England’s most ‘at risk’ country houses; English Heritage 2013 report

Though he his House of polish’t marble built
Yet shall it ruine like the Moth’s fraile cell.*

Nymans, West Sussex - gutted by fire in 1947 (Image: sjr60 via flickr)
Nymans, West Sussex – gutted by fire in 1947, now a romantic ruin (Image: sjr60 via flickr)

There is a long tradition of the romanticisation of ruins and decay, but watching once grand houses slide into dereliction is thankfully now seen as a failure; on the part of the owner, and of the official bodies charged with the preservation of our shared architectural heritage. With those local experts disgracefully being seen as expendable by councils, it’s important that English Heritage has produced the 2013 ‘Heritage at Risk Report‘ [PDF] – a sad national roll call from which the priority sites list contains a surprising selection of country houses.

To be included in the list is not to say that a house is derelict, but is more a reflection that there are concerns about the long-term future of the house and current signs of deterioration.  Owners can often find that there are significant projects which require substantial investment which may not be currently possible through their own means, though inclusion on the ‘Priority’ list does open doors to grants and other funding.

Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)
Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps one of the best known to appear is Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, a Victorian fantasy that is now faced with a modern reality.  Home to the Lytton family since 1492, the house was originally a mid 16th-century courtyard house before losing three sides in 1811, leaving just the west wing which was remodelled externally in 1820 and 1843 in the Tudor-revival style, with interior alterations by Lutyens in 1907 (see Listing description for details).  Still a family home, the Lytton-Cobbolds (as they now are) have worked hard to open the grade-II* house and, famously, host vast pop concerts in the park.  Major grant-funded repairs in the late 1990s restored half the house, but now, as a priority case, a further £240,000 has been allocated for works on the roof and to restore the upper rendering and two pinnacles.

Sockburn Hall, County Durham (Image: Sockburn Hall Project)

For an estate once reputedly tormented by a dragon, the modern threats to Sockburn Hall, Darlington were much more prosaic, but which have meant years of restoration work.  The current house was built in 1834 for the younger brother of Sir William Blackett (1758-1816) in whose family it remained until sold in 1920.  A varied ownership history led to the period which left it in the current damaged state, when the house was owned by two sisters who were later convicted of keeping many dogs in terrible conditions in Sockburn Hall.  The accumulated excrement rotted the floors and a lack of maintenance led to water ingress.  New owners and a dedicated team of volunteers have rallied and started restoration, part-funded by English Heritage grants, though work clearly has some way to go before the house will be safe again.

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

Scraptoft Hall, Leicestershire has long been a cause for concern, faced as it is with threats from the weather, vandals and poor local planning decisions.  Originally built in the 1720s, this elegant smaller house, although still on the edge of Leicester, had earlier suffered the usual short-sighted urban development, which now encroaches on it and its condition had deteriorated significantly.  However, the setting of the house is still worth preserving, though previous proposals would have unsympathetically left it as a mere architectural bauble in the middle of a much larger development.  Sadly, in 2010, despite going against English Heritage advice, the local planning department, council, and MP, were all happy to cast this fine piece of local architectural heritage onto the scrapheap of their own inadequate vision.  A reduced scheme was approved in July 2013, which although at a more appropriate scale, still contains some regrettable choices such as separating the house from the lake and ruining the approach to the hall by lining the drive with houses (See Planning Documents: Presentation Layout). This plan will result in the house being restored as eight apartments, but neither the local council or the developer can claim any sort of credit from this outcome.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

For anyone stumbling across the Gothic Revival majesty of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, it might seem as thought they had found a university rather than a house – in fact, they had found one of the most remarkable buildings of the Victorian age.  On inheriting in 1833, Charles Scarisbrick embarked on a huge project to embellish his home, initially spending £5,500 between 1836-1846 on old antique carvings.   As one of the oldest Recusant families, the Scarisbricks had an affinity to the Gothic style and one of the reasons for the Hall’s grade-I listing is the creation in 1812-16 of the first new domestic ‘great hall’, to designs by Thomas Rickman and John Slater. One of the key reason for the highest listing is that the house is one of the greatest surviving examples of the work of A.W.N. Pugin, especially after the ruination of his masterpiece, Alton Towers.  Pugin was the architect who thought Gothic was the only ‘true’ architectural path for a Christian nation and, although Charles Scarisbrick initially only asked for a garden seat and a fireplace, Pugin eventually re-designed the interiors before being asked to alter the exterior, creating a more picturesque aspect.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire - the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire – the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)

Pugin died in 1852, and Charles Scarisbrick in 1860, after which, Charles’ sister inherited and employed Pugin’s son, Edward Welby, to continue the alterations including the spectacular tower – though without the planned clock so rendering it somewhat pointless.  The house passed out of the family in 1872, and was eventually sold for demolition in 1962 but became a school instead, a role it retains today. However, a mounting repair bill (estimated at £2.46m in 2008) has led to the house being added to the ‘at risk’ register, with particular concern about the main hall, and east and west wings.  On all counts, this is a remarkable house and warrants close monitoring and support to ensure that this magnificent example of the Gothic Revival doesn’t fall into a more parlous state.

An estate can contain many more buildings than just the main house, such as stables or follies, which form an important part of the a part of the character of an estate, but which can also become at risk. Below are examples from the same priority report:

In more positive news, although the grade-I Castle Goring, West Sussex, is included in the list, it also notes that this remarkable house has been sold and work to rectify the maintenance backlog has now started.  Congratulations to the South West and West Midlands regions which have no country houses or related buildings included in the 2013 list.

These Registers are a valuable opportunity to highlight the ongoing threats to our shared national architectural heritage, for although many of these country houses and buildings are in private ownership, we all enjoy the wider benefit of their beauty and history. If anyone demands justification as why anyone should care, why we should protect them, just ask them to imagine our country without them.

Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham (Image: Webb Aviation)
Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham which also feature on the ‘Priority’ list (Image: Webb Aviation)

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Full list (PDF): ‘Heritage at Risk Register – 2013‘ [English Heritage]

Previous blog post: ‘How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

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* – Quote by Gaston Boissier, ‘Rome and Pompeii‘ (1896), as quoted in ‘The Pleasure of Ruins‘ by Rose Macaulay

Higher (country) seats of learning: country houses and current courses

Keele Hall, Staffordshire - now Keele University (Image: simon3k via flickr)
Keele Hall, Staffordshire – now Keele University (Image: simon3k via flickr)

Perhaps one of the most traditional images of university is that of the hallowed, ancient spires of Oxford and Cambridge.  The idea that wisdom is a product of experience can create a sense that perhaps historic surroundings might impart some of that wealth to those studying.  Of course, this isn’t always the case but, for various reasons, country houses formed the historic core of a number of new universities. There are now several courses (listed in a new page called ‘The Study‘) which examine UK country houses and their place in the architectural, artistic and cultural tapestry of our society.

Although country houses have a long tradition of becoming schools for those up to the age of 18 (a topic touched on in a previous post: ‘School’s out: seats of learning for sale‘), the requirements for higher education present a much tougher set of challenges.  To create a successful, broad-spectrum university requires a significant number of buildings, particularly for subjects such as engineering and the sciences.  The Robbins Report in 1963 recommended an expansion of higher education and was a catalyst for the establishment of a new wave of universities, often colloquially known as ‘red-brick’ (coined, apparently, by the University of Liverpool, inspired by their Victoria Building which is built from a distinctive red, pressed brick.).  Yet, many of these new universities could not be accommodated in already crowded city-centres and so the search was on for suitable locations.

Country houses were an obvious option; space, good locations, existing infrastructure, uncontaminated grounds – often landscaped, and easy to purchase as a single entity. Although by the 1960s, the tempo of the brutal country house demolitions of the 1950s had slowed, many a house owner was faced with a building often still suffering from the damage and neglect of WWII requisitioning, wider economic problems and a society increasingly unsympathetic to the landed classes.  To sell or even donate a house to an educational establishment seemed to be a solution to the problems which beset them.

Reed (formerly Streatham) Hall, Devon (Image: University of Exeter)
Reed (formerly Streatham) Hall, Devon (Image: University of Exeter)

The ancient universities were housed in purpose-built facilities, the glory of the architecture often designed to reflect glory on the patron – be he king or cardinal.  The 19th-century university was often founded on industrial wealth and wishing to keep their trophies prominently displayed, the patrons ensured that the buildings were mostly urban-based in the cities.  So the earliest country house to become part of a university actually happened quite late; Streatham Hall was donated to the University College of the South West of England, based in Exeter, in 1922 by Alderman W.H. Reed, a former mayor of the city.  The house, surrounded by an arboretum of rare and beautiful trees collected from around the world by the Veitch family, was renamed Reed Hall to honour the benefactor and became the core of the new university as the first student accommodation, with new buildings rising around it.  The house is still there today at the centre of the campus and is used as an events and conference centre.

Keele Hall, Staffordshire - garden front (Image: Mr Ush via flickr)
Keele Hall, Staffordshire – garden front (Image: Mr Ush via flickr)

One owner who was probably grateful for the solution offered to him was Ralph Sneyd, owner of Keele Hall, Staffordshire.  Designed by that foremost of Victorian architects, Anthony Salvin, the house had been praised by William Eden Nesfield as one of the best-planned houses of its time, which may have been a back-handed compliment as later writers have decided that the garden front is generally criticised for being ‘too long for its height‘ (J. Allibone) and the ‘entrance front is confused rather than pictureseque‘ as, by this time, ‘His gift for calculated asymmetry was already on the wane‘ (M. Girouard).  The interior, however, was regarded as very well-designed for the needs of the bachelor Mr Ralph Sneyd (b.1793 – d.1870) who had commissioned it in the early 1850s, with a series of rooms to cater for the male pastimes of the Victorian gent.  Although let to Grand Duke Michael of Russia between 1901-10, it was nevertheless in decline by 1939. During WWII, the house was requisitioned and became a transit camp for troops with numerous huts and buildings appearing on the estate but the family had already moved out as financial struggles, which had started in 1902, made the house too expensive to be their home. After the war, Ralph Sneyd (the nephew of the one who had commissioned it) was probably more than happy when the local council bought the house and much of the estate for £31,000 in 1948.  The main house and the wartime buildings formed the core of the new university, allowing it to open relatively quickly in 1949.

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Mike Higginbottom / Interesting Times)
Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Mike Higginbottom / Interesting Times)

Other universities also took this route and re-purposed country houses or their estates (year is date it started being used):

Another notable country house linked to a university is Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire, an important, grade-I listed house which was once home to the Isham family until 1979 when Sir Gyles Isham, the 12th (but not the last) Baronet, bequeathed it, plus the contents and estate, to a charitable Trust.  That trust now runs the house as an education and conference centre which has long been a partner for the Centre for the Study of the Country House based at the University of Leicester.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Perhaps the most spectacular of houses to be used is Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, which, since 1971 has been the British campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana, USA (though Stanford University had taken it over in 1965).  The exterior is a riot of gables, chimneys and decoration by Anthony Salvin, though the interior now enjoyed by generations of American students was by William Burn after Salvin and the owner, the wonderfully named Gregory Gregory, fell out. As a smaller outpost, it has not only been preserved with few external additions but also holds the tantalising prospect that, if the university decides it is surplus to requirements, could once again become a stunning country home. Also of note is the impressively restored Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex which was given to the Queen’s University of Canada in 1993.

Attingham Park, Shropshire (Image: Jonathan Davies / wikipedia)
Attingham Park, Shropshire (Image: Jonathan Davies / wikipedia)

Of course, it wasn’t just the formal universities who made use of country houses to become seats of higher education.  One of the best known is the beautiful Attingham Park, Shropshire, which was an adult education centre from 1946 until 1971.  Owned by the Lords Berwick, it was the 8th, and last, Thomas, who bequeathed it to the National Trust. However, the college was run by the decidedly New Age, Sir George Trevelyan who mixed serious study with rather more mystical pursuits.  One of Sir George’s greatest successes was the creation of the Attingham Summer School in 1952 which, through the Attingham Trust offers “…specialised study courses, primarily for people professionally engaged in the field, on country houses, their collections and settings, and on the history and contents of English royal palaces.“.  The courses still run today – though they do require rather deep pockets to attend. Dillington House in Somerset became an adult education centre in 1950, operated by North Somerset Council but still owned by Lord Cameron of Dillington.

And so it continues.  The latest is that grade-II* Hestercombe House in Somerset has been handed over to a Trust who not only wish to restore the house and fascinating gardens – with Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian phases including work done by Gertrude Jekyll – but also to establish, subject to HLF funding, a Centre for Landscape Studies.  This, it is anticipated, will host conferences, courses and hopefully become a national archive for conservation management plans.  Country houses are still proving their value with the house and grounds forming the justification and catalyst for new educational ventures.

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New on The Country Seat: ‘The Study

There is a new section called ‘The Study‘ where I hope to be able to keep an up-to-date list of courses at recognised UK educational institutions which are focused on, or have significant sections relating to, our wonderful country houses.  Please do let me know if you are aware of any I have undoubtedly missed, or any future updates.  I’m particularly keen to hear from institutions to make sure that we can try and generate interest in the long term for the more substantive degree and masters courses.  Feedback always welcome.

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News stories:

A Salvin for sale: Mamhead House, Devon

Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)

One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites.  I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)?  However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.

Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881).  Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics.  Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.

According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built.  However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.

The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828
The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828

Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24.  His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt.  The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic.  He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan.  This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.

Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)
Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)

For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic.  However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions.  Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later.  During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.

Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)
Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)

It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect.  Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design.  The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden.  The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified.  Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.

Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree?  Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element.  Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior.  The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification.  Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of BurgesCastell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens.  However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers.  However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible.  So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“.  I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications.  Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.

Apart from ecclesiastical work and alterations to existing houses such as Warwick, Alnwick and Dunster castles, he also designed a number of notable country houses including, in addition to those already mentioned: Cowesby Hall, Scotney Castle, Parham Park, Skutterskelfe Hall (one of Salvin’s rare Classical designs), Crossrigg Hall, Keele Hall, and Thoresby Hall, which still survive today.  Sadly, Flixton Hall, Campsea Ash High House, Congham High House, Stoke Holy Cross Hall and Hodnet Hall have all either been completely demolished or, in the case of the latter, significantly reduced.

Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better.  To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.

Sales details: ‘Mamhead House‘ – £8m, 164-acres [Strutt & Parker]

Lovely article with many photos in ‘Devon Life’: ‘Mamhead House

More details:

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* source: foreward to ‘Anthony Salvin: Pioneer of Gothic Revival Architecture‘ by Dr Jill Allibone which I can highly recommend, and which was very helpful for this posting.