If a moat floats your boat: for sale; Playford Hall and Giffords Hall, Suffolk

Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire (Image: Nala Rewop / flickr)

Moated houses are an architectural short cut to a more functional time when where a family lived had to be defensible and not simply a place of relaxation.  Today, of course, we admire them for their ancient charm, the weathered bricks reflected in gently rippling waters.  These houses are an older expression of our love of the natural, which found a more formal form in the later Picturesque movement, their more organic outlines in contrast with the more rigid classicism which followed.

Though once numerous, time has taken its toll and excellent examples are less common – and especially appealing when they come to market, as two have recently. The moated manor house was a result of many factors; the decline of the traditional castle, a more peaceful society, and increased wealth, but still with a need to provide some defence against thieves and attackers.  The latter category was increasingly rare but a moat with gatehouse and even drawbridge had a practical advantage.  However, for families which wished to visually bolster the perceptions of the grandeur of their lineage, a moated house was very evocative of permanence and status, drawing on their architectural ancestry with castles.  As each manor required somewhere for the local owner to stay (sometimes only occasionally if they owned many) each had a house of varying size and status depending on the wealth of the owner.  As each manor often covered a relatively small area this led to the building of thousands of these houses (though not all with moats), particularly in England.

Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)
Groombridge Place, Kent (Image: Hans Bernhard / wikipedia)

The organic growth of a moated house often created a pleasing historical collage of styles, such as at Ightham Mote, Kent, though this was sometimes swept away to be replaced by a new house such as at Groombridge Place, also in Kent.  This beautiful house was build in 1662 though in a traditional Jacobean/Elizabethan ‘H’ plan on the footprint of the older, more fortified house – though the diarist John Evelyn thought, following his visit in August 1674, that “…a far better situation had been on the south of the wood, on a graceful ascent.” indicating not everyone found a moat romantic.

Yet not every grand family felt the need to abandon the old house.  The Lygon family (Earls Beauchamp between 1815-1979) have lived at the evocative Madresfield Court, Worcestershire for 28 generations.  At its core, a 15th-century moated manor house, the current building is largely the work of the architect Philip Hardwick in 1865 for the 6th Earl Beauchamp.  The house is a prime example of late Victorian taste; a clever blend of Anglo-Catholic Pugin gothick with extensive Arts-and-Crafts interiors including a wonderful library by C.R. Ashbee of the Cotswold Guild of Handicraft (to read more about this remarkable family and house I can recommend ‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead‘ by Jane Mulvagh).

Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Ightham Mote, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The physical security of a moated house was also a factor in its decline as it limited the space available for expansion as either the family, wealth or ambition of the owner grew. Many a grand country house was constructed elsewhere to replace a smaller manor with the old house either being abandoned, demolished (sometimes for building materials), or used as a secondary or dower house.  Yet, as a harsher economic reality came to pass from the 1880s, and as these smaller houses were lauded in magazines such as Country Life, so their attractiveness grew with many rescued from neglect and sometimes reinstated as a principle house on the estate.

H. Avray Tipping, one of the most influential of the Country Life writers, was a prime supporter of the smaller houses as reflected in his choice of house for the weekly ‘Country Houses and Gardens’ section – nearly a fifth of them in 1910, for example.  This was also a time when John Ruskin was arguing for more honesty in architecture and against the over-enthusiastic renovations of the Victorians which he regarded as ‘ignorant’. This regret at the neglect of manor houses in general can be seen even in the earliest Country Life articles.  Writing in 1897 (the year it was founded), John Leyland writing about Swinford Old Manor, Oxfordshire, said;

“There are manor houses through the length and breadth of the land as charming, it may be, as this, but awaiting, like sleeping beauties, the kiss that is to arouse them to fresh and unsuspected charm, the needed touch of the loving hand invested with creative skill.”

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

Perhaps one of the best examples of this loving restoration can be seen at Plumpton Place, Sussex for Country Life proprietor Edward Hudson by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.  When Hudson bought the it in 1928 the house was semi-derelict though with an intrinsic beauty from its setting on an island in the middle of the uppermost of three lakes.  Lutyens successfully restored and adapted the house to create one of the best current examples of a moated manor house – which was also offered for sale in July 2010 for £8m (and featured in another post: ‘For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex‘)

So having whetted our collective appetites, those with £3.5m to spare currently have a choice of two historic moated manor houses in Suffolk; Playford Hall, near Ipswich (£3.25m), and Giffords Hall, in Wickhambrook (£3.5m).

Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Playford Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

Playford Hall has the beauty of the warm red-brick with two wings placed off-centre, hinting at the further wing demolished in the 1750s after a devastating storm in 1721 blew holes in the roof and following a long period of dereliction from 1709 following the death of the owner, Sir Thomas Felton, who had remodelled the house in its current style.  The house then passed by marriage into the estate of the Earls of Bristol, in which it remained until sold after WWII.  The house has been restored and updated – though whoever buys it will probably want to re-do the eye-wateringly pink dining room.

Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)
Giffords Hall, Suffolk (Image: Savills)

No such concerns about the wonderful interiors of Giffords Hall – the house abounds with historic woodwork, from the masses of exposed beams to the extensive panelling.  The exterior, in contrast to Playford, is almost entirely timber-framed, with an Arts-and-Crafts style north wing added in 1908 by the owner Mr A. H. Fass who also carefully restored the house following a period of neglect.   Now cleverly brought up-to-date, in co-operation with English Heritage, the house now has a full suite of reception rooms, a new kitchen and a full quota of bathrooms.

So, proving the folly of those who allowed these romantic houses to decay and the wisdom of those who restored them – with thanks to the evangelism of Country Life – another important branch of the nation’s architectural history has been redeemed and now, once again, attracts high valuations which reflect the immediate attraction these houses can exert on us all.

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For further reading, the excellent ‘The English Manor House – from the archives of Country Life’ by Jeremy Musson – though unfortunately this appears to be out of print and surprisingly expensive. One for the second-hand bookshop search, I think.

For those looking to visit, a handy list: ‘Manors in England‘ [Britain Express]

For those who like their houses with pedigree: Plumpton Place, Sussex

Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)
Plumpton Place, Sussex (Image: Knight Frank)

One of the greatest of the UK’s country house architects was Sir Edwin Lutyens – a man with undoubted talent who was also able to use thoroughly modern techniques of collaboration and media exposure to boost his career and win business.  His main media connection was the tireless promotion of his work by Country Life magazine which was, in no small part, due to his close friendship with the founder and editor Edward Hudson.  So when Hudson needed to restore and modernise a manor house he’d bought it was inevitable who he would call on.   Plumpton Place in Sussex is now considered to be one of Lutyens’ best country houses and it’s for sale.

Lutyens (b. 1869 – d. 1944) was a master at the creation of houses which evoked what many would have in their minds as the ‘ideal’ country house.  He was able to marry the romanticism of the Arts & Crafts movement to his own clear ideas as to how a house should look both inside and out.  A strong proponent of using local materials he, more importantly, was able to use them in innovative ways which made his houses distinctive.

Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)
Marsh Court, Hampshire (Image: Clicks_1000 @ flickr)

A classic example of this was his use of chalk at Marsh Court in Hampshire which gave this house a brilliant white appearance, and which contrasted with small tiles of knapped flint set into the walls and the red-brick chimneys.  Marsh Court (finished in 1904 and for sale in 2007 for around £13m) was the last of Lutyens’ ‘Tudor’ style houses but it would never be considered an old house – again showing his genius of matching local materials with an assured architectural design.

Much of Lutyens’ fame can be attributed to the unstinting support he received from Edward Hudson who had cleverly exploited the growing urban middle-classes interest in a nostalgic view of ‘olde’ England and the country lifestyle.  Founded in 1897 it chronicled not only the best of the grand old country seats but also sought to keep the tradition alive at a time when the lifestyle was beginning to come under threat. One of his writers was the renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll who had met Lutyens in 1889 and had collaborated with him to create some of the best regarded house-and-garden compositions in the country.  Jeykll introduced Lutyens to Edward Hudson in 1899 thus creating a life-long friendship between the two.  To Hudson, Lutyens’ ability to create these idealistic visions of country life were the perfect material for his magazine.  Coupled with the extensive use of their distinctive, high-quality black & white photos it provided an unrivalled opportunity for Lutyens to built fame with the middle-classes but also advertise his talents to the aspirational wealthy or the existing gentry.

Hudson was a man to put his money where his magazine was and commissioned Lutyens to work on three houses; Deanery Gardens, Lindisfarne Castle and Plumpton Place – all now considered to be Lutyens’ best work.  Hudson had bought Plumpton, a derelict, moated manor house, in 1928 for £3,300, to be used as a weekend retreat and a place to entertain.  In some ways Lutyens’ work there was a surprising contrast to the grand Classical-style banks and corporate work he was engaged with in London and elsewhere.  Lutyens created a new route to the house which used a theatrical sense of surprise to hide the house except for glimpses through arches and trees.  Inside the most notable addition was that of a music room with huge, almost mullioned, windows with small panes of glasses set into wooden frames rather than the then fashionable steel, flooding the room with light.

The house was bought in 1983 for £800,000 by an American venture capitalist called Tom Perkins who has since lavished ‘millions’ on careful restoration.   So if you have £8m, this is a rare opportunity to live in a genuine Lutyens masterpiece which has played its own part in shaping our national impression as to what a country house should look like.

Property details: ‘Plumpton Place, Sussex‘ [Knight Frank]