Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going to the country: more country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 2

The first part of this series, highlighted the aristocratic background of our early Prime Ministers – Earls and Dukes abound.  This meant that a country house was just where they had been brought up and simply regarded as home rather than the aspirational purchase.  It also highlighted that the architectural tastes of the PMs reflected their political beliefs with a strong preference for the Classical, representing structure and order.

So, to continue the tour of country houses of Prime Ministers, this time those who served  under George III (1760–1820):

Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)

The first was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Originally a man of rather limited means who only acquired great wealth following his marriage to the rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu. The family seat was Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; at the time a small Queen Anne house which burnt down in 1877 to be replaced by the Gothic palace we see today.  With his later wealth and prominence the Earl created two fine new country houses.  On his retirement as PM, he bought Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire in 1763 and in 1767 commissioned Robert Adam to create a large neoclassical mansion which, although this was never fully realised, the resulting house (now a hotel) is still sizable.  The wings are a later addition but faithful to Adam’s original conception. Ill health later forced a move to the Dorset coast and having bought a clifftop position he built High Cliff “to command the finest outlook in England.“.  Unfortunately it was a little to fine, the crumbling cliff not only necessitated the demolition of the house in the late 1790s, it also led to the Earl’s death in 1792 due to a fall whilst picking plants.

He was succeeded as PM in 1763 by George Grenville who was born, and lived, at the family seat, Wotton House, Buckinghamshire.  He is one of only nine PMs who did not become a peer on leaving office.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

If there was a competition for the most impressive house of Prime Ministers then Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham would be feeling rather confident.  His family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, is one of the largest private country houses in Britain with a main front extending to over 600ft. Built over a 25-year period, the house exemplifies the grand palaces which became possible in Georgian England. Faced with the usual pressures on later owners, plus vindictive coal mining, the family moved out and the house was leased as a teacher training college but since 1999 it has been the home of architect Clifford Newbold and his family who have been undertaking a massive and very impressive restoration programme.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham was brought up in great comfort from the proceeds of the sale of the Regent Diamond by his father.  As the younger son, Pitt would not inherit the family seat and so made his own way, choosing politics and becoming PM in 1766.  His country residence was the relatively modest Hayes Place in Kent, which he had built after he bought the estate in 1757.  He later sold it in 1766 to Horace Walpole who encased the house in white brick and enlarged it before selling back to Pitt in 1768 on his retirement.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished and houses built on the land.

Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)
Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)

Another Prime Ministerial seat to suffer later loss was Euston Hall in Suffolk seat of Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton who succeeded William Pitt.  The Dukes of Grafton were very wealthy with extensive land holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and London.  Euston Hall had been extensively remodelled by the Palladian architect Matthew Brettingham for the 2nd Duke between 1750-56.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1902 which destroyed the south and west wings, which were subsequently rebuilt on the same plan but then demolished again by the 10th Duke in 1952.  It should also be noted that the Dukes also owned the splendid Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, designed by William Kent, though it was tenanted and therefore the Dukes never lived there.

William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne had the splendid fortune to be brought up in one of the finest of Georgian country houses, Bowood House in Wiltshire, which also became a scandalous loss when it was demolished in 1955/56.  Remodelled for the 1st Earl by Henry Keene between 1755-60, the house also featured interiors by Robert Adam, who also altered Keene’s original portico to create a much grander version.  Afterwards the stables were converted to function as the main house where the 9th Marquess of Lansdowne (as the Earls became) still lives today.

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)

The next PM, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which had also been the home of an earlier PM, his relative Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  As stated in Part 1, this is a fascinating house which has often been overlooked due to the fact that it has been rarely open to the in the last 100 years, public tours having finished in 1914. Extensive work was carried out between 1742-46 by the relatively unknown architect John James who reconstructed the south wing and remodelled the west front for Henrietta, Countess of Oxford.  The west front was subsequently changed again in 1790 to designs by Sir Humphry Repton.  The Dukes of Portland also had a southern seat at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, though this house was replaced in 1865 by the 12th Duke of Somerset who by then owned the estate.

In contrast to the vast wealth and aristocratic status of the preceeding PM, William Pitt the Younger was able to bring political heritage; his father also having served in the same role. In stark contrast to the size and splendour of Welbeck, his country home was Holwood House in Kent, a modest mansion set in 200-acres for which Pitt paid £7,000 in 1783 before commissioning Sir John Soane to alter and enlarge it in 1786 and 1795.  Soane’s work here led to Pitt recommending him for the work to build what was to be one of Soane’s masterpieces; the Bank of England building which was so sadly demolished in the 1920s.  Holwood was also to be demolished, in 1823, to be replaced by a much grander house designed by Decimus Burton.

The country houses of Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth have both largely now vanished under the sprawl that is Reading University.  Addington had a low-key record as PM and his houses were equally modest.  Although on becoming PM Addington moved into the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, his main seat was Woodley House, Berkshire, which had been built in 1777 before being bought by Addington in 1789. At the same time, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Bulmershe Court which was then tenanted, before falling into disrepair in the 19th century leading to two-thirds of it being demolished. Woodley House was used by the Minstry of Defence during WWII but subsequent dereliction led to its demolition in 1960.

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville, as well as abolishing slavery, also created one of the most elegant of the houses in this series; Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire.  Built in 1795 and designed by Samuel Wyatt (b.1737 – d.1807) with later work by Charles Heathcote Tatham (b.1772 – d.1842), it was Grenville’s refuge, describing it as ‘deep sheltered from the world’s tempestuous strife‘. The grounds were also lavished with attention with Grenville planting 2,500 trees, and creating numerous walks which took in the superb views and even going as far as to remove a hill which blocked the view to Windsor Castle.  Tragically, devastating fires in 1990 and 1997 left a ruined shell but it has been recently rebuilt as a series of luxury apartments.

The only PM to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, never really had a country seat of his own but had grown up in Enmore Castle, Somerset though he would never inherit as he was the second son of second marriage.  Only a small section of the main house now remains after it was largely demolished in 1833, but originally Enmore, built c1779, was one of the largest houses in the county.  In later life, Perceval lived in a large house called Elm Grove on the south side of Ealing Common in London – though at the time this would have been quite a rural area but not quite enough to classify this as a true country house.

The final PM under George III was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who again chose to live close to London, though in a country house, at Coombe House in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey.  Originally Tudor, this brick house was replaced with a Georgian mansion which was later altered by Sir John Soane, including the addition of a library.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished with houses now covering the site.

So although the Gothic revival movement had started in the 1740s and was the main alternative to the dominant Classical architectural style, even by the 1820s, it did not reflect the tastes of any of the Prime Ministers.  Considering the system still echoed the exclusions of the Reformation with its explicit rejection of all things ‘catholic’ (architectural, theological, political) it was unlikely to change, especially as the Catholic Emancipation Bill wasn’t passed until 1828.  Architecture was taken an expression of belief and so to favour the Gothic could potentially have given the wrong signals.

Next: Prime Ministers under George IV and William IV

List of UK Prime Ministers

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: