Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

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

Our country houses have always been adaptable as changing fashions or functions required they accommodate new ways of living or roles.  One role which quite a few houses have taken on is that of hospital – either privately or as a fully-fledged part of the NHS – though this use has not always been sympathetic.  However, as the modern health service centralises to larger sites it seems some country houses are re-emerging to become homes again.

Hospitals were traditionally monastic, centred on the abbeys and convents but these were obviously scarce.  The ill were treated in large dormitories although some established houses in the country away from the main abbey to care for the mentally ill.  However the dismantling of the religious orders during the Reformation from 1536, meant that increasingly the burden for care of the pauper sick fell to secular civic bodies, with towns creating their own hospitals.  This model persisted until the 17th-century when private benefactors became increasingly prominent, donating funds and buildings for the care of the ill.

One of the earliest country houses to be converted was the partially completed Greenwich Palace. Originally a Tudor royal house, it had become derelict during the English Civil War, so in 1664 Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a replacement but which was only partially completed.  It was this building which Queen Mary II, who had been affected by the sight of the wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered to be converted to a navel hospital in 1694, to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and later Sir John Vanbrugh.

Possibly inspired by the royal example, other country houses were donated or converted for use as hospitals.  However, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t particularly suitable with one Irish physician, Edward Foster, complaining in 1768 that ‘In general, Houses have been rented for Hospitals, which are as fit for the Purposes, as Newgate for a Palace‘.  By the 1850s hospital design was beginning to emerge as a distinct branch of architecture -Florence Nightingale wrote to an officer of the Swansea Infirmary in 1864 saying that a hospital was a difficult to construct as a watch; no building ‘requires more special knowledge‘.  From this time, the country houses themselves became less important than the space they offered with the house itself being used as accommodation or offices. However, for the treatment of respiratory illness the clear country air was considered part of the cure with houses being acquired as tuberculosis sanatoria such as at Moggerhanger Park in Bedfordshire originally designed by Sir John Soane for the Thornton family.

The First World War necessarily required country houses to come back into medical use due to the terrible consequences of the strategy of attrition through trench warfare in WWI which created large numbers of wounded.  Without a national health service there were fewer hospitals able to cope with the seriously disabled or even those simply convalescing.  Many country houses were pressed into service, their clean country air and fine grounds considered most helpful to rest and recuperation. During WWII, fewer houses were used as military hospitals as changes in military tactics led to many fewer casualties than expected.  However, a significant number were used either by the military or as civilian replacements for urban hospitals which it was feared would be bombed.

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

For country house owners, given the possible options of who might take over their house, the bed-ridden were infinitely preferable to the bored squaddies who wreaked such havoc at other houses (apparently housing art treasures was first preference, evacuated schools second, hospitals third).  This reality plus a genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI.  On the civilian side, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire became a maternity hospital as was Battlesden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Stockeld Park and Farnley Hall, both in Yorkshire. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire became a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating ‘cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses’.

After the war many houses were returned to their owners in such terrible disrepair that unfortunately hundreds were demolished.  Others continued in their wartime roles with some such a Poltimore House in Devon becoming hospitals after the war when two local GPs recognised the need for more bedspaces and so took over the old seat of the Bampfyldes until it was nationalised after the creation of the NHS in 1948.  There were also many War Memorial hospitals, founded by public subscription after WWI, which often made use of a country house. The nationalisation of these hospitals gave the NHS many of the country houses it has today – although it is relatively few overall as less than 5% of all their buildings are grade II* or grade I listed.  Of the historic ‘therapeutic’ landscapes it manages, seven are included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

However, sometimes these country houses and their settings can escape and revert to being homes, either through conversion or, if the houses has been lost, replacement.   Bretby Hall in Derbyshire, built between 1813-15 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for the Earl of Chesterfield, was an orthopaedic hospital until the 1990s when the main house was converted into flats, as was the High Victorian Wyfold Court in Berkshire.  Harewood Park in Hertfordshire was demolished in 1959 after use as hospital in WWII but the estate has been bought by the Duchy of Cornwall with proposals for an elegant and very impressive new Classical house by Craig Hamilton Architects.  A similar plan has been put forward for the 57-acre site of the former Middleton Hospital in Yorkshire with the permission requiring the demolition of various redundant buildings from its former use to restore the site.

Sadly though, sometimes the NHS fails to adequately look after the houses it has in its care.  As the trend has moved towards large, new hospitals so the historic elements have been overlooked or abandoned as new hospitals are built elsewhere. As funding for new hospitals is not dependent on the sale of the old site and the house, sadly they can be neglected or subject to inappropriate development as has been the case with the grade-II listed Stallington Hall in Staffordshire, which became a home for the mentally ill in 1928, but after it closed has been vandalised and neglected with a housing development built inappropriately close to the house across the lawn, forever ruining it as a country house –  a poor payback for years of public service.

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

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

As predicted; Cherkley Court, Surrey now for sale

Cherkley Court, Surrey
Cherkley Court, Surrey

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

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

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

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

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

Listed building description: ‘Cherkley Court, Surrey

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]

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register

For sale for the first time in 1000 years: Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire

Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)
Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)

It has been estimated that there are approximately 2,000 large country houses in the UK with decent size estates  (over 100 acres) – but very few are still in the hands of the family which originally built them. Yet despite the many sales over the years it’s still possible for a house and land to remain with one family for many hundreds of years – though that is now coming to an end for Shakenhurst Hall in Shropshire, seat of the Meysey family for much of the last 1000 years and now on the market for the first time at £12m.

The lands were first given to a French Baron, Roger de Toeni, for his help in the conquest of Britain in 1066.  It has then passed through inheritance through various members of the Meysey family except when it passed for period to a godson in the 20th-century and then his wife, before being bequeathed to Michael Severne, a descendent of the Meyseys.  On his death in 2007 it passed to his only daughter Amanda who died of cancer in 2008 leaving the house and estate to her husband.

The grade-II listed Georgian house, built in the 1790s but with a 16th-century core, is now up for sale as it faces that age-old difficulty of an estate no longer providing sufficient income to maintain the house – and neither of their two sons are in a position to take it on.  Michael Severne had run a successful plastics business from outbuildings on the estate but with his death the business folded.  Interestingly this mirrors the challenges faced by country house owners in the 19th-century who relied also on a single source of income, agriculture, who were hit particularly hard by the 1870s depression in farm produce prices and land values.

Land has always been regarded as the most important asset (even if mortgaged) and so when faced with the choice of economising, selling land, or selling paintings or books it was usually the latter which went first.  This lead to the rise of the art sales particularly from the 1890s until the 1930s which dealers such as Joseph Duveen exploited as they extracted exquisite Old Master Italian paintings and others by the finest English artists which would then be shipped to the United States. Here a new class of exceptionally wealthy financiers and industrialists such as Hearst, Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller would compete to secure the finest works of art before donating them to eponymous public galleries.

Although this did leave significantly smaller collections for some houses it did sometimes provide the finance to either diversify into investments or tide them over until agriculture recovered in the 1930s – although for some it merely delayed the more unpalatable choice of demolition which unfortunately was the outcome for hundreds of houses in the UK.  With demolition now thankfully out of the question an owner is left with few options and it can be easier to simply sell up which is what appears to be the case with Shakenhurst Hall.

Sad though it is that such a long connection is to come to an end, here’s hoping the next owner will respect the 1300-acre estate, the history and the house to create a rewarding new chapter for this elegant ‘minor’ country house.

Property details: ‘Shakenhurst Hall‘ [Savills]

PS: it’s interesting that two houses should be available which look so alike. I was struck by just how similar Shakenhurst Hall is to Peatling Parva Hall in Leicestershire which is currently on the market for £4.75m.  Interestingly the latter only took on it’s current form after alterations in 1910 after the Arts-and-Crafts architect Detmar Blow added two bays to the original house.  Was this just a coincidence of architects thinking alike or had Blow seen either Shakenhurst or something similar?

Property details: Peatling Parva Hall [Knight Frank]

The relative cost of your English country house

Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)
Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

So you’ve decided you really want a country house.  Nothing too big; more a residential estate than a working or sporting one so perhaps just 48 acres. Luckily your four-bed house in the best part of Fulham is worth £1.75m so you can sell up and surely move straight into your dream rural arcadia? Unfortunately a recent survey by upmarket estate agents Savills has shown that you might need just a bit more money than that.

As always, proximity to London is the key factor in determining how far your money will stretch.  With the Russians and Middle Eastern families not willing to be too far from the cultural delights of Bond Street the price of a decent country house with 48 acres in Surrey tops the table.  To secure a decent small estate in the nicest parts would require between £15m-£20m but a similar property in Hampshire would set you back just £10m on average.

So with the those two counties ruled out, where next?  The Cotswolds have always been popular with the corresponding effect on prices but if Hampshire is too expensive then unfortunately you’re also out of luck in Gloucestershire with the average there hitting £12m – but north Oxfordshire might look attractive with the average of between £7m-£8m.

Distance from London reduces prices but with broadband making working from your country home on Friday possible Dorset or Wiltshire are still very attractive but more affordable – but you’ll still have to expect to pay between £4.5m-£5m.  Fewer transport options make East Anglia even cheaper with a country house in Norfolk going for around £3.25m – which makes the pretty Great Hockham Hall [pictured above], a grade-II listed Queen Anne house built in 1702 and with 47.66 acres, almost a bargain at £2.95m.

So where could you trade in your Fulham house for a small country estate? Step forward Lincolnshire where the average is the lowest in England at ‘just’ £1.75m-£2.25m. So proving that everything is relative it seems that even the high prices of London don’t always directly translate into a ticket to the country life unless you’re willing to go where the market takes you.

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Source: research by Savills (but listed not on their website) and reported in The Times ‘Bricks & Mortar’ property supplement on Friday 18 June (but their website doesn’t allow access so no link there either).

If you are interested in the rest of the report or the averages for other counties I’m guessing the best contact is Alex Lawson at Savills (Rural Research) on +44 (0) 20 7409 8882 or email alawson@savills.com.

Conversion reversion? Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

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

With so many country houses lost in the twentieth century, almost any alternative which saved them from the demolition crew was to be welcomed; no matter how drastic.  For some this meant institutional use but for many others of all sizes the solution was conversion into flats and apartments – though with varying degrees of success.  However, as these properties come on to the market, is it perhaps time to consider converting them back into the single, glorious houses they were intended to be?

Launched this week (16 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is the principal apartment in what is considered James Paine’s finest creation; Wardour Castle, a supremely elegant essay in Palladian architecture.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Built from 1770 – 76, for the eighth Lord Arundell the most impressive feature is a breath-taking central stairwell with first-floor gallery which Pevsner called ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’ and which forms the core of Apartment One which is now for sale.  Wardour Castle house has proved to be adaptable becoming Cranborne Chase School in 1960 until it closed in 1990 when it was then converted into ten apartments.  As the divisions appear to have respected the natural sections of the house this seems to be a good example of where someone could convert the house back to a single home.

There are many examples of houses being rescued by conversion.  SAVE Britain’s Heritage have long campaigned to protect these houses and have worked in conjunction with one of the leading architects, Kit Martin, in supporting conversion.  A 1983 SAVE report entitled ‘The Country House: to be or not to be’, written by Kit Martin and Marcus Binney, includes particularly interesting studies of how these houses could be sensitively converted.  These show that although almost any country house could be sensitively adapted some are naturally more suitable particularly where the overall layout of the house is symmetrical, shallow and long.

The study was an important milestone in the practice of country house conversion and saved many houses from complete loss or inappropriate use including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, the grade-I Northwick Park in Gloucesterhire, Dingley Hall in Northamptonshire.  The sensitive approach they championed now means that it should be possible to consider converting a house back if the right opportunity arose.  It should be said that some houses are never going to be converted back due to a variety of factors including there being too many apartments involved such as at Thorndon Hall in Essex which contains 37 flats, or where not enough land has been retained to make the unified house valuable enough to justify reversion.

Perhaps the idea of reversion becomes more realistic where more than one part of the same house comes on the market at the same time such as recently happened with grade II*-listed Ampthill Park House, Bedfordshire.  Built by the Cambridge architect Robert Grumbold in 1687-9 and completed by John Lumley of Northampton in 1704-6, with major additions by Sir William Chambers in 1769 it is certainly one of the most impressive houses in the county. It was rescued from dereliction by conversion into just four large houses; two of which were put on the market in April 2010, the largest of which includes most of the principal rooms.

Although it’s nice to dream about these houses becoming single homes probably the biggest obstacles are not only being able to secure the other apartments but also that the value of the individual properties may be greater than the value of the unified house.  However, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that someone with deep pockets and a desire to restore a house could take on one of these conversion reversions and recreate a superb country house.

Property details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [Strutt & Parker] – £2.75m

Detailed architectural description: ‘Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [English Heritage: Images of England]

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.

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]