Country House Rescue – Series 4: Meldon Park, Northumberland

Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)
Meldon Park, Northumberland (Image: Meldon Park)

One of the joys of Country House Rescue is to bring to light some of the lesser known houses. The subject of this week’s edition (12 July, 20:00, Channel 4), Meldon Park in Northumberland, can certainly be said to be one of the ‘illustrious obscure‘.  This is also perhaps an apt description of the architect, who was one of the most prolific in the north east of England yet surprisingly little known beyond that, though the house also features later work by another who was certainly famous. Yet, such noble associations do not pay the bills so, despite a 3,800-acre estate, the Cookson family have called in the services of Simon Davis to provide ideas to help keep the house in the family.

Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)
Entrance front, Meldon Park (Image: lawrencecornell via flickr)

Meldon Park is certainly an elegant essay in the neo-Classical; golden brown sandstone in a compact and elegant design with some superb subtle detailing which denotes the hand of a finer architect.  The entrance front, though only three bays wide, features a grand porch with four free-standing (or ‘tetrastyle prostyle’ if you’d prefer the architectural terms) Ionic columns, projecting from a slight recession of the middle bay, with the corners of the building marked by shallow pilasters.

The architect of the now grade-II* Meldon Park was the regionally prolific John Dobson (b.1787 – d.1865) – a name famous in the north east but, due to his geographic focus, one less known nationally.  Dobson was born in Chirton, County Durham, and showed an early talent for drawing which led, at the age of 15, to his becoming a pupil of leading Newcastle architect David Stephenson.  On completing his studies in 1809, Dobson moved to London to develop his skills further, studying under the famous watercolourist John Varley. In London, Dobson became friends with the artist Robert Smirke and his two architect sons Robert (who designed the main facade of the British Museum) and Sydney (who later married Dobson’s daughter).  Despite the urging of his friends to stay in London, Dobson moved back to Newcastle where he established his practice, becoming (reputedly) the only architect between York and Edinburgh, except for Ignatius Bonomi in Durham.

Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)
Jesmond Towers, Newcastle (Image: GeordieMac Pics via flickr)

Dobson proved to be an exceptionally capable architect; not only could he produce beautiful and convincing watercolours of proposed projects, he was also technically competent, to the extent that his daughter claimed he ‘…never exceeded an estimate, and never had a dispute with a contractor‘. Dobson is perhaps best remembered for designing much of central Newcastle, and in particular, the beautiful curved train shed at the Central station.  Despite his urban output, Dobson was also extensively involved in projects outside of the towns, designing or altering over sixty churches and more than a hundred country houses; the latter principally commissioned by the beneficiaries of the wealth of the Industrial Revolution. Dobson was a rare architect in that he was competent in designing in both the picturesque style of Tudor Gothic (such as at Beaufront Castle and Jesmond Towers) and the classical style of the Greek Revival – and it was in the latter that he truly excelled. Although Howard Colvin praises his careful siting of the houses, high-quality finish and precise and scholarly detailing, he thought Dobson had a tendency to exaggerate the scaling, creating an overall look which might be considered bleak. Yet, this is more an academic criticism; those today looking on the many houses he worked on would consider them to be handsome examples of the flourishing of the country house which resulted from the new wealth in the north east.

Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Stair hall, Meldon Park (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Meldon Park was to be one of Dobson’s finest of his Greek Revival designs.  Built in 1832 for Isaac Cookson, at a cost of £7,188 1s 1d (about £5m today if compared with average earnings), it was a sizeable house with extensive service accommodation and extending to a beautiful Orangery, even if the main house was comparatively small.  That said, the rooms are bright and well-proportioned with a grand Imperial central staircase, with its deep coffered ceiling described by Pevsner as being ‘the size of one in a London club‘.  The staircase was later reworked by no lesser figure than Sir Edwin Lutyens, who replaced the original metal balustrades with wooden ones and added decorative plaster panels.

Isaac Cookson was the third generation to manage the family manufacturing interests and had taken charge of his father’s glass works, developing them into one of the country’s leading makers, along with a very successful chemical works.

Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)
Longhirst Hall, Northumberland (Image: Longhirst Hall Hotel)

Cookson had previously employed Dobson to design part of a speculative urban development in Newcastle and combined with his earlier country house work at neighbouring Mitford Hall, Longhirst (with its striking entrance portico) and Nunnykirk halls, Dobson was a natural choice when looking to create his refined country seat.

As owners of a glass works, it was natural that the house would be well-lit; the bright interior a result of the large windows which graced the main rooms on the south and east sides.  Yet, Meldon Park actually marks a turning point.  The brilliant Mark Girouard, writing in Country Life in 1966, pointed out that:

In rooms like this, one realises just how much Georgian architecture developed in the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as windows grew bigger and more and more effort was made to link the inside of the house visually with the landscape.  Meldon shows the development at its final stage; soon a reaction was to begin and the Victorians turned away from the sun and immersed themselves in increasing gloom.   In this as in other aspects Meldon represents in a very convincing way, the last flowering of the Georgian country house tradition.

So Meldon Park represents not only the work of one of the finest architects to have worked in the north east but also marks a key point in the development of British architecture; the high-water mark of Georgian elegance before the more insular and muscular Victorian style swept over the north of England.  The house is also one of those rare survivals where it is still owned and lived in by descendants of the person who commissioned it, sitting in its own huge estate.  This is a house which seems to be clearly loved by the owners who have worked incredibly hard to ensure they can remain there especially when the house is less of an attraction for visitors as previous generations had sold the art collection.  Judging by their new website and other news stories about their expanded and diversified activities it seems that they were also willing to listen to Simon Davis’ advice and act on it and such pragmatism can only be applauded and will hopefully be rewarded.

——————————————————————————

Official website: ‘Meldon Park

Photos from Country Life: Meldon Park [Country Life Picture Library]

Listed building description: ‘Meldon Park, Northumberland‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Want to stay there? Meldon Park: East Wing Apartment

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 5 [Channel 4]

For more information about the architect: ‘John Dobson 1787-1865: Architect of the North East‘ – Thomas Faulkner & Andrew Greg

‘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]

Monumental follies: current large country houses in the UK

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey (Image: Andreas Tille/Wikipedia)

In previous centuries the country house was primarily a home, but also included other functions such as storehouse, dormitory, dairy, bakery, laundry.  This inevitably led to their size increasing to the point where they could be regarded as small villages – but despite the scale of houses such as Knole or palaces such as Hampton Court we still admire their elegance and charm.   So what’s changed now that the modern ‘palaces’ so lack the beauty of those which went before?  Is it because so many have been demolished that we have no sense of how to design the largest of country houses?

The size of a country house has always been used as a simple measure of the owner’s wealth – and subsequent owners could also argue it would equally symbolise the size of their burden.  In the UK, traditionally the name ‘palace’ was reserved for the homes of the monarchy or bishops with few landowners being bold enough to take the name for their own houses – regardless of size.  One of the few to do so were the Dukes of Hamilton, whose home – Hamilton Palace in Scotland – could truly be said to justify the name.  A vast Classical edifice with a north front stretching over 260-ft long, the interiors and collections were easily a match for any other house in Europe.  Yet, financial circumstances, wartime damage and apparent mining subsidence condemned the house and it was demolished in 1921.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Wikipedia)

Other houses were conceived on an even grander scale.  Perhaps the most famous is Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, designed by James Wyatt for the immensely wealthy William Beckford. Inspired by a love of the Gothic, Beckford set out to create what was effectively a residential cathedral.  The vast 300-ft tower and huge 35-ft tall doors all contributed to an awe-inspiring impression for the few visitors able to see it before it collapsed under its own ambition in 1825.  Wanstead House in Essex, built in 1715, was also conceived on a similar scale to the later Hamilton Palace but again was lost – this time when creditors tore it down so the materials could be sold to pay debts in 1825.  The roll call of other huge houses includes Eaton Hall in Cheshire, Worksop Manor and Clumber House in Nottinghamshire, Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, and Haggerston Castle in Northumberland.  Yet what distinguishes all these houses in that they have been demolished – their very size eventually condemning them as later economic circumstances rendered them unsupportable.  However, each was architecturally an interesting house, one that, if it still survived, would be admired today (well, perhaps less so the bulky Haggerston Castle).

No modern palace has yet matched the beauty of the UK’s largest private country house still standing – Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire.  From the end of one dome-capped wing to the other, the house, built largely in the 1730s, runs for over 600-ft but is an object lesson in Classical elegance.  The huge and imposing portico towers over the façade provide balance and a natural harmony with the scale of the flanking wings. Other large house still in existence which were built on a similar scale include Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.

Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Updown Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

So what have lost that means that the houses built to a similar scale today are so poor architecturally?  Perhaps one of the best (worst?) examples of this problem is Updown Court in Surrey. Completed at the end of 2006, this vast mansion is described on the official sales website as symbolising “the grand and imposing presence of the Great Houses of England.” (stop sniggering at the back!).  Although the ‘in excess of £70m’ price tag will naturally limit the pool of potential buyers, is it just the size or the price causing the problem? Perhaps it is the curse of the American ‘McMansion’ which leaves it to languish?  The derogatory term ‘McMansion’ was coined in the US in the 1980s to describe the huge houses being constructed which valued sheer size over architectural merit.  The architect of Updown, the American John B Scholz, can truly be said to pay fervent homage to such excess.  Extending to over 50,000 sq ft – bigger than Hampton Court or Buckingham Palace – the house is a exemplar of the type of house which simply is built with little thought to design beyond the ill-considered use of architectural elements to just decorate the house.

However, is no design better than too much? At Hamilton Palace in Surrey the owner, the notorious Nicholas van Hoogstraten, has taken great pains to ensure the design reflects his character.  Over-bearing and rather menacing, it was designed by Anthony Browne Architects (who are no longer involved), with work starting in 1985 and still ongoing though so far it includes a huge copper dome and a massive floor reserved for Hoogstraten’s art collection. The east wing is designed as a mausoleum where he can be hubristically entombed after death with his art collection in the manner of the Pharoahs. Yet for all the attention which has been lavished on the design and a reputed £30m spent so far, it has none of the grace and elegance of the earlier palaces.  Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of ‘self’ – a shameless design, built without a care as to what others think.  Which is probably a good things as it has been described by The Observer as “a cross between Ceausescu’s palace and a new civic crematorium” and by John Martin Robinson in The Independent Magazine (October 1988) as “Post-Modern Classical with a touch of meglomania”.

One final example, which although not strictly a country house, exemplifies this rush for scale over beauty is the proposed replacement for Athlone House in Hampstead, north London.  Owned by a Middle Eastern billionaire, this 50,000 sq ft pile is being designed by Robert Adam, a pre-eminent neo-Classical architect.  Despite this he has managed to produce a design described by one local critic as a ‘cross between a Stalinist palace and a Victorian lunatic asylum’ – and yet Mr Adam is responsible for some elegant examples of country houses such as the proposed Grafton Hall, Cheshire.

Obviously the scale of a modern palace is way beyond the realm of normal domesticity – and that’s fine.  The house has long been an expression of power and prestige but it was also one of taste, a refined justification as to the choice of a particular architect or style.  The modern ‘palace’ (and I use the word simply to suggest scale not beauty) is sometimes just the product of an architect interpreting vague notions from clients who seem unwilling to invest the time to become educated.  The end results are over-sized houses which lack the intellectual justification which underpinned the Fonthills and Eaton Halls of their day.  Nowadays, the need to spend the budget on a sad checklist of gimmicks seems to be pushing houses away from architecture and simply into a form of ‘decorated construction’ – a largely functional building given a variety of architectural fig leaves to hide its naked purpose as simply a Corbusier-esque ‘machine for living’ – but on a monumental and unpalatable scale.

Original story: ‘Hot property: Palaces‘ [ft.com]

Official website: ‘Updown Court, Surrey

Property details: ‘Updown Court, Surrey‘ [savills.com]

More criticism of Athlone House by Simon Jenkins ‘Greed, egos and yet another blot on the horizon‘ [thisislondon.com]

Anyone with deep pockets? Country houses at risk today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A family tradition: the restoration of Dissington Hall

Dissington Hall, Northumberland (Image: dissingtonhall.co.uk)

Dissington Hall was largely derelict when it was bought by Eric Brown in 1968, despite the then preference for new properties.  A senior dentist and dental lecturer, he was not the obvious buyer for such a large Georgian house but he and his wife had fallen in love with it and now were determined to rescue it from its long decline. Their success and love of the building has been passed on to his son Michael, who was just four when he moved in, and it is now he and his family who have completed this labour of love and brought back into use this elegant house.

The house was originally built for the Collingwood family in 1797 who had been commissioned the architect William Newton (b.1730 – d.1798) in 1794.  Newton had designed a number of significant local country houses including Capheaton Hall (1758), Backworth Hall (1778), Howick Hall (1782), Whitfield Hall (1785) before his work at Dissington.  Dissington Hall is an elegant design with a first-floor string course to relieve the mass of the vertical elevation and a ground floor cornice which was a Newton characteristic.  It was built in the local sandstone in fine Ashlar with the blocks being so finely cut that the joins are near-invisible.  Further changes where made between 1820 and 1850 with a new clock tower, stables, porch, alterations to the roofline and the additions of a new servant’s stair.

Despite the obvious quality of the house, it was to suffer much during World War II when it was requisitioned.  It served as a dormitory for 50 WAFF ladies who worked at the Polish Airforce Headquarters at Ousden Aerodrome, a hospital and, at one point, a TNT storage depot.  These various roles caused many poor quality or poorly planned alterations along with the general damage caused by huge numbers of people.  Perhaps the single biggest cause of damage was a bomb dropped in 1940 which caused cracking to the east and south elevations.  Following the war, the house was unoccupied and so was the target of thieves who, in 1947, stole all the lead from the main roof.  Water penetration followed, combined with some earlier alterations which lead to long and inefficient guttering which frequently leaked.  This led to extensive outbreaks of  both wet and dry rot which have all had to be conquered.

The story brightens from 1955 when it was bought by the local Sharrett family who lived there and carried out some restoration before selling it to the Brown family in 1968.   Michael recalls that they only lived in a small part of the house as much of the rest was then uninhabitable with sections of the roof having fallen in.  Since then, the house has been painstakingly restored and is now filled with antiques and appropriate fittings.  The Browns have even managed to acquire the original architectural plans.  The house has been a wedding and conference venue since 1992 but is also, perhaps most importantly, still their family home; a heartening example of how dedication can rescue and protect a key piece of our local architectural heritage.

Full story: ‘Living History: Dissington Hall‘ [journallive.co.uk]

Woolsington Hall restoration stalls again

Woolsington Hall (Image: English Heritage)

Grade-II* listed Woolsington Hall, set in 340 acres of fine parkland, was bought in 1994 by Sir John Hall, who had successfully turned Wynyard Hall into a palatial hotel.  Though on a much smaller scale, Woolsington was to also be converted into a small, luxury hotel at a cost of £8m – 10m.  However, after several years of inaction, its deteriorating condition led to it being placed on the English Heritage ‘buildings-at-risk’ register in 2002. Despite work in 2008 to make the building watertight and in prepartation of the main conversion, work has been halted again.  Sir John insists the money is still available but that he is so busy with his many other ventures that he is unable to commit to it at the moment.

Though this is somewhat understandable in the current economic climate, as a Grade-II* listed building it must not be forgotten and allowed to decay again.  The building remains on the English Heritage register but hopefully work will start again to rescue this charming smaller country house in 2010 and bring it back to life.

Full story: ‘Plans for Woolsington Hall on hold yet again‘ [journallive.co.uk]

Seaton Deleval Hall nationalised

Seaton Deleval Hall

It’s been announced that the National Trust has today succeeded in it’s campaign to acquire Seaton Deleval Hall, regarded as one of the finest Baroque houses in England.  However, the success in securing the future of the hall has again come about as a result the damage caused by inheritage tax leading to treasures – usually art or antiques, but sometimes buildings – being taken into ‘national’ ownership rather than remaining in private hands.

Seaton Deleval Hall was built for Admiral George Deleval by Sir John Vanbrugh and was completed in 1871.  Vanbrugh’s other notable commissions included Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.  However the house suffered a devastating fire in 1822 which gutted the central block which remained as a shell until 1980 when the 22nd Baron Hastings (Edward Delaval Henry Astley) partially restored it.

The 22nd Baron and his wife both died in 2007 triggering a significant inheritance tax bill.  It was this that led to the house being put up for sale and the start of  a fund-raising campaign to save it for the nation.  The house and 400 surrounding acres have now been accepted in lieu of £1.7m of tax (the first time since Calke Abbey in 1984) with the contents covering a further £3.2m.

The National Trust have generously contributed £6.9m to the endowment with a further £3m raised to cover other costs associated with opening it to the public.  The first visitors are expected to arrive in April 2010, part of an estimated 50,000 a year who will be able to see one of Vanbrugh’s masterpieces.

So whilst there is a success in that the house will now be secure and not carved up into flats, it’s still a shame that another part of our national architectural heritage is denied its primary function of being a home.  Inheritance tax has a pernicious creep – it can’t be avoided and just results in each generation selling off more historic artefacts to fund government budgets.  Give it a few hundred years and one conclusion could be that a majority of the crowning jewels of our artistic heritage including buildings, art and antiques could well end up being owned by a national organisation, be it the National Trust or the galleries.  For me, the art treasures of a nation are best located in the houses and families for whom they were produced or bought for, rather than part of a vast national archive, only brought out once a decade or less.  Inheritance tax makes a relatively small contribution to the national budget but it does have a disproportionate impact on our cultural heritage.

Full story: ‘National Trust saves stately home‘ [BBC News]

National Trust takes control of Seaton Delaval Hall‘ [The Art Newspaper]

Eshott Hall, Northumberland, finally sold

Eshott Hall, Northumberland (Image: telegraph.co.uk)

One event which can always creates a certain risk for country houses is the bankruptcy of the owner.  Once the contents have been sold, apart from the lack of maintenence, an empty house can be a magnet for the thieves who think nothing of stripping fixtures and fittings and even the lead off the roof.  So the news that Eshott Hall in Northumberland has now been sold following the bankruptcy of the owners is to be welcomed as hopefully the house will remain in use.

Full story: ‘Future of hall to become clear as sale nears‘ [The Journal]