The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project

One of the sadly almost inevitable side-effects of urban and industrial growth is the loss of more of our countryside. Sometimes it can be on a smaller scale for residential developments and industrial units but occasionally society’s plans are much grander and require a greater sacrifice. This has been shown with the publication of the latest proposed route for the new High Speed 2 rail project to provide a fast link between London and Birmingham.  In previous generations, landowners could influence the path of developments such as roads or canals to their benefit but as their power has diminished so routes of these developments can now threaten the settings of our country houses.

The High Speed 2 railway is aiming to dramatically reduce the need for internal domestic flights in the UK by linking London to, first, the West Midlands, followed by Leeds and Manchester.  The plan has always been controversial, requiring the loss of hundreds of homes in the urban areas around the terminals and also a significant loss of farmland.  Following an initial proposal, the latest route was announced to the House of Commons on 20 December 2010 which reflected some concerns about the initial proposal.  However, 13 of the 30 sections (yes, I have been through all of them!) contain a number of country houses and manors which will still be significantly affected by the plans.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One bit of good news is that fears over the proximity of the link to the wonderfully elegant West Wycombe Park (raised in a blog post in Oct 2009) have been alleviated as the new route is further away.  However, another significant house will still be badly affected; the Georgian, grade-I listed, Edgcote House, Northamptonshire.  The proposed route now slices through the remarkably unlisted grounds with the line passing just to the east of the ornamental lake which forms one of the main axial views from the house.  Edgcote was built between 1747-1752 for London merchant Richard Chauncey by architect William Jones and featured as ‘Netherfield’ in the 1995 TV adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  The house and grounds form the centrepiece to a 1,700-acre estate which was bought for £30m in 2005. Interestingly, this value has not deterred the planners (who moved the line from the original position cutting across the lake) so it will be interesting to see if the owner submits a claim a for ‘statutory blight‘ [.pdf]. This gives the Secretary of State the option to buy the property at the current market value if the owner can show that they have been unable to sell due to the Government proposals, or only at a substantially lower value.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

Amendments have also been made to protect another significant property; Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  A grade-I listed house, now run as a hotel, it was built in the early 17th-century for the Hampden family but was later let to the exiled King Louis XVIII of France who lived there between 1809-14.  Originally Jacobean, it was substantially enlarged and ‘Georgianised’ between 1759 and 1761 by the architect Henry Keene.  Again, following initial concerns, the route has now been moved further away from the house so that it would not be visible and will benefit from extra earth works and planting to reduce the noise.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)

Another grade-I house which would have been worse affected if it hadn’t been blighted already is Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.  This imposing house, now converted into apartments, is part medieval, part Georgian designed by the talented Francis Smith of Warwick, exists in a seriously compromised setting with the Stoneleigh Park exhibition and conference venue built in one half of the immediate parkland.  The proposed line will not only cut through the conference venue but also forever separate the house from the northern edge of the original park – though the massive scale of development already means this was never a house which was going to be returned to splendid isolation.

Another compromised house is Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire where the train will pass in front but quite some distance away.  The house itself, a beautiful Baroque-style Georgian mansion was built in 1757 to a design by Benjamin Wyatt and remained the home of the Swinfen family for nearly 200 years.  After the death of the last Swinfen in 1948 the land was sold and later a huge youth detention centre built to the immediate north-west with the house being left to deteriorate until it was converted into a hotel in the 1980s.  Having a railway line in the middle distance is the least of the concerns for the setting of this house.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Despite the vocal complaints of Lord Rothschild it seems that the route will be quite far from their old family seat of Waddesdon Manor.  However, Rothschild has become one of the leading opponents of the scheme – along with 16 other Conservative MPs whose constituencies will be affected.

With the rail route cutting across the countryside it was unavoidable that it would pass near to country houses, ironically which, of course, were often built to get away from the industrial blight.  Other houses which now lie close to the proposed route include:

  • The Vache (image), Buckinghamshire
  • Pollard Park House – a 1903 house built to a Lutyens design.
  • Classical Shardeloes, built between 1758-66 for William Drake MP by the architect Stiff Leadbetter would also suffer from the high speed line cutting across the main view from the house.
  • Grade-II* Doddershall House would be within a couple of hundred metres of the line on which up to 18 trains per hour are expected to rush past at speeds of up to 400kph.
  • Chetwode Manor
  • Oatley’s Hall
  • Berkswell Hall, Warwickshire – a grade-II* listed house now converted into apartments
  • Coleshill Manor, Birmingham – now offices and already suffering from being surround by motorways, the house will now have the line within metres, also necessitating the demolition of a new office complex next door.

The route also cuts across the old estate of the now demolished Hints Hall in Staffordshire – an elegant two-storey Georgian mansion with giant pilasters to enliven the facade.  It’s unlikely that if the house had survived it would have prevented the proposed route but again, without the house, an estate becomes even more vulnerable.

These are just the houses affected by the first 120 miles of the proposed 355 mile scheme.  If successful, we can expect more houses to be blighted as the route carves through the Midlands and up into Lancashire, shattering the peace and quiet that were the original reasons for the creation of these refuges from the industrial reality of the cities.  Although progress can often bring benefits, in this case the price is being paid by our country houses as their parklands and estates are judged the path of least resistance.


More information: High Speed 2 [wikipedia]

An autumn flutter: country houses currently for sale

Country houses are often launched on the market to catch either bonus money early in the year or those looking to move before the summer.  However, circumstances or owner preference can lead to some interesting houses being given a promotional push in the autumn (usually through Country Life magazine) to catch those who fancy Christmas in front a different log fire.  So, here’s a quick round-up of some of the better country houses currently for sale.

Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)
Upton Pynes, Devon (Image: Upton Pynes website)

Easily one of the most impressive houses is one that has always been a sign for me that I’m nearly home when travelling back to Devon on the train.  Just outside Exeter is the beautiful grade-II* listed Upton Pynes, which, despite the very English sounding name, bears a striking resemblance to a French chateau.  Built c.1700 by Hugh Stafford with very sympathetic later additions, this large but elegant house sits in a commanding position in the Exe Valley, perfectly positioned to catch the sun throughout the day, giving the red-brick façades a warm glow.  Described by Pevsner as “…an excellent example of the stately double-pile house that became popular after the Restoration but is relatively rare in Devon.”, the interior features a particularly grand entrance hall created as part of alterations in 1852 by the architect Ambrose Poynter for Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (later the Earl of Iddesleigh).  The main interiors of the house, including an enfilade of rooms on the south front and a notable library, largely dates from 1700.  The house also has the claim that it was the one Jane Austen had in mind when describing ‘Barton House’ in ‘Sense & Sensibility’.  The house still requires some restoration but will definitely reward whoever completes this grand project.

> More information: ‘Upton Pynes, Devon‘ £3.25m, 37-acres [Savills]

Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)
Crendle Court, Dorset (Image: Savills)

Sometimes a grand house designed by an interesting architect can remarkably remain unlisted, as is the case with the Edwardian Crendle Court in Dorset which was designed by Walter H. Brierley (b.1862 – d.1926) who has been described as ‘the Yorkshire Lutyens’.  A prolific architect, he designed over 300 buildings including schools, churches and several country houses including the elegant neo-Georgian Sion Hill Hall in Yorkshire.  Brierley was a versatile architect able to work successfully in various styles though with a preference for ‘Wrenaissance’ – a modern re-working of the architectural language of Sir Christopher Wren.  Crendle Court was built in 1909 and features elaborate ornamental plasterwork in the main reception rooms by George Bankart, and sits, well, more luxuriates, in 270-acres of grounds.  Considering the architect and the quality English Heritage ought to send someone round to evaluate and spot list it before it gets ruined by someone with more money than taste.

> More information: ‘Crendle Court, Dorset‘ £6.95m, 270-acres [Savills]

Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Rudby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

Other significant houses available were launched earlier but are now being promoted following price cuts.  One such house is the grade-II* listed Rudby Hall in Yorkshire, which was originally given a guide price of £3.5m but now is offered at £2.75m.  Designed by Anthony Salvin in 1838 for the 10th Viscount Falkland, who originally called it Leven Grove, but by the late 19th-century it was known as Skutterskelfe Hall before being given its present name by the company which owned it in the 1990s.  The house was restored in the 1980s and comprises the main house but with the ancillary buildings converted into let accommodation bringing in a handy £50,000 p/a – so long as you don’t mind sharing your gardens, grounds and woodlands with them.

> More information: ‘Rudby Hall, Yorkshire‘ £2.75m, 10-acres [Carter Jonas]

Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)
Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland (Image: Blairquhan Castle website)

For those who fancy something more baronial, then Blairquhan Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland may be perfect.  The core of the property is a tower house built in 1346 but was later given a new front by William Burn in 1820-24 to provide the imposing if slightly stern façade we see today.  The estate was noted for it beauty with Lord Cockburn writing in 1844: “I rose early…and surveyed the beauties of Blairquhan. It deserves its usual praises. A most gentleman-like place rich in all sorts of attractions – of wood, lawn, river, gardens, hill, agriculture and pasture.”.  What more could a squire desire?

> More information: ‘Blairquhan Castle, Scotland‘ £4.85m, 670-acres [Savills]

Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Beaurepaire House, Hampshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Most of these houses seem to be with Savills so to even things up, and to include a house I’m surprised hasn’t sold already, is Beaurepaire in Hampshire.  The house was featured on the blog in more detail (‘Phoenix for sale: Beaurepaire House, Hampshire‘) when it was first launched in June this year.  The house is what remains after a devastating fire in 1942 destroyed the main block of the house, leaving the current service wing which was extensively refurbished and remodelled after WWII to give the elegant house which is for sale today.  Approached down a long drive, what guest couldn’t fail to be impressed by the wonderful gates designed by Sir John Soane which guard the entrance over the moat?  Sitting in a 250-acre estate, the £8m price tag is probably justified for the area – and the owner is apparently in no rush to sell so don’t expect any big price cut soon.

> More information: ‘Beaurepaire, Hampshire‘ £8m, 250-acres [Knight Frank]

If in doubt, rent: Faringdon House, Oxfordshire

Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Faringdon House, Oxfordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

Renting a property has long been associated with those starting out on the property ladder but there is a long history of country houses, large and small, being tenanted for long periods of time.  Now the focus is very much on the sale of country houses with rentals being in the shade of their high-spending counterparts but there are still many fine houses available to those wishing to experiment with the country life or as a short-term solution.

Jane Austen was well-known for reflecting the social conventions of the aristocracy in her work and it’s interesting that one of the main characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, the wealthy Mr Bingley, rents ‘Netherfield House’ whilst he considered which house and estate he would establish himself in.  This again is a pattern that still holds true today with those seeking to move to either a new area or out of town, renting to get a better understanding of an area.  These opportunities are available today where houses such as Puddletown Manor in Dorset are available for rent (£9,000 pcm) but also for sale (£6m) at the same time.

Country houses have been let for a variety of reasons.  One of the most common was simply that it might be a subsidiary seat and rather than simply leave it empty it was often let as a source of income.  Sometimes this included the entire working estate so that the new occupant could fully assume the role and responsibilities of the country gent.  Increasingly though in the Victorian era the house was let separately from the estate which would continue to be managed and run by the original family.  This was often the preferred option for the newly wealthy who aspired to the status and amenity of a ‘country seat’ but did not require the estate to generate an income.

This is why houses such as the Faringdon House in Oxfordshire [pictured above] are attractive as they allow someone else to simply move in (albeit for a significant monthly rent of £10,000) and enjoy a grade-I listed Palladian villa without the added burdens of ownership.

Letting was a handy solution when the family finances were insufficient for they themselves to live there.  The Marquess of Lansdowne became first Governor General of Canada and then Viceroy of India from 1883-1894 specifically to improve his financial position and keep hold of his estates.  These jobs came with benefit of government accommodation which freed up the family seat for letting.  In a letter to his mother he explained,

“India means saving Lansdowne House for the family.  I should be able while there not only to live on my official income, but to save something every year.  If I can let Lansdowne House, I might by the time  I come home have materially reduced the load of debt which has become so terrible an incubus to us all…”.

(n.b. when the Marquess refers to Lansdowne House, he is referring to Bowood House rather than their London townhouse of the same name which was sold by the family in 1783.)

The Second World War also offered a convenient escape route for some owners as country houses were taken over by evacuated schools who then stayed on such as at Motcombe House in Dorset.  Although the use of country houses as schools had been an established practice for many years (the 1920s saw Stowe, Canford and Bryanston all become schools) the widespread use during wartime meant that it gained even greater acceptability.   For the Earl Fitzwilliam at Wentworth Woodhouse who had seen his spectacular house vandalised by troops and a vindictive Minister for Fuel and Power, Manny Shinwell, ordering the needless open cast mining of the gardens right up to the house, it was all too much and he let the house to become a training college for female PE teachers.

The letting of country houses has a long and varied history but it has mostly been driven by the need for country house owners to maximise their incomes.  Once the country house had ceased to be the physical embodiment of local political power following the reforms of the early 20th-century it became easier for families to simply move out and bring in tenants turning a costly extravagance into revenue.

Property details: ‘Faringdon House, Oxfordshire‘ [Knight Frank]