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]

Confirmed: Gwrych Castle is for sale again

Gwrych Castle, Wales (Image: geograph.co.uk)

Following earlier concerns, sources have confirmed that the grade-I listed former ‘showplace of Wales’, Gwrych Castle, is once again for sale.

After many years as a deteriorating ruin, it’s outlook improved when the castle was finally sold for £860,000 in 2007 to City Services Ltd (trading as Clayton Homes – a separate company to Clayton Hotels which is still trading). They soon announced ambitious plans to convert it into a luxury 5-star hotel using the original layout as the starting point.  Initial work on site has included the removal of over 1,900 tons of asbestos and debris from within the shell and the vegetation stripped from the exterior. The site was ready for restoration to start and Donald Insall architects were working on the designs for restoration.

Unfortunately 2007 was the height of the property market and the subsequent fall hit many companies including Clayton Homes which went into administration on 12 August 2009.  Deloitte (Leeds) were appointed as administrators and have been quietly marketing the assets including Gwrych Castle.  This was highlighted by the story of the businessman who was viewing the castle as a possible site for his ‘psychic school’ when he conveniently saw a ghost at a window.   Kevin Horkin has apparently submitted a bid for around £850,000 – which may secure him the site but to complete the project to the required standard will require at least another £6m-12m depending on his ambitions.  This is a significant level of investment if he is to restore this wonderful house to the appropriate standard.  Hopefully Cadw, the Welsh equivalent to English Heritage, will keep a very close eye on the project and ensure that any plans are at least to the same standard as those approved for Clayton Homes.

Many people have taken a keen interest in Gwyrch Castle and had hoped that the sale would lead to this once grand house again taking a key role in the local area and also to save this important part of their architectural heritage.  It would be tragedy if the work already done to create a secure and viable foundation for restoration was allowed to deteriorate again – the house must be sold to a sympathetic owner who has both the vision and funds to complete this project in a way which befits this beautiful house.

More details:

Is Gwrych Castle for sale again?

Gwrych Castle, Wales (Image: geograph.co.uk)

When Gwrych Castle was finally sold in June 2006 after twenty years of neglect, dereliction, fires and theft, there was much praise and relief locally that the once-beautiful “showplace of Wales” was to be rescued.  Bought by Yorkshire-based Clayton Hotels for £860,000, they estimated that once planning permission had been secured, the restoration would take between 2-3 years and cost an estimated £6m – however three years later, the major part of the restoration work has yet to start.

Built between 1819-1825 for Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, grade-I listed Gwrych was one of the largest ‘castlellated mansions’ in Europe, part of a ‘gothick’ revival which included some of Britain’s most picturesque country houses such as Eastnor Castle, East Cowes Castle, Lea Castle, and Castel Coch and many more. Following its sale by the 13th Earl of Dundonald in 1946 it was opened to the public in various forms and under various owners until 1989.  The failure of the redevelopment plans led to the castle being left unprotected against the ravages of the weather, travellers, and vandals, leaving the castle a mere shell, the fine interiors rotting in piles in the collapsed ground floor.

The plans unveiled by Clayton Hotels in 2007 showed that the castle would be fully restored and largely based on the original layout. Mark Baker of the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, who had campaigned since he was 11 to save the castle, welcomed the plans and for many it seemed that the end was in sight.  In February 2009, Wales Online (‘Welsh ruin to be transformed with techniques fit for royal home‘) trumpeted how the design work for the restoration was starting under the care of Donald Insall, one of the best conservation architects in the UK.  However, in May 2009, a story on BBC News (‘Slow economy delays hotel plans‘) explained that the slow economy had delayed plans and also the cost for the project had risen to between £12-14m.

Now a recent story (‘Clitheroe man haunted by ghostly image in castle window‘) about a ghost in a window included some interesting quotes which raise some questions about the status of the project – or perhaps just the intended future clients.

A Lancashire businessman who combines being an optician with “psychic management” claimed to have taken a picture of a girl standing at a window where there is no floor.  Kevin Horkin claimed he was visiting the site as “I buy property and was looking at the castle with the view buying it.” and the story ends by saying that “Kevin has put a bid in for the castle which he hopes to turn into a luxury psychic retreat.”.  Despite the obvious convenience of a psychic who wants to open a hotel taking one of the clearest ever pictures of a ghost, it does raise questions about why he is saying the hotel is for sale? The Clayton Hotels website is one page with an email link and with the dramatic rise in restoration costs and the difficulties of the property markets, is the castle being quietly marketed ‘off the record’? Perhaps the quotes are misconstrued, or perhaps Clayton will refurbish the house but lease it Mr Horkin, but either way, Clayton Hotels should perhaps clarify exactly what is happening to this iconic part of Wales’ architectural heritage especially as so many people have spent so long campaigning for its rescue.

More information about the house: ‘Gwrych Castle Trust