Country House Rescue: spectacular spats – Hill Place, Hampshire

Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

The challenges of inheritance have been a recurring theme throughout Country House Rescue.  The obvious challenges are perhaps more tangible; taking on the new house, contents, gardens and the related discoveries – for good or ill.  Yet part of the nature of inheritance is often the bequeathing of disappointment to others who expected to benefit or who disagree with the choices of the new owners.  Country House Rescue this week (17 April) visits Hill Place in Hampshire where Ruth Watson’s skills seem to be in demand to placate some disgruntled aunts rather than to simply identify business opportunities.

Hill Place is an elegant, grade-II listed Georgian villa, built in 1791 on the back of wealth made in India.  The architect is unknown but there is a beautiful simplicity to it, with each side five bays wide with a canted three-bay projection on the entrance front and a graceful three-bay bow front to the south.  The style is in the fine traditions of Sir John Soane and there are even suggestions that it may have been by the man himself.   At some stage, a mansard roof was added and then later removed, leaving an unfortunate flat roof with the stub end of the staircase still rising to a small access extension.  Overall, this is a particularly neat example of the smaller country villa which was to prove so popular at that time.  However, what is of particular interest that the current owner, Will Dobson, inherited the house due to his grandparent’s commitment to the tradition of primogeniture – that of the eldest male inheriting, which, in Will’s case, meant the bypassing of his grandparent’s four daughters, which is the cause of the strife in the programme.

The rules of inheritance in the UK have ensured that ownership of country houses, estates and contents can be passed down as a unified possession.  This has ensured a multi-generational continuity which has benefited the country by embedding a very long-term perspective to plans and that a culture of paternalism was fostered; the spirit of noblesse oblige. Ironically, in France, the Napoleonic code demands equal shares for all potential inheritors, forcing the break-up and sale of large estates, preventing the same depth of connection between the nobility and society.  Yet, for this culture to be preserved it is important that the estate is kept together – especially as it usually has to fulfil its traditional role of funding the main house.

Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)
Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)

Yet inheritance has caused incredible friction for hundreds of years between those favoured by those who inherit and those who do not, leading to extreme outcomes and court cases.  One example of the former was Knighton Gorges, a manor house on the Isle of Wight, where, in 1821, the owner George Maurice Bisset had the entire ancient house demolished to ensure that his heir (his daughter or nephew – accounts vary) wouldn’t be able to cross his threshold even after his death, their having angered him through an unauthorised marriage.  In Kent, Lynsted Park was originally a huge Elizabethan E-plan house built for Sir John Roper, later Lord Teynham, in 1599, but an inheritance dispute between two Roper brothers in the 1800s led to the one living there demolishing all but the entrance porch (later Georgian additions created the current house) as he thought he would lose the case and have to give the house to his brother.

Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous litigation from inheritance was that surrounding William ‘the Rich’ Jennens which reputedly took nearly 120 years before the cases finished being heard and was also thought to be the inspiration for Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – though recent scholarly opinion now discounts that. The Jennens family had created a huge family fortune as ‘ironmasters’ in Birmingham but due to a lack of heirs and, more importantly, a will, when William died intestate in 1798, his fortune (including houses such as Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire and Acton Place, Suffolk) was passed to three distant – though very aristocratic – relatives.  This was the catalyst for a small cottage industry of claimants who all thought themselves related and therefore due a share of the inheritance.  This was partly due to a popular fad at the time for novels to feature an unexpected inheritance – though, in real life, it was usually just the lawyers who became richer.

So, inheritance can often be a mixed blessing, laden with expectations and complications.  A recent survey by Country Life magazine (6 April 2011) found that 61% of current owners were concerned that estates stay in the family – with only 25% not bothered if their heir were to sell (it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between whether those in the latter group were also those whose family had owned for the least time).  For some, it’s particularly important to ensure that the family name is preserved. In the same Country Life article, David Fursdon, whose family have been on the Fursdon estate in Devon since 1289, highlights that after 750 years in single ownership the pressure is on to ensure that a male heir is produced to provide that continuity (though with three sons he should be OK).

Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)
Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)

Primogeniture, or full inheritance by the eldest son, has been the rule for hundreds of years.  It was expected that all other children either had to marry or make their own fortune or living with the second son often going into the Army and the third to the clergy.  The strict rules may now be relaxing with parents choosing the child most inclined and best equipped to take on the inheritance – the Country Life article highlights how Holker Hall in Cumbria will be inherited by the middle child, Lucy Cavendish, who has moved back to the estate to learn the ropes before her parents ‘retire’ and move out in a few years time.

The challenge for families such as the Dobson’s is ensuring that the one who inherits feels they have complete ownership and is able to take decisions for the good of the house and estate without sniping from other quarters.  It is no light responsibility to be the owner of a country house and the Dobson’s should be thanked for taking on such a lovely home when others might have simply sold up and enjoyed the spoils.  Here’s hoping they can truly make a success of the house as a business to ensure that they can also pass it on to future generations.

Country House Rescue: ‘Hill Place‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Official website: ‘Hill Place

Make a date: the strange world of the calendar house

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims.  With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.

The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science,  mathematics and astronomy.  They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.

Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device.  Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare.   In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.

The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year).  So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.  It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.

Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)
Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)

One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors.  Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north.  Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole.  Who knows?  What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate.  What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim.  Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.

Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)
Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)

It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses.  Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys.  The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole.  After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.

Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)
Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)

The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country.  The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.

Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925.  A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I.  Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.

The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)
The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)

Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor.  Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers.  Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’.  It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.

Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors.  The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did.  Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.

Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most.  Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges.  As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.

—————————————————————————————–

Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:

  • Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
  • Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.

Can anyone confirm these? Thanks, Matthew

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses:

 

The state of the country house market: Autumn 2010

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Throughout September, the increasing weight of each week’s ‘Country Life‘ magazine heralds the starts of one of the busy periods for launches of country houses.  As an relatively unscientific barometer it would appear that the market is doing well with some impressive estates and houses being offered up to tantalise the armchair enthusiast and serious purchaser alike – but a few houses are still proving difficult to shift.

The September 1 magazine provided a summary of the successes of the year-to-date with glowing reports from estate agents who, despite some fears in January about an uncertain year ahead, are happy to highlight their successes.  The article quotes Crispin Holborow of Savills who rightly points out that ‘best in class‘ houses will always sell quickly and for above their guide price if the right buyers start competing.  He cites Ropley House in Hampshire which sold at over it’s guide price of £4.25m, as did the grade-I listed Shanks House in Somerset which was offered with 70-acres for £5.5m, but their biggest success was the coveted Chadacre estate in Suffolk with 680-acres which reputedly sold for more than double it’s £10m asking price.  Other houses such as the elegant grade-I Worlingham Hall – regarded by Norman Scarfe as ‘the most beautiful house of manageable size in Suffolk’ – also sold over it’s guide price of £3.9m.

Other houses sold close to their guide include Peatling Hall in Leicestershire (mentioned on this blog in July) which was offered at £4.75m, whilst the stunning Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset suffered from an unfortunately timed launch in September 2008 at £17m which knocked buyer confidence meaning that it hung around until Febuary 2010 before selling at £15m.  Others had to drop their prices or accept being sold in lots with Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire selling for £15m to Jemima Khan once the rest of the 2,000-acre estate had been sold (originally offered as one for £42m), whilst Fillongley Hall in Warwickshire has yet to find a buyer even after selling 400- out of the original 500-acres originally offered when it went on the market in 2005 (£3.5m, Savills).  Pusey House in Oxfordshire, which was originally launched with 643-acres but when featured as the lead property advert in the September 15 magazine it was offered with just 67.

So who are the awkward squad?  Grade-I listed Noseley Hall in Leicestershire is still with Knight Frank with the same acreage; though now at £12m rather than the original £14m asking price, and Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire, a pocket Palladian gem, is still being offered (again with Knight Frank) – though mysteriously with no price, so probably less that the £4.5m guide in February 2010; and way down from it’s original price of £6.5m when it was first launched in 2007.  Up country, Yester House in Scotland is still available despite having had it’s price halved from £15m to £8m since the original launch in August 2008.

So, although the property market does seem buoyant, it does seem that some are struggling.  Perhaps the flurry of launches will bring an influx of new buyers who may take a renewed interest in the harder-to-sell properties, but they equally may well wonder why they are still available and pass them over.  It seems that some owners who are keen to sell are being flexible, either dropping the price or selling in lots, but for owners who refuse to budge the market may take a very long time to rise to meet what they think their property is worth.  It seems flexibility is still a vital attribute whatever rung of the property ladder you are on.

For sale for the first time in 1000 years: Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire

Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)
Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)

It has been estimated that there are approximately 2,000 large country houses in the UK with decent size estates  (over 100 acres) – but very few are still in the hands of the family which originally built them. Yet despite the many sales over the years it’s still possible for a house and land to remain with one family for many hundreds of years – though that is now coming to an end for Shakenhurst Hall in Shropshire, seat of the Meysey family for much of the last 1000 years and now on the market for the first time at £12m.

The lands were first given to a French Baron, Roger de Toeni, for his help in the conquest of Britain in 1066.  It has then passed through inheritance through various members of the Meysey family except when it passed for period to a godson in the 20th-century and then his wife, before being bequeathed to Michael Severne, a descendent of the Meyseys.  On his death in 2007 it passed to his only daughter Amanda who died of cancer in 2008 leaving the house and estate to her husband.

The grade-II listed Georgian house, built in the 1790s but with a 16th-century core, is now up for sale as it faces that age-old difficulty of an estate no longer providing sufficient income to maintain the house – and neither of their two sons are in a position to take it on.  Michael Severne had run a successful plastics business from outbuildings on the estate but with his death the business folded.  Interestingly this mirrors the challenges faced by country house owners in the 19th-century who relied also on a single source of income, agriculture, who were hit particularly hard by the 1870s depression in farm produce prices and land values.

Land has always been regarded as the most important asset (even if mortgaged) and so when faced with the choice of economising, selling land, or selling paintings or books it was usually the latter which went first.  This lead to the rise of the art sales particularly from the 1890s until the 1930s which dealers such as Joseph Duveen exploited as they extracted exquisite Old Master Italian paintings and others by the finest English artists which would then be shipped to the United States. Here a new class of exceptionally wealthy financiers and industrialists such as Hearst, Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller would compete to secure the finest works of art before donating them to eponymous public galleries.

Although this did leave significantly smaller collections for some houses it did sometimes provide the finance to either diversify into investments or tide them over until agriculture recovered in the 1930s – although for some it merely delayed the more unpalatable choice of demolition which unfortunately was the outcome for hundreds of houses in the UK.  With demolition now thankfully out of the question an owner is left with few options and it can be easier to simply sell up which is what appears to be the case with Shakenhurst Hall.

Sad though it is that such a long connection is to come to an end, here’s hoping the next owner will respect the 1300-acre estate, the history and the house to create a rewarding new chapter for this elegant ‘minor’ country house.

Property details: ‘Shakenhurst Hall‘ [Savills]

PS: it’s interesting that two houses should be available which look so alike. I was struck by just how similar Shakenhurst Hall is to Peatling Parva Hall in Leicestershire which is currently on the market for £4.75m.  Interestingly the latter only took on it’s current form after alterations in 1910 after the Arts-and-Crafts architect Detmar Blow added two bays to the original house.  Was this just a coincidence of architects thinking alike or had Blow seen either Shakenhurst or something similar?

Property details: Peatling Parva Hall [Knight Frank]

A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive))
Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Two of the most important aspects of campaigning to save country houses are vigilance and visibility – and yet sometimes even this doesn’t always seem to bring about restoration any quicker when faced with a slow-moving owner. Braunstone Hall, a Georgian gem still with significant grounds but now swallowed up in the sprawl of Leicester, has been empty for over ten years but despite a vigorous campaign both in the media and online it still remains very much at risk.

Braunstone Hall, now grade-II listed, was built in 1776 (date on rainwater head) for the Winstanley family by the architect William Oldham (b. 1737 – d. 1814) who also designed an early Leicester racecourse grandstand (1770), Master’s House at Alderman Newton’s School (1789) and the New House of Correction (1803) – all though now demolished.  The red-brick house is two and a half storeys tall by five bays wide with a cornice and hipped roof.  The relatively simple front is enlivened with stone bands marking the ground and first floors with an impressive tripartite doorway with fluted columns, a small pediment and an elegant fanlight with arched glazing bars.  One further very distinctive feature is the giant blind recessed arch in the central bay – an architectural device which seems quite popular in Leicestershire with examples in Burbage, Belgrave House (also 1776), and the beautiful rectory at Church Langton (by William Henderson – 1760).  The interior is largely complete with some impressive detailing.

The Winstanley family bought the estate from the Hastings family in 1650 and remained there until forced out in the 1920’s by the pressure to build houses following the First World War.  Estates on the edge of existing towns and cities were eagerly eyed-up by local councils.  For some families, already facing financial hardships following the war this was a perfect opportunity to sell the family seat and relocate.  Others, including the Winstanleys in the shape of Major Richard Norman Winstanley, fought the prospect of compulsory purchase arguing that this was still a family home and the building work would undermine the value of his recently modernised house.  However, he was unsuccessful and so the house, gardens, parkland and further 949-acres were compulsorily purchased in 1925 for £116,500 (equivalent to £5.2m – 2008).  Most of the land was built over except for the house and 168-acres surrounding it which became a public park.  The house remained in council ownership and was first a secondary school, opening in 1932, before becoming a primary school a year later until it closed in 1996.

Since then the Leicester City Council has failed to either find a viable long-term use or adequately protect Braunstone Hall with the house falling victim to repeated acts of vandalism and arson.  The latter is the most worrying as the incidents have not only included fires outside the building but also now inside.  Over the last few years the Council have been making very slow progress towards finding a solution but, as always, they are claiming poverty when it comes to heritage projects.  A very active campaigning group has been set up on Facebook with the members regularly corresponding with councillors and reporting any damage or deterioration at the hall – effectively a dedicated ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ for the house.

The Council put the house up for sale on a 125-year lease in 2007 and had recently been negotiating to sell the house to a local businessman for conversion to a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. However this has been delayed by changes to what’s being offered in relation to the land for enabling development.  Each delay increases the risk that the local yobs will finally succeed in their mindless vandalism and burn down this elegant and important part of Leicester’s heritage.  If this happens the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of Leicester City Council and their apathy and indecisiveness over the last 14 years.

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

Detailed history of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [Leicester City Council]

Detailed description of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [English Heritage]

Minister ignores good advice: Scraptoft Hall

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities, has overruled the experts at English Heritage and approved the view of a local planning inspector which will see Scraptoft Hall forever compromised as a country house and reduced to a mere architectural footnote of a massive retirement village.

As had been previously reported (‘Scraptoft Hall at risk from ‘rescue’‘) a developer had used the standard excuse of ‘enabling development’ to propose building a massive 103-unit retirement village with the restoration of the house as a ‘reward’ to the council for this vandalism.  The house, although in a serious state of disrepair, is an important local house largely built in the 1720s but with a core dating from the 1500s.  A period as accommodation for Leicester University ensured that, although not ideal, the house was in use and maintained.  Once the university had left, the vandals and thieves moved in leaving the house as a juicy target for the developers.

It seems that the entire concept of ‘enabling development’ has been seriously compromised to allow councils (sometimes with the connivance of central government as in this case) to get around inconvenient restrictions on building houses.  Although it’s obviously of some social value to provide housing, it seems crass that the price to be paid for new homes is the irrevocable loss of important local buildings, and particularly country houses which are designed to stand proud in their settings.  Consider the English Heritage guidance on the appropriate extent of ‘enabling development’:

“English Heritage believes that ‘enabling development’ to secure the future of a heritage asset is unacceptable unless …it is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the heritage asset, and that its form minimises harm to other public interests.” – emphasis mine – quoted from pg 9-10 of ‘Enabling development and the conservation of heritage assets‘ [PDF])

Reading that it seems incredible that the minister thinks a 103-apartment residential development is the ‘minimum necessary’.  I imagine that if there was a comprehensive review of the use of the ‘enabling development’ excuse many councils would be found to have waived through inappropriate schemes to meet ulterior motives.

So unfortunately Scraptoft Hall is to be sacrificed with the acquiescence of not only the local planning department, the local council, the local MP but also the minister who should ultimately be the last line of defence against these highly damaging schemes.  A further problem is that each time one of these schemes is approved it creates a damaging precedent which is then used against other houses which sadly find themselves the target of the rampaging developers.  If only English Heritage had a legal right to veto schemes which, in its expert opinion, were a gross abuse of the spirit and letter of the planning legislation.

More details: ‘Villagers hail ‘yes’ to plans for historic Scraptoft hall‘ [Leicester Mercury]

A religious conversion: Rempstone Hall

Rempstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Country Life)

In the early part of the 20th-century one option for a country house to avoid demolition was to be converted to institutional use.  In this way, many houses became schools, hospitals or offices, but also some became religious institutions – for example, in the 1940s and 50s, Gloucestershire lost seven houses but twenty-two were converted to institutional use.  Now with property prices rising but membership of convents falling, houses used for holy purposes are now being sold – and could once again be homes.  Rempstone Hall in Leicestershire, currently the Holy Cross Convent, is on the market for £2.5m, as the nuns move to a purpose-built home nearby.

Rempstone Hall is a classically beautiful Georgian red-brick house, originally built in 1792 for William Gregory Williams, a major local landowner.   Various families passed though the house usually keeping it as a secondary house to much grander seats elsewhere.  By the beginning of the 20th-century it was unoccupied as probably, as with many other houses, at risk of demolition as the houses became surplus to requirements and a drain on finances already under pressure.  Rempstone Hall was saved in 1909 when P.W. Carr moved in and made significant additions including a new north wing and a fine stable block before selling it in 1920 to the Derbyshire family from whom the Convent bought it in 1979 for just £110,000.

During their time at Rempstone, the nuns have removed the exterior stucco to expose the warm red-bricks giving the house a bold appearance, the two red blocks framing an elegant loggia which faces the gently sloping lawn.  At 21,000sqft this is undeniably a large house with 20 bedrooms, a large entrance hall with possibly Jacobean staircase, a sizable chapel and many other rooms.  One downside of institutional use is the rather functional decor and Rempstone is no exception, with lino, acres of red carpet and various partitions which the new owner would need to remove; total renovation costs are estimated to be in the region of £500,000.

This fine and beautiful house, well-located in the Midlands, with 60-acres and several estate buildings, cries out for someone with taste to restore this house back to being a family home – which is helpfully the outcome favoured by the local planners.

More details: ‘Your prayers have been answered‘ [Sunday Times: Home]

Still available for sale – the country houses proving difficult to sell

Despite the enthusiasm of the estate agents, it seems that some of the most impressive houses featured in the glossy adverts at the front of Country Life magazine are proving difficult to sell.  Whether this is due to a poor local market or unreasonable prices, or just bad luck, here are a few stunning country houses which are still looking for buyers.

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Noseley Hall in Leicestershire has been in the family of the present Lord Hazelrigg for nearly 300 years but was put up for sale in April 2009 at a guide price of £14m for the grade-II* listed house plus the 1,200-acre estate.  Built in 1728 on the back of Northumberland coal mining wealth, the house is decorated with works of art (though fewer now following several auctions), and fine plasterwork.  However, Lord Hazelrigg admitted that the estate doesn’t cover the costs of running the house, and so he decided to sell, but it’s still listed on the Knight Frank website – and still with a guide price of £14m.   More details: ‘The last of the romantics‘ [Sunday Times]

Dowdeswell Court (Image from Savills)

Another house which has been for sale is Dowdeswell Court in Gloucestershire which was first advertised in 2005 and then sold for £4.75 but then came back on the market in summer 2009 with a guide price of £7.9m (and was featured in this blog).  When serial restorer James Perkins took on the house it had been a 46-room nursing home resulting in a huge restoration project and since he sold in 2005 has moved on to restoring other country houses including Aynhoe Park.  The grade-II house was built between 1833-35 by local architect Charles Paul of Cheltenham and was originally three storeys but during the 1920s the top storey was neatly removed.  The more manageable house is a beautiful example of neo-Classical detailing combined with modern comforts. The house is available through either Knight Frank or Savills.

Compton Pauncefoot Castle - Somerset (Image: Bidwells)

The final property for this list is the impossibly beautiful Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset which has been for sale since 2006.   Built in 182o, the grade-II listed house sits in a 1,278-acre estate with 40-acres of stunning gardens and lakes.  Originally on the market for £22m, it failed to sell even during the boom years of 2007-8 and despite 20 buying agents being invited to a launch event, and being featured in the The Sunday Times, it’s now being sold at auction – though I suspect the reserve would be near the current price advertised on the agents websites of in excess of £17m.  Perhaps the fact that it’s only for sale as a whole may have put off those who might just want the house and immediate grounds – but this would deny the owner the certainty of privacy that the surrounding estate would bring.  The house is available through Bidwells and Knight Frank (who despite putting it as their lead advert in Country Life this week fail to have it on their website).

Scraptoft Hall at risk from ‘rescue’

Scraptoft Hall
Scraptoft Hall

A proposal to restore Scraptoft Hall, a much-neglected Georgian mansion, as part of a large development scheme has been challenged by English Heritage. 

In what may be seen as a return to the mis-guided approaches of the 1970s and 80s, a local developer has dangled the ‘carrot’ of restoration of the Hall whilst seeking permission to build a huge 103-apartment retirement village in the grounds.

Scraptoft Hall was largely built in the early 1720s but the core dates back to the 1500s, however, in recent decades the elegant house had been adandoned and beset by theft and idiot vandals who had set fire to some areas. 

Harborough District Council is ‘minded’ to approve the plans but English Heritage has objected that the proposals would seriously compromise the setting of the hall. 

If approved this scheme would reduce this elegant house to a mere architectural curiousity in the middle of  a huge development.  The Council should reject this scheme – even if the developers claim it’s the only hope.  The sacrificing of the house to enabling development is make a mockery of heritage protection and would encourage other like-minded developers to consider that all old buildings with a bit of land are fair game for their destructive tendencies.

Details of the inquiry: Scraptoft Hall redevelopment inquiry

Full story: ‘Project ‘will restore Scraptoft Hall to its former glory’‘ [Leicester Mercury]