The estate office: country houses as corporate headquarters – and Barrington Hall, for sale

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

In many ways, a country house was often the headquarters of a business relating to both the estate and the affairs of the family who lived there.  This role was to be mirrored in the latter half of the 20th-century as firms sought to adopt the prestige of stately homes and set up their offices in the many country houses which were then available. What grander statement could a company make to clients and investors than to invite them to visit their stately offices?  Yet times changed, and over the years companies found it harder to justify such lavish accommodation, leading to a steady trickle of houses being sold – and the latest is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire.

Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village)
Shalford Park, Surrey (Image: (c) Allianz Insurance Plc via Shalford Village) – click for an excellent history of the house

The Second World War ushered in the modern era of offices in country houses.  With little by way of aerial bombing, few firms saw the need to move out of London and other cities in World War I, however, this danger had dramatically increased by 1939.  Faced with the significant logistical challenges in moving their vital paper-based records and operations, the late 1930s saw a number of companies actively scouting out possible alternatives, with country houses an ideal choice due to their size and seclusion.  This new lease of life enabled some houses to escape the demolisher’s pickaxe, such as at Shalford Park in Surrey.  A solid, well-proportioned Georgian house, the result of a rebuild of an older house in 1797, had been sold to Guildford Borough Council in 1938, but primarily to protect the land from development, with the intention that the house be demolished.  However, a lease was granted to the Cornhill Insurance Company (later part of Allianz Inc) who moved there in 1939, creating dormitories on the upper floors.  Cornhill were to remain at Shalford Park until 1955, but unfortunately the condition of the building had significantly deteriorated, and combined with it being in the ideal location for a new local water treatment works, meant that the house was demolished.

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

One house which fared only slightly better from this type of arrangement was the beautiful Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.  A fanciful French château, it was built in the 1830s to the accomplished designs of the owner, Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey, and features some of the finest, and earliest, Rococo Revival interiors in the country – of particular note is the spectacular staircase.  The house was sold in 1939 for £25,000 by John G. Murray to the Sun Insurance Company (later Sun Alliance) who bought it in anticipation of war. They promptly moved there from London once war had been declared, having made plans to ‘…alter the stable block and erect huts in the grounds for sleeping quarters, together with washing facilities and air-raid shelters … the stable block was the first area to receive our attention. The whole of the East Wing and the upper storey of the West Wing were to be converted for sleeping accommodation with toilet and washing facilities. The middle connecting section was also to be similarly altered, but it was later decided to make part of the upper storey into a communal long room.‘. Such scenes were undoubtedly repeated in many a country house – though such a use was preferable to the treatment meted out at the hands of enlisted men or children.

Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)
Cranbury Park, Hampshire (Image: Angus Kirk via flickr)

Other houses had the good fortune to secure relatively benign tenants for the duration of the war. The imposing Stratton Park, Hampshire, was built between 1803-06 by George Dance the Younger for Sir Francis Baring, Lord Northbrook, a founder of Barings Bank. Although it had been sold following the death of his descendent, Francis Baring, 2nd Earl of Northbrook in 1929, the house was bought back by Barings Bank in 1939 as their base for the duration of the conflict (though sadly it was demolished in 1960 by a later Baring who had bought it after the war).  The choice of house was possibly influenced by the fact that the Bank of England had decamped to the nearby beautiful Cranbury Park, also in Hampshire – and, coincidentally, also designed by George Dance the Younger, but built in 1780.  This little known house, still lived in today by the Chamberlayne family who commissioned it, has particularly impressive interiors; the hall and ballroom were described by Pevsner as an ‘unforgettable experience‘. Compared to the horrors of the bombing in London, what a strange pleasure it must have been to be stationed in such an environment.

Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Banqueting House, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

The extensive alterations to even such an important house as Wrest Park indicated the level of damage such intensive use could bring to buildings which had not been designed for such a purpose.  The post-war era held many threats to country houses and use as offices saved many from the wave of destruction which led to the demolition of so many in the 1950s.  In 1949, Wrest Park was sold to the Ministry of Works, who leased it to the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering, later called Silsoe Research Institute which inflicted even more stress on the house and estate.  Although Simon Jenkins included it in his book ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses‘, he wrote that ‘The [Institute’s] outbuildings spoil the approach avenue and its abuse of the interior is dreadful.  The best of the reception rooms, the library, is packed with modern bookcases and computer equipment. Other rooms are cheaply kitted out for lectures and seminars.  It is like a Soviet academy of sciences camped in a St Petersburg palace.’. Thankfully the Institute closed in 2006 and the ground-floor rooms of the house (sadly, office space remains), along with the superb gardens and Thomas Archer‘s sublime Baroque banqueting house have been expertly restored by English Heritage.

Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)
Hursley House, Hampshire (Image: Sarah Graham via Panoramio/Geolocation)

The pressure to create more space is often the cause of the most damaging changes to a country house.  Simon Jenkins’ criticism of the additional buildings at Wrest Park can similarly be levelled at the extensive construction which has taken place at Hursley House, Hampshire, home of IBM UK.  The house itself was originally built between 1721-24, with ‘gentleman architect’ Sir Thomas Hewett acting as architectural consultant for Sir William Heathcote, and with further major reconstruction in 1902-03 to create the imposing Queen Anne house which appears in various marketing materials.  What the images don’t show is the huge campus (of fairly ugly buildings) which has sprung up so close to the house since IBM took over the site in 1958. A more intelligent approach to the siting of extra accommodation can be seen at the Computer Associates site at Ditton Park, Berkshire, where the new office buildings have been placed a sensitive distance from the main house.  If their priorities changed, the house could be sold and could resume a comfortably independent existence even if the offices remained in use.  Such a change might once have been expected at Donington Hall, Leicestershire, which served as the headquarters for the airline BMI for many years until the recent merger made it redundant.  Sadly, it’s actually unlikely that anyone would chose to live there as there would be no peace and quiet as the parkland has long been converted into the Donington Park race circuit, just half a mile south of the house.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from "A New Display of the Beauties of England" (London : 1776-1777))
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: from “A New Display of the Beauties of England” London,  1776-1777) – click to see full size image

Sadly, it is uncommon for a house, once it has been used as offices, to escape such a fate being made permanent.  The alterations and additions can render the house a soulless shell with the grounds ruined beyond the possibility of economic rescue.  However, some have survived this role remarkably intact and, if the possibility presents itself, offer a remarkable opportunity to rescue a house and bring it back to the glory of being a single family home.  One such example is Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire, which has had something of a chequered history.  The original house (above) was built between c1735-40 for John Barrington to designs by John Sanderson (b.? – d.1774), a man who Colvin wrote was described as a competent ‘second-generation Palladian’, who worked on an impressive roster of houses including Hagley Hall, where he proved to be an accomplished designer of rococo decoration, Kelham Hall (burnt down 1857), Kirtlington Park, Pusey House, Langley Park, Copped Hall, and Kimberley Hall.

Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)
Barrington Hall, Hertfordshire (Image: Hamptons)

Barrington Hall remained unfinished (despite the engraving above) and was uninhabited for 128 years due to, what the estate agents refer to as, ‘bizarre and unfortunate events‘ (anyone with more details please do post a comment!). The house was eventually restored in 1867 by George Lowndes, a distant relative of John Barrington, who employed the Lincolnshire architect Edward Browning to remodel it in a Jacobean style. The changes created an attractive house with a varied and interesting form, featuring a series of handsome architectural details such as the ‘Dutch’ gables, quoins and a miniature ogee turret.  The house was bought by the Gosling family in 1903 who had merged ‘Goslings Bank‘ to create Barclays & Co in 1896. It was then sold in 1977 to the British Livestock Board who converted it to offices and then subsequently sold in 1980 to CPL Aromas LTD, a family perfumery firm who seem to have had some challenging times following an ill-fated public listing in 1994, which they reversed in 1999.  Having remained at Barrington Hall it now seems that the company has reviewed its requirements and decided that a stately home is a luxury no longer required.

Although originally offered several months ago for £5m (with 32.85-acres), it seems possible that a serious, but lower, offer could be successful.  It would probably take at least £2m to restore this fascinating house, creating the rich and lively interiors which it needs to match the exterior and bring it back to life, but whoever did so would have the pleasure and pride of having rescued an interesting country house from the drudgery of corporate service.

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Sales website: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [Hamptons] – which, by the way, is a pretty weak effort.  Nice photos but quite lacking in details.

Listing description: ‘Barrington Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Know any more? If you’re aware of any other country houses of a similar size to Hursley House, Ditton Park, or Donington Park, please post a link (ideally) to a Google Map aerial view in the comments below.

N.B.: an earlier article on this blog (‘Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?‘) looked at a few other examples including Gaddesden Place, Hertfordshire, now the headquarters for Xara software, and Benham Valance, Berkshire.

A country house at risk of demolition: Winstanley Hall – and how you can help save it

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

That the headline above is even possible today is shocking; that it almost came with the acquiescence of English Heritage is even worse.  The wealth of Britain allowed the creation of thousands of wonderful country houses; stores of learning, art, literature, music and much more.  Yet hundreds have been lost, the contents scattered, the fixtures and fittings sold for a fraction of their worth and the history and visual value of these beautiful buildings lost to the demolisher’s pickaxe.  Many a country house has been restored from a serious state of dereliction, so for demolition to even be proposed is to be deplored. Winstanley Hall, near Wigan, has long been a cause for concern but a new campaign, run by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, hopes to quickly raise the funds needed to rescue this fascinating house.

The Country Seat blog is an off-shoot of my earlier interest and research into the lost country houses of England.  Initially sparked by the ruins of Guys Cliffe House in Warwickshire, I have been building on the remarkable work of Peter Reid, John Harris and Marcus Binney who produced an initial list of nearly 1,200 houses which had been lost since 1800.  This list formed the backbone of the ground-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which dramatically brought home the shock that so much of our architectural heritage had been lost already and the then legal constraints were insufficient to stop it continuing. My list now totals over 1,800 houses which have been lost since 1800 – every county has been affected and each has their own sad roll-call of losses.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Uppark House, Sussex - on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)
Result of a bad workman and his tools: Uppark House, Sussex – on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)

Houses can be lost for a number of reasons but two of the main causes are fire and finances. Country houses are unfortunately particularly susceptible to fire; the wooden construction, the flammable contents, the open fires and the restoration work which often brings careless workmen with their blowtorches.  Beyond mitigating the risk, preventing these devastating blazes has always been a challenge.  Yet, diminishing or insufficient finances are equally pernicious but harder to combat as the decay can quietly take place over generations, with the realisation of the seriousness only coming too late.

Many houses were traditionally supported by their estates but the agricultural crisis of the 1880s led to a reduction in income which was largely staved off through the sale of contents, until, in the early 20th century, this was no longer sufficient and the houses themselves were demolished – at a stroke removing the running costs and raising funds through the sale of the materials.  This continued through that century, spiking in the 1920-30s and again in the 1950s, reaching a nadir in 1955 when a significant house was being demolished every five days.  This fascinating video below shows rare footage of a country house in Kent, Pickhurst Manor, as it was destroyed in the 1930s:

The impact of the ‘The Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition cannot be over-stated in heritage terms. It can be said to have jump-started the heritage movement, creating the current mass interest in country houses which can still be seen today in the popularity of the National Trust and the many individual owners who open their houses to the public. It also led to the formation of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has since then been one of the countries most effective campaigning charities; saving not just country houses, but working to find viable uses for a broad range of historic buildings including factories, churches, offices, and, most recently, terraced housing threatened by the wasteful and pointless Pathfinder Scheme. In the interests of transparency: I am involved with SAVE as a member of the Committee which is consulted about current cases, but this post was not written at their request and the views expressed are my own.

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire - print
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire – print showing the original Elizabethan house

Which brings us to the Grade-II* Winstanley Hall. One of only three surviving Tudor buildings in that borough, the house was built shortly after James Bankes, a London goldsmith, bought the estate in 1595.  The core of the Elizabethan house, with its two projecting wings, can still be seen on the garden front of the house, thought the original gables were replaced by parapets during alterations designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1818-19.  It was Wyatt who created the new entrance tower to the west with its Ionic portico and his work can still be seen inside with some surviving plasterwork and the fine cantilevered staircase.  What makes Winstanley particularly interesting is that it contains layers of work but with each grafted onto the last making the house quite ‘readable’.  A new wing to the south-west was added in 1780, with further changes, marked by keystones, in 1843 and 1889.

The stable court is especially fascinating architecturally as it contains a range of different styles, chosen at the whim of the owner; Meyrick Bankes II.  This delightfully eccentric but still functional range of buildings reflect his life as a well travelled, well educated man and includes Norman, Tudor, and Baroque motifs (and even his own likeness) in the masonry which creates a varied design which adds to the charm of the setting.  The visual interest of the courtyard, combined with the house, really does set Winstanley apart as many houses have lost one or the other of these core elements which make up an estate.

The house started declining in the 1930s and was last occupied in the early 1980s, with the parkland being open-cast mined during the post-war period and later the M6 being built along the edge of the parkland.  However, the parkland has now been restored and the road, which is some distance to the west of the house, is hidden in a cutting and by banks of trees, resulting in the Winstanley estate forming a precious rural space on the edge of Wigan, still approached from the east along a long, secluded drive which dips in between romantically landscaped woodland.

When the family sold up, the house and 10-acres were bought by a local developer who submitted a scheme which proposed enabling development, even though, as Green Belt land, it was unlikely to succeed.  With the failure of this scheme, the house remained unused, sliding further into dereliction to the point where another scheme was suggested which would have involved the conversion of the buildings in the courtyard but would have resulted in the demolition of the main house – and it’s this shocking scheme which English Heritage almost approved in 2011 (though EH, to be fair, also cannot be praised highly enough for their saving of Danson House and Apethorpe Hall – which is still for sale, by the way).

Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

SAVE stepped in and prevented the demolition and has been working with leading consultants to draw up plans for emergency repairs but also to find a long-term, sustainable solution which not only preserves the house through re-use but also brings the other buildings in the complex to life.  The leading country house conversion architect Kit Martin along with the Morton Partnership, a leading firm of heritage surveyors, have been working with Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall (who has a track record of creating business space in estate buildings), in conjunction with the Landmark Trust, and the Heritage Trust for the North West, who have been consulted about creating heritage training skills opportunities.  The overall aim is to create a community which is not just residential but also hosts businesses and events, with public access via an exhibition space and café.

How you can help: English Heritage have agreed a major grant of £217,000 for the emergency works but SAVE urgently needs to raise a £50,000 contribution.  Any donation, large or small, will help rescue this wonderful house and estate and help prevent the loss of yet more of our heritage.  Since 1974 no house of this size or quality has been lost, so, if you can, please do help.

Ways to donate:

  • Online via the SAVE website
  • Phone: donate £3 or £5 by texting RESTORE3 (for £3) or RESTORE5 (for £5) to 70500. (This will cost £3 or £5 plus your standard message rate and 100% of your donation will go to SAVE Britain’s Heritage.)
  • Cheque: made payable to ‘SAVE Britain’s Heritage’ and sent to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, 70 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6EJ.

Thank you!

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Full SAVE campaign brochure: ‘Help us Save Winstanley Hall‘ [PDF – SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Photos of the house in better days ‘Winstanley Hall: gallery‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A very unofficial tour: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [YouTube]

A view of the interior: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [WiganWorld]

Aerial view of the house and outbuildings: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [Bing]

Listing description: ‘Winstanley Hall

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:

Houses of gods: country houses converted to religion and the sale of Hawkstone Hall

The 1920s and 30s may be remembered for many things, but it probably wouldn’t be for having any great public affection for the grand houses which had so dominated the landscape agriculturally, economically and politically.  Faced with the reality of the long slump in revenue from the land and wider economic difficulties, country house owners found themselves between the rock of their own financial situations and the hard place of a nation broadly unsympathetic to their difficulties.  Many an owner may have offered up a prayer for some form of divine intervention to alleviate their situation – and the miracle which appeared which saved their house, though not their lifestyles, was religious orders purchasing these grand piles for their ministries.  With the recent launch on the market of the impressive Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire, the cycle turns again, as it looks like the wealthy will rescue the religious.

Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)
Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)

A nobleman’s residence in the medieval period was often a castle but this dramatically changed following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-41.  The aftermath created one of the greatest transfers of land (in the 1530s, they were estimated to hold approx 16% of England) and property as the riches of these institutions were either given to favoured courtiers or sold, creating instant country estates.  Yet, at that time, they were seen more as industrial units; great agricultural establishments which brought in great wealth, with the beautiful priory churches often stripped for their materials. However, for some owners, the buildings were a fine opportunity to create a house – and what better way of creating the impression of an ancient family than with an ancient seat, especially if it came with prized feudal rights.

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)

The suppression of the monasteries and convents brought to an end many of the longest standing communities but did give a boost to the secular, non-defensive country house. Many older houses today, both large and small, can trace their origins back to monastic roots, including (a small sample, admittedly):

Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)
Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)

Of course, there is a long history of country houses being used for religious purposes as many recusant families continued practising their Catholic faith at great risk to themselves both financially and physically, such as at Mapledurham in Oxfordshire or Hintlesham Hall in Essex.  This secrecy led to the creation of many ingenious methods of hiding not only the chapels (either in attics such as at Ufton Court, Berkshire, or by being disguised as bedrooms) and items of their faith but also the priests themselves, usually in ‘priest holes‘ which could be concealed behind panelling and walls (e.g. at Harvington Hall – still owned by the Archdiocese of Birmingham), in chimneys, under fireplaces and so on.

Despite Catholic worship becoming legal again in 1791, there were still restrictions on Catholics in public office until 1829, and it was still viewed with some suspicion. A further influx in the 1790s was due to the French Revolution which forced many orders back across the Channel.  For any order seeking to establish itself, it was certainly easier to take over a country house as it would often meet their requirements in terms of seclusion and accommodation but without the challenges of trying to build a new convent or monastery. One of the earliest was the purchase of East Bergholt Old Hall, Suffolk which was bought in the 1850s but there have been many others since, including:

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)

Catholics may have had the longer history but others have also taken the same route. Perhaps the most famous of these was the spectacular Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, designed by Joseph Paxton and built between 1852-54 for the Rothschilds, which was bought by the followers of the Marharishi Yogi to serve as the UK headquarters for the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment. This followed the scandalous refusal by the then Labour government to accept it for the nation with its incredible collections in lieu of just £2m inheritance tax and the subsequent sale which netted several times that. Others include:

There don’t appear to be any clear records of which houses have been used as convents/monasteries so it remains anecdotal (there’s probably a good PhD topic in there somewhere) but it’s possible that hundreds of houses have served in this use, especially if convent schools and retreats (e.g Capernwray Hall and Kinmel Hall) are included. For many of these, it’s likely that this alternative use saved them from joining the ranks of those demolished.

For the past 85 years, grade-I listed Hawkstone Hall has been a seminary and also a retreat for Catholic clergy.  The house was originally built in 1720 for Richard Hill (b.1655 – d.1727), a traveller and diplomat who had made a fortune through what was described as ‘lucrative arithmetick‘, and consisted of just the main block.  The design of this section is quite unique, certainly to the area, and pre-dates designs later shown in Campbell’s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ published in 1715-25.  Although it shares certain elements with other houses (Buckingham House, Chatsworth – east front), neither the listing description nor Colvin have details on the original architect so it is open to conjecture as to who designed it and where they got their inspiration (if anyone does know/have any suggestions, please do add a comment below or contact me).

Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)
Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)

Hawkstone was then inherited by his son Sir Rowland Hill, 1st Baronet (1705–1783), who added the wings as part of an enlargement in 1750, but who also, more importantly, started the landscaping for which the estate was to become famous.  Taking advantage of a natural rocky outcrop, Hill created a series of walkways on the cliffs, view points and follies which attracted many visitors.  This grew to such an extent that Sir Richard Hill, 2nd Baronet (b.1733 – d.1808) wrote the first guidebook for the park and also built the ‘Hawkstone Inn’ to cater for the visitors. Such was its reputation that Dr Samuel Johnson came to see and was duly impressed, remarking on “…the awfulness of its shades, the horror of its precipices….“. Johnson also commented that he thought there ought to be more water and so Sir Richard commissioned landscape designer William Emes, who created the Hawk River which still flows to the north-west of the house.  Hawkstone Park had become one of the most popular attractions in the country by the time of his death in  1808 and remained so under the care of his brother, Sir John Hill, 3rd Baronet (b.1740 – d.1824), who inherited.

Sadly, it was to be the next generation who sowed the seeds of the families financial troubles.  The house and park were inherited by Sir Rowland Hill, 4th Baronet Hill of Hawkstone, 2nd Viscount Hill (1800–1875) who, through extravagance or mismanagement, lost much of the family fortune. Inside, he commissioned, between 1832-4, various alterations including a new drawing room from Sir Matthew Wyatt, whilst in the grounds he carved a hugely expensive new drive through a cliff and built The Citadel, a strange castle-like dower house.  He even toyed with the idea of relocating the entire house to the other side of the river.

Such spending was always likely to lead to difficulties and the 3rd Viscount, Rowland Clegg-Hill, (b.1833 – d.1895), never managed to re-establish the fortune and was bankrupt by the time of his death.  This forced a sale of the contents and then the splitting up of the estate in 1906.  The park, with the many follies, tunnels and caves, was sold off and is now run as part of the Hawkstone Park hotel. The Hall was bought by George Whitely, later Baron Marchamley of Hawkstone, a wealthy mill and brewery owner and MP, who made minor alterations; reducing the height and length of the projecting wings and to the interior.

The house was then sold to the Roman Catholic Redemptorists who have remained there until a recent review of their activities prompted them to put the house, with its 7-acres of gardens and 81-acres of grounds, up for sale for £5m.  Any purchaser looking to make this a home again will need to demolish the ugly accommodation block tucked away behind the left wing and will also have to consider what they wish to do with the large chapel which was added in 1932; perhaps if bought by a non-religious family it would make a superb music room.  For a house which exhibits such architectural interest and grandeur, it seems like a fair price and one hopes it will attract someone willing to invest to recreate what could be one of the finest homes in Shropshire.

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Property details:

News story: ‘Hawkstone Hall goes up for sale with a £5m price‘ [Shropshire Star]

Official website: ‘Hawkstone Hall

Country House Rescue – Series 4: Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire

Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire (Image: Craufurdland Castle)
Craufurdland Castle, Ayrshire (Image: Craufurdland Castle)

The style of country houses enjoys huge variety, be it Classical, a Palladian essay in symmetry, or perhaps Gothic, decorated with tracery and spandrels, or an old timber-framed hall house, beams twisted with age, but perhaps one defining feature common to all is their almost complete departure from the need for defence.  The ancient seat of the lord was often, by necessity, a muscular castle yet, by the 16th-century, England was enjoying a peace which rendered such concerns redundant.  Yet Country House Rescue’s visit this week (19 July, 20:00, Channel 4) to Craufurdland Castle in Ayrshire is a reminder that the need for one’s home to offer protection from assault continued much later in Scotland and the Border regions, leaving a rather special legacy of still inhabited tower houses and castles.

The first castles erected by the Normans were often simply a ‘motte and bailey’ design with timber defences which required frequent replacement as they deteriorated.  This led to the building of more durable stone castles which also gave greater scope for a more decorative appearance – though many features, such as the crenellations and arrow slits, were also part of the very lethal defences (a good English example of this is Wingfield Castle in Suffolk – decorative but deadly).  The accommodation for the lord and his family took second place to the military requirements and had to adapt to fit in.  Yet, the relative peace enjoyed in England by the 15th-century meant that some were abandoned as the owners sought greater comfort outside the massive walls.

Map of tower houses in Great Britain and Ireland built between 14thC - 17thC
Map of tower houses in Great Britain and Ireland built between 14thC – 17thC (Source: RCAHM in ‘The Decline of the Castle’ by M.W. Thompson)

By 1311, Robert I of Scotland felt secure enough to mount regular raids south, not with the intention of capturing and holding land but simply to pillage it.  With Edward II distracted by his own difficulties, a fortified house became a necessity and it has been estimated that around 270 tower houses were built.  These strong towers look to be keeps of the type associated with southern castles but they are distinctive in that they lack the usual gatehouses, corner towers, moats and defensive curtain walls.  Typically these towers were twenty to sixty feet square and between two to five storeys high, and although often rectangular, often had annexes added giving an ‘L-shaped’ (e.g. Muchalls Castle) or ‘Z-shaped’ plan (e.g. Castle Fraser). They often featured bartisans (turrets), had raised main entrances protected by grills (called a yett), and crenellations – all good enough to defend against at least a raid, if not a full scale siege. One of the largest examples of these type of houses is Comlongon Castle in Dumfriesshire; built in the 15th-century with its turrets and machiolations and walls 12-foot-thick at the base.

Comlongon Castle, Dumfriesshire (Image: Comlongon Castle)
Comlongon Castle, Dumfriesshire (Image: Comlongon Castle)

Construction of these houses increased from the 14th-century (as opposed to a decline in the south) but the point of most interest is that they were still being built in significant numbers in the 17th-century (e.g. Craigievar Castle; completed in 1626), by which time the English nobility were embracing a very different style for their homes.  The towers described above were contemporary to the courtyard houses and halls with cross wings being built in the more peaceful English counties where such defensive concerns were irrelevant (see the map above).  The concerns of the late-medieval gentry were in ensuring that their accommodation reflected the appropriate social hierarchy.  A survey in 1387 of Keevil Manor, Wiltshire (linked image shows house as rebuilt in 1580) includes a list of rooms including a hall, a capital chamber, smaller chambers, a chapel, kitchens, buttery etc – but no mention of martial defences, only a gatehouse which was as much for show as security.  This was still the case by the mid-15th century as shown by another survey, this time of Shute House in Axminster, which again was planned around a series of courtyards but was essentially outward facing (NB. the surviving portion of the house is now owned by the National Trust and can be rented for short breaks). For an international contrast; Rambures Castle, Somme, in northern France was also being built around the beginning of the 15th-century – but the French had a completely different social attitude towards castles, granting them much higher status than any other form of noble residence.

Shute House, Axminster c18th-century (Image: Charmouth history website)
Shute House, Axminster c18th-century (Image: Charmouth history website)

Between 1500-1700, the English architectural tradition clearly branches away from the military-based residence and firmly embraces the principles of the country house as we would understand and recognise them today.  Whilst in England, houses took on first the influence of Palladio via Inigo Jones, then through the English Baroque, then into Georgian, it is only at this point, following the Act of Union in 1707 which established sustained peace, did the Scottish architectural narrative start significantly to pick up the more relaxed forms of the country house (though Drumlanrig Castle – built between 1670-1690 – would be difficult to describe as defensive).

Ironically, in the Victorian era, the new fashion for all things Scottish led to a resurgence of interest in the older forms of ‘Scots Baronial’ architecture. This was then wrapped up in layers of romanticism in the popular writings of Sir Walter Scott, leading owners to commission houses they thought were ‘authentically’ Scottish. The results were often spectacular; creating picturesque visions of turrets, battlements, gatehouse and the instantly identifiable bartisan turrets.

Old tower, Craufurdland Castle (Image: 'Famous Scottish Houses - The Lowlands' by T. Hannan)
Old tower, Craufurdland Castle (Image: ‘Famous Scottish Houses – The Lowlands’ by T. Hannan)

So where does Craufurdland Castle come in this history? Interestingly, it has a stake in the earliest forms of the authentically Scottish tower house but also features later additions. The Craufurd family have lived on this site since 1245 but the core of the castle is said to date from the 11th-century.  The tower to the right of the central block on the west end is the oldest part, just three windows pierce the thick walls, but was later altered to add crenellations and a roof with crow-stepped gables.  The main entrance is dominated by a 19th-century addition; a grand entrance added between 1830-40 (architect unknown) with a Gothic doorway with the family coat of arms set in a panel above it, leading up to an imposing tower with small corner turrets.  The large ecclesiastical windows give the impression that one is looking at a small church.  The interior today tries to make a virtue of the lack of ancestral clutter. The house was rented out for many years and the current generation have taken a more modern approach to the decor which unfortunately doesn’t always match up to the beautiful and imposing rooms in which it has been placed.

Craufurdland Castle before 19thC alterations (Image: RCAHMS)
Craufurdland Castle before 19thC alterations (Image: RCAHMS)

With nearly 800 years of history behind them, the current owner, Simon Craufurd, has had an especially heavy responsibility passed to him.  This is a Category-A listed castle with rich associations to many of the leading figures of Scottish history, wonderful stories of a tunnel which thwarted the attacking English, and a tale of helping King James I fight off a gang of bandits.  The family again appear to be willing to listen to Simon Davis as evinced by the new website, launched to coincide with the broadcast, which lists many activities available including accommodation, mountain bike trails, mud running (!), a dog hotel, a cafe, fisheries, and even burials.  This is a determined attempt at diversification – perhaps one of the broadest seen so far in Country House Rescue, and the Craufurds will hopefully build sustainable businesses to ensure that this fascinating house and family are able to remain together for future generations.

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Official website: ‘Craufurdland Castle

Want to stay there? Craufurdland Castle: Accommodation

Follow them on Facebook: ‘Craufurdland Castle‘ [facebook.com – login required]

Official listing: ‘Craufurdland Castle‘ [RCAHMS]

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 6 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Series 4: Meldon Park, Northumberland

Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)
Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)

One of the joys of Country House Rescue is to bring to light some of the lesser known houses. The subject of this week’s edition (12 July, 20:00, Channel 4), Meldon Park in Northumberland, can certainly be said to be one of the ‘illustrious obscure‘.  This is also perhaps an apt description of the architect, who was one of the most prolific in the north east of England yet surprisingly little known beyond that, though the house also features later work by another who was certainly famous. Yet, such noble associations do not pay the bills so, despite a 3,800-acre estate, the Cookson family have called in the services of Simon Davis to provide ideas to help keep the house in the family.

Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)
Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)

Meldon Park is certainly an elegant essay in the neo-Classical; golden brown sandstone in a compact and elegant design with some superb subtle detailing which denotes the hand of a finer architect.  The entrance front, though only three bays wide, features a grand porch with four free-standing (or ‘tetrastyle prostyle’ if you’d prefer the architectural terms) Ionic columns, projecting from a slight recession of the middle bay, with the corners of the building marked by shallow pilasters.

The architect of the now grade-II* Meldon Park was the regionally prolific John Dobson (b.1787 – d.1865) – a name famous in the north east but, due to his geographic focus, one less known nationally.  Dobson was born in Chirton, County Durham, and showed an early talent for drawing which led, at the age of 15, to his becoming a pupil of leading Newcastle architect David Stephenson.  On completing his studies in 1809, Dobson moved to London to develop his skills further, studying under the famous watercolourist John Varley. In London, Dobson became friends with the artist Robert Smirke and his two architect sons Robert (who designed the main facade of the British Museum) and Sydney (who later married Dobson’s daughter).  Despite the urging of his friends to stay in London, Dobson moved back to Newcastle where he established his practice, becoming (reputedly) the only architect between York and Edinburgh, except for Ignatius Bonomi in Durham.

Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)
Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)

Dobson proved to be an exceptionally capable architect; not only could he produce beautiful and convincing watercolours of proposed projects, he was also technically competent, to the extent that his daughter claimed he ‘…never exceeded an estimate, and never had a dispute with a contractor‘. Dobson is perhaps best remembered for designing much of central Newcastle, and in particular, the beautiful curved train shed at the Central station.  Despite his urban output, Dobson was also extensively involved in projects outside of the towns, designing or altering over sixty churches and more than a hundred country houses; the latter principally commissioned by the beneficiaries of the wealth of the Industrial Revolution. Dobson was a rare architect in that he was competent in designing in both the picturesque style of Tudor Gothic (such as at Beaufront Castle and Jesmond Towers) and the classical style of the Greek Revival – and it was in the latter that he truly excelled. Although Howard Colvin praises his careful siting of the houses, high-quality finish and precise and scholarly detailing, he thought Dobson had a tendency to exaggerate the scaling, creating an overall look which might be considered bleak. Yet, this is more an academic criticism; those today looking on the many houses he worked on would consider them to be handsome examples of the flourishing of the country house which resulted from the new wealth in the north east.

Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Meldon Park was to be one of Dobson’s finest of his Greek Revival designs.  Built in 1832 for Isaac Cookson, at a cost of £7,188 1s 1d (about £5m today if compared with average earnings), it was a sizeable house with extensive service accommodation and extending to a beautiful Orangery, even if the main house was comparatively small.  That said, the rooms are bright and well-proportioned with a grand Imperial central staircase, with its deep coffered ceiling described by Pevsner as being ‘the size of one in a London club‘.  The staircase was later reworked by no lesser figure than Sir Edwin Lutyens, who replaced the original metal balustrades with wooden ones and added decorative plaster panels.

Isaac Cookson was the third generation to manage the family manufacturing interests and had taken charge of his father’s glass works, developing them into one of the country’s leading makers, along with a very successful chemical works.

Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)
Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)

Cookson had previously employed Dobson to design part of a speculative urban development in Newcastle and combined with his earlier country house work at neighbouring Mitford Hall, Longhirst (with its striking entrance portico) and Nunnykirk halls, Dobson was a natural choice when looking to create his refined country seat.

As owners of a glass works, it was natural that the house would be well-lit; the bright interior a result of the large windows which graced the main rooms on the south and east sides.  Yet, Meldon Park actually marks a turning point.  The brilliant Mark Girouard, writing in Country Life in 1966, pointed out that:

In rooms like this, one realises just how much Georgian architecture developed in the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as windows grew bigger and more and more effort was made to link the inside of the house visually with the landscape.  Meldon shows the development at its final stage; soon a reaction was to begin and the Victorians turned away from the sun and immersed themselves in increasing gloom.   In this as in other aspects Meldon represents in a very convincing way, the last flowering of the Georgian country house tradition.

So Meldon Park represents not only the work of one of the finest architects to have worked in the north east but also marks a key point in the development of British architecture; the high-water mark of Georgian elegance before the more insular and muscular Victorian style swept over the north of England.  The house is also one of those rare survivals where it is still owned and lived in by descendants of the person who commissioned it, sitting in its own huge estate.  This is a house which seems to be clearly loved by the owners who have worked incredibly hard to ensure they can remain there especially when the house is less of an attraction for visitors as previous generations had sold the art collection.  Judging by their new website and other news stories about their expanded and diversified activities it seems that they were also willing to listen to Simon Davis’ advice and act on it and such pragmatism can only be applauded and will hopefully be rewarded.

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Official website: ‘Meldon Park

Photos from Country Life: Meldon Park [Country Life Picture Library]

Listed building description: ‘Meldon Park, Northumberland‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Want to stay there? Meldon Park: East Wing Apartment

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 5 [Channel 4]

For more information about the architect: ‘John Dobson 1787-1865: Architect of the North East‘ – Thomas Faulkner & Andrew Greg

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Great Fulford, Devon

Great Fulford, Devon
Great Fulford, Devon

If there were a league table of how often a house and family appear on TV or in the papers, an unexpectedly high entry would probably be the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Devon.  Having featured in other programmes and even their own series, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken Country House Rescue this long to visit (Thursday 5 July, 20:00, Channel  4).  Despite the bluff and occasionally hostile exterior of Francis Fulford, the Fulfords are a remarkable family – both this generation and the many which have come before them.  The question is; with so few houses still lived in by the original families, will future Fulfords be able to stay in their notoriously imperfect house?

Great Fulford falls firmly in that category of houses which Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described as the ‘illustrious obscure‘; those many smaller, privately-owned houses which lie nestled in valleys and hidden by their own land – in this case, a not insubstantial 3,000-acres.  Pevsner described it as ‘…a substantial courtyard mansion, larger than  most in Devon though characteristic of the county in its reticent exterior and its patchy and undocumented history of rebuilding and remodelling…‘. With a core which stretches back to the 1500s, the house has grown and been embellished as funds and whims permitted creating a lengthy listing desciption which would make a larger house very proud. A major remodelling in the 1800s has been suggested as being to designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville but neither Pevsner nor Colvin mention this and the listing discounts it.

So although some aspects of the actual house remain a mystery, one aspect which is very clear is the remarkable endurance of the family, with the current owner, Francis Fulford, being the 26th (or 27th – he’s not sure) Fulford of Fulford, a line stretching back over 800 years. Very few families are able to trace back their lineage so far, even fewer are still in possession of the original family seat.  Yet they do survive, despite the best efforts of tragedy and unforgiving tax regimes to unseat them.

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

One such family has featured on Country House Rescue before: the Kellys of Kelly, also in Devon, who have a proud history dating back to the 1100s.  In 2010, Ruth Watson visited the beautiful if rapidly deteriorating Kelly House [more on that visit in this previous blog post: ‘A glimmer of hope‘] to find an owner almost in denial as to the decrepit state of their home.  Proving that Country House Rescue can be a positive catalyst for change; the house is now slowly being restored with help from various students of architecture, surveying and other related fields. By contrast, the Fursdon family of Fursdon House (also in Devon!) have fully adapted their estate to offer all the usual activities which have ensured their beautiful 750-acre estate and elegant house (which, in a truly modern way, you can follow on Twitter, @fursdondevon, and Facebook) not only brings in an income but is also a home.

Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)
Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)

These smaller houses form the backbone of the local history of an area; so embedded that their name denotes the place.  In a fascinating series of articles in ‘The Field‘ magazine, starting in 1984, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd toured the length and breadth of the UK seeking out these lesser known seats and their even more private owners.   To read these amazing histories is to realise the depth of history which our nation enjoys, including:

So although not unique, the Fulfords are rare.  In many ways the Fulfords are a refreshing alternative to the slick corporate manicure of many homes or the stately preservation of the National Trust (though all have their place).  This is a notable family who have, against all odds, achieved something exceptionally rare amongst stately home owners.  This has to be admired and although unconventional they are a fascinating part of the tapestry of our nation.  Some part of me hopes that they achieve a beautiful equilibrium of succeeding enough to ensure the survival of the house, but not too much so as to compromise the character of their lives or Great Fulford.

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Further articles:

Francis Fulford’s Blog

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Bantry House, Ireland

Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland (Image: Bantry House)
Bantry House, County Cork, Ireland (Image: Bantry House)

Some houses seem to have it all, yet beneath the surface lie issues which, unless dealt with, grow and undermine all that the generations before have built.  This week’s edition of Country House Rescue (Thursday 28 June, 20:00, Channel 4) gives a remarkable insight into just such a house and demonstrates exactly the situation so many families found themselves in at the turn of the 19th-century and which led, over the next half century, to the demolition of hundreds of houses across Britain.  In a first for CHR, Simon Davis goes to Ireland, to Bantry House, County Cork, which, arguably, is one of the finest and most important houses to feature in any of the series so far.

The history of the country house in Ireland was, for too long, wrongly regarded as something of a provincial offshoot of the wider trends of England.  Yet with the period of peace between 1690-1798, rising rents, and combined with the coming of Palladianism, Ireland developed a remarkably sophisticated response to the styles of elsewhere, marrying a confident use of the architectural language with a natural and extensive mastery of plasterwork. This resulted in a large number of houses which not only were architecturally impressive, placed in some of the most beautiful settings, but also with equally elegant interiors, complemented by a well-travelled elite who filled their houses with paintings, sculpture, books and the other assorted souvenirs of the Grand Tour.

Bantry House and Bantry Bay (Image: Exos Lucius via flickr)
Bantry House and Bantry Bay (Image: Exos Lucius via flickr)

Nestling at the southern part of Ireland, Bantry House sits in a truly spectacular situation overlooking Bantry Bay – a position which was to play a crucial role in the elevation of the family to the aristocracy.  The fortune of the family came through judicious purchases of land by a succession of Richard Whites (each son being named after the father), so that, by the end of the 18th-century, the family had become the largest landowners in the area, generating about £9,000 per year in rental income – a sizeable fortune.

Although locally significant, the family appeared to have played little part in the social or political life of the area. Their elevation to the peerage started in December 1796 when a French invasion force, encouraged by the ‘United Irishmen‘, a group seeking to overthrow British rule, arrived in Bantry Bay.  A violent storm on the way over had split the fleet and so, whilst waiting to re-group, they lay at anchor in full view of the White family from their house.  Richard White took it upon himself to organise the local defences, gather intelligence on the ships and, wisely, placed his house at the disposal of the British general commanding the defenders.  When the rest of the invasion force failed to rendevous, the sick, tired, poorly-led advance party abandoned the invasion and sailed home. Richard White was rewarded for his loyalty and was created Baron Bantry in March 1797, in 1800 he was made a Viscount, and in 1816, Earl of Bantry. The titles became extinct with the death of the 4th Earl in 1891 who died without a male heir; the inheritance passing through the female line.

It was the 2nd Earl (b.1800) who truly enjoyed the titles (he was Viscount Berehaven until he inherited) and wealth; travelling widely in Europe between 1820-40 and assembling a superb collection of paintings, sculptures, and furniture and creating a noted collection. His finest acquisitions were certainly the sets of tapestries from the famous Gobelin, Beauvais and Aubusson workshops, which were then hung in several rooms to great effect, particularly in the drawing room.  Sadly, parts of the collection have been sold over the years, but many fine works do remain.

Blue Dining Room, Bantry House (Image: Malcolm Craik via flickr)
Blue Dining Room, Bantry House (Image: Malcolm Craik via flickr)

The house enjoys the slight deceit of looking as though it was built as a single phase when, in fact, it grew in three distinct phases. The original house was built in 1750 by the Hutchinson family, to create a house then called Blackrock, which was then enlarged by the first Richard White, a prosperous farmer, who bought the house in 1765 and renamed it Seafield.  It was enlarged in 1820 when the six-bay wing with bowed windows was added, providing two drawing rooms and extra bedrooms.  The house then grew again in 1845, probably to the designs of the second Earl, when it was remodelled with the addition of the two side wings. At this stage, the look of the house was unified with the grand full height red-brick pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals encircling the house with varying frequency, along with a neat balustrade around the roof.  Inside, of particular note is the vivid blue dining room which features life-sized portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay which were given by the King in gratitude for White’s help against the French in 1797.

Main entrance, Bantry House, Ireland (Image: Smeets Paul via flickr)
Main entrance, Bantry House, Ireland (Image: Smeets Paul via flickr)

As with the UK, country houses in Ireland have suffered many grievous losses. Many fell victim to broken fortunes, particularly relating to losses in agriculture, on which much of the wealth was based, especially following the Potato Famine in the mid-19th-century.  Much of Ireland, at that time, was owned by absentee British landowners who rarely visited, but for those who did live there they were determined that their houses would be as grand as those in the rest of Europe.  Great fortunes were poured into ever greater buildings – larger, more lavish, decorated in beautiful, full flourish rococo plasterwork, and filled with fine works of art.  This meant that when times became harder, the size of the houses worked against the owners, draining their diminishing coffers.  Fire has robbed Ireland of a tragic roll call of houses; including the accidental gutting of places such as Powerscourt (though now restored as a hotel), but the greatest losses were the 275 which were deliberately burnt down or blown up in the Troubles between 1920-23. Today, Ireland is littered with hundreds of these sad ruins, reminders of their former grand lives.

In this context of such great architectural achievements combined with such devastating losses, Bantry House is truly remarkable in that it is still lived in by the family who built it, surrounded by many items bought for the house.  However, running a house such as this is a constant struggle without wealth and the family have accumulated debts of nearly €1m, partially as a result of restoring and converting the wings to function as B&B accommodation.  Bantry House is, in many ways, an insight into the situation faced by many families around the turn of the 19th-century as unfavourable events left them with mounting debts, falling finances, and expensive running costs. These circumstances conspired to create a situation which all too easily ended in a grand country house contents sale before the house itself passed from a reluctant last generation.  One can only hope that Simon Davis can find the right solutions to enable the Shelswell-White family to remain in the house and pass it on to future generations.

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Official website: ‘Bantry House

Official blog: ‘Bantry House

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Related information: British & Irish Stately Homes – for sale and on screen

 

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Many have bought things on a whim; it’s quite something for that thing to be a huge country house which once played host to royalty and celebrity.  When plans don’t work out and problems mount, it can be understandable for a family with generations of emotional attachment to a house to doggedly carry on, but the owner of Chapel Cleeve Manor in Somerset, who features in this weeks ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Thursday 21 June, 20:00, Channel 4), displays a rare level of stoicism.

Chapel Cleeve would be a fascinating house even if it wasn’t on television, but sadly its decline is all to familiar.  The origins of the house lie as a medieval inn for pilgrims visiting the now lost St Mary’s Chapel and travelling to the Cistercian abbey at Cleeve, which owned much of the land in the area until it was surrendered to the Crown in 1536.  The estates then passed to the Earls of Sussex in 1538 who held it until 1602, after which it passed through a number of owners, including Lord Foley of Kidderminster in the early 1700s.

When the new house was built, the remains of the inn, dating from 1423, were then incorporated as part of the north-west wing of the house as it is today.  The house, built between 1818-1823, was designed by Richard Carver (b. c1792 – d.1862) whom Colvin believes to be the ‘R. Carver’, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville who submitted work for display in The Royal Academy in 1811 and 1812, before establishing his practice in Somerset and eventually rising to be County Surveyor.  Best known for his many churches, Colvin is critical saying “…though occasionally showing some originality in plan (e.g. Theale, and the octagonal Blackford), are poorly detailed, and were despised by serious Gothic Revivalists.” He was damned by the Ecclesiologist in 1844 as having “…proved himself entirely ignorant of the principles of Ecclesiastical Architecture.” He may have been grateful that his Tudor Gothic design for Chapel Cleeve Manor was outside their remit and so escaped their ire.

Dining Room - Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Dining Room – Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Just under a century after Carver finished, the house was enjoying what was to prove to be its heyday.   Bought by the Lysaght family, wealthy from their corrugated-steel business, the original five bay house, featuring a central octagonal entrance hall with a top-lit staircase, was extended between 1913-14 with a sympathetic addition which increased the size of the house to over 27,000 sq ft, with salons, a ballroom and a 100-ft long gallery. Of particular note are the high-quality interior plasterwork ceilings which were created by one of the leading Arts-and-Crafts sculptors; George Percy Bankart. Staffed by 50 servants, the house played host to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and with Fred Perry staying for tennis parties.

The death in 1951 of G.S. Lysaght triggering punitive death duties which forced the sale of the house and, worse, the sale of parts of the grounds as building plots.  The dense woodland which had thus far shielded the manor was now largely obliterated with housing claustrophobically creeping up on three sides. Perhaps the expectation was that the house would not survive and further housing could be built, but the house then enjoyed a resurgence when it became a hotel in the 1960s and 70s, becoming the place to be in the area. However, when that business closed, the rot, both metaphorically and physically, set in, so that when it was bought by the current owner for 14 years of Chapel Cleeve, Jeannie Wilkins, in 1998 ‘there was not one habitable room‘.

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Having spent £360,000 purchasing the property with her partner and with the help of two skilled friends, they started the mammoth task of restoring the house.  Correctly starting with the roof, it took two years to complete the task of making it watertight, with the restoration of the Edwardian wing taking many of the subsequent years.  The restoration was to a high standard, with care being taken to reinstate the many various mouldings and panelling, with the overall intention being to create six flats in the house, five of which could then be let – but, as with all the best laid plans, it went awry.

The inevitable challenges of finding an agreeable path through the stringent planning rules governing this Grade-II* listed house caused delays, and, sadly, Ms Wilkins relationship ended, following which she bought out her ex-partner, leaving her in sole charge of a vast partially-restored mansion with its 150-ft façade and spectacular views over the nearby hills.  With an income of just £5,000 per year from renting out a cottage in the grounds she faces a huge backlog of repairs (only 18 rooms are habitable out of 45 in total) and the costs of restoring it, which she estimates at around £500,000 (so, at least £750,000 – as anyone who has watched Grand Designs will know!).

Chapel Cleeve was offered for sale in early 2010 at £1.695m (and featured in a post at the time: ‘The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section‘), but it is still available. The combination of the restoration challenges, general economic climate and the severely compromised situation of the house – reduced to just 7-acres surrounded by a drab housing estate – have driven Ms Wilkins to call for the help of Simon Davis and ‘Country House Rescue’ to inject some new ideas – which he does, though none are the financial miracle she may have been hoping for.

In many ways, Ms Wilkins’ commitment to the house has to be admired – her dedication has almost certainly saved it from joining the sad, long list of lost houses.  However, it might be argued that her unwillingness to drop the asking price (especially considering the cost of the works outstanding) is also again putting the house at risk. A house of this size would ideally have much larger grounds to provide seclusion and planners ought to insist on a minimum 500-metre ‘green-belt’ around each house which would help protect their long-term viability. Undoubtedly Jeannie Wilkins deserves a just reward for the incredible work she has put in, but a quick sale at a reasonable price would certainly not only be best for her, but also for the long-term future of the house.

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Sales details: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [Fine & Country]

Official website: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor

Listing description: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News articles:

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Colebrooke Park, N. Ireland

Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Country House Rescue has proved to be one of the most interesting of programmes featuring the many varied mansions which the UK is lucky to enjoy.  Rather than the more glamorous recent series showing life at Chatsworth, or Jeremy Musson’s brilliant ‘Curious House Guest‘, Country House Rescue has shown the sometimes harsh reality of owning these homes, despite the lazy jibes in the wider media about families living in a state of supposed luxury.  The programmes have shown the hard work and sense of duty these families possess, though this is sometimes overshadowed by the friction which change can bring, and which is often what is broadcast.  Yet, with a new presenter for the new series (starting Thursday 14 June), perhaps the commitment of the owners and the sheer beauty of their houses will come more to the fore.

In the first three series, Ruth Watson has proved to be an entertaining, if no-nonsense, deliverer of some rather stark home truths to owners up and down the country. For series four, a new presenter, Simon Davis, (favourite houses: Sezincote, Blenheim, Mount Stuart, Villa Emo, Babington House) takes the helm and steers a more collaborative and involved course as he stays at the houses, with the families, to experience their day-to-day life, including the hardships; at one house he spent an extremely cold night after the family admitted they never turn on the heating as it costs £30 per hour to run. It will be interesting to see how the new messenger is received and whether a less assertive style will bring greater success – though many will undoubtedly miss Ruth’s acerbic commentary.

The houses to feature in the new series are now known: Colebrooke Park, Bantry House, Chapel Cleeve Manor, Craufurdland Castle, Great Fulford, Meldon Park (thank you Andrew); starting with Colebrooke Park in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; the first time the show has been to that part of the UK.

Colebrooke Park is a fascinating example of the varied fortunes of the country house over the last two centuries; a story marked by wealth and also decline, but also one driven by a continued commitment to a house by generations of one family. Home to the Brooke family for over 350 years, the current owner, the 3rd Viscount Brookeborough (a prominent peer, one of the 92 hereditaries sitting in the House of Lords) received what many would regard as an unenviable inheritance in 1980 when he took on the decaying and empty family seat.

Of course, as with many houses, they had had a heyday.  Once the centre of one of the five largest estates in the area, which had reached a peak of almost 28,000-acres in 1876, the house had been home to a succession of prominent politicians and soldiers including the 1st Viscount, the longest serving Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1943-63). However, agricultural changes, taxation, and the Troubles, meant that the estate slowly shrank to just over a thousand acres, with a similarly reduced income insufficient to maintain a house of this size.

Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)
Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)

The house itself is a rather austere neo-Classical design; a two-storey, nine-bay block only enlivened by a grand pedimented portico with Ionic columns.  The house was built in 1820 for Henry Brooke (b.1770 – d.1834) who was created a baronet in 1822 (second creation), as a statement of his position, but one which was to be built on a budget – though a substantial one; the house was completed for £10,381 – approx £7m today.  Sir Henry had inherited the house and estate from a rather profligate uncle and clearing the debts and establishing a comfortable fortune had taken three decades – the house was a reward and a monument to his sound management.  Despite being a cautious man, Sir Henry still succumbed to the suggestions of his architect that he compete with the nearby Castle Coole by James Wyatt (built 1790-97), increasing the dimensions of the house so that it was larger, and then later in the summer, approving the enlargement of the Library to 36ft by 18ft.

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)
Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)

For those who regularly watch TV programmes featuring country houses, Colebrooke Park may trigger a vague sense of deja vue.  This is because the house is, bar a few details, quite similar in design to Sarah Beeny’s Rise Hall in Yorkshire (mentioned in this previous blog post).  Both houses were built around the same time but by different architects; Colebrooke in 1820 by William Farrell and Rise Hall in 1815-20 by Watson and Pritchett.  Yet it is likely that this was more co-incidence than copying as there is a clear architectural lineage for the ‘rectangular block with portico’ style of house which goes back to Colen Campbell‘s masterpiece of architectural propaganda, Vitruvius Britannicus.  Published in 1715, this collection of designs helped shift the national preference away from the more florid Baroque houses of Vanbrugh toward a simpler architectural style; one which Campbell himself exemplified with his quite radical first design for Wanstead Hall, Essex. Although Wanstead as built was significantly different in the detailing, the core architectural idea was for a rectangular central block, fronted by a bold, pedimented portico.  This was to be one of the most influential designs produced by an architect; shaping national taste, it was widely imitated for decades afterwards – see Prior Park in Bath, built in the 1730s and 40s, and Adlington Hall, Cheshire, built in the 1750s, and even today.  Of course, this design is a derivative of the rectangular, double-pile plan developed by Sir Roger Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (built 1650-64, burnt down 1952).

Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell - first proposed design - 1715
Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell – first proposed design – 1715

Despite the grandeur, the agricultural depression in the 1880s hit the estate and the decline began. This was only arrested by the return in 1918 after WWI of Sir Basil Brooke who instituted changes to bring the estate back. It was, though, a struggle; many rooms were left unused in the 1930s and by 1939 the timber was being felled as ‘the only way to save Colebrooke’.  Poor tax planning meant that when Lord Brookeborough died in 1973 the contents of the house had to be sold to pay the death duties, leaving a rather forlorn house for the present Lord Brookeborough when he took over in 1980.  Realising the scale of the challenge, an architect was engaged to explore what options were available; including the dreaded conversion to a golf club with the grounds becoming fairways.

Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Luckily, a better solution was found; the house became an exclusive country sports destination, with sporting rights over 10,000-acres and the Viscount and Viscountess welcoming the guests as though friends into their home.  The house was sensitively adapted to meet both the requirements of discerning visitors and official regulations whilst preserving the architectural fabric of the house to the greatest extent.  Despite their success, the Viscount and his wife wish to pass on the house and 1,100-acre estate to their nephew in an even more robustly healthy condition; hence the invitation to Country House Rescue.   It will be fascinating to see if this series presents radically different ideas to those proposed by Ruth Watson.  Obviously one hopes that whatever happens, the solutions enable the families to remain in their homes whilst providing sufficient income to not only maintain them but invest in them to give them a stronger future.

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A more detailed history of Colebrooke Park [Colebrooke Park]

TV makeover for stately home‘ [Belfast Newsletter]

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4] – Colebrooke Park (episode 1: Thursday 14 June – 20:00)

Country House Rescue – Series Listing [Wikipedia]