Guided missel: the rise of the country house guide book

‘Dear Picture Editor for the 2017 National Trust Handbook

National Trust Guide Book 2017
National Trust Guide Book 2017

Yours is a challenging job. Faced with selecting one cover image to represent the National Trust for an entire year and with the myriad opportunities presented by having over two hundred country houses (unfortunately now minus Clandon), hundred of thousands of acres of countryside, and 775 miles of coastline, such a welter of natural and man-made beauty makes your task both enviable and daunting.

It’s therefore somewhat odd that the 2017 image is a close-up of a couple and their slightly disdainful-looking dog getting caught in a wave on a beach. The lady in the couple looks distinctly unhappy, the chap is possibly saying a swear word. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that the bloke is wearing a bowler hat. For a walk on a beach. Of course, you would know that the bowler was created in August 1849 by the famous London hat-maker, James Lock, for the Coke family at Holkham Hall to help protect their gamekeepers from branches; both those attached to trees and those wielded by poachers. Holkham Hall, awkwardly, is not one of the many country houses (minus Clandon) under NT care so this image is, on many levels, a bit silly.

For next year, may I personally suggest a country house. Though I fear that they, as a class, appear to somewhat out of favour in the upper echelons of the NT, hopefully by appearing on the cover of the handbook, it may remind them that they are custodians of one of the finest groups of country houses one could dream to care for in perpetuity (minus Clandon).’

Guide books have long been a source of fascination for those who visit country houses. Topographical guides have been written for hundred of years to help those of us fascinated by country houses to determine which we might be able to gain entry to and revel in, whether in splendour or shabbiness.

Country house tourism is not a modern phenomenon.  Whether pilgrim or royalty, the idea of visiting houses was an ingrained part of the tapestry of life in the Middle Ages for providing hospitality.  One key difference can be seen in the preferences of Henry VIII who largely visited his own houses compared to Elizabeth I who frequently visited those of her favoured courtiers. Thus the concept of the country house (or palace) being built as much for display and prestige as the more mundane practicalities of large scale domestic occupation became a core characteristic of aristocratic life.

An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen [1806]
An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen by John Brittan [1806]
In the Georgian era, the burgeoning wealth of the expanded upper classes afforded increased leisure opportunities for travel and cultural pursuits. Their desire to assimilate themselves into the attitudes of the existing aristocracy fuelled a natural curiosity about their lives and tastes.  With frequent wars on the Continent often thwarting the traditional Grand Tour destinations, travellers now looked more domestically to visit their extended families and their friends. Even without the wars, it’s likely that the opportunities for women to travel were more restricted and to visit other ‘good’ families in their homes would have been an acceptable way for them to broaden their knowledge and tastes, thus cross-pollinating ideas, styles and fashions.

However, a family’s immediate social circle might contain only a limited number of contemporaries with whom they would be comfortable lodging.  Therefore, when visiting an area, either as a family guest or staying in accommodation, for example during the Season in Bath, day trip visits to other country houses was a favoured activity.  Despite the expectation that an owner would, as part of their duty to better society, open their house, the key question was how to find them and to determine whether they would even be amenable to visitors, no matter how genteel. Much as today, in fact, and hence the birth of the country house guidebook.

Opening Times in 'An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen' by John Brittan [1806]
Opening Times in ‘An Historical Account of Corsham House in Wiltshire, the seat of Paul Cobb Methuen’ by John Brittan [1806]
By the latter part of the eighteenth-century, an infrequent stream of visitors had become something of a torrent, if not a flood. Houses near large conurbations were particularly susceptible as Horace Walpole found at his charming neo-Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, described as ‘the prettiest bauble you ever saw’.  Writing to his friend Sir Horace Mann in July 1783, Walpole complained that ‘I am tormented all day and every day by people that come to see my house, and have no enjoyment of it in summer.’  Areas with a higher density of fine houses, which were within a day or two ride of a city or existing tourist destinations, such in as Norfolk, Derbyshire or Wiltshire, were soon part of an unofficial British Grand Tour. This was a natural progression for a society structured around the idea of circuits; domestically through suites of rooms and socially through visiting friend’s houses and at functions and balls.

Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)
Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire (J. Skelton, 1825)

As the idea of country house visiting grew, so did the need to manage the number of visitors and their conduct whilst in the houses. Some simply refused access – a galling experience for those who might have travelled long distances such John Byng, who despite being just a civil servant, toured widely.  On being refused access to Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, he splenetically cried ‘Let people proclaim that their great houses are not to be view’d, and then travellers will not ride out of their way with false hopes.’ Owners increasingly favoured knowing when visitors may appear and so started having set days of admission. By 1760, Chatsworth was specifically open on two days per week. In 1774, Walpole, though ‘very ready to oblige any curious persons with the sight of his house and collection’ started personally issuing tickets and rules for good conduct.

The internal tours of country houses were usually conducted by the housekeeper who would provide rich accounts of the history of the building and family and details about the works of art – and sometimes the information was even true.  Unfortunately many myths about a family’s history and unwarranted artistic attributions for paintings are likely to have been started by the imagination of the unwitting guide. As the hobby of visiting grew in popularity so too did demand for more accurate accounts; giving birth to the new concept of the guidebook. The earliest from the 1730s-40s were more for reference at home rather than from a carriage and usually focused on individual houses, giving a history,  a catalogue of art works and sometimes a plan for the route to take through the house. These quickly spawned more democratic versions from competing booksellers, sometimes for the same property such as Benton Seeley’s ‘A Description of the House and Gardens…at Stow‘ (first published 1744, totalling twenty-two subsequent editions)

'Plan of the Library Story' from 'The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford' by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
‘Plan of the Library Story’ from ‘The Peak Guide; containing the topographical, statistical, and general history of Buxton, Chatsworth, Edensor, Castlteon [sic], Bakewell, Haddon, Matlock, and Cromford’ by Stephen Glover of Derby [1830]
The guidebooks were both guide and tutor, ushering the visitor through an agreed route around a house but also providing sometimes detailed entries on each individual art work with the expectation that the visitor would view and gain a deeper understanding. This can be seen in ‘The Peak Guide‘ by Stephen Glover [1830] where the entry for the most significant house in the county, Chatsworth, runs to a generous thirty-seven pages. Starting with a description of the immediate vicinity, the bulk of the text runs to great detail on the Cavendish family, the architectural history (including the architects, painters, plasterers, even the plumber’), and the expected walking tour of the house.  A typical entry reads

The second Drawing-room is 36ft by 30ft hung with Gobelins’ tapestry, representing the Death of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter and John healing the cripple, and Paul and Barnabas at Lystra. In an oval compartment in the ceiling is painted the discovery of Mars and Venus. In this room are the following portraits, viz. William, first Earl of Devonshire, in his state robes, ascribed to Mytems; and declared by Mr. Walpole to be one of the finest single figures he had ever seen. Two fine whole-length portraits, said to be the Earls of Pembroke, with pointed beards, whiskers, vandyke sleeves and slashed hose; James, Duke of Ormond, and an Earl of Devonshire, in the costume of the seventeenth century

The level of detail created almost the sensation of a virtual tour, allowing those who could afford a copy of the book, or at least get access to one, the chance to imagine inhabiting the palaces and houses which may be socially or physically out of reach.

Guidebooks have evolved continuously as the requirements of owners and visitors have demanded. Early National Trust books were written by noted historians such as John Cornforth and maintained the seventeenth-century principle of guidance and education. However more recent editions have dispensed with much of the in-depth information in lieu of more pictures of daffodils or scones (and let’s not even get started on the paucity of information about the houses on the National Trust website *sigh*). Happily, other private owners have created lavish books very much in the form of those earlier versions – Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and Boughton, Northamptonshire, are notable examples.

Whatever their role, the guidebooks are an essential component to the experience of the country house. Without them, the rooms would simply be an anonymous store of gilded treasures, without context or understanding. The books remain the key which unlocks the secrets of the houses; the owners and their motivations, their collections and tastes.

Handbook reviews

Hudson's Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017
Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums & Heritage Sites 2017

Hudson’s Historic Houses & Gardens, Museums and Heritage Sites 2017

Content (design/layout): Having now been published for 30 years, the Hudson’s guide is a unique oracle for identifying ‘historic houses & gardens, museums and heritage sites’ for your visiting pleasure. In slightly-larger-than-A4 format, this is a book to be enjoyed as much at home, with full-page entries for leading houses, enhanced by full-colour photos. Bonus features include interviews and number of interestingly varied articles (including location filming / James Paine / The Clive Collection / Indian influences on the Royal Pavilion) and thematic guides such as dog friendly sites, events venues, and which properties have guided tours. If there is any criticism it’s that some of the smaller entries for houses read as though it were copied from their usual leaflet and sounds a little off-key.  However, given the comparatively almost lavish space, most sites have an informative, rather than purely functional, write-up with history and details on the art and architectural features.

Comprehensiveness: Unrivalled – the guide is invaluable when in an unfamiliar area and need to plan days out. It includes private properties, National Trust, HHA, plus other heritage sites.

Convenience: The larger-than-A4 format and number of pages means this is not one for the pocket and would be a bit hefty to carry all day. That said, the design means that planning your itinerary is both practical and a pleasure.

Verdict: Even if you get other member handbooks for free, for those wanting more detail or looking to visit a broader range of heritage sites, the Hudson’s guide is unequalled and definitely worth the modest investment. (Available on Amazon or all good bookshops)

*Transparency notice: Hudson’s did send me free copy to review but had no editorial input to any part of this blog post and I’d buy a copy anyway.

National Trust Members Handbook 2017

Content (design/layout):  As the product of many years of refinement, the guide is an excellent way to plan your visits. Set out with listings by county, each property or location has a brief write-up though some properties eclectically get more space and further details. All the useful information is in there including opening times and facilities. Bonus content includes a clever themed index highlighting which properties tick boxes for ‘Adventure playground, boat hire, bicycle hire, camping and caravanning, gardens, ghosts, and industrial heritage’. Note that neither ‘art’ nor ‘architecture’ make the cut as categories. Ghosts though, do.

Comprehensiveness: Unsurprisingly, it only covers National Trust properties.

Convenience: About the dimensions of a paperback novel so easy to leave in the glove box of the car or add to a rucksack.

Verdict: A benchmark for member organisation guides – one that marries convenience to practical information to help plan visits. Just wish it felt able to give equal billing to the houses and their contents as much to the playgrounds and cafes.

Historic Houses Association Friend’s Handbook / English Heritage

Unfortunately I’m not a member (there are limits to funds and time, you see) so I haven’t seen a copy of the latest version – but if said organisations would like to send me this year’s edition, I’ll add details to this page.

Other suggestions

If anyone can suggest other guides (either members or general) then please do comment below.

Find out more

Romancing the stone; country houses built by love

Many a man has been driven to great lengths by love – and architecture is often a rewarding though insatiable mistress for such a passion.  Whether as an expression of love for a wife or a demonstration of a yearning, aching heart, each found that their country houses were caught in that very human desire to make real those Romantic desires which otherwise are sometimes only expressed in far more transient ways. Though sometimes love’s labours are lost to unrequited desires, often country houses were the ideal means to commemorate the passions which had created their happiness.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight - holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight – holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (Image: English Heritage)

The motivations behind the choice of architecture or design or even the starting of the construction of a new country house is sometimes overlooked in the literature. The occasion of ennoblement was an important catalyst for a grander house and equally a marriage and new building project are often keen bedfellows – though often the new house was financed through the newly acquired wealth of the husband from his bride and was more an expression of his newly-bolstered financial strength.  With the status of the married woman somewhere equal to that of the china plates, for many, their influence was limited to the running of a home.  The choice of some furnishings and the interiors of the ‘female’ areas of the houses were often the accepted limits of the wife’s contribution – though there were exceptions such as Lady Leicester who, after 1759, was left £2,000 a year to finish several of the state rooms at Holkham Hall (n.b. website annoyingly plays birdsong automatically).

Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)
Syon House, Middlesex (Image: Syon House)

The choice of architect, interiors, furnishings, furniture and art were all reserved for the man as an expression of his taste and power. Writing of his design for Kimbolton Castle, the architect Sir John Vanbrugh said, “I’m sure this will make a Noble and Masculine Shew‘, and that in the exterior visitors would “See a Manly beauty in it when tis up…‘. Clearly reflecting the female taste, or even necessarily their comfort, was not high on an architects priorities. Although some enjoyed a level of luxurious indulgence, such as the Dowager Lady Egerton for whom James Wyatt created a sumptuous Pompeiian-style dressing room at Heaton Hall in the 1770s, perhaps the experience of the Duchess of Northumberland was more common.  When Robert Adam remodelled their London seat, Syon House, in the 1760s, he was careful to place the Duke’s private apartments in a separate area, accessed via a private staircase, whilst the Duchess’ dressing room enjoyed a much less secluded arrangement, as it was included in the main circuit of entertaining rooms.

Ham House, Surrey - now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ham House, Surrey – now owned by the National Trust (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Wives and widows were slowly asserting greater independence, often due to their personal wealth, but slowly changing attitudes did provide greater opportunities for their views and tastes to be heard and seen.  In the 17th-century, couples such as the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale were acting very much in concert together in the design and furnishing of their home, Ham House. It had been the home of the Duchess and her father and she had fiercely held on to it during the dark years of the Civil War when he had been forced to escape abroad. After her marriage in 1672, Ham House became not only a symbol of their wealth, but also a testament to their shared love of travel and the finer things in life.

Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)
Dobroyd Castle, West Yorkshire (Image: wikipedia)

Romance was surely often part of the motivation to build; a golden word that could turn a mere building into architectural poetry. Dobroyd Castle in Todmorden was the creation of a wealthy local mill owner, John Fielden, to honour a promise after his intended bride, Ruth, a poor labourer’s daughter, had said, during their extended courtship, “Build me a castle and I’ll marry you.“.  This can be said with either a romantic or mercenary inflection but, in honour of St Valentine, let’s believe that her request was for a fairytale expression of their marriage.  At least it was not a pre-condition, as they married in 1857 and work started on the castle in 1866 with completion in 1869.  Designed by the little known architect John Gibson, throughout the house the initials of John and Ruth are carved into the building many times as a constant reminder of their love.

Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Luscombe Castle, Devon (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

The desire to do all one can for a wife, especially one who is ill, creates opportunities for love to be the patron of great architecture.  The delicate health of Dorothea Robinson, wife of Charles Hoare, a partner in the eponymous family bank, necessitated a more temperate climate and so an estate outside the small Devon coastal town of Dawlish was purchased. Requiring a house and not lacking in funds, Hoare commissioned the fashionable John Nash and Humphry Repton to create a retreat for rural recuperation.  With Repton’s help, Dorothea chose a most Picturesque site nestled in a secluded valley. Repton then recommended to Nash that it be in the ‘Character of a Castle’, and so Luscombe Castle was built between 1800-1804.  Considered one of the finest Regency houses, the external beauty is matched with a domestically convenient interior; a distilled version of Nash’s rather grander castle designs, but which perfectly suited the location and as a romantic reminder of a husband’s concern for his wife.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)
Kingston Lacy, Dorset (Image: wikipedia)

A love unrequited or thwarted is often a powerful force which can inspire many things.  For some, such as William Bankes, a prominent MP and renowned traveller, his enforced exile to escape a possible death penalty for being caught in a compromising situation with a soldier in Green Park in 1841, meant leaving his life’s work; the building and beautification of his Dorset home, Kingston Lacy. Subject to a punitive ‘outlawry‘ order, Bankes first escaped to France before settling in Venice. Bankes had been forced to give up, under threat of forfeiture, any legal title to his estates and contents to his brothers but he continued to be relatively well-funded and managed the building works at Kingston Lacy via detailed correspondence with the Clerk of Works.  One can only guess at the frustration of Bankes as he could only imagine how his plans were turning out, not only in relation to the building works but also the numerous pieces of art which he sent to Dorset.  Proving that for love, some will risk all, it is thought that Bankes risked imprisonment to be smuggled back into England in 1854 so that he might see his house and collection, which he had only been able to dream of, and give direction as to how it might be finished.

Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)
Wallington Hall, Northumberland (Image: Visit Northumberland)

By the Victorian era, it was often both the husband and the wife who would take increasingly equal roles, especially as the role of the house was firmly centred on entertaining; a role traditionally taken on by the wife. It also reflected a relatively more accommodating age when women were at last more broadly considered intelligent equals to men.  The increasing importance of women can also be seen in the literature where discussion of the creation of a house now talks more husband and wife, though still often with their roles demarcated to exteriors/interiors.  The wives often had their own circles of interest leading to interesting contributions such as at Wallington Hall in Northumberland where the Pre-Raphaelite painted decoration in the central hall is by the artist William Bell Scott, whom Lady Pauline Trevelyan met through her literary activities.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)
Osborne House, Isle of Wight (Image: English Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous husband and wife architectural collaboration in the Victorian era was the creation of the summer retreat at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight by Queen Victoria and her beloved husband, Prince Albert.  With a society leaning towards a more moral aspect, Victoria was determined that the royal family should be seen in step with it and so the planning of Osborne is not only to meet the needs of the family for entertaining but also, equally, that it be a family home. Indeed, writing to her daughter in 1858 from Windsor Castle, she tells how “I long for our cheerful and unpalacelike rooms at Osborne.”.  Her husband’s influence was the Italianate exterior, with the stucco work and belvedere towers, designed by the Prince and the London builder Thomas Cubitt, which matched his passion for Italian art, though Victoria was perhaps also influenced by the design of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire (by Sir Charles Barry) which was the home of her close friend the Duchess of Sutherland.  Osborne became the place she perhaps most associate with her husband and, after his death in 1861, it was one of the places she felt most at ease.

So, the building of a country house isn’t simply to mark ennoblement or new wealth, but can be an expression of love or passion between a couple, which one hopes might be more inspiring.  Certainly a love of country houses is something to be celebrated any day of the year.

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If you know of any other examples (and I’m sure there are many) please do add a comment below.

Littoral translation: country houses on the coast

The very name ‘country house’ implies a certain rural solitude; a fine house surrounded by its own acres.  Yet, some owners, for reasons of preference or amenity, chose to site their country house on the coast – and the recent quick sale of Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight, despite the generally slow market, has proved that the lure of the sea is still as strong as ever.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)

Some areas, particularly in the south of England, have a long tradition of country houses being built to take advantage of some beautiful coastal scenery.  The harsh, combative weather of the north may have discouraged some owners, bar those living in castles, into seeking calmer situations further inland.  Yet in the balmier south, with more clement weather, landowners have long sought peninsulas and headlands to build their manors.  Cornwall has many examples of just such situations. One of the earliest was Mount Edgcumbe, built  in 1550, for the Edgcumbe family, in a commanding position overlooking Plymouth Sound. Devastated by a bomb meant for the docks in WWII, the house was rebuilt by the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, even though his son had been killed in the war.  Inherited by distant relations, it was finally sold in 1987 to the local councils and is now a museum – but standing in the grounds one can imagine the attraction of the location which drew the first Edgcumbe to build there.

Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)
Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)

Forty years after Mount Edgcumbe was built, in 1592 the Prideaux family chose an equally dramatic spot, a hill overlooking Padstow, to raise their beautiful house, Prideaux Place, which is still looked after by the family.

Yet for less dramatic locations, what’s the lure? For most of the very grandest estates, the house was the focal point; the termination of roads, views and rides – the landscape emphasising the dominance of the owner.  To compete with natural beauty of nature, even a more benign one, the house would have to equal to the challenge.  The coast at Holkham can hardly said to be dramatic, but the house, Holkham Hall, is certainly spectacular – an architectural tour de force of neo-Palladianism.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)
Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)

The builder of Holkham, Thomas Coke, (b.1697 – d.1759) 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation), was a passionate follower of the ideals of Palladio, and he was determined that his own house should follow the strict rules of Palladianism.  The archivist at Holkham, Christine Hiskey, confirmed that she is unaware of any specific mention of the sea in his choice of location and has suggested that he might have been simply very attached to the original manor house, the seat of the Holkham branch of the family since 1612, and his childhood home until the age of 10.  In fact, even while building the new Hall, he lived for most of his life in the old house – it was linked by a passage to the first wing of the new Hall and demolished only in 1756, three years before Coke, then Earl of Leicester, died. Perhaps though, he was looking for a location similar to the Ventian plains where Palladio had completed many of his commissions.  Certainly his friends, Sir Thomas Robinson and Lord Hervey, could not understand why he had chosen such a wind-whipped position.

Yet, even here, the house was surrounded by a manufactured landscape as a foil to the rather austere provisions of the natural world. Initially created by Thomas Coke, the builder of Holkham (in conjunction with the famed designer William Kent), a later Coke, another Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester (seventh creation), on inheriting the 30,000-acre estate in 1776, commissioned Humphry Repton to contribute proposals towards his own plans.  Repton devised a complex series of paths, snaking through the woods, along the lakes, and around the estate, but curiously, not to the sea, tolerating only a view of it from a particular point.  His designs perhaps reflected the unease Coke of Norfolk felt at the location; he is quoted as complaining that:

“It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but my own. I am Giant of Giant Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours – my nearest neighbour is the King of Denmark.”

Lacking his ancestors affection for the sea, Coke of Norfolk seems to have employed Repton to create an alternative landscape which tries to almost ignore it.

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

Another group for whom such glum thoughts may also have played on their minds were those whose trade relied on shipping.  In the same way that traditional country estates were at the heart of agricultural production, so too, with the rapid growth of overseas trade in the Georgian period, ship-owners wished to be able to see their vessels returning to port, or, at least, the source of their wealth.  This led to a number of houses being built along the coastal areas leading up to major ports such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Hull; though, sadly, many have been lost as the cities have expanded.  The sea could also provide the vantage point from which to select the site of a house, with Tapeley Park,  (previously featured in this blog when it appeared in Country House Rescue)  situated on hill overlooking Bideford in Devon, chosen by a captain returning home.

Other influences were also coming  to bear, not least the concept of the ‘Picturesque’ which provided a renewed appreciation of the power of nature. One effect of these ideas was the reversal of the role of the house from being the focal point of the view, instead now emphasising the importance of view from the house. Advances in transportation technology such as more comfortable sprung carriages, enabled the Georgian wealthy to travel greater distances in shorter times, so the coast became more accessible.

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Soon country houses were taking advantage of the dramatic possibilities; perhaps none more so than Culzean Castle, Ayrshire.  Perched on the edge of a cliff, the castle, built between built 1777-1792 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis, was an architecturally forceful response to an spectacular location.  The architect was the talented Scotsman, Robert Adam, whose interior style is so recognisable as to have become a named genre.  Adam, as an architect, was also skilled in making the best use of locations and having been originally commissioned for some minor additions to the original, smaller tower house, Adam realised the potential of the site and convinced his patron to add the massive round tower in 1785 with its circular Saloon, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, which open onto a balcony overlooking the cliff and crashing waves below. Less dramatically sited, but also impressive, was Hooton Hall, Cheshire, built in 1788 to designs by Samuel Wyatt which was described as “…a beautiful structure, standing on a gentle eminence, and commanding an extensive view of the river [Mersey], and of the entire coast of Cheshire and Lancashire…“. Sadly, such charms were not enough to save the house which, after serving time as a WWI airfield officer’s mess, was demolished in 1932 and later replaced by a Vauxhall car factory.

Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Fifty years later, the lure of the sea was still strong.  Highcliffe Castle in Dorset was the result of the long-harboured dream of Lord Stuart de Rothesay, a distinguished diplomat, to build a home once he had finished his overseas duties. Drawing on happy childhood memories, he went back to a site he had known as a boy and, in 1840, built Highcliffe Castle, a classic evocation of the Pictureseque and Romantic architectural ideals in a smaller country house and which incorporated significant quantities of carved Medieval stone from the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and the Grande Maison des Andelys which had become derelict after the French revolution.

As with many popular Victorian trends, a house by the sea gained widespread fashionable credibility through the support of Queen Victoria and Price Albert.  Early in her reign  the Queen had decided to purchase a summer retreat and favoured the Isle of Wight having stayed at Norris Castle as a young girl. In March 1844, she bought the neighbouring Osbourne House, but decided that it was insufficient and so should be rebuilt, the foundation stone being laid in June 1845, and was finished in 1848.  The architect was Sir Charles Barry, who had built other houses which the Queen had stayed at such as Trentham Hall (demolished 1912).  The prominent position and royal patronage made this a hugely influential design; the style and elements from it can be seen in many country houses from the 1840s-1870s.  The loggias, choice of axis to maximise the views and the terraced gardens all emphasise the coastal attractions which had originally brought the Queen to the Isle of Wight (as it did many others, including the architect John Nash, who built his own Picturesque home, East Cowes Castle, (dem. 1960) there as well).

Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby's International Realty)
Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby’s International Realty) – listing still available but house has been sold. Click for more images.

The launch of Barton Manor, Isle of Wight in the March 14 issue of Country Life was considered the first of the major residential estates to be offered in 2012.  Built on the site of a priory, the estate, was bought by Queen Victoria in 1845 at the same time as neighbouring Osbourne, and then had it completely rebuilt in 1853, reusing the old stone.  Although the Queen herself had an apartment there, it was mainly used as supplementary accommodation for visitors to Osbourne House. With the royal connections, well-proportioned house, superb gardens and fine coastal location it was no surprise that the 202-acre estate sold within a month, proving the enduring lure of the littoral is still a powerful attraction.

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My thanks to Christine Hiskey, archivist at Holkham Hall, and James Crawford at Knight Frank (agents for Barton Manor) for their help with this article.

As always, dear Readers, delays between posting caused by pressures of work – apologies.

“To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul”; the rise of the country house library

Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)
Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)

In country houses, perhaps the greatest indulgence is to be able to create on a much grander scale. Not for them a few flowers beds; no, there are acres of careful horticulture, nor do they have small dining rooms, or a few pictures.  Yet few rooms in a large country house are as impressive as one which boasts a well-stocked library; regimented rows of bound knowledge, reflecting the interests and passions of generations. Yet libraries are more fluid than many imagine; with their creation sometimes comes their dispersal, but this is a cycle, with those books then finding another shelf, helping build the portrait of their new owner, one title at a time.

Books have always had a greater intrinsic value than just the words or knowledge they contain.  Having developed from clay tablets, via way of papyrus, to animal skins, books became spectacular art works in their own right in the hands of the monasteries whose illuminated manuscripts spoke of their devotion through beautiful calligraphy and iridescent miniature paintings. The effort involved made them scarce so the wider collecting of books largely only became possible due to mass production following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

Although books had formed part of the interests of the royal family since the 14th-century, it wasn’t until the rise of the post-Reformation Tudor bureaucrats who, influenced by the Renaissance, sought to use knowledge, rather than battle prowess, as their means to advancement.  Education was now seen as key and this was reflected in the growth and composition of the gentleman’s library for centuries to come.  Yet, there were still a remarkable number of the gentry who had little interest in books, a trend which grew stronger the further from Court they lived; Girouard notes that in the 1560s, ninety-two out of 146 Northumberland nobles were unable to sign their name, and that in 1601, Bess of Hardwick kept only six books at Hardwick Hall.

Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As intellectual pursuits became more acceptable so too did acquiring books in larger numbers.  Paintings of ‘gentleman’s closets’, which held all things most precious to the man of the house, often showed books, and in quantity; an inventory in 1556 for Sir William More at Loseley in Surrey records that he had amassed 273.  Earlier libraries are recorded for the fifth Earl of Northumberland who had created both ‘Lord’s’ and a ‘Lady’s’ libraries by 1512 at Leconfield Castle (demolished 17th century). By the late 16th-century there is the first written reference to the building of bookcases in the form we recognise today; two French craftsmen were working at Longleat in 1563 fitting out the library there (though it was sadly lost in the fire in 1567).  The earliest dedicated library to survive in a private house is at Ham House, Surrey which dates from 1675, installed for the Duke of Lauderdale.

Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)
Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)

So how did we arrive at the grand, sumptuous libraries which grace many country houses?  As with so much of that which is beautiful, the elevation of the library can be largely attributed to the Georgians.  The right of passage that was the Grand Tour meant that, increasingly, a wealthy young man would return from several years in Italy having (hopefully) spent his days studying ruins, architecture, art, and sculpture – and, as with all good tourists, he accumulated souvenirs.  Not just any old trinkets; these mementos took the form of paintings and freshly faked statuary but also many books, not only for their education, but also as a way of demonstrating to those back home the wonders which they had seen.  This led to the creation of some of the finest libraries in the country, such as the Long Library created by Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall, as the intellectual interests of the owner found expression through the hundreds, if not thousands, of leather-bound tomes which now lined a dedicated room.

Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)
Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)

Books were now not just the exclusive interest of the man of the house but had become a resource for the whole family and their guests. With the upper-classes now expecting a certain level of culture from those in their social sphere, education became an important part of polite society. To have a library was a reflection on the owner, who gained from them even if he hadn’t read them. Owners provided access to their books to their guests but, as the works were probably also the only significant source of knowledge for many miles, to a select few in local society.  One notable example was at the grand Nanswhyden House, Cornwall which was built in 1740 by Robert Hoblyn and featured a library which “…occupied two rooms, the longest of which was 36ft in length, 24ft broad and 16ft high…” and contained over 25,000 volumes.  Hoblyn intended that his books were “…designed as a standing library for the county, to which, every clergyman and author, who had the design of publishing, were to have the readiest access.”

Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)
Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)

There was also unofficial access for the staff; at the beautiful Sledmere House, Micheal Kenneally, who arrived as pantry boy and rose to be butler, recalls that when he first arrived he was told to familiarise himself with the house.  In the Library, he noticed a book called ‘Miller’s Sexual Systems‘ on a shelf. “I thought, I’ll read that when I get the  chance. It was seven years before I got the opportunity, and when I opened it, it was the sex life of plants and flowers. After waiting for seven years!“.  The decoration of the Library at Sledmere was designed by the  celebrated plasterer Joseph Rose (b.1723 – d.1780) and completed in 1794.  So proud was Sir Christopher Sykes of this fine and elegant space, he commissioned local draughtsman Thomas Malton to record it.  Two hundred copies of the finished drawing were then created, which Sir Christopher sent to his friends, virally spreading the glory of a spectacular library.  Christopher Hussey, writing about it in 1949, said ‘architecturally designed libraries are a feature of several of Adam’s country houses, notably Kenwood. But this one surpasses them all in majesty of conception, suggesting rather the library of a college or learned and wealthy society; indeed in the space allotted to it, in the amount of shelf room, and in the beauty of its decoration it is surely the climax of the Georgian conception of the library as the heart and soul of the country house‘. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1911, though luckily the family still had the original plans, in addition to photographs taken by Country Life in 1897, and so it was rebuilt to exactly the same design as before – after all, how can one improve on such a fine room.

Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)
Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)

The role of the library changed in the Regency and Victorian periods.  During the day it was the informal family sitting room, but during evening entertaining it took the mantle of drawing room for the gentleman, as opposed to the formal drawing room which increasingly became the domain of the ladies.  As such, it reflected the status of the man of the house, becoming more masculine, but also richly decorated and furnished to ensure that guests would be comfortable as they admired their surroundings.  Notable libraries of the period include the gloriously gothic Arundel Castle (see also: article in Country Life), the elegant Tatton Park, and the simply spectacular Eastnor Castle (see image at top of the article).

The county house library perhaps reached its zenith in the 1880s as often stable ownership had accumulated a wealth of some of the finest books ever produced.  The intellectualism of the Georgian and Victorian eras had elevated knowledge and learning and exploited them to create the wealth which now funded the artistic pursuits of the social elite.  For all the appreciation of books, notable libraries such as the collection at Stowe had been auctioned off in the 1820s, and following the agricultural depression of the late 19th-century, many libraries up and down the land were plundered as a source of income.  However, today, many still boast thousands of volumes on myriad topics, each part of the historical collage of the family, and creating what are often one of the most admired and beautiful rooms in any country house.

Feel free to add a comment below sharing which is your favourite country house library.

For lots of photos, the ‘Most Beautiful Libraries of the World’ website has a dedicated section: ‘Country House Libraries‘.

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*NEW* – ‘The Library’ on The Country Seat

To coincide with this I have published a new page on the blog; The Library.  I regularly receive emails asking for book recommendations so this will provide a selection of books on UK country houses which hopefully readers of this blog will find of interest.  The links are to Amazon and I do get a commission if one is bought (though the price you pay is the same) but the money will be re-invested in my library which will benefit the blog.  I now have most of the ‘easier’ books to get hold of and now face the challenge of acquiring the scarcer, more expensive, volumes, so it all helps.

‘An agreeable surprise’ – the country house and garden sculpture

Statue - Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Statue – Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

The country house has long been at a nexus of art, display and tourism with the treasures, mainly statues, collected by the owner shown in a grand gallery which often formed one of the main staterooms.  Whereas the house provided the setting for the art, outdoors, the gardens and parkland provided a setting not only for the house but also for the many sculptural works they had acquired – a trend which continues today, though often with a necessarily more commercial edge.

The first country house owners to place statues in their English gardens were the Romans.  However, as homes became castles, gardens fell from favour and with them, the ornaments to decorate them.   The trend for statuary only really returned with the Tudors and their love of the outdoor space as an extension of the symbolism they incorporated into the architecture of their houses.  One of the earliest collectors, and most acquisitive, was Thomas Howard Arundel, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who, as a youth, had been at the excavation of the Roman Forum, which had sparked a live-long passion for antiquities.  Arundel amassed one of the greatest collections of the age, rivalling that of the King, including a famed selection of Graeco-Roman statues found in Turkey, which became known as the ‘Arundel Marbles‘. These statues were then displayed at both their town and country seats, both indoors and out – though later, by the mid-17th-century, as a result of the uncertainties of the Civil War, John Evelyn found the Marbles “…miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house.”.  The statues were later donated to the Ashmolean Museum where they remain today.

The later rise and popularity of the Georgian grand tour firmly embedded the desire to purchase statues along with the requisite paintings. They provided a visual clue as to both the learning and wealth of the owner and so were displayed prominently, especially indoors where they might be shown in the entrance hall where guests would inevitably look at them as they waited. Some of the most famous dedicated indoor galleries include those at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire (though sadly now not as shown in previous link as it’s now a wedding venue).  Other notable galleries, though now lost due to dispersal or demolition, were those at Clumber Park, Ickworth House and Hamilton Palace, the latter described as “…peopled with bronze statuary on Irish black marble bases polished to such a gloss that they reflected the pavement like a mirror.“.

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

Outside, the display was no less formal – symmetry and structure dominated.  However, by the 1730s, the more formal display of statues outdoors gave way to a more naturalistic style whereby they became almost secreted amongst a more informal – but no less planned – landscape.  One thing often forgotten now is that we see gardens after over 250 years of growth, but when first planted they would have been much sparser giving the ornaments greater prominence.  The return of the Roman influence can be closely linked with the rise of Palladianism and the influence of Lord Burlington and his circle; most notably, the brilliant designer William Kent. Other notable influences include Batty Langley, who published his ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728 and Stephen Switzer’s ‘Ichnographica Rustica‘, published in 1718 – the latter of which was the first to show serpentine walks and streams. Life also imitated art, with the popularity of the Arcadian visions of painters such as Claude Lorrain, Nicholas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa also inspiring those who collected the paintings to attempt to bring them to life.

Temple - Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Temple – Studley Royal Gardens, Yorkshire (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The more secure and rising wealth of the 1730s enabled owners to create larger estates and so giving them more space to indulge their plans.  However, no stream will rival a raging river so to create a sense of theatre, the landscape was used and moulded to create a series of views which took advantage or distant landmarks or by introducing elements such as statues, temples and obelisks.  Often these gardens were designed to entertain the knowledgeable visitor with allusions to myths and noble virtues – though in one lesser known example, the owner of the famous Vauxhall Gardens in London, built a darker memento mori‘ garden at Denbies, his home in Surrey.

However, the main aim was to delight and to stimulate emotions. One of the most famous Georgian gardeners, Philip Miller, wrote in his 1739 edition of his ‘Gardener’s Dictionary’:

“In laying out these walks through woods there should be a great regard had to the neighbouring country, so as whenever there are any distant objects which appear to the sight, there should be openings to which the serpentine walks should lead, from whence objects may be viewed, which will be an agreeable surprise to strangers…”

Bridge - Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)
Bridge – Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Evoljo / flickr)

These principles were translated according to the whims and finances of owners across the country, leading from the sublime creations of Stowe, Stourhead and Studley Royal to many lesser known and private gardens.

The statuary could sometimes cause the odd drama. Dallam Towers, Cumbria was archly described by Pevsner as “…undoubtedly the finest Georgian facade in the county; but what the visitor may not realise is that, behind all the stucco, there’s the finest Queen Anne facade in the county.“. Between the facade and the landscape once stood (or perhaps still stands) a line of statues standing guard between the garden and the ha-ha. Yet this line is slightly marred by one of the statues being headless – the unfortunate outcome of a 1820s dinner which led to a very ‘well-refreshed’ Lord Milthorpe.  Thinking he had seen a poacher, he grabbed a rifle, and despite the protests of his guests, he duly dispatched the ‘poacher’/statue; a loss for the world of garden ornaments but perhaps a gain for the forces of law and order.

With such vast quantities of marble scattered out the gardens, occasionally a prized statue may slip slowly into obscurity. This can lead to discoveries in the same way that an Old Master may be found in the attic, so they can also be found in the shrubbery, such as this rare Chinese Ming tomb horse or the lucky owner of a castle somewhere in northern Europe who had a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Adriaen de Vries.

The tradition of sculpture in the gardens of country houses is certainly alive and well today and has developed beyond the more formal Roman statuary towards a decidedly more contemporary ethos – though perhaps more commercial than for simple pleasure.

'Huge Sudeley Bench' by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)
‘Huge Sudeley Bench’ by Pablo Reinoso at Sudeley Castle (Image: Christies)

At the beautiful Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, Christies are holding their selling exhibition of contemporary sculpture from luminaries such as Marcel Wanders, Marc Quinn and Pablo Reinoso.  Over in Sussex, the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood, hosts a regularly changing line-up with a focus on supporting emerging talent along with the more established artists such as Lynn Chadwick and Anish Kapoor.  One more recent venue is the Jupiter Artland at Bonnington House in Scotland, just outside Edinburgh.  The vision the Wilsons, who own the house, Jupiter Artland features large-scale works such as the monumental ‘Life Mounds’ by Charles Jencks’ who specialises in landscape art that I suspect would appeal to the likes of ‘Capability’ Brown if he were around today.

These are just some of the examples of contemporary schemes which are taking place across the country. Each is enlivening the grounds of a house and again maintaining that artistic thread which has been spun out over hundreds of years, linking country houses, an owners’ taste and some of the best art in the country.

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More wonderful examples of works available outdoors can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library collection.

This blog post is a little off my usual patch so I’m grateful for the research of David Stuart in ‘Georgian Gardens

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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