Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

Rent a doll’s house: Gunby Hall, Lincolnshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . an English home – gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep – all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

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

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

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

Property details: ‘Gunby Hall‘ [Savills]

The relative cost of your English country house

Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)
Great Hockham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

So you’ve decided you really want a country house.  Nothing too big; more a residential estate than a working or sporting one so perhaps just 48 acres. Luckily your four-bed house in the best part of Fulham is worth £1.75m so you can sell up and surely move straight into your dream rural arcadia? Unfortunately a recent survey by upmarket estate agents Savills has shown that you might need just a bit more money than that.

As always, proximity to London is the key factor in determining how far your money will stretch.  With the Russians and Middle Eastern families not willing to be too far from the cultural delights of Bond Street the price of a decent country house with 48 acres in Surrey tops the table.  To secure a decent small estate in the nicest parts would require between £15m-£20m but a similar property in Hampshire would set you back just £10m on average.

So with the those two counties ruled out, where next?  The Cotswolds have always been popular with the corresponding effect on prices but if Hampshire is too expensive then unfortunately you’re also out of luck in Gloucestershire with the average there hitting £12m – but north Oxfordshire might look attractive with the average of between £7m-£8m.

Distance from London reduces prices but with broadband making working from your country home on Friday possible Dorset or Wiltshire are still very attractive but more affordable – but you’ll still have to expect to pay between £4.5m-£5m.  Fewer transport options make East Anglia even cheaper with a country house in Norfolk going for around £3.25m – which makes the pretty Great Hockham Hall [pictured above], a grade-II listed Queen Anne house built in 1702 and with 47.66 acres, almost a bargain at £2.95m.

So where could you trade in your Fulham house for a small country estate? Step forward Lincolnshire where the average is the lowest in England at ‘just’ £1.75m-£2.25m. So proving that everything is relative it seems that even the high prices of London don’t always directly translate into a ticket to the country life unless you’re willing to go where the market takes you.

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Source: research by Savills (but listed not on their website) and reported in The Times ‘Bricks & Mortar’ property supplement on Friday 18 June (but their website doesn’t allow access so no link there either).

If you are interested in the rest of the report or the averages for other counties I’m guessing the best contact is Alex Lawson at Savills (Rural Research) on +44 (0) 20 7409 8882 or email alawson@savills.com.

Anyone with deep pockets? Country houses at risk today

It seems remarkable that between the popularity of country houses as tourist attractions or business or simply as homes that any would be at risk.  Yet as the 2010 SAVE Britain’s Heritage Building’s at Risk Register shows there are still a broad selection of fine houses which, for various reasons, are in need of someone with a desire to restore part of our heritage, lots of dedication, and pretty deep pockets.

Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)
Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)

One of the saddest is the case of Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire – a county which has lost so many of it’s fine old country houses already.  Fire is still one of the main reasons a house can quickly go from being a secure home to an ‘at risk’ shell.  Grade-II listed Nocton Hall is a warm honey-coloured stone house built for the 1st Earl of Ripon in 1841 to replace the original Jacobean house which burnt down in 1834.  After a stint as an RAF hospital in WWII it became a residential home before being bought by a property developer.  Unfortunately no development took place and the house was allowed to slowly deteriorate before a serious fire severely damaged what had been a perfectly good house.  Still sitting in its own gardens and parkland and near the village Nocton Hall cries out to be restored either as a h,otel or ideally as a grand family home.

Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

To look at the photo, Barmoor Castle in Northumberland looks in pretty good shape – but a picture can hide as much as it shows.  The first issue with Barmoor is that it actually is unused and sits in the middle of a caravan park which has been established in the grounds. Inside, there is some water damage as the roof has been leaking – although recent work, part funded by English Heritage, has alleviated this for the moment. Barmoor was built in 1801 around an older tower by the architect John Patterson of Edinburgh in a castellated Gothic Revival style for Francis Sitwell, in whose family it remained until 1979 when it was sold along with 200-acres.  The current owners have operated the caravan park since then but didn’t live in the house or use it leading to it’s current neglected state.  This is a classic example of where a house could be rescued from an inappropriate use, restored and enjoyed as a fine country house as was intended.

St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

St Botolphs Mansion in Pembrokeshire was built in the early 1800’s for General Richard Le Hunt is a house in need of a use rather than repair.  The Doric porch and neat window architraves create an interesting facade which would normally ensure that such a house would be jealously fought over if it came to market.  However it is now owned by the nearby oil refinery (the proximity probably ruling out residential use) but they are exploring options as to how to make use of this elegant Georgian house – perhaps as a conference facility might be more appropriate.  Either way, this is a house which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Other country houses of note in the report include the Grade-II* listed Plas Machen nr Newport, the surviving portion of the 15th-century house of the Morgans who moved up in the world to Tredegar House, which is for sale. Also for sale, since 2007, is Benwell Towers in Newcastle which was a country house when built but is now suburban, achieving fame in later life as the set for the kid’s TV series ‘Byker Grove’.

Even if your pockets can’t stretch to a country house there are many other buildings seeking a saviour so do order your copy of ‘Live or Let Die‘ and certainly consider joining SAVE Britain’s Heritage to help to preserve our architectural legacy for future generations.

Doddington Hall pyramid proposal

Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire (Image: doddingtonhall.com)

The financial pressures of owning a country house usually mean that the priority always has to be the main building with little left over for the kinds of follies, garden buildings and ‘eye-catchers’ which were a common enhancement in previous centuries.

Over the last few decades there have only be a few notable additions to parklands including the strikingly modern garden pavilion designed by I.M. Pei for the Keswicks in Wiltshire.  However even this has a practical use but in the spirit of landscapers such as ‘Capability’ Brown, a proposal has been submitted for a new pyramid to be built as an ‘eye-catcher’ at the end of a 1km walk at Doddington Hall in Lincolnshire.  Doddington is a beautiful, symmetrical, red-brick house designed by the celebrated Elizabethan architect Robert Smythson.  It also has the rare distinction of being one of the few houses to have never been sold since it was completed in 1600.

Fingers crossed that this interesting proposal will be approved and completed to continue an important tradition of folly building in English gardens.

Full story: ‘Plans for pyramid at Doddington Hall‘ [Lincolnshire Echo]

Nocton Hall ‘amongst 10 most endangered’

Nocton Hall (Image from Wikipedia)
Nocton Hall (Image from Wikipedia)

Nocton Hall suffered a devastating fire in 2004 and since then has remained a roof-less, though restorable, shell with no sign that the new owners have any inclination to rescue this interesting and attractive house.

The original Nocton Hall burnt down in 1834 and the new house was built by William Shearburn for the Earl of Ripon in 1841.  It was then taken over by the Air Ministry in 1940 for use as a hospital for RAF Nocton.  The RAF left in 1983 following which it became a residential home.  However, in the mid-1990s the business failed and it was bought by a local developer, Leda Properties.  A then sadly familiar story played out with the house ravaged by vandalism and theft before the ‘suspicious’ fire in 2004. 

The Victorian Society have now declared that the Grade-II listed Nocton Hall is one of their ‘Top 10 Most Endangered Buildings’ in the country.  Hopefully this will again focus some attention and, along with the concerns of locals, will perhaps prompt Leda Properties to declare their intentions.  One hopes that this is not another case of a developer hoping that further vandalism or fire will give them the opportunity to apply for permission to demolish.  Lincolnshire has lost far too many of it’s country houses already over the last 100 years – there is no reason beyond stubborn greed why Nocton Hall should be added to the list.

Full story: ‘Nocton Hall a ‘top 10’ endangered building‘ [Lincolnshire Echo]