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.

————————————————————————

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

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

The Country House Revealed – Easton Neston, Northamptonshire

Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)
Easton Neston, Northamptonshire (Image: Trish York)

The stated objective of Dan Cruickshank’s series ‘The Country House Revealed‘ is to “…explore Britain’s finest country houses” and after the relatively low-key start with South Wraxall Manor, it upped the ante with the elegant Kinross House, and now it truly reaches one of the finest houses in the country: Easton Neston, Northamptonshire.  The only country house by one of the finest architects of his generation, when it was put up for sale in 2005, it marked the end of one of the great family estates.

Although many fine adjectives can be applied to Easton Neston, one seems to sum it up: noble.  Sitting on a slight rise of ground, this beautifully proportioned house neither lords it over the area but neither does it shirk from elegantly dominating its environment.  That the house looks as it does is due to a unique set of circumstances which gave the opportunity for Nicholas Hawksmoor (b. c.1662 – d.1736) to design his only country house – though he did help with others.

Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire and, after finishing school, was employed as a clerk by a local landowner.  Such was his ‘early skill and genius‘ that word of his talent reached the finest architect in the country, Sir Christopher Wren, who took him on as a clerk at the age of 18.  This employment gave Hawksmoor a role in almost all Wren’s projects from c.1684 onwards, including Winchester Palace, the London City churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1689, thanks to Wren, Hawksmoor obtained the post of Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace – the first in a series of official state roles he was to hold throughout his life, which provided both opportunities and frustrations.

It was this close relationship with Wren which gave Hawksmoor the opportunity to design the house at Easton Neston for Sir William Fermor.  Wren seemed not to display much of an interest in designing country houses but, as he was related by marriage to Sir William, he had originally been consulted about a new house in 1682 and had provided designs for two wings built in the early 1690s, of which one now survives (despite a serious fire in 2002).  Importantly, these two facing wings were 125-feet apart, limiting the size of the main house which would site between them.

Oak model of Easton Neston, c.1690 (Image: Sotheby's?)
Oak model of Easton Neston (as proposed? as built?) (Image: Sotheby's?)

Due to the lack of virtually any drawings or documents relating to Hawksmoor and Easton Neston, there seems to be some debate between such distinguished historians as Howard Colvin, John Julius Norwich and Kerry Downes as to exactly what Hawksmoor designed.  The couple of surviving letters relating to the build from Wren and others indicate that there was possibly a brick house, to Wren’s design, which looked similar but the house as it is today differs in several notable ways, not least the use of engaged columns and giant pilasters.

The first use of the giant pilaster order in English residential architecture can be seen in the south front of Chatsworth, designed by William Talman in 1687 and which also introduced the rectangular silhouette, the echoes of both of which can be seen in Easton Neston.  If the house as modelled is what was proposed or built then it is Wren’s design as Talman’s influence was not yet to be felt.

Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)
Staircase, Easton Neston (Image: English Heritage / NMR)

Norwich argues that the form of the house was substantially Wren’s, as was the interior, though Downes argues that, on the evidence of Hawksmoor’s sophisticated alterations for the interior at Ingestre Hall in 1688, with its clever use of internal screens of columns and dramatic spaces, and similarly demonstrated with the original hall and the brilliant cantilevered, shallow-stepped staircase at Easton Neston, he comes down firmly on the side of Hawksmoor.

The overall look of the house as it stands today is clearly Hawksmoor – it’s exciting, erudite, and draws on his extensive knowledge of classical architecture to create  bold fronts but with brilliant proportions which make perfect use of the form.  Hawksmoor also had the advantage of the use of Helmdon stone which, due to its durability and exceptional crispness when carved, ensures the house looks as good today as when it was first built.

Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' (Image: wapedia)
Easton Neston as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' - click for larger image (Image: wapedia)

Hawksmoor never undertook the usual Grand Tour to Italy so his architectural style was essentially drawn from a close study from various books of earlier classical architects.  This gives his work an intellectual quality which others lacked but also gave him the vocabulary to be inventive.  Easton Neston appears as a much bigger house, including a huge forecourt, in Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ though, thankfully they were never executed.  However, the drawing clearly show a clear link between Hawksmoor’s country house and the six London churches (of the 12 built from the proposed 50) he designed: St Alfege’s Church, Greenwich, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, Christ Church, Spitalfields, St George in the East, Wapping, St Mary Woolnoth, and St Anne’s, Limehouse.

Hawksmoor was also to work, from 1702, with that other genius architect of that age; Sir John Vanbrugh; the playwright turned architect who came to rely on Hawksmoor’s practical skills to translate his fanciful visions into a reality at Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace (even more so when he had to take over following Vanbrugh’s bitter falling out with the Duchess of Marlborough).  Hawksmoor can therefore be seen as a link between Wren’s classicism and the exuberance of Vanbrugh’s particular brand of English Baroque.

Easton Neston remained essentially unchanged (except for some later flamboyant and slightly rampant interior plasterwork by a local artisan in the 18th-century) and in the Fermor-Hesketh family for nearly 500-years until in 2004 Lord Hesketh decided that he was not willing to burden his children with running a house and estate which “…in a good year it loses £500,000 and in a bad year it could lose £1.5m.” and risk seeing the family wealth slowly ebb away on maintenance. He was possibly also influenced by the likely cost of the restoration of Wren’s badly-damaged East wing which suffered a serious fire in 2002. Originally the house and 3,000-acres were put on the market for £50m in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase one of the finest estates to come on the market for decades. Yet with no takers for the whole, Knight Frank sold over 2,200-acres for around £20m leaving just the house and 600-acres for £15m.

In July 2005 it was announced that Easton Neston had been sold to the American clothing retail tycoon Leon Max, the Russian-born owner of the California-based Maxstudio.com retail chain.  For all the fear about overseas buyers, Mr Max appears to have taken his custodianship of this grade-I masterpiece very seriously; hiring the architect Ptolemy Dean to oversee the work and investing an estimated £5m on the restoration to update the services of the house but also to restore the damaged wing to create a European headquarters for his company.  The interiors are equally splendid, overseen by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill (who grew up at Blenheim), with Max taking an ‘almost pedantically historicist approach‘ to sourcing furnishings and furniture which includes Aubusson tapestries from a chateau in France, Louis XVI chairs, and even a couple of the paintings sold by Lord Hesketh as he emptied the house of everything in a series of grand country house sales before moving out.

Easton Neston probably now looks better now than it has done since it was built, with the investment from the new owner likely to have secured the future of one of our greatest and most interesting country houses.

——————————————————————–

Book of the series: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Waterstones]

Official listing: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

Quotes, figures and details in final paragraph come from an interview with Leon Max in the Sunday Times ‘Home’ section – 3 October 2010.

The front line: the campaigners for country houses

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

Despite the image of wealth and power a country house might create, in reality their existence is far more precarious – as can be seen with nearly 1,800 houses lost over the last two centuries.  A house facing the threats of being uninhabited without a concerned, well-funded owner with an inclination to keep it in good repair can quickly deteriorate leaving another gap in the tapestry of the countryside.  Sometimes it requires someone other than concerned locals and architectural historians to highlight and campaign on behalf of those ‘at risk’ so here’s a quick round-up of the main English organisations fighting on behalf of country houses and who are very worthy of support.

English Heritage inhabits a prime position in view of its role in defining and, in conjunction with local authorities, implementing the statutory protection of our built heritage.  Its role can be traced back to the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 – though the legislation specifically excluded privately owned houses. The responsibilities were exercised through various government departments until it became a quango in 1984.  As well as being responsible for the listing system and the annual production of the various ‘at risk’ registers (focussing mainly on grade-I and -II* properties), EH is also directly responsible for various country houses including Brodsworth Hall (Yorkshire), Rufford Abbey (Nottinghamshire), Hill Hall and Audley End (Essex), Kirby Hall (Northamptonshire), Witley Court (Worcestershire), Stokesay Castle (Shropshire), and Apethorpe Hall (Northamptonshire).   It’s at the grade-I listed Apethorpe where EH has done some of it’s most interesting work; taking a direct role in the restoration of one of the finest Elizabethan/Jacobean houses in the country following a long period of neglect. Since 2008, the house has been for sale for around £5m – though there is a compulsory £4m list of renovations, and if you want complete privacy expect to pay another £8m to fully reimburse EH otherwise you have to open it for 28 days a year; so a nice round £20m to restore, furnish and keep as your own. However, this is a role that I fully support them in taking on – they should be there as owner and restorer of last resort for threatened grade-I houses.  Now perhaps we can interest them in the sadly deriorating Melton Constable Hall in Norfolk…?

Another important group of campaigners are recognised in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act which formalised the role of what are known as ‘amenity societies‘; that is, well-established voluntary societies who are experts in their areas, who must, by law, be informed of any applications for listed building consent to demolish listed buildings in whole or in part in England and Wales.

One of the best known is the Georgian Group who cover a period broadly from 1700-1837.  The society was established in 1937 and has long campaigned for the sensitive restoration and retention of not only the buildings but the many important, and sometimes sadly overlooked, internal features which are a key part of the character of a building.  Current active campaigns and cases they are involved in include Bank Hall in Lancashire and Trewarthenick House in Cornwall and many others. They also produce a scholarly annual research journal which provides a much more in-depth view of aspects of Georgian architecture.  Access for the wonderful trips to houses not normally open to the public are worth joining for alone.

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)
Eaton Hall, Cheshire (by Alfred Waterhouse - dem. 1961) (Image: Lost Heritage)

The Victorian Society (which also covers Edwardian buildings too) was formed in 1958 at a time when almost all things Victorian were disliked and an easy target for demolition.  Founded at the suggestion of Anne, Lady Rosse, along with her influential friends such as Sir John Betjeman and Sir Nicklaus Pevsner, the Society has fought some notable battles; losing some such as Euston Station but winning others, such as the soon-to-reopen St Pancras Midland Grand Hotel building.  Victorian country houses have suffered badly as, although designed by eminent architects such as Richard Norman Shaw and Alfred Waterhouse, they were often built on a much grander and therefore less economically sustainable scale and at the times of greatest threat (the 1930s and 1950s) had few friends to argue on their behalf.  Luckily though this has changed – but with the predominant ‘gothic-revival’ style being quite polarising, threats to houses from this period will always be present. Again, well worth joining.

Perhaps more controversially for this blog, it’s also worth bearing in mind the Twentieth Century Society.  Although the focus of the houses usually covered is before 1900, there has been a growing recognition that some of the country houses built in the 20th-century were well-planned and architecturally pleasing, even if they sometimes replaced a much more attractive Georgian or Victorian house.  It does seem to take about 50 years after a style has passed from being fashionable for it to be appreciated, so I suspect there will be a growing realisation that we need to protect the work of those such as Francis Johnson, Craig Hamilton, Quinlan Terry, and Robert Adam (amongst many others) in the future.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is, as its name makes clear, not usually concerned with country houses as they are relatively ‘modern’ in terms of its remit.  However, they do immensely important work in promoting good repair practice to all buildings and their courses have taught generations of owners and craftsmen to respect the country houses and to approach any work required with a more ‘heritage’ mindset.

Although not ‘amenity societies’, two other organisations deserve a mention. The first is the Historic Houses Association which acts on behalf of the private owners of country houses and often lobby government to make them aware of the immense work done by the individual owners to maintain their slice of the national architectural heritage.  It may seem unfashionable in wider society to support the wealthy but they are the ones not only maintaining their homes to the exacting standards of English Heritage, but also restoring and rescuing houses and converting them back into homes again – and for that they deserve our thanks.

The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)
The Grange, Hampshire (Image: mpntod / Wikipedia)

The other organisation is one in which I have an interest having worked with them for several years: SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  Founded in 1974, SAVE have taken a very active stance on campaigning, willing to create media interest at short notice, but also to take time to produce some excellent research on houses at risk with thoughtful proposals for their re-use.  These campaigns have saved houses such as Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, The Grange in Hampshire, Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire (where SAVE bravely took on the house for £1!), and, working with Kit Martin, have acted as a catalyst for the saving of other houses through conversion into apartments.  Supporting SAVE’s work and becoming a Friend also gives access to their extensive ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ which features over 800 properties, including several country houses, which are in need of rescue – could it be you?

It is also worth keeping an eye out for local activists and campaigns which can also be remarkably successful at highlighting buildings at risk but can also sometimes take a more direct role; see the wonderful work at Poltimore, Devon, Bank Hall, Lancashire, and Copped Hall, Essex.  These are just three examples where concerned locals have organised themselves and presented a credible alternative and prevented the complete loss of the house.

All of these organisations are worth joining but economics being what they are it can be best to join a national organisation and then another to focus on the period which you prefer.  Joining up means that you are helping to support research but also active campaigns to ensure that as much of our built heritage is passed on to future generations.

———————————————————

I realise this selection is not comprehensive and is quite national in focus and deficient in regional organisations but this will be remedied in another post once I’ve had time to learn a bit more about who’s out there.

– Matthew

———————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


More information: High Speed 2 [wikipedia]

An ambition frustrated: country houses never completed

The delight of a country house is the beautiful meeting of house, setting and contents to create a complete picture.  Yet, for some houses, they never make that stage – finances or death of the instigator usually being the main obstacle to completion.  For some, these half-built aspirations are demolished, others left as a shell which can tantalise us today as to why they failed to achieve their purpose.

In previous generations, the simplicity of construction methods would necessarily mean that in some cases a decade could pass from plans being drawn up to actually moving in. As now, families can go from great wealth to poverty in a short time so to build a substantial country house was a commitment and a statement of the aspirations of the owners as to their future good fortune and health – though sometimes it was not to be.

Many a mansion has been started with grand ambitions which will forever remain unfulfilled (how impressive would Goodwood House in Sussex be if they’d completed the other five sides of the intended octogon?).  However this post is focussed on those which were started and ended only as frustrated shells.

Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)
Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire (Image: Matthew Lister via Wikipedia)

One of the most impressive of these is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire.  Originally built for William Leigh, a wealthy trader, who, inspired by his conversion to Catholicism, sought to create a religious community in the Cotswolds on his estate.  As any good Catholic was inclined to do at the time, he consulted A.W. Pugin, a devout Catholic who believed that Gothic architecture was the only true Christian style.  He produced plans for a grand new house (after naturally condemning the existing house as “…a more hopeless case of repairs I never saw.“) and a church and monastery, and sent his new design for the house with his estimate of £7,118.  Anyone familiar with Pugin’s career will know that he never saw an estimate he couldn’t exceed so Leigh probably had a lucky escape when Pugin resigned the commission in 1846.  Leigh instead turned to another Catholic architect Charles Hansom (b.1817 – d.1888).  Leigh’s religious zeal took priority so the church was completed in 1849 and the monastery in 1853 after which work started on the new house.

However, progress was slow; the workers were occasionally given tasks elsewhere on the estate, funds were inadequate, and Leigh was also a perfectionist who took a close interest which can only have delayed things.  The architect had also changed, with the young and inexperienced Benjamin Bucknall taking over and revising the designs to a combination of Pugin and the French architect Viollet-le-Duc, giving the house a distinctly French influence.  However, Leigh’s declining health overtook the build and he died in 1873 with only the shell complete.  A profligate son, declining family fortunes, the World Wars, and its isolation meant that despite various plans, including completion for use as mental hospital offices, it simply sat in its parkland. Now grade-I listed, the house gives a unique insight into the construction methods of the time.

Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)
Worksop Manor, Nottinghamshire (Image: Heritage Images)

Perhaps the grandest house never to be completed was the Worksop Manor in Nottinghamshire for the Dukes of Norfolk.  Part of the ‘Dukeries‘, that area of the county formerly rich in ducal seats, the original 500-room Elizabethan Worksop Manor, designed by Robert Smythson, burnt down in 1761 during renovations, destroying £100,000 (approx. £143m) of works of art from the famous Arundel collection.  Although childless, the 9th Duke decided to rebuild for the benefit of his eventual heir.

The plans were colossal and would have been the largest house in the county and maybe the country – if it had been completed.  Even Horace Walpole, who had developed a discerning eye for country houses during his many tours, thought the Duke’s schemes “…so vast and expensive that it is scarcely possible they can be completed.“. Designed by James Paine (b.1717 – d.1789), the aim was to mark the status and learning of the Duke’s family, building only one side, however it alone was 23-bays, 318ft long and featured a fine Corinthian column supported by six columns, with a 37ft x 25ft entrance hall, decorated by Flemish artist Theodore de Bruyn, and a grand drawing room of 50ft x 30ft.

However, following the death of the heir, Edward Howard, the grief-stricken Norfolks abandoned the project and concentrated on their Sussex seat Arundel Castle.  The 10th and 11th Dukes never completed it so it was therefore unsurprising that the 12th Duke decided to sell the house and estate in 1838 to the neighbouring Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme for £375,000.  With his own palatial house at the nearby Clumber House, the Duke was not interested in the house, just in adding the land to his own. Rather than pay for the upkeep, the Duke sold the fabric of the building before demolishing the rest in June 1841 leaving just the stables and part of the service wing.  It was these that were later restored to make a rather awkward looking new Worksop Manor.

Lyvden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire (Image: Ed Bramley via Wikipedia)

Altogether more mysterious is Lyveden New Beild in Northamptonshire.  Built for the remarkable if oft persecuted Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham (b.? – d.1605), a well-educated and wealthy man who moved in the highest social circles.  Never intended as a main residence (Lyveden Old Bield), this was apparently a summer house, a retreat for the owner during the annual spring clean of his main house.  That said, this is a house with many meanings.  Designed by Robert Stickells (b.? – d.1620) to indulge Tresham’s interest in antiquity and religious symbolism, the house was built in the shape of a cross and other elements aligned or organised according to mystical numbers, often alluding to the Holy Trinity.  Tresham also used the same ideas in his construction of the famous Rushton Triangular Lodge, a small folly also on the estate.

However, the same ardent Catholicism which drove the design of the New Bield and the Lodge also meant that he was regularly persecuted for his faith, frequently being fined huge amounts.  With borrowing his only option, funds were scarce and his estate heavily indebted.  Perhaps surprisingly, this half-finished house, set in fine gardens and parkland, was never bought and completed and so remains an architectural enigma to this day.


Visiting

Woodchester Mansion holds regular open days more details available on their website. The surrounding Park is owned by the National Trust.

Worksop Manor is still very much a private residence and is not open to the public.

Lyveden New Beild is owned by the National Trust and is regularly open.

The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Wrest Park, Bedfordshire (Image: English Heritage)

For all the traditional antipathy towards the French, the influence of their architecture has been felt throughout Britain’s country houses.  Although initially the use of the French architectural vocabulary was a sign of wealth and education only available to the best families, the style was regarded as sullied by the later, more energetic, constructions of the Victorians – an association which still sadly lingers today.

The first wave of Anglo-French design started in the Elizabethan period; a time when it was acceptable to display one’s knowledge conspicuously. The French style, with its dramatic rooflines, dovetailed with the traditional English manor house and its own profusion of gables and chimneys.  Houses such as Burghley in Northamptonshire made dramatic use of the style with the central, three-storey pavilion, dated 1585, based on the French triumphal arch but oddly includes a traditional mullioned window on the third floor. Burghley was the product of the owner, Lord Burghley, an architectural enthusiast who as far back as 1568 was known to have been writing to France to obtain specific architectural books.

This early use of the French style was relatively restrained – probably more by the conservatism of the ruling gentry who were most likely to be building these houses.  Yet, our impressions now are more strongly influenced by the bolder, more assertive French style which was so popular during the Victorian era – though this same popularity was to also lead to it being derided.

The first of the Victorian nouveau-riche were keen to be accepted by society and so built houses which largely followed the same designs used by the local families.  The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 led to a rush across the Channel leading to a revival of interest in French design, particularly in relation to interiors, such as the Elizabeth Saloon at Belvoir Castle, Rutland, built c.1825.  By the mid-nineteenth century this was being more confidently expressed in dramatic houses which sought to boldly make their mark.

The second French Renaissance was influenced by lavish works such as the new block at the Louvre in Paris, built between 1852-70.   However, there were earlier examples such as the complete Louis XV chateau at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, designed by the owner Earl de Grey, built in 1834-39, and Anthony Salvin’s French roofs added to Oxonhoath in Kent in 1846-47.  Yet, after the Louvre, the fashion gathered pace with designs such as R.C. Carpenter’s redesign of Bedgebury in Kent in 1854-55, and Salvin’s work at Marbury Hall in Cheshire in 1856-8.  Less successfully, the architect Benjamin Ferrey built Wynnstay in Denbighshire for Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn which, for all its dramatic high roofs and pavilions, was thought rather gloomy.  Another dramatic, albeit slightly awkward, design was that of Plas Rhianfa, Wales, built in 1849, which seems to mix both Scots baronial and French, whilst Sir Charles Barry completed a more successful use of the two styles at Dunrobin Castle for the Dukes of Sutherland in 1845.  Also of note was Nesfield’s design for Kinmel Hall, described as a Welsh ‘Versailles’.

These houses were largely for the existing gentry who found the impressive skylines met their needs for a dramatic statement as was fashionable at the time.  With the fashion spreading into London and being used for luxury hotels, clubs and offices it was inevitable that the newly wealthy would wish to emulate in the country the world they already enjoyed.  The last burst of ‘aristocratic French’ could be seen in the designs for Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, 1865-68 for Lord Boston, Alfred Waterhouse’s Eaton Hall in Cheshire, 1870-72 for the Duke of Westminster, and T.H. Wyatt’s Nuneham Paddox in Warwickshire for the Earl of Denbigh, built in 1875.  From around this time, its fashionability declined.

One of the earliest of this new wave was Normanhurst in Sussex, built in 1867 for Thomas Brassey, son of the famous railway contractor.  Reputedly, Lady Ashburnham from nearby Ashburnham Place (note the very different architectural style of house) would snootily refer to him as ‘that train driver over the hill’.  In Worcestershire, the equally dramatic red-brick Impney Hall – later Chateau Impney – was built in 1869-75 for local salt tycoon John Corbett, who employed Auguste Tonquois, who had extensive experience around Paris.  In County Durham, the foundation stone of the Bowes Museum, originally designed to be part-home also, was laid in 1869 for John and Josephine Bowes.  Designed by Jules Pellechet with J.E. Watson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the house reflected their love of France but also made a statement as to their wealth – and possibly sought to hide their less-than-solid social position as illegitimate son of an Earl and an actress.  In Yorkshire, the additions to Warter Priory were considered unsuccessful, either due to the strange proportions or because the style had simply fallen out of favour.  More successfully, St Leonard’s Hill, Berkshire, was transformed from a Georgian house in the mid-1870s to create a dramatic chateau visible from Windsor Castle.

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

Interestingly though, perhaps the most famous of the English chateau was also one of the latest.  Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to a design by French architect Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur, mixing elements from various famous French chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Anet.  The last of these grand French imports was Halton House, designed by William R. Rogers and built in 1882-88, also in Buckinghamshire and also for a Rothschild, Alfred Charles; Baron Ferdinand’s cousin.  Equally grand, this house also featured a wonderful winter garden, though this was sadly demolished to make way for an accommodation block for the RAF who bought the house and turned it into an officer’s mess.

Perhaps one of the final straws as to the desirability of the French style was the spectacular collapse of the Victorian financier Baron Grant who, in 1875, spent over £270,000 (approx. £20m) building a huge house in Kensington before his crimes were exposed in 1879 with the subsequent public disgrace, and the demolition the house in 1883.  Such a high-profile scandal and its flash monument would have been felt in society and tarnished the style for no-one would wish to be associated with such disgrace.  However, fashion would have played a more significant role, with taste moving on to new styles, leaving these extravagant mementos to an earlier, brasher architectural exuberance which now give us an unexpected glimpse of France in the British countryside.


Credit: a wonderful insight into the period is Mark Girouard’s ‘The Victorian Country House’ which was most useful in the research for this post.

For more information on Chateau Impney; ‘Chateau Impney – the story of a Victorian country house’ by John Hodges

‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]

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: