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.

—————————————————————————–

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.

PPS7 – the saviour of the new build country house

Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)
Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Robert Adam Architects)

The nature of our country houses is one of evolution in design, form, and function.  As society has changed, so too have the requirements of the wealthy and, as their houses have been a direct expression of their wishes, these changes can be traced through the architectural record.  Much as we love the many beautiful houses we have already there will always be the desire to build anew, which will constantly reinvigorate this branch of architecture.  As always, some designs will not stand the test of time and will be replaced but the best houses of today will be appreciated by generations to come.  Estate agents often have sites with planning permission for sale and the most interesting come with a design already approved – and in an interesting trend, they are almost all classical, rejecting the avant-garde in favour of brick, stone and Palladian proportions.

Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)
Longleat House, Wiltshire (Image: wikipedia)

Once Britain became a more domestically peaceful land under Elizabeth I, the form of our country houses changed from defensive, to one of show as exemplified by the Prodigy houses such as Longleat, Wollaton and Hardwick.  Gone was the need for walls, keeps and battlements and instead the requirements of the aristocracy became focused on courtly entertainments, sport and the display of one’s level of taste and education. This largely set the pattern which can still be seen today, with only the architectural choices as to style varying according to fashion and whim.

Yet it seems that for the wealthy who commission these houses, the overall exterior style has evolved as far as necessary because, despite the efforts of the last Labour government to promote the bold and radical as the only appropriate response, a majority of the houses designed and built today are in a form that your average 18th-century gentry would broadly recognise.  Although most construction in the countryside is largely forbidden, rules introduced by the Conservative government in 1997 – known as PPG7 section 3.21 – allowed for planners to approve houses where:

“An isolated new house in the countryside may … exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.”

In 2004 the Labour government sought to drop this, ostensibly because they thought it a loophole, but many suspected an undercurrent of class warfare (an early day motion put down that year by the former Member for Denton and Reddish, Andrew Bennett, stated that “this House … further believes that if the countryside is to be preserved by not building ordinary houses, it is even more important that is should not be polluted with big houses for the arrogant, vulgar and rich.“).  After a strong backlash with MPs (well worth reading is Alan Howarth’s spirited defence of the country house) and architects leading the charge, the rules were amended to become PPS7 which largely retained the status quo giving owners the opportunity to continue the fine tradition of new country houses but with a distorting preference for houses which would reflect “the highest standards in contemporary architecture.“. In fact, the market proved that clients know what they want more than misguided politicians and civil servants.

In response to the proposed changes the RIBA put on an exhibition called ‘The New English Country House‘ which looked at houses commissioned between 1997-2004 under PPG7.  Of the 24 houses included, 15 were in a historical style and only 9 contemporary, with a majority of the former being seen through to completion.  Interestingly, of the houses listed, at least half (by my reckoning) are replacements for previously demolished  country houses perhaps providing an object lesson in the folly of their original loss.

Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)
Proposed Grafton New Hall, Cheshire (Image: Ushida Finlay Architects)

The poster child for the new ‘modernist’ country house was the design produced by Ushida Finlay in response to the 2001 RIBA competition to build “the country estate of the future”.  The original Tudor Grafton Hall in Cheshire had been demolished in 1963 after becoming derelict but the 200-acres of parkland offered the ideal opportunity to create an excellent smaller country estate. Yet for the limited pool of those wishing to spend the estimated £20m to build this vision the design ticked none of their boxes. After 7 years of marketing by the estate agents, it was decided to commission a new design from one of our best Classicists, Robert Adam, whose new proposal was described as “an exceptionally outstanding design“. However, the opportunity to create this new house is still being marketed with Jackson-Stops for £5m – so the argument hasn’t been decisively won in this instance just yet.

Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)
Proposed Alderbrook Park, Surrey (Image: PRS Architects)

In much the same way as those in previous centuries wished to express themselves through their architecture, so it is the case today.  Houses such as the proposed Alderbrook Park in Surrey for the billionaire Lakshmi Mittal are a radical re-interpretation of the country house but driven by the particular requirements of the client.  Also of particular note is  Ferne Park in Wiltshire for Lady Rothermere – easily one of the finest country houses to be completed in the last 100-years and very much the product of the client working in conjunction with her architect, the brilliant Quinlan Terry.  Speculative developments seem less likely to find buyers as they become more an expression of the ego of the architect rather than the reflecting the personality of the buyer. The prime example of this is the poorly designed Updown Court in Surrey, once the most expensive house for sale in the UK at £70m, which now faces being carved up into flats or becoming a hotel.

Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)
Nyn Park, Hertfordshire (proposed) (Image: Julian Bicknell & Associates)

So what other architecturally attractive opportunities are out there? One quite close to London is Nyn Park, Hertfordshire to replace a house which burnt down in 1963 with a design by another icon of the Classicists, Julian Bicknell, who designed the brilliant Henbury Rotunda in Cheshire. The proposed plan bears no relation to the former house and shows the type of new design allowed under PPS7. Just to underline the level of wealth required for these projects, the estate is being marketed at £10m, built costs could easily be £1m-2m, and the buyer must lodge £3m with the local council as a Landscape Bond that they will fulfil their obligations with regards to restoration which will be returned in tranches as the work is completed.

The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)
The Ridge, Gloucestershire (proposed) (Image: Yiangou Architects / Knight Frank)

Another house which has featured before in this blog is the impressive ‘The Ridge’ in Gloucestershire; another replacement for a lost house designed by Humphrey Repton and demolished in 1934.  Designed by Ross Sharpe (who also designed the Icomb Grange), this 33,000 sq.ft. design takes the form of the original house but adds an extra level of architectural flair.  As expected, this is £5m for the opportunity with build costs on top.  Interestingly, the Knight Frank website also says that alternative plans for a smaller 15,000 sq.ft. house have been drawn up, hoping to draw in a wider pool of potential owners.

The Parkwood Estate in Surrey, designed again by Robert Adam, has also been featured previously on this blog back in July 2010 as part of the discussion around justifiable replacement.

For some, a new build will never be a substitute for a historic country house but for those with specific requirements or where there is a shortage of suitable houses, then the option of creating from scratch will always be enticing.  It is also important that the tradition of country house building is allowed to continue as it is only through development that it is shown that these fine buildings can contribute to, and enhance, the much-loved countryside.  PPS7 provides an important legal support for the principle that architecture should be allowed to flourish where it is justified and supportable and should be defended against any narrow-minded interests who would deny our history and diminish the future.

———————————————————–

The websites of the leading country house architects show the broad range of fascinating projects they are involved with, and that, fingers crossed, will one day be built:

Ripples of Palladio: Forcett Hall, Yorkshire for sale

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)

For those of us who love our country houses, the weekly delight of the new Country Life magazine are the many pages of houses for sale.  Although the space is usually dominated by the major players such as Knight Frank, Savills etc, a particular joy is when you discover, tucked away with a smaller agent, an especially good house which deserves to be better known.

One recent house which falls neatly into this category is Forcett Hall, near Richmond in North Yorkshire.  Grade-I listed, this house forms part of the spread northwards of the fashionable ideas of Lord Burlington and the Palladians. ‘Palladianism’ (as it became known) formed a new movement and became the dominant architectural taste from around 1710 until around 1750 but which is still very popular and influential today.

The Palladians were largely influenced by the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (b.1508 – d.1580) whose work, particularly around Vicenza, drew heavily on the ancient classical form of Roman architecture.  The ideas were spread to Britain initially through the work of Inigo Jones, a multi-talented theatrical designer to the Court who also became the Royal Surveyor of Works which gave him the platform to spread the ideas of Italian Renaissance architectural classicism to these shores, starting with the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.

Wanstead House, Essex
Wanstead House, Essex

Key to the spread of these new ideas were two books, volumes 1 & 2 of ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘, which took the form of a folio of one hundred classical buildings, published by the architect Colen Campbell.  Campbell also created one of the most important buildings of early Palladianism, Wanstead House in Essex, (dem. 1824) which re-interpreted the form of Vanbrugh‘s Baroque Castle Howard but in a new, more austere architectural language.  This was then followed by Wilbury House, Wiltshire, designed and built in 1710 by William Benson who succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor of Works.  Wanstead inspired several derivatives in the years following its completion including Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1720s by Thornhill and Leoni), Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (alterations of 1733 by Flitcroft), Nostell Priory, Yorkshire (1733 by Paine) and Prior Park, Wiltshire (1735 by John Wood I).

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Richard Boyle (b.1694 – d.1753), the 3rd Lord Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, played a  significant role in firmly establishing Palladianism as a movement through his own influence, patronage and his circle of followers.  Burlington employed Colen Campbell to remodel his London house (taking over the work started by his rival James Gibbs) but Burlington was also a skilled architect, building the beautiful Chiswick House, in west London, in 1729, not so much as a home (it contains only state rooms) but as an architectural statement of his new principles.

One of Burlington’s protégés who assisted him as clerk of works on some of his earlier projects was Daniel Garrett (b.? – d.1753).  A measure of his competency can be seen in a letter sent in 1737 by Sir Thomas Robinson to Lord Carlisle regarding proposed works to complete the Mausoleum at Castle Howard:

“My Lord Burlington has a much better opinion of Mr Garrett’s knowledge and judgement than of Mr Flitcroft’s or any person whatever, except Mr [William] Kent…”

Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)

However, despite his skill, Garrett was dismissed from his role in the Office of Works in 1737 for ‘not attending his duty’.  This was probably related to his absences caused by his own growing architectural practice in the north of England.  In 1735 he was remodelling Wallington Hall, Northumberland for Sir Walter Blackett, in 1736 he was at Castle Howard, and in 1737 he was working for Lord Derby, and between 1739-40 working for Sir Hugh Smithson, Bart, (later 1st Duke of Northumberland) on the rebuilding of Stanwick Park, Yorkshire (sadly demolished in 1923). He was later to work at other distinguished houses including Raby Castle in Co. Durham, Warwick Castle, Northumberland House in London (dem. 1874), Horton House in Northamptonshire (dem. 1936), Uppark in Sussex, Kippax Park in Yorkshire (dem. 1956-59) and most notably Foots Cray Place in Kent (dem. 1950).

This gives a measure of Garrett’s skill and his client list.  It was following his work at Stanwick that he started work at Forcett Hall in 1740 – though there does seem to be some debate as to what he did.  A list at Alnwick Castle says that the house is by ‘Mr Garrett for Mr Shuttleworth’, the latter being Richard Shuttleworth, the local MP who commissioned the house, whose family owned the estate between 1582-1785.  Although the estate agents state that the design of the house can be attributed to him as a rebuild following a fire in 1726, Howard Colvin thought him an unoriginal architect but skilled in providing handsome houses and instead only gives him a now demolished part of the east wing, the lodges and park entrance, the ceiling of the saloon (copied from the dining room at Chiswick House), and the grotto.

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck

So if he didn’t design the main block, here’s an alternative theory; the house wasn’t completely burnt down in 1726 but was just seriously damaged, and Garrett gave a Palladian flavour to the house as part of the restoration.  The south front of the original house was drawn by Samuel Buck in his usual technically flawed idiosyncratic style (see right).  This is the same view in the picture of the house at the top of the post but the current house lacks the projecting wings but it does share the exact same form of three storeys over a semi-sunken basement.  Looking at the main house now (there’s an excellent picture on flickr: Forcett Hall – and also see the paintings in the comments), it could be argued that the elements of Palladianism – Ionic pilasters, quoins, external staircase have merely been applied to the house rather than forming a fundamental part of the design.  By excavating the semi-sunken basement (note the level of the lawn to the left), Garrett creates not only the appearance of a piano nobile, but also creates the space to add the staircase which is also in a typical Palladian style (and appears to be a modified form of the one at Stourhead as shown in ‘Vitruvius Britannicus) – but which seems to be an addition rather than a focus.  Elements such as the pilasters with their Scamozzi Ionic capitals almost seem to be copied from the entrance front of Marble Hill House in Twickenham (built 1724-29 by Roger Morris). Conversely, the north (entrance) front of Forcett is almost a different house; looking far more like an Italian villa than a Yorkshire country house (and I’m sure I recognise it from somewhere…).  Or perhaps I’m completely wrong and it is a new house, the design of which exposed the limitations of the architect.

This is a fascinating house, well worthy of it’s grade-I listing, though the photos on flickr show it’s in need of some care and restoration to fully bring out the beauty of this wonderful house.  The interior boasts some fine plasterwork and the house is set in a perfect small park which includes a 17-acre lake, no public footpaths and a grotto.  If someone is looking for a house with privacy but also a history to be explored there are few better houses available.

Property details: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors] – comes with over 230-acres, guide price £5.5m.

Property brochure [PDF]: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors]

——————————————————————————

British and Irish Stately Homes blog – more property for sale

This is also a good point to highlight another blog you should find interesting.  British and Irish Stately Homes is written by Andrew who is a frequent contributor to the comments in this parish.   Featuring houses for sale, TV programmes involving country houses, books on the topic plus much more it covers some more of the areas I just don’t have time to!  Do bookmark it, subscribe and let Andrew know if you spot anything you think ought to be added.

Country House Rescue: school’s out – High Elms Manor, Herts

High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)
High Elms Manor, Hertfordshire (Image: Ishin Ryu)

If there was a prize for commitment above and beyond financial sense then the owner of High Elms Manor/Garston Manor could probably win ‘Highly Commended’ for her determination to rescue this once-derelict country house on the edge of Watford, Hertfordshire, which is the next destination of Ruth Watson and Country House Rescue. The house is an interesting example of the various pressures which can affect country houses and the solutions having experienced almost the complete range over the last century with the new owners adding a few more.

Built sometime before 1813 and once the centre of a 500-acre estate, High Elms Manor originally enjoyed fine rural seclusion, its nearest neighbours the St Pancras Industrial School and Metropolitan District Asylum to the west (now demolished and built over) and Bucknalls, a Victorian manor house now home to the Buildings Research Establishment, to the east.  Originally known as High Elms Manor, it was changed to Garston Manor in 1895, though the current owner has apparently decided to go back to using the original name; even if it’s not the one used by Channel 4.

Relentless urban growth over the last 100 years pushed housing estates and industry right up to the boundaries of many country estates – and usually then overwhelmed them.  The sad pattern was often industry moving closer and blighting the views, then the air, ruining the very attributes which had been their reason for being built in the first place.  As workers followed industry so more land was needed for housing and so estates on the edges of towns were particularly vulnerable (as they still unfortunately are today).

Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Cassiobury House, Hertfordshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Watford has already lost one major house – Cassiobury – to just these pressures, though this was much closer to the centre of the modern town and was lost back in 1927. The long-time seat of the Capel family, Earls of Essex, who built a fine house which was altered by Hugh May c.1674-80 and which boasted superb interiors, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons, and which was later ‘Gothicised’ by James Wyatt (c.1800).  Visited by Country Life magazine in 1910 it was still rural:

“‘…set in great and delightful grounds and surrounded by a grandly timbered park. Therein is peace and quiet; the aloofness of the old-country home far from the haunts of men reigns there still, and Watford and its rows of villas and its busy streets is forgotten as soon as the lodge gates are passed’.”

Yet by 1922 the house and 458-acre park were for sale and were bought in 1927 by a consortium of local businessmen who stripped the house for materials, sold the carvings to museums and private collectors and then demolished the house, with residential estates over-running that once rural idyll.  Sadly this was the case for so many of our demolished country houses.

High Elms Manor, being further north, escaped these immediate pressures.  The house became home to the Watney brewing family around 1870, who commissioned alterations which enlarged the house.  The house was then sold to the Benskins, another family of brewers, before it was bought in 1911 by Walter Bourne, co-founder of the Oxford Street department store Bourne & Hollingsworth (now split into retail units and offices – history (scroll past the odd photos at top of the page)), who made further changes around 1920, shortly before his death in 1921.  Stafford Bourne, one of the sons of the founder, described High Elms as:

“…one of the finest and most dignified medium-sized estates in the county of Hertfordshire.”

With fine and interesting interiors, this was a house built for entertaining and accommodating large numbers of guests and visitors.  This was to perhaps save the house from demolition as the house was sold once again after Walter Bourne’s death and took on another of the many uses our country houses have been adapted for and became a medical rehabilitation unit, still known as Garston Manor.  It remained in this role until the 1990s when the council, faced with rising maintenance costs, abandoned it and left it to decay.

Sadly, although boarded up, the house suffered from repeated vandalism and theft, with roof lead and floorboards proving particularly attractive.  When the now-owner Sheila O’Neill came to view the house it was a daunting prospect:

‘It had been empty for years when I came to see it,’ says the present owner. ‘It was more or less derelict. Ceilings had fallen in, all the floors had been damaged, the wood panelling had turned green, chimneys had collapsed, lead had been stripped off the roof by vandals, there were 100 broken windows, the garden was a jungle, it was in a terrible state…”

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)
Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: e-architect)

Thankfully, as many other country houses have discovered, they can be rescued from such a parlous state.  High Elms was now adapted to that familiar role for a country house; that of being a school.  There is a long and fine tradition of our country houses educating future generations in grand adapted ballrooms and dining rooms.  In cases such as the spectacular Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, (now being wonderfully restored by the Stowe House Preservation Trust with backing from the World Monuments Fund) it almost certainly saved it from demolition.  Stowe is an especially grand example of the country house as a school but there are hundreds across the UK, each doing their bit to preserve our architectural heritage – though sadly the necessary ancillary buildings can sometimes detract from the setting.

Thankfully though, in the case of High Elms Manor, the needs of the school have been accommodated within the 80-odd rooms of the house with, for example, the ballroom serving as a gymnasium.  However, a house of this size requires significant funding not only in terms of capital investments in the house but also just to meet the £75,000 per year running costs.  Having bought it for £500,000, Sheila O’Neill estimates she has poured at least that much again in her quest to restore the house.  Faced with her own need for a replacement hip, and the relatively low profits from running her Montessori school, Mrs O’Neill has turned to Ruth to provide guidance as to how to make more from the not-very-successful wedding hire business and for any other tips. With strong local competition from the incredibly pretty Hunton Park, it seems that it is the posse of daughters who appear to hold the key to maintaining and improving their situation.

Country House Rescue: ‘Garston Manor‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Interview with Sheila O’Neill: ‘Country House Rescue in Garston‘ [Hertfordshire Life]

Country House Rescue returns for Series 3: Wyresdale Park, Lancashire

Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)
Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)

The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively.  The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought.  As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!

The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.

Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate.  The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner  saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.

Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral.  Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements.  Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.

The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967.  Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.

———————————

Country House Rescue – Series 3

My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:

See also:

Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)
Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: Gardens-Guide)

Sitting on a small rise, just off the A158 on the road to Skegness in Lincolnshire sits one of the prettiest of the National Trust’s many country houses; Gunby Hall. However, unlike the others, where we can only ever dream of moving in, Gunby is currently available to rent for the bargain rate of £10,000 per year – but do remember to add an estimated £100,000 for the annual running costs.

Gunby Hall was built in 1700 (commemorated with the date on the rainwater heads) for Sir William Massingberd by an unknown architect but one who was obviously familiar with the work of Sir Christopher Wren.  Built of warm plum-red bricks the sophisticated 3-storey exterior shows the elegant use of stone dressings which elevates this grade-I listed house to being one of the finest of the smaller country houses.  Although showing stylistic links with Wren it was almost certainly by a skilled provincial imitator or local builder.  Wren designed very few country houses – Tring Park in Hertfordshire, Winslow Hall and, according to John Harris, contributed designs for Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, and Houghton Hall in Norfolk – all for patrons who were somehow connected to Wren.  So unless someone discovers a link between Sir William and Sir Christopher it is likely that the local ‘architect’ had only been shown Wren’s designs.

Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)
Newby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: johnet/flickr)

When Gunby Hall was built it would have been regarded as very fashionable as Baroque style houses had only become popular in the 1680s.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is one of the best examples and was rated as the finest house in Yorkshire when it was completed c.1690 (remember the houses we regard as the finest today in Yorkshire such as Castle Howard, Wentworth Castle, and Wentworth Woodhouse amongst others hadn’t yet been built).  In many ways, Gunby Hall and Newby Hall are architectural ‘cousins’ – closely stylistically related but distinct, particularly in size; reflecting the relative wealth of the owners .  Similarities can also be seen with other Yorkshire houses such as the earlier Ribston Hall, built in 1674, and the wonderful but now sadly demolished Wheatley Hall built in 1680, and the later Bolton Hall.

Gunby Hall was later altered c.1730 and extended in 1873 and 1900 to very successfully add a Dining Room, Servants’ Hall and Service Wing.  The later additions blend very neatly with the existing building creating the harmonious look which is so attractive today.  Gunby has long been admired with the famous poet Lord Alfred Tennyson reputedly using it as his inspiration when he wrote during one visit:

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

The house was also admired by James Lees-Milne who described it as ‘an Augustan squire’s domain, robust, unostentatious, dignified and a little prim.’.  Lees-Milne was a regular visitor and was instrumental in not only bringing the house to the National Trust, as he did many other houses, but also saving it from outright demolition during WWII.  This terrible prospect came about in 1943 when the Air Ministry wished to extend the airfield they had built at Great Steeping only later discovering that Gunby Hall inconveniently blocked the proposed path of the longer runway.  Luckily the combined forces of James Lees-Milne and the impressively named owner, Field Marshal Sir Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, persuaded them to re-route the runway thus saving the house.  In thanks, the family immediately made over the house to the National Trust becoming one of the few houses to be taken on during the war.

So if you fancy living in one of the prettiest stately homes in the country and don’t mind a few tourists having a look round occasionally, get in contact with the Savills Lincoln office.

More details: ‘Stately home can be yours for just £10k a year… plus another £100k for the staff‘ [This is Lincolnshire]

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

Houses as hospitals: the country houses in medical service

Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (Image: Amy Lloyd/flickr)

Our country houses have always been adaptable as changing fashions or functions required they accommodate new ways of living or roles.  One role which quite a few houses have taken on is that of hospital – either privately or as a fully-fledged part of the NHS – though this use has not always been sympathetic.  However, as the modern health service centralises to larger sites it seems some country houses are re-emerging to become homes again.

Hospitals were traditionally monastic, centred on the abbeys and convents but these were obviously scarce.  The ill were treated in large dormitories although some established houses in the country away from the main abbey to care for the mentally ill.  However the dismantling of the religious orders during the Reformation from 1536, meant that increasingly the burden for care of the pauper sick fell to secular civic bodies, with towns creating their own hospitals.  This model persisted until the 17th-century when private benefactors became increasingly prominent, donating funds and buildings for the care of the ill.

One of the earliest country houses to be converted was the partially completed Greenwich Palace. Originally a Tudor royal house, it had become derelict during the English Civil War, so in 1664 Charles II commissioned John Webb to design a replacement but which was only partially completed.  It was this building which Queen Mary II, who had been affected by the sight of the wounded sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue in 1692, ordered to be converted to a navel hospital in 1694, to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor and later Sir John Vanbrugh.

Possibly inspired by the royal example, other country houses were donated or converted for use as hospitals.  However, it quickly became apparent that they weren’t particularly suitable with one Irish physician, Edward Foster, complaining in 1768 that ‘In general, Houses have been rented for Hospitals, which are as fit for the Purposes, as Newgate for a Palace‘.  By the 1850s hospital design was beginning to emerge as a distinct branch of architecture -Florence Nightingale wrote to an officer of the Swansea Infirmary in 1864 saying that a hospital was a difficult to construct as a watch; no building ‘requires more special knowledge‘.  From this time, the country houses themselves became less important than the space they offered with the house itself being used as accommodation or offices. However, for the treatment of respiratory illness the clear country air was considered part of the cure with houses being acquired as tuberculosis sanatoria such as at Moggerhanger Park in Bedfordshire originally designed by Sir John Soane for the Thornton family.

The First World War necessarily required country houses to come back into medical use due to the terrible consequences of the strategy of attrition through trench warfare in WWI which created large numbers of wounded.  Without a national health service there were fewer hospitals able to cope with the seriously disabled or even those simply convalescing.  Many country houses were pressed into service, their clean country air and fine grounds considered most helpful to rest and recuperation. During WWII, fewer houses were used as military hospitals as changes in military tactics led to many fewer casualties than expected.  However, a significant number were used either by the military or as civilian replacements for urban hospitals which it was feared would be bombed.

Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII
Hatfield House, Herts - King James Drawing Room as a hospital ward in WWII

For country house owners, given the possible options of who might take over their house, the bed-ridden were infinitely preferable to the bored squaddies who wreaked such havoc at other houses (apparently housing art treasures was first preference, evacuated schools second, hospitals third).  This reality plus a genuine sense of wanting to help led to many owners voluntarily turning over their houses as hospitals including the Earl of Harewood offering Harewood House, Lord Howard of Glossop Carlton Towers, Lady Baillie lent Leeds Castle and the 4th Marquess of Salisbury offering Hatfield House as he had done during WWI.  On the civilian side, Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire became a maternity hospital as was Battlesden Abbey in Bedfordshire, Stockeld Park and Farnley Hall, both in Yorkshire. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire became a Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital, treating ‘cases of good morale, who are suffering from nervous breakdown usually as the result of operational stresses’.

After the war many houses were returned to their owners in such terrible disrepair that unfortunately hundreds were demolished.  Others continued in their wartime roles with some such a Poltimore House in Devon becoming hospitals after the war when two local GPs recognised the need for more bedspaces and so took over the old seat of the Bampfyldes until it was nationalised after the creation of the NHS in 1948.  There were also many War Memorial hospitals, founded by public subscription after WWI, which often made use of a country house. The nationalisation of these hospitals gave the NHS many of the country houses it has today – although it is relatively few overall as less than 5% of all their buildings are grade II* or grade I listed.  Of the historic ‘therapeutic’ landscapes it manages, seven are included on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

However, sometimes these country houses and their settings can escape and revert to being homes, either through conversion or, if the houses has been lost, replacement.   Bretby Hall in Derbyshire, built between 1813-15 by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for the Earl of Chesterfield, was an orthopaedic hospital until the 1990s when the main house was converted into flats, as was the High Victorian Wyfold Court in Berkshire.  Harewood Park in Hertfordshire was demolished in 1959 after use as hospital in WWII but the estate has been bought by the Duchy of Cornwall with proposals for an elegant and very impressive new Classical house by Craig Hamilton Architects.  A similar plan has been put forward for the 57-acre site of the former Middleton Hospital in Yorkshire with the permission requiring the demolition of various redundant buildings from its former use to restore the site.

Sadly though, sometimes the NHS fails to adequately look after the houses it has in its care.  As the trend has moved towards large, new hospitals so the historic elements have been overlooked or abandoned as new hospitals are built elsewhere. As funding for new hospitals is not dependent on the sale of the old site and the house, sadly they can be neglected or subject to inappropriate development as has been the case with the grade-II listed Stallington Hall in Staffordshire, which became a home for the mentally ill in 1928, but after it closed has been vandalised and neglected with a housing development built inappropriately close to the house across the lawn, forever ruining it as a country house –  a poor payback for years of public service.

Related story: ‘Developers draw up plan for country house‘ [Ilkley Gazette]

Background information: ‘Reusing historic hospitals‘ [Institute of Historic Building Conservation]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]

Converting country houses from commercial to residential: a sound investment?

Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Benham Valence, Berkshire (Image: wikipedia)

As the pressures of the twentieth century forced more country houses owners to face the reality that they could no longer live as they had and would have to move out of their homes they then had to decide what to do with it.  Unfortunately this meant demolition of hundreds of large houses but some owners were more creative and many houses became commercial premises, either as hotels, schools or institutions, and others became some of the grandest office buildings in the country.  However, recent pressures of this century have now seen some of these offices being converted back into homes or being offered for sale as an opportunity to do so.

In many ways the country house has always had an element of the commercial to it with the estate offices usually being based either in a part of the main house or in a nearby building to enable the owner to deal with business without having to travel far from home. The changes of the twentieth century were on an altogether more comprehensive scale with the entire house being changed to accommodate the demands of business.  This not only meant the conversion of the main house with all that entailed for the interiors but also the building of further offices in the grounds.

Sometimes the development was kept a good distance from the main house such as at Ditton Park in Berkshire.  This became the office of the Admiralty Compass Observatory from 1917 until it was sold in the 1990s to Computer Associates who built a huge office building to the west of the main house (which became a conference centre) leaving the setting intact.

Sometimes though it’s possible for smaller businesses to be accommodated just within the main house such as at Gaddesden Place in Hertfordshire.  The house, built in 1768, is a elegant Palladian villa (similar to the White Lodge in Richmond Park) and was James Wyatt’s first country work.  The site is said to have some of the best views in the home counties and the sensitive use of the house has allowed to remain in splendid seclusion.

However, modern concerns mean that a country house has lost some of it’s appeal as offices.  One key issue is that by their nature the houses are isolated meaning that employees must have cars to reach it leading to more cars on the roads and the need to provide huge areas of parking.  Stronger heritage legislation now also means it’s much harder to alter the houses to meet modern business requirements such as air conditioning and computer networking.  The nature of the houses also means that maintenance costs are higher than for a purpose built office.

This has led to some houses which were formerly offices to be converted back into homes.  Mamhead House in Devon, built between 1827-33 and regarded as one of Anthony Salvin‘s finest designs, it was, for many years, a school before becoming offices for a local building company.  It was bought by a businessman who converted the main part of the house back into being a home whilst still letting out part of the house to the Forestry Commission.

Perhaps the grandest and largest opportunity for many years to restore a house into a home is the mansion at Benham Valence in Berkshire.  This superb house was built in 1772-75 for the 6th Earl of Craven and was designed by Henry Holland in collaboration with his father-in-law, Lancelot (Capability) Brown, the famous landscape architect.  The south front features a grand tetrastyle Ionic portico which looks out over a large lake with views into the parkland.  Inside, there are many fine chimney-pieces bought from the sale at Stowe in 1922, including one from the State Dining Room.  It also features a small circular double-height vestibule adjoining the inner hall, a design later adopted by Sir John Soane.

The house was empty in 1946 and remained so until it was sold in 1983 and converted to use as offices with a large wing to the north east of the house being demolished and replaced, in part, by an ugly 80’s complex providing over 100,000 sq ft of space.  Luckily though the main house was largely spared and remains Grade II* with the 100-acres of Grade-II parkland. Now offered for sale at £6m this is a rare opportunity to create a wonderful country house – providing it’s possible to obtain planning permission to convert it back – which, once restored, could be worth £10-12m.  One key requirement would be the demolition of the office complex and the ripping up of the huge car park – but give me a pickaxe and I’ll be happy to lend a hand.

Full property details: ‘Benham Valance, Berkshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]