity in recent years where new wings are tucked away from the main house and linked by corridors, it seems that there are still some owners who see the house as merely an ornament to put on the front cover of the brochure whilst they ruin the setting.  It was hoped that the worst schemes were behind us but sometimes one is proposed which is so bad that it would be laughable if it didn’t threaten a fine (though currently not in the best condition) house – Wyreside Hall in Lancashire (hat-tip to Matthew Steeples for flagging this one up).

The house was originally built in the 17th-century but was remodelled in 1790 by the then owner, John Fenton Crawthorne, MP, to a design by the gifted architect, Robert Adam.  Though the full scheme wasn’t implemented, the exterior benefited from a graceful symmetry with the drawing room, dining room and library also completed to his plans (though apparently no evidence of their decoration now remains).  The now Grade-II house remained in the Garrett family until 1936 after which it became a school and then home for a local motorsport legend.  The scheme that has now been proposed learns none of the lessons of sensitive hotel development (or any work involving heritage) over the last 50 years.

Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)
Proposed development, Wyreside Hall, Lancashire (Image: Wyre Council planning proposal, via Matthew Steeples)

Yes, it really is that ugly.  The design effectively doubles the size of the house and, as can be seen from the plan (scroll to page 44 – no direct link, sorry), the associated access roads, parking and ‘landscaping’ ruin the immediate setting of the house.  The usual arguments have been made about this bringing jobs to the area but if we must sacrifice the very heritage which gives an area a distinct identity, which attracts tourists or the wealthy (who usually also spend money locally) then it’s a poor bargain.  Wyre Council should throw out this and any subsequent plan which displays equally limited thinking and such an arrogant disregard for the architectural heritage of the area.  As we’ve seen, country house hotels can work – but not when they are at the expense of the original building.

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Matthew Steeples’ original blog post is available here: ‘Adam would turn in his grave

Listed buildings description: ‘Wyreside Hall, Lancashire‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Planning application documents: ‘Ref 11/00840/LBC – Wyreside Hall‘ [Wyre Council]

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This is the last post for 2011 – 43 posts in total, now over 350 subscribers to the blog, nearly 210,000 pages served up; and 850 followers of @thecountryseat on Twitter, so all-in-all, a fairly impressive level of interest; thank you! Matthew

The most expensive UK country house: Park Place, Oxfordshire

A new record price for a UK country house has just been achieved with the sale of Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire.  One of three most notable estates on that stretch of the Thames, it was also the most expensive country house ever sold in its unrestored state in 2007.  Now, after five years and many millions of pounds, the house again has set the record having been sold to an unknown Russian billionaire for £140m.

'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image
'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image

Park Place is, at its core, a more modest Georgian house built in 1719 for Lord Archibald Hamilton, son of the Duke of Hamilton.  The proximity to London and the beautiful setting has long attracted the wealthy to the area as a convenient escape from the city, with several riverside estates featuring a series of impressive houses.  Starting at Marlow, the first house is Bisham Abbey (now the national sports centre), then the now lost Temple House (dem. 1910), Harleyford Manor (beautiful small villa restored in 1989), Whittington House [pdf] (rebuilt by Reginald Blomfield c1897, now HQ of SAS Ltd), Danesfield House (now a hotel), Medmenham Abbey (now two houses), Culham Court (sold for £38m in 2006), Greenlands (now Henley Management College), Fawley Court (sold for £13m in 2008, possibly for conversion back to a private house), and then finally, just past Henley, lies Park Place.  Of particular interest are the architectural similarities between Fawley Court (built 1684 – reputedly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren), the original Park Place (built c1718), Culham Court (built 1771), and Reginal Blomfield’s 1897 rebuilding of Whittington House, all of which are on based on a red-brick 5- or 7-bay, two storey villa with bulls-eye window inserted into a projecting pediment.

Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image
Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image

Sadly, Park Place is no longer part of this architectural brethren having undergone a series of substantial changes.  The house was sold by Lord Hamilton in 1738 to Prince Frederick, then Prince of Wales and eldest son of King George II, who split his time between there and Cliveden. After Frederick’s death, the house was then bought by General Henry Seymour Conway in 1752 and it was he who made the first significant changes both to the house (including a library by Sanderson Miller in 1757) and, perhaps more importantly to the grounds, which are now grade-II*. His works, to designs by Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, included the installation of an ancient stone henge given as a gift from the people of Jersey where he was Governor, the lightning-damaged steeple from St Bride’s Church as an obelisk, four more obelisks as gateposts, an underground cavern, and a bridge, using stones from Reading Abbey, which was subsequently admired by Horace Walpole.  There was also an artificial classical ruin designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)
Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)

The house was sold to John Noble in 1871 but was largely gutted by fire a year later, giving Noble the opportunity to indulge something of an architectural whim.  The pattern and style of the Victorian country house was much admired around Europe and our expertise was exported widely around the continent – but it rarely flowed back (a topic already covered in an earlier post ‘The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses‘).  Park Place is one of the few houses in the country build using the French Renaissance style, creating an impressive château in the heart of England.

The design of the rebuilt house is widely attributed to Thomas Cundy [III], the son and grandson of two previous Thomas’ who had also been country house architects. Although the latter two are given sizeable entries in Howard Colvin’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of British Architects‘, the grandson is given only a paragraph as part of his father’s, leaving us somewhat in the dark as to what, bar some London churches, he may have been involved with. However, considering his father had good form with the chateau style having built Grosvenor Gardens in London, so Thomas III would have been schooled in the style before his father’s death in 1867.

The house remained with the Noble family until 1947 when it and the 670-acre estate was parcelled up into 22 lots and sold off.  The main house was bought by Middlesex County Council who converted it into a special school, which it remained until 1988 when it closed. The house was then bought by John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, but it seems unlikely that he lived there as it remained unrestored, with the vestiges of the school – gymnasium, classrooms, a woodwork studio etc – all still in situ, along with various outbuildings, as can be seen from these images of the house.

Those who had a chance to look around the house when it was for sale in 2006 all noted that beneath the shabby institutional veneer, the potential of the house was clear; glimpses of fine tiles, the original stone fireplaces, stained glass, and grand spaces with impressive views.  The house was then sold to a consortium who intended to create a superior country club – until Wokingham council said ‘no’.  Put on the market for £45m, it was finally sold for £42m to Mike Spink, a property developer who specialised in high-end houses in central London. With this experience, Spink transformed this once dilapidated house into a palace fit for a billionaire with all the requisite features such as a helipad, swimming pool, panic room etc.  Somewhat disappointingly, the house now only comes with 200-acres, with the remaining 300 with which it was sold retained by Spink for as yet unspecified ‘development’ – a phrase which will no doubt spark local concerns.

Even when it was first sold, those in the property business were predicting that Park Place would sell for possibly up to £100m, and the rising ‘super prime’ market has proven even those estimates conservative.  Sadly, this record is not for a spectacular historic house at the centre of a large estate but instead one where the location (location, location!) has elevated the price to such a stratospheric level. Nevertheless, many country houses were built as retreats for wealthy industrialists and financiers and this house is proof that the lure of the trophy country estate is as strong as ever – which can only be a good thing for those seeking to prove their desirability in modern times.

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Story about the original sale: ‘Sold for £42m… still in need of renovation‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Latest sale: ‘Park Place: Britain’s most expensive home sold for record £140m‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Country House Rescue: spectacular spats – Hill Place, Hampshire

Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

The challenges of inheritance have been a recurring theme throughout Country House Rescue.  The obvious challenges are perhaps more tangible; taking on the new house, contents, gardens and the related discoveries – for good or ill.  Yet part of the nature of inheritance is often the bequeathing of disappointment to others who expected to benefit or who disagree with the choices of the new owners.  Country House Rescue this week (17 April) visits Hill Place in Hampshire where Ruth Watson’s skills seem to be in demand to placate some disgruntled aunts rather than to simply identify business opportunities.

Hill Place is an elegant, grade-II listed Georgian villa, built in 1791 on the back of wealth made in India.  The architect is unknown but there is a beautiful simplicity to it, with each side five bays wide with a canted three-bay projection on the entrance front and a graceful three-bay bow front to the south.  The style is in the fine traditions of Sir John Soane and there are even suggestions that it may have been by the man himself.   At some stage, a mansard roof was added and then later removed, leaving an unfortunate flat roof with the stub end of the staircase still rising to a small access extension.  Overall, this is a particularly neat example of the smaller country villa which was to prove so popular at that time.  However, what is of particular interest that the current owner, Will Dobson, inherited the house due to his grandparent’s commitment to the tradition of primogeniture – that of the eldest male inheriting, which, in Will’s case, meant the bypassing of his grandparent’s four daughters, which is the cause of the strife in the programme.

The rules of inheritance in the UK have ensured that ownership of country houses, estates and contents can be passed down as a unified possession.  This has ensured a multi-generational continuity which has benefited the country by embedding a very long-term perspective to plans and that a culture of paternalism was fostered; the spirit of noblesse oblige. Ironically, in France, the Napoleonic code demands equal shares for all potential inheritors, forcing the break-up and sale of large estates, preventing the same depth of connection between the nobility and society.  Yet, for this culture to be preserved it is important that the estate is kept together – especially as it usually has to fulfil its traditional role of funding the main house.

Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)
Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)

Yet inheritance has caused incredible friction for hundreds of years between those favoured by those who inherit and those who do not, leading to extreme outcomes and court cases.  One example of the former was Knighton Gorges, a manor house on the Isle of Wight, where, in 1821, the owner George Maurice Bisset had the entire ancient house demolished to ensure that his heir (his daughter or nephew – accounts vary) wouldn’t be able to cross his threshold even after his death, their having angered him through an unauthorised marriage.  In Kent, Lynsted Park was originally a huge Elizabethan E-plan house built for Sir John Roper, later Lord Teynham, in 1599, but an inheritance dispute between two Roper brothers in the 1800s led to the one living there demolishing all but the entrance porch (later Georgian additions created the current house) as he thought he would lose the case and have to give the house to his brother.

Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous litigation from inheritance was that surrounding William ‘the Rich’ Jennens which reputedly took nearly 120 years before the cases finished being heard and was also thought to be the inspiration for Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – though recent scholarly opinion now discounts that. The Jennens family had created a huge family fortune as ‘ironmasters’ in Birmingham but due to a lack of heirs and, more importantly, a will, when William died intestate in 1798, his fortune (including houses such as Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire and Acton Place, Suffolk) was passed to three distant – though very aristocratic – relatives.  This was the catalyst for a small cottage industry of claimants who all thought themselves related and therefore due a share of the inheritance.  This was partly due to a popular fad at the time for novels to feature an unexpected inheritance – though, in real life, it was usually just the lawyers who became richer.

So, inheritance can often be a mixed blessing, laden with expectations and complications.  A recent survey by Country Life magazine (6 April 2011) found that 61% of current owners were concerned that estates stay in the family – with only 25% not bothered if their heir were to sell (it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between whether those in the latter group were also those whose family had owned for the least time).  For some, it’s particularly important to ensure that the family name is preserved. In the same Country Life article, David Fursdon, whose family have been on the Fursdon estate in Devon since 1289, highlights that after 750 years in single ownership the pressure is on to ensure that a male heir is produced to provide that continuity (though with three sons he should be OK).

Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)
Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)

Primogeniture, or full inheritance by the eldest son, has been the rule for hundreds of years.  It was expected that all other children either had to marry or make their own fortune or living with the second son often going into the Army and the third to the clergy.  The strict rules may now be relaxing with parents choosing the child most inclined and best equipped to take on the inheritance – the Country Life article highlights how Holker Hall in Cumbria will be inherited by the middle child, Lucy Cavendish, who has moved back to the estate to learn the ropes before her parents ‘retire’ and move out in a few years time.

The challenge for families such as the Dobson’s is ensuring that the one who inherits feels they have complete ownership and is able to take decisions for the good of the house and estate without sniping from other quarters.  It is no light responsibility to be the owner of a country house and the Dobson’s should be thanked for taking on such a lovely home when others might have simply sold up and enjoyed the spoils.  Here’s hoping they can truly make a success of the house as a business to ensure that they can also pass it on to future generations.

Country House Rescue: ‘Hill Place‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Official website: ‘Hill Place

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]

A bad omen: the spring country house relaunch

One rather unscientific barometer of the health of the country house market is the thickness of Country Life magazine as it comes through the letterbox each week.  After the thinning of the issue in the run-up to Christmas it’s always pleasing to feel the first weighty edition of the new year.  Yet, though this week’s issue (2 March) boasts ’70 pages of property for sale’ it’s remarkable that the estate agents have so few significant country houses to offer and of those that are there, it seems, along with last week’s issue, the largest houses are relaunches.

Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

One of the most interesting is grade-II listed Pyrford Court, Surrey.  Originally built in 1910 for the 2nd Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness brewing family, it was one of a group of houses built around that time on the profits of beer (along with Polesden Lacey, Elveden Hall, and Bailliffscourt). The land was sold to Lord Iveagh by his father-in-law, Lord Onslow, whose family had owned the area since the 17th-century.  The house was designed by Clyde Young who had also worked at Elveden, another seat of the Guinness family, though the sensitively designed wings were added in 1927-29 by J.A. Hale of Woking to designs by Lord Iveagh.  The stylish neo-Georgian house is an elegant red-brick composition which originally sat in a 1,000-acre estate – though sadly now reduced to just 21-acres.  Lord Iveagh died in 1967 and the house sat empty until sold in 1977 – apart from a brief burst of fame as a location in the 1965 film ‘The Omen’.  The house then became an old people’s home with all the attendant damage until the current owners started their seven-figure restoration.

Pyrford Court was originally launched on the market in January 2010 for an ambitious £20m, a staggering rise in valuation from the £3.25m paid in 2000 and from the £8m asking price when it was offered for sale in 2002 (reduced, a year later, to £6.5m).  Yet this proved too much for the market to take; even for a ‘super-prime’ house within 25 miles of central London, and despite the high-quality restoration of the impressive interiors.  It subsequently languished and has now been promoted with a double-page advert – though the price is ‘on application’ meaning we won’t yet know quite how far the price has dropped.  However, looking at the other houses Savills have for sale in the area this is by far the most interesting and attractive house.

Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)
Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)

Another impressive house is the classically elegant, red-brick Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire.  Although the architect hasn’t been confirmed, the fact that it is virtually identical to Hatton Grange in Shropshire by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, means it can probably be attributed to him.  The house was built in the late 1750s for Bartholomew Richard Barneby, probably using the £3,000 brought to him through his marriage in 1756 to one Betty Freeman. The Barneby family had owned the estate since the 15th-century and were to own it until 1946 when John Talbot Lutley (who was a descendent of the  Barneby family) left the house and 1,200-acre estate to the National Trust. Col. Lutley was a no-nonsense man who, on hearing of the NT country houses scheme, wrote them a short letter in 1938 saying that as he was a bachelor whose heirs were rather distant, would they be interested?

James Lees-Milne was duly dispatched – and almost rejected it on sight as it wasn’t pure Georgian due to some relatively small Victorian alterations.  However, after a tour of the estate and on seeing the beautiful Lower Brockhampton Manor, he felt that the latter two would be fine additions for the Trust – even if the big house would be a drain. It was duly left to the NT in 1946 following the Colonel’s death. Neither the house nor the contents were of sufficient quality to justify retaining or opening to the public so they sought to let it.  Unfortunately no private tenant wished to take it on, usually citing its remoteness, however in 1985 an insurance company let the house as offices and undertook a comprehensive restoration programme.  After they moved out in 1996 it was again restored as a private home and is now available with just 8-acres but surrounded by the rest of the NT-owned estate.  Interestingly the house is listed under the ‘Sales’ section of the Jackson-Stops & Staff website but I suspect this is due to it being leasehold – again ‘price on application’ so the price of the privilege is unknown, but the house has been advertised since last summer so it may be cheaper than before.

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

Perhaps the most surprising house to still be available is the grand Ebberly House, Devon.  Rather than the expected provincial house, this is a house which displays remarkable architectural sophistication. Described by Pevsner as ‘unusual and attractive’, whose distinctive rounded ends ‘hint at the variety of room shapes inside; a provisional echo of the interest of contemporary architects such as Nash and Soane’.  Designed by Thomas Lee of Barnstaple, a pupil of Sir John Soane, the grade-II* house compensates for it’s remoteness with a fantastic house set in a fine 250-acre estate.  Offers in excess of £4m on the back of a postcard to Savills in Exeter.

Perhaps there are some clever marketing plans being hatched at the estate agents which means that rather than pushing their best properties in the first big property edition of Country Life of 2011 they’re saving them for…when?  Bonuses have just been announced and those looking to buy are probably active so perhaps there is just a general scarcity of significant country houses coming to the market.  Does this indicate 2011 will be rather thin for the agents as uncertainty limits buyers to the super-rich looking for somewhere in London or will the market pick up and a slew of new houses soon be released to whet our appetites?

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 state of the country house market: Autumn 2010

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Throughout September, the increasing weight of each week’s ‘Country Life‘ magazine heralds the starts of one of the busy periods for launches of country houses.  As an relatively unscientific barometer it would appear that the market is doing well with some impressive estates and houses being offered up to tantalise the armchair enthusiast and serious purchaser alike – but a few houses are still proving difficult to shift.

The September 1 magazine provided a summary of the successes of the year-to-date with glowing reports from estate agents who, despite some fears in January about an uncertain year ahead, are happy to highlight their successes.  The article quotes Crispin Holborow of Savills who rightly points out that ‘best in class‘ houses will always sell quickly and for above their guide price if the right buyers start competing.  He cites Ropley House in Hampshire which sold at over it’s guide price of £4.25m, as did the grade-I listed Shanks House in Somerset which was offered with 70-acres for £5.5m, but their biggest success was the coveted Chadacre estate in Suffolk with 680-acres which reputedly sold for more than double it’s £10m asking price.  Other houses such as the elegant grade-I Worlingham Hall – regarded by Norman Scarfe as ‘the most beautiful house of manageable size in Suffolk’ – also sold over it’s guide price of £3.9m.

Other houses sold close to their guide include Peatling Hall in Leicestershire (mentioned on this blog in July) which was offered at £4.75m, whilst the stunning Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset suffered from an unfortunately timed launch in September 2008 at £17m which knocked buyer confidence meaning that it hung around until Febuary 2010 before selling at £15m.  Others had to drop their prices or accept being sold in lots with Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire selling for £15m to Jemima Khan once the rest of the 2,000-acre estate had been sold (originally offered as one for £42m), whilst Fillongley Hall in Warwickshire has yet to find a buyer even after selling 400- out of the original 500-acres originally offered when it went on the market in 2005 (£3.5m, Savills).  Pusey House in Oxfordshire, which was originally launched with 643-acres but when featured as the lead property advert in the September 15 magazine it was offered with just 67.

So who are the awkward squad?  Grade-I listed Noseley Hall in Leicestershire is still with Knight Frank with the same acreage; though now at £12m rather than the original £14m asking price, and Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire, a pocket Palladian gem, is still being offered (again with Knight Frank) – though mysteriously with no price, so probably less that the £4.5m guide in February 2010; and way down from it’s original price of £6.5m when it was first launched in 2007.  Up country, Yester House in Scotland is still available despite having had it’s price halved from £15m to £8m since the original launch in August 2008.

So, although the property market does seem buoyant, it does seem that some are struggling.  Perhaps the flurry of launches will bring an influx of new buyers who may take a renewed interest in the harder-to-sell properties, but they equally may well wonder why they are still available and pass them over.  It seems that some owners who are keen to sell are being flexible, either dropping the price or selling in lots, but for owners who refuse to budge the market may take a very long time to rise to meet what they think their property is worth.  It seems flexibility is still a vital attribute whatever rung of the property ladder you are on.