New Series: The Country House Revealed – South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire

South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)
South Wraxall Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Traumahawk / flickr)

In contrast to the weekly dramas of Country House Rescue, a new series starting on the BBC, presented by the excitable Dan Cruickshank, looks at some of the finest homes in ‘The Country House Revealed – A Secret History of the British Ancestral Home‘.  The series promises a look behind the estate wall at some homes which have never been open to the public, giving us a rare chance to glimpse houses which enjoy secure, well-funded ownership and demonstrating that the fears of those who thought these houses would never be sustainable have been thankfully proved wrong.

The first in the series (broadcast 10 May on BBC2 at 21:00) visits South Wraxall Manor in Wiltshire; a house which matches a beautiful exterior with impressive interiors dominated by some of the finest chimneypieces and period rooms in the country.  The house was originally built for Robert Long who made a fortune in cloth in the early 15th-century before becoming an MP in 1433, around which time it is thought the core of the house was started.  As was befitting a rich MP, he was keen to show his status and as was often the case with the gentry, his home was the main platform with which to show off his wealth and erudition, creating one of the finest houses in the country today.

England, at the time work started at South Wraxall Manor, was feeling the influence of the Italian Renaissance and elements of the new fashions were often incorporated into the best homes, though often adapted for our native traditions and styles.  This use of wider influences was also a symptom of the gradual shift in power as major building projects were increasingly commissioned by wealthy gentry rather than the Church or Royal Court.  Maurice Howard also highlights that although the Court was highly competitive which might have led to a single architectural style being favoured, in fact, the houses we still have show how tenacious local styles were.

Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)
Chimneypiece c.1600, South Wraxall Manor (Image: (c) Nicholas Cooper)

This continuation of the vernacular can be seen in the architectural vocabulary used by those commissioning the houses, drawing still strongly on ecclesiastical traditions.  Reading the full listing description for South Wraxall one might almost believe it to be a local church or monastery – windows with Perpendicular tracery, buttresses, even gargoyles.  The house was significantly remodelled around 1600, creating what John Julius Norwich calls ‘one of the major Jacobean rooms in all England‘.  A vast west window floods the room with light and is matched by one at the other end of the room, providing the illumination to highlight a most impressive fireplaces – a colossal, florid statement of importance.

Each generation of the Long family added to the house, with additional wings and chimneypieces, and extending the estate.  As with other such early houses which have survived subsequent centuries without ‘modernisation’, this was due to a small element of luck in that it was inherited by a branch of the Long family in 1814 who were already well established at Rood Ashton House, Wiltshire (largely demolished c.1950) meaning the house was often rented out.  The house let between 1820-26 and served time as a boys school, before the 1st Viscount Long took over c.1880 following his election as a local MP.  Viscount Long undid much of the damage caused during its time as a school when the linenfold panelling had been painted over and the ornate ceilings plastered over, however he never really took up residence there.  The house was let for the rest of the 19th-century and the early 20th, before the 2nd Viscount Long moved in in 1935.  Used to house refugees in WWII, the family again lived there before finally selling up in 1966, ending over 500-years of family ownership.

South Wraxall then entered a rather uncertain period, until it was bought by a businessman with plans to turn it into a country house hotel but who had some issues with the local planning authority over unauthorised changes (for example, I think he glassed in the loggia without permission).  The house was up for sale again in 2003 for £6.5m after the businessman abandoned his plans.  After languishing on the market for a couple of years – probably due to the extent of the restoration required – it was bought by the current owners: John Taylor (bass player with the band Duran Duran) and his wife Gela Nash (founder of the fashion house Juicy Couture) who apparently have done an excellent and sympathetic job of the repairs, thus rescuing a house that is a quintessential example of an English manor house.

Full listing description: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information: ‘South Wraxall Manor‘ [Wikipedia]

Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]

Rest of the series

This looks to be a fascinating set of programmes – for reference the other houses featured are:

If a moat floats your boat: for sale; Playford Hall and Giffords Hall, Suffolk

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)

Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation.  Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters.  These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.

Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers.  The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage.  However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles.  As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner.  As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.

Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)
Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)

The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent.  This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.

Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house.  The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations.  At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp.  The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).

Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house.  Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.

H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example.  This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles.  Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;

“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.  When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes.  Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)

So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).

Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style.  The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII.  The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.

Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling.  The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect.   Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.

So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.

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For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.

For those looking to visit, a handy list: ‘Manors in England‘ [Britain Express]

New series of ‘Country House Rescue’ starts 4 March

Plas Teg, Wales (Image: Plas Teg website)

The fascinating first series of ‘Country House Rescue’ showed all to clearly that ownership of a country house is no passport to an easy life of luxury.  In fact, it demonstrated that being the ‘lord of the manor’ brings with it many responsibilities which can take a significant toll both physically but most importantly financially.

On Thursday 4 March at 20:00 on Channel 4 the next series of ‘Country House Rescue‘ starts in Wales with the owner of Plas Teg; a grade-I listed Jacobean house which has remained remarkably unchanged since it was built in 1610.  However, for the owner who gave up her glamorous life in Notting Hill when she moved to this 20,000sq ft house, it has proved to be a constant struggle to maintain this important house.  Hopefully Ruth can provide some of her usual robust advice to help get Plas Teg on the path to a more secure future.

More details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ [Channel 4]

Minor fire at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Visitors had to be evacuated from the beautiful Grade-I listed, Jacobean, Chastleton House on Saturday 11 July when a small fire broke out in an upstairs bedroom.  Luckily, damage was minor and the house was largely unharmed, but yet another reminder that fire is always an ever present danger.

Full story: ‘Firefighters tackle stately home blaze‘ [Oxford Mail]