Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses: