School’s out: seats of learning for sale

One of the many uses to which our country houses have been successfully adapted to is that of schooling – from the grandest such as Stowe and Bryanston to the many smaller houses which have delighted and terrified children in equal measure for many years.  Even as recently as April 2010, Wispers in Sussex, was sold to a London primary school as a satellite to their main campus. Yet for all the fond memories held by generations of youngsters, private schools and educational colleges are facing their own periods of austerity, forcing some to close.  With closure comes a rare opportunity for a house to once again become a home – though such a move is fraught with practical, and sometimes political, challenges.

Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)
Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire (Image: Augustus Photographic via flickr)

One of the bonuses of writing this blog is to discover houses so little known that, despite their obvious beauty, they seldom appear in books.  Urchfont Manor, Wiltshire is a classic example of this. Currently a residential college, this stunning smaller William and Mary country house was built around 1678 for William Pynsent, a wealthy London barrister, who would have been well-aware of the latest architectural fashions. The architect is unconfirmed but, with the hipped roof and projecting, pedimented centrepiece, it appears to draw inspiration from houses such as Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire (though 7-bays to Horseheath’s eleven) designed by Sir Roger Pratt in 1663-5 (dem.1777), and also clear stylistic similarities with houses such as  the north and south fronts of Fawley Court, Buckinghamshire (built 1684-5, by Sir Christopher Wren) and Puslinch, Devon (a late proponent of the style, being built c1720).  One curious anecdote, told to Sir John Julius Norwich, was that the house was substantially altered, creating the elegant east front, about twelve years after construction to designs by William Talman – but Colvin doesn’t mention it and no firm evidence has appeared to support this…so far.

Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)
Puslinch House, Devon (Image: Devon Rural Archive)

Urchfont is a fascinating and enchanting smaller manor house which successfully plays the neat visual trick of looking larger than it is – at least from some angles. The two key views of the house are from the main road from the village, which gave a clear view of the east front and the road running below the south front (the house was once more visible; maps from 1880s show only a few clumps of trees, much fewer than there are now).  If one only saw these two fronts, one might think this a large, cube-shaped house – but move round to the north and the house is clearly only one room deep on the east front. A lovely piece of social aggrandisement.  The house passed through various families and was tenanted before being bought by another lawyer, Hamilton Rivers-Pollock, in 1928, who lived there until his death in 1941.  It then became a home for London children suffering from tuberculosis, and was then bought in 1945 by Wiltshire County Council as a residential college.  Now, faced with cutbacks,  the council have decided to sell up, amid much local controversy, giving this beautiful house an opportunity to once again become a home.

The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)
The Hill, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (Image: Cooke & Arkwright)

Across the country in Monmouthshire, The Hill, as the name implies, sits rather proudly on the edge of Abergavenny.  Built in the mid-18th century, the house sits in 20-acres of gardens (which are included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic
Interest in Wales) from a once larger estate, the residential spread of the town having crept up towards it.  Sadly, poor planning has led to a small residential estate taking up the grounds to the east of the house, and further buildings associated with its time as a college now stand between them and the house.  This makes it exceptionally unlikely that the house would become a single-family home again but potentially a high-quality development, replacing the modern buildings and respecting the grounds, could offer a workable solution.

Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

On a larger scale, the curse of the associated buildings also blights Bedgebury Park, Kent. The original house of the estate, seat of the influential Culpepper family, financed by a flourishing iron business based on the clay-ironstone on which it sits, was to the east of the current grand mansion (now a lake), and played host to Elizabeth I, who visited in August 1573.  The current house was built in 1688 for Sir James Hayes, a man who had become wealthy through  his wife’s inheritance and financing the recovery of jewels and gold from a sunken Spanish ship.  Sir John Cartier bought it in 1789 and added some impressive plasterwork and the chain of lakes on the estate.  Following Cartier’s death,  Bedgebury was bought by one of the Duke of Wellington’s most trusted men, Field Marshal Viscount Beresford.  He commissioned Alexander Roos c.1838 and the subsequent extensive alterations and the addition of the cross wings to create the H-shape, obscured the red-brick original behind an impressive cladding of warm, honey-coloured sandstone ashlar, creating a house which positively glows in the sun. Inherited by Alexander Beresford Hope in 1854, he made his mark on the house by adding the impressive Neo-Classical stairhall and the striking mansard roof.

Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)
Stairhall created c.1850s, Bedgebury Park, Kent (Image: Knight Frank)

The house was bought by the Church Education Corporation with 200-acres in 1919, opening as a school with just five pupils in 1920.  It quickly grew and new buildings were added in the grounds providing extra teaching and residential facilities, before closing in 2006.  Now offered at £7.5m, the grade-II* house sits in a 90-acre estate awaiting its future.  The brochure mentions that the local planning department are open to the idea of it becoming a single unit residence again – a possibly tempting prospect for a billionaire who needs an impressive house, a small estate, and doesn’t mind having to demolish the modern school buildings which have sprung up.  Considering the quality of the interiors, this must surely be a feasible prospect, especially in light of the recent sale of Park Place for £140m which proved that there are those willing to pay exceptional prices for the best quality properties.

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)
Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: English Heritage)

For those seeking to move into a former school which has been partially restored to the highest standards and now only requires the finishing touches (if you have a couple of million pounds available), then possibly the finest option would be Apethorpe, Northamptonshire.  This fascinating Tudor/Jacobean/Elizabethan house has played a supporting role in royal entertainments for 500 years and features some of the finest plaster ceilings in the country – and became a particularly grand school between the late 1940s and 1982, when it closed. Bought by an absentee owner, it languished for years, flirting with dereliction.  Finally, intervention by English Heritage brought it into their care and it’s currently for sale for offers around £5m (English Heritage reputedly spent £7m on the rescue so far), and would require another approximately £4m to complete the restoration.  On an remarkable side note; the fact that Apethorpe was saved from the usual vandalism, arson and theft which so often afflicts empty buildings, was largely due to the tireless efforts of the caretaker, George Kelley, who carried on even though he wasn’t being paid to do so.

The most recent closure (at least partially) is of St Michael’s in Tawstock, Devon.  Originally known as Tawstock Court, it was built in 1787 in a provincial Gothick style to replace an Elizabethan house which burnt down that same year.  Although the staff and parents have made heroic efforts to save it, the concern for them is that the house will fall into the hands of developers who will convert it into flats – and considering the poor job most do of such a task, their concerns are very valid.

In these straitened times, sadly a number of parents and councils will be forced to economise and schools, usually private, may well close.  Sad though this will inevitably be for the many current and former pupils, it does also offer a possibility that these houses may revert to their former role for which they were designed – and few would argue that the spectacular Marshcourt in Hampshire, designed by Lutyens, was better off as a school. However, as the roll call of struggling schools lengthens, it is important that the future of the often wonderful buildings, which gave each school their character, are given due priority to ensure an appropriate transition and restoration if the opportunity arises for them to return to being family homes.

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Original story: ‘Urchfont Manor sale row erupts‘ [Gazette and Herald]

Listed building description: ‘Bedgebury Park, Kent‘ [British Listed Buildings]

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]