A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

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

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

A country seat of learning: Wispers, Sussex

Wispers, Sussex
Wispers, Sussex (Image: Daily Mail)

There has been a long tradition of country houses being converted to schools.  Indeed, the practice has saved many hundreds from being demolished all together, denying us today the pleasure of houses such as Stowe and Bryanston.  In recent years fewer houses have passed into institutional use with a preference for modern school buildings.  However, despite some difficulties in the last couple of years for private schools, the recent sale of Wispers in Sussex has shown that there is still the appetite for the country house based school.

Grade-II listed Wispers was built in 1874-76 by Richard Norman Shaw for stockbroker Alexander Scrimgeour and was sold in 1928 to the Bedford estate for Dame Mary Russell (the wife of the 11th Duke of Bedford) as a weekend retreat to which she added the huge eastern wing in the 1930s.  Dame Mary was known as ‘The Flying Duchess’ due to her interest, later in life, in aviation which led to her regularly flying her Tiger Moth – including from the Bedford’s main home, Woburn Abbey, to Wispers.  To help accommodate her new mode of transport, at the same time as the new wing was being added to the house, she had an airplane hanger built as well.  Dame Mary’s love of flying did eventually lead to her death when, at the age of 71 in 1937, her plane disappeared over the North Sea as she flew from Woburn to Cambridge.

Following her death, the house was sold in 1939 and became a school known as St Cuthman’s before West Sussex council bought it as a special needs facility.  After this closed in 2003, the house was sold and a planning application lodged to convert the main house into 7 flats with other buildings on the estate being either converted or demolished.  However, this plan was never implemented and after lying empty for 6 years was sold for £3m (against an original asking price of £4.5m) with 20 of the original 35 acres in April 2010 to Durand Primary, near Brixton, South London. The school was able to use the profits from its successful leisure and student accommodation business to provide Wispers as a weekly boarding environment for secondary age pupils.

Educational use has saved many country houses from being demolished or converted – though sometimes the alterations required or the heavy wear and tear on these buildings could be quite damaging.  When English Heritage took on Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire they discovered light switches and other fittings had been poorly installed, usually by simply hacking through the plasterwork.  However, on balance, these minor issues are the lesser of two evils compared to possible complete loss.  It’s not known precisely how many country houses have been used for educational purposes at some point in their lives (and many took on this role temporarily in WWII, most famously Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) but it certainly shows the versatility of our country houses.  Use as a school can also help preserve a house so that one day it might possibly be converted back to being a home.

More details: ‘Inner-city school buys mansion to keep pupils safe from knife crime‘ [Daily Mail]

If I won the lottery…Fillongley Hall

Fillongley Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Weddington Castle website)

Considering the difficulties faced by country house owners with death duties and a changed society, it’s always remarkable when a house is passed down through the generations; particularly so when it’s the same family for nearly 200 years.  Fillongley Hall designed by George Woolcott and was built in 1824-25 for the uncle of the 1st Lord Norton, extended in 1840-1, and now for sale again by the 8th Lord Norton after an unsuccessful attempt to sell in 2005.

The grade-II listed house is considered to be one of the best examples of smaller scale Greek Revival architecture which demonstrated the good taste of the Grand tourist with it’s fine interiors and classical exterior with recessed Corinthian columns on the main entrance front.    Bearing some resemblance to the now-demolished Thirkleby Park in Yorkshire, the house is a compact essay in elegant classicism with a restraint all too often lacking in modern country house architecture.  The house was inherited by Lord Norton in 1993 since when he and his wife have lovingly maintained and updated the house.  More images of the interior and exterior can be seen either on this fascinating local history website or on the Savills website.

When Fillongley Hall was put up for sale in 2005 the guide price was £5m but this included 400-acres as opposed to the 114 plus the house which are available now for £4.5m.  [The house subsequently sold in 2006]

This is a beautiful house and deserves and owner who understands the house and is sympathetic to its status as one of the best houses of its type in the region.

Property details: ‘Fillongley Hall‘ [Savills]

Kiddington Hall sold – but as a home or an investment?

Kiddington Manor, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life)

After many viewings and some speculation, the Sunday Times is reporting that Kiddington Hall has finally been sold for £15m to Jemima Goldsmith, the wealthy socialite.  The grade-II listed house, originally built in 1673 but largely rebuilt to designs by Sir Charles Barry, comes with 466-acres of gardens and parkland designed by ‘Capability’ Brown.  The Sunday Times quotes a ‘property source’ as saying “It was a romance. She just fell in love with it.”.

The sale was ordered by the court to fund the divorce settlement of the owner, Erik Maurice Robson, who needed to raise £8m to provide for his ex-wife (for a detailed estimation of the likely proceeds see the comments on a previous post: ‘The economics of selling a country house‘).  The estate, described as a ‘jewel in the heart of Oxfordshire’, was one of the most important estates to be launched onto the market last year as rarely do prime estates with a manageable house, fine gardens and a productive estate, come up for sale in the prime Home Counties and this was reflected in the original asking price of £42m for the entire 2,000-acres and house.

However, considering Jemima’s previous successful forays into property development, is Kiddington Hall to be a family home or will she take the advice of some who say that if she spends a couple of million on refurbishment the property could be worth £20m?  It will certainly be one to watch as if it is relaunched in a year or two, it will provide a useful barometer as to the recovery of prime country property.

The sale of the main house will also mean that the sale of the remainder of the estate, encompassing 1,600-acres plus several farms and houses can proceed.  These sales were contingent on the main sale as without the sale of the main house the rest of the estate could not be sold.  The Sunday Times is reporting that Alec Reed, founder of the Reed recruitment agency, is the purchaser.

More details: ‘Jemima Goldsmith jumps on £15m stately home‘ [The Sunday Times]

Ury House restoration project still in doubt a year on

Ury House, Scotland (Image: Geograph)

When the developers FM Developments went into administration in 2009, it put in jeopardy a huge development scheme which was to fund the restoration of the historic Ury House.  The size of Ury House meant that any scheme was going to have to be ambitious to provide sufficient funding and this one involved the building of 230 homes and the creation of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  The developers had been praised for consulting with local residents and had the full support of the council for bringing jobs and no small measure of glamour to Stonehaven. Now, a year after the collapse, it’s still not clear if the scheme will proceed at all, leaving the spectacular ruins of Ury House at further risk of decline.

The first house had burnt down in 1645, and the second house was subsequently completely rebuilt as the Ury House we see today in 1855 for Alexander Baird in a fine Elizabethan style by the architect John Baird.  Baird was one of the most successful of the architects working at this time even if he rarely followed fashion.  His work at Ury was a continuation of the style of Wilkins and Burns they had developed 40 years earlier but was of a high quality which is still visible even today in the shell of the house. As a first stage of the work of the restoration, extensive scaffolding had been erected around the house in January 2009.

The proposals for redevelopment of the 1,500-acre estate included the conversion of the house into nine townhouses.  Unlike in many other cases of ‘enabling development’ where the setting of the house is compromised through the encroachment of the housing, the plan put forward placed the residential estate well to the east of the house, thus protecting it.  With the bankruptcy of FM Developments these plans have  been thrown into doubt and local planning officers are now working on the assumption that the development will not go ahead – despite local councillors being determined to resurrect the scheme.  Unfortunately the danger is now that another, less sympathetic, developer will take on the project but may try to cram more houses in or extend the area of the estate taken for housing. This would be a real shame. Although the ideal but unlikely outcome would be the restoration of the house as a single family home, this project had developed as a good example of enabling development practiced in the right way, with sensitive restoration of the main house, protection of the setting of the house, and productive use of the estate.

More details: ‘Future of Ury mansion site in doubt‘ [The Press and Journal]

Future of Ury mansion site in doubt

A religious conversion: Rempstone Hall

Rempstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Country Life)

In the early part of the 20th-century one option for a country house to avoid demolition was to be converted to institutional use.  In this way, many houses became schools, hospitals or offices, but also some became religious institutions – for example, in the 1940s and 50s, Gloucestershire lost seven houses but twenty-two were converted to institutional use.  Now with property prices rising but membership of convents falling, houses used for holy purposes are now being sold – and could once again be homes.  Rempstone Hall in Leicestershire, currently the Holy Cross Convent, is on the market for £2.5m, as the nuns move to a purpose-built home nearby.

Rempstone Hall is a classically beautiful Georgian red-brick house, originally built in 1792 for William Gregory Williams, a major local landowner.   Various families passed though the house usually keeping it as a secondary house to much grander seats elsewhere.  By the beginning of the 20th-century it was unoccupied as probably, as with many other houses, at risk of demolition as the houses became surplus to requirements and a drain on finances already under pressure.  Rempstone Hall was saved in 1909 when P.W. Carr moved in and made significant additions including a new north wing and a fine stable block before selling it in 1920 to the Derbyshire family from whom the Convent bought it in 1979 for just £110,000.

During their time at Rempstone, the nuns have removed the exterior stucco to expose the warm red-bricks giving the house a bold appearance, the two red blocks framing an elegant loggia which faces the gently sloping lawn.  At 21,000sqft this is undeniably a large house with 20 bedrooms, a large entrance hall with possibly Jacobean staircase, a sizable chapel and many other rooms.  One downside of institutional use is the rather functional decor and Rempstone is no exception, with lino, acres of red carpet and various partitions which the new owner would need to remove; total renovation costs are estimated to be in the region of £500,000.

This fine and beautiful house, well-located in the Midlands, with 60-acres and several estate buildings, cries out for someone with taste to restore this house back to being a family home – which is helpfully the outcome favoured by the local planners.

More details: ‘Your prayers have been answered‘ [Sunday Times: Home]

The economics of selling a country house: Kiddington Hall

Kiddington Manor, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life)

An article regarding the sale of Kiddington Hall in the Financial Times has highlighted that the asking price of a country house when put on the market is not the amount which will end up in the buyer’s pocket.

When grade-II listed Kiddington Hall was launched on the market in September 2009, the price tag of £42m reflected its status as one of the most important houses to be offered since the sale of Easton Neston in 2004.  The main house was built in 1673 and sits in the centre of it’s 2,000-acre estate in Oxfordshire, with parkland designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. The house was remodelled in the 1850s by Sir Charles Barry in his trademark Italianate style which included the creation of a large courtyard and extensives terraces in the gardens.

The beautifully elegant house is being sold by Erik Maurice Robson, whose father bought the house for £115,000 in 1950. The sale was court ordered to fund his £8m divorce settlement, and valued his freehold interest in the house and estate at just £16m. This article states that this value is what remains after “excluding furniture, capital gains tax and sale costs”.  Mr Robson has now asked the court to reduce the value of the settlement as, due to a fall in property values, his interest is now worth only £13.18m.  This seems a remarkably small amount to be able to realise from such a high asking price and perhaps emphasises that a country house is not the pot of gold many imagine it to be.

Full story: ‘Stately home at heart of divorce appeal‘ [Financial Times]

Townhead House, untouched since 1939, to be restored

Townhead House, Lancashire (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

Townhead House is a rare thing indeed – a house which has not been altered since before the last people to use it left in 1939 but also is not in a dire state of dereliction.  Its unoccupied status was a cause for concern and although parts of the house required attention, overall the house was in remarkable condition.

Built in 1729 for Henry Wiglesworth using parts of a 17th-century building, the architect is unknown but achieved an elegant if somewhat austere house using large blocks of coursed limestone.  Inside, the main rooms with their fine Georgian panelling and particularly the staircase indicated the architect was influenced by other such as Wren, Jones and Gibbs.  This can be seen with the use of certain architectural elements before they became widely known through pattern books such as Batty Langleys.

The grade-II listed house was used just a shooting lodge between the 1890s and 1930s.  Now finally, a local man, semi-retired businessman Robert Staples, has bought the house and has promised to sensitively restore it to use as his home:

“The works will ensure that the integrity and longevity of Townhead is not compromised and that the building has a continued and long future.”

All this bodes well for this important part of the local architectural heritage. Also encouraging is Mr Staples’ professed desire to return the house to being the centre of a ‘gentleman’s estate’ – a welcome reversal of the pattern of the last 50 years when small estates were increasingly broken up and lost.

Full story: ‘Historic Slaidburn house set to become a home again after 100 years‘ [Lancashire Telegraph]

A house and it’s garden to be reunited? Leonardslee, Sussex

Leonardslee House, Sussex (Image: tom@picasaweb)

Often the course of the country estate over the last 100 years has been for the land to be gradually sold off, starting with the outlying areas, and moving closer until just the house and it’s immediate gardens remain intact.  At Leonardslee in Sussex the process was eventually taken one step further with the house being sold off.  This, however, may about to be reversed.

Sir Edmund Loder bought the manor house and 225-acre gardens from his inlaws in 1889 and soon opened them to the public.  Over the next five generations, the Loder family added to the planting and landscaping to create what is now one of the only 163 grade-I listed gardens in the country.  Despite the family still owning the gardens the grade-II listed Italianate manor house, built in 1853 and featuring a 900 sq ft central hall decorated with Ionic columns, was sold off separately in the 1980s and became offices.  The gardens grew in reputation so it was something of a shock when in April 2008 it was announced that they were being put up for sale by Robin Loder for £5m through the estate agency Savills.  Cleverly, the company who owned the house also announced they were open to offers at around £3.25m for the house.

The Times is now reporting that after nearly two years on the market, the gardens have been sold to a private businessman and are likely to close to the public.  They are also reporting that the house may also be under offer at £2.75m to the same businessman giving him a perfect  opportunity to once again recreate a stunning small estate which, with the addition of the house, could be worth in the region of £10m.  Though a sad day for the many garden-lovers who have made many a pilgrimage to wander among the wallabies, it’s an encouraging reversal of the trend for houses to lose the control of the landscape which so often perfectly frames them.

Full story: ‘Leonardslee Gardens to close to the public after being sold‘ [The Times]

When enabling development makes things worse: Sandhill Park, Somerset

Sandhill Park, Somerset (Image: English Heritage)

There is always a temptation when any country house and estate comes to the market for the land to be built over with residential developments which provide a quick and relatively easy profit – even if it does ruin forever the setting of the house.  Usually the houses are snuck through under the cover of ‘enabling development’ with a promise that this will secure the long-term future of the house.  Grade-II* listed Sandhill Park in Somerset is an interesting example of where this fails if the development is build in an inappropriate location and a council who apparently haven’t ensured that at least some of the profits are invested in the house.

The main house at Sandhill Park was built around 1720, for the John Perriam, the MP for Minehead and inherited in 1767 by his grandson John Lethbridge (who was knighted in 1804) and remained in the Lethbridge family until 1913.  On inheriting Sandhill Park in 1815, Sir Thomas Buckler Lethbridge, the 2nd Baronet (b. 1778 – d.1849) added a grand portico to the main house and large wings to the rear.  The main house was substanially rebuilt in the 19th century giving it the distinctive and elegant sandstone ashlar look it retains today. These changes were funded through debt which burdened the family for years but ensured that no further major changes were made.  However, following the death in 1902 of Sir Wroth Acland Lethbridge, the 4th Baronet, the family moved out and the house was let until it was sold, along with 4,000 acres, in 1913.  It was subsequently bought in 1929 by Somerset County Council for use as a hospital and was requisitioned as a military hospital during WWII.  After the war, it became a psychiatric hospital until it closed in 1992 since which the house has remained unused.

The assumption appears to have been that the house could not be returned to being a family home which appears to have given the green light to the estate being built on and the conversion of the house with further building works to the rear, again turning a wonderful country house into a mere afterthought in a large development.  Planning permission was initially refused for what is now known as the Lethbridge Park housing estate which has been built to the east of the main house with the nearest property being just 100-metres away.  The only access for this estate is a small road to the north – the opposite direction to the town – which forces all traffic through a country lane before joining the main road back to Bishops Lydeard. It’s not possible to walk to the town so even to get a paper the residents must use their car.  Surely it would have been better to site the estate away from the house and use the parkland nearest the town?  The isolated residents gain no benefit from being so close to the house and the council’s decision has merely ensured more traffic on the local roads whilst compromising the setting of the main house.

This development has made it harder to sell the house as a home as the roofs of the new houses are visible from the main house. But perhaps this was part of the plan as the Knight Frank sales particulars explain that planning permission has been granted for the conversion of the main house into apartments with many more houses being built to the rear of the house.  However, as the house and 145-acres are now for sale for £2.75m it appears that after completing the residential development, the owners have decided to pocket the profits, sell the ‘difficult’ part and run.  This is apparently a prime example of a fine, though misused house being failed by the local council who are supposed to protect it.  How did they get planning permission for such an inappropriately sited development?  Why did the council not insist that the house be restored? Why are the old derelict hospital buildings still standing – surely they should have been removed as a minimum?  The council seem to have decided that it’s better to have two inappropriately sited developments rather than looking after an important part of their local architectural heritage.

Sales details:  ‘Sandhill Park, Somerset‘ [Knight Frank]

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Update – 22 November – Sandhill Park seriously damaged by fire

Fire at Sandhill Park - 22 Nov 2011 (Image: Lucy Robert Shaw / This is Somerset)
Fire at Sandhill Park - 22 Nov 2011 (Image: Lucy Robert Shaw / This is Somerset)

Sadly, as so often happens with uninhabited country houses, Sandhill Park has suffered a serious fire which has affected large parts of the house.  The mysterious  blaze started on the first floor (and considering there are no services to the house, this has to be suspicious) and quickly spread through the rest of the first and upper floors.  The huge quantities of water the fire brigade would have had to have used have almost certainly brought down the ceilings in the rooms below and the now serious damp house will be extremely vulnerable to wet rot.  If it is proved that the fire was arson, it’s a terrible indictment of the NHS for abandoning the property and the local council for approving such a ridiculous housing scheme which has made it harder to sell the house – compounded by their ineffectiveness in getting the old hospital buildings removed and the house restored in the first place.

I can only hope the owner was insured and is able to take protective measures to mitigate the fire and water damage and to somehow get ownership of this fine house into the hands of someone who can care for and restore it.  Anything less would be an architectural tragedy and would reflect badly on those involved. However, if history is any guide, I suspect we will shortly see an application to demolish, claiming that it is ‘dangerous’ (usually this is not remotely true and just a developers excuse) and more bland housing will march across this once fine parkland, a poor memorial to the heritage of the town.

News story: ‘Blaze strikes Somerset mansion that was left to rot‘ [This is Somerset]