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.

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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

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Great Fulford, Devon

Great Fulford, Devon
Great Fulford, Devon

If there were a league table of how often a house and family appear on TV or in the papers, an unexpectedly high entry would probably be the Fulfords of Great Fulford in Devon.  Having featured in other programmes and even their own series, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken Country House Rescue this long to visit (Thursday 5 July, 20:00, Channel  4).  Despite the bluff and occasionally hostile exterior of Francis Fulford, the Fulfords are a remarkable family – both this generation and the many which have come before them.  The question is; with so few houses still lived in by the original families, will future Fulfords be able to stay in their notoriously imperfect house?

Great Fulford falls firmly in that category of houses which Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd described as the ‘illustrious obscure‘; those many smaller, privately-owned houses which lie nestled in valleys and hidden by their own land – in this case, a not insubstantial 3,000-acres.  Pevsner described it as ‘…a substantial courtyard mansion, larger than  most in Devon though characteristic of the county in its reticent exterior and its patchy and undocumented history of rebuilding and remodelling…‘. With a core which stretches back to the 1500s, the house has grown and been embellished as funds and whims permitted creating a lengthy listing desciption which would make a larger house very proud. A major remodelling in the 1800s has been suggested as being to designs of Sir Jeffry Wyatville but neither Pevsner nor Colvin mention this and the listing discounts it.

So although some aspects of the actual house remain a mystery, one aspect which is very clear is the remarkable endurance of the family, with the current owner, Francis Fulford, being the 26th (or 27th – he’s not sure) Fulford of Fulford, a line stretching back over 800 years. Very few families are able to trace back their lineage so far, even fewer are still in possession of the original family seat.  Yet they do survive, despite the best efforts of tragedy and unforgiving tax regimes to unseat them.

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

One such family has featured on Country House Rescue before: the Kellys of Kelly, also in Devon, who have a proud history dating back to the 1100s.  In 2010, Ruth Watson visited the beautiful if rapidly deteriorating Kelly House [more on that visit in this previous blog post: ‘A glimmer of hope‘] to find an owner almost in denial as to the decrepit state of their home.  Proving that Country House Rescue can be a positive catalyst for change; the house is now slowly being restored with help from various students of architecture, surveying and other related fields. By contrast, the Fursdon family of Fursdon House (also in Devon!) have fully adapted their estate to offer all the usual activities which have ensured their beautiful 750-acre estate and elegant house (which, in a truly modern way, you can follow on Twitter, @fursdondevon, and Facebook) not only brings in an income but is also a home.

Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)
Fursdon House, Devon (Image: Fursdon House)

These smaller houses form the backbone of the local history of an area; so embedded that their name denotes the place.  In a fascinating series of articles in ‘The Field‘ magazine, starting in 1984, Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd toured the length and breadth of the UK seeking out these lesser known seats and their even more private owners.   To read these amazing histories is to realise the depth of history which our nation enjoys, including:

So although not unique, the Fulfords are rare.  In many ways the Fulfords are a refreshing alternative to the slick corporate manicure of many homes or the stately preservation of the National Trust (though all have their place).  This is a notable family who have, against all odds, achieved something exceptionally rare amongst stately home owners.  This has to be admired and although unconventional they are a fascinating part of the tapestry of our nation.  Some part of me hopes that they achieve a beautiful equilibrium of succeeding enough to ensure the survival of the house, but not too much so as to compromise the character of their lives or Great Fulford.

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Further articles:

Francis Fulford’s Blog

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Episode 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Many have bought things on a whim; it’s quite something for that thing to be a huge country house which once played host to royalty and celebrity.  When plans don’t work out and problems mount, it can be understandable for a family with generations of emotional attachment to a house to doggedly carry on, but the owner of Chapel Cleeve Manor in Somerset, who features in this weeks ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Thursday 21 June, 20:00, Channel 4), displays a rare level of stoicism.

Chapel Cleeve would be a fascinating house even if it wasn’t on television, but sadly its decline is all to familiar.  The origins of the house lie as a medieval inn for pilgrims visiting the now lost St Mary’s Chapel and travelling to the Cistercian abbey at Cleeve, which owned much of the land in the area until it was surrendered to the Crown in 1536.  The estates then passed to the Earls of Sussex in 1538 who held it until 1602, after which it passed through a number of owners, including Lord Foley of Kidderminster in the early 1700s.

When the new house was built, the remains of the inn, dating from 1423, were then incorporated as part of the north-west wing of the house as it is today.  The house, built between 1818-1823, was designed by Richard Carver (b. c1792 – d.1862) whom Colvin believes to be the ‘R. Carver’, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville who submitted work for display in The Royal Academy in 1811 and 1812, before establishing his practice in Somerset and eventually rising to be County Surveyor.  Best known for his many churches, Colvin is critical saying “…though occasionally showing some originality in plan (e.g. Theale, and the octagonal Blackford), are poorly detailed, and were despised by serious Gothic Revivalists.” He was damned by the Ecclesiologist in 1844 as having “…proved himself entirely ignorant of the principles of Ecclesiastical Architecture.” He may have been grateful that his Tudor Gothic design for Chapel Cleeve Manor was outside their remit and so escaped their ire.

Dining Room - Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Dining Room – Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Just under a century after Carver finished, the house was enjoying what was to prove to be its heyday.   Bought by the Lysaght family, wealthy from their corrugated-steel business, the original five bay house, featuring a central octagonal entrance hall with a top-lit staircase, was extended between 1913-14 with a sympathetic addition which increased the size of the house to over 27,000 sq ft, with salons, a ballroom and a 100-ft long gallery. Of particular note are the high-quality interior plasterwork ceilings which were created by one of the leading Arts-and-Crafts sculptors; George Percy Bankart. Staffed by 50 servants, the house played host to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and with Fred Perry staying for tennis parties.

The death in 1951 of G.S. Lysaght triggering punitive death duties which forced the sale of the house and, worse, the sale of parts of the grounds as building plots.  The dense woodland which had thus far shielded the manor was now largely obliterated with housing claustrophobically creeping up on three sides. Perhaps the expectation was that the house would not survive and further housing could be built, but the house then enjoyed a resurgence when it became a hotel in the 1960s and 70s, becoming the place to be in the area. However, when that business closed, the rot, both metaphorically and physically, set in, so that when it was bought by the current owner for 14 years of Chapel Cleeve, Jeannie Wilkins, in 1998 ‘there was not one habitable room‘.

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Having spent £360,000 purchasing the property with her partner and with the help of two skilled friends, they started the mammoth task of restoring the house.  Correctly starting with the roof, it took two years to complete the task of making it watertight, with the restoration of the Edwardian wing taking many of the subsequent years.  The restoration was to a high standard, with care being taken to reinstate the many various mouldings and panelling, with the overall intention being to create six flats in the house, five of which could then be let – but, as with all the best laid plans, it went awry.

The inevitable challenges of finding an agreeable path through the stringent planning rules governing this Grade-II* listed house caused delays, and, sadly, Ms Wilkins relationship ended, following which she bought out her ex-partner, leaving her in sole charge of a vast partially-restored mansion with its 150-ft façade and spectacular views over the nearby hills.  With an income of just £5,000 per year from renting out a cottage in the grounds she faces a huge backlog of repairs (only 18 rooms are habitable out of 45 in total) and the costs of restoring it, which she estimates at around £500,000 (so, at least £750,000 – as anyone who has watched Grand Designs will know!).

Chapel Cleeve was offered for sale in early 2010 at £1.695m (and featured in a post at the time: ‘The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section‘), but it is still available. The combination of the restoration challenges, general economic climate and the severely compromised situation of the house – reduced to just 7-acres surrounded by a drab housing estate – have driven Ms Wilkins to call for the help of Simon Davis and ‘Country House Rescue’ to inject some new ideas – which he does, though none are the financial miracle she may have been hoping for.

In many ways, Ms Wilkins’ commitment to the house has to be admired – her dedication has almost certainly saved it from joining the sad, long list of lost houses.  However, it might be argued that her unwillingness to drop the asking price (especially considering the cost of the works outstanding) is also again putting the house at risk. A house of this size would ideally have much larger grounds to provide seclusion and planners ought to insist on a minimum 500-metre ‘green-belt’ around each house which would help protect their long-term viability. Undoubtedly Jeannie Wilkins deserves a just reward for the incredible work she has put in, but a quick sale at a reasonable price would certainly not only be best for her, but also for the long-term future of the house.

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Sales details: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [Fine & Country]

Official website: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor

Listing description: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News articles:

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Colebrooke Park, N. Ireland

Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Country House Rescue has proved to be one of the most interesting of programmes featuring the many varied mansions which the UK is lucky to enjoy.  Rather than the more glamorous recent series showing life at Chatsworth, or Jeremy Musson’s brilliant ‘Curious House Guest‘, Country House Rescue has shown the sometimes harsh reality of owning these homes, despite the lazy jibes in the wider media about families living in a state of supposed luxury.  The programmes have shown the hard work and sense of duty these families possess, though this is sometimes overshadowed by the friction which change can bring, and which is often what is broadcast.  Yet, with a new presenter for the new series (starting Thursday 14 June), perhaps the commitment of the owners and the sheer beauty of their houses will come more to the fore.

In the first three series, Ruth Watson has proved to be an entertaining, if no-nonsense, deliverer of some rather stark home truths to owners up and down the country. For series four, a new presenter, Simon Davis, (favourite houses: Sezincote, Blenheim, Mount Stuart, Villa Emo, Babington House) takes the helm and steers a more collaborative and involved course as he stays at the houses, with the families, to experience their day-to-day life, including the hardships; at one house he spent an extremely cold night after the family admitted they never turn on the heating as it costs £30 per hour to run. It will be interesting to see how the new messenger is received and whether a less assertive style will bring greater success – though many will undoubtedly miss Ruth’s acerbic commentary.

The houses to feature in the new series are now known: Colebrooke Park, Bantry House, Chapel Cleeve Manor, Craufurdland Castle, Great Fulford, Meldon Park (thank you Andrew); starting with Colebrooke Park in Co. Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; the first time the show has been to that part of the UK.

Colebrooke Park is a fascinating example of the varied fortunes of the country house over the last two centuries; a story marked by wealth and also decline, but also one driven by a continued commitment to a house by generations of one family. Home to the Brooke family for over 350 years, the current owner, the 3rd Viscount Brookeborough (a prominent peer, one of the 92 hereditaries sitting in the House of Lords) received what many would regard as an unenviable inheritance in 1980 when he took on the decaying and empty family seat.

Of course, as with many houses, they had had a heyday.  Once the centre of one of the five largest estates in the area, which had reached a peak of almost 28,000-acres in 1876, the house had been home to a succession of prominent politicians and soldiers including the 1st Viscount, the longest serving Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (1943-63). However, agricultural changes, taxation, and the Troubles, meant that the estate slowly shrank to just over a thousand acres, with a similarly reduced income insufficient to maintain a house of this size.

Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)
Castle Coole, Northern Ireland (Image: Stephen McKay / Geograph.ie)

The house itself is a rather austere neo-Classical design; a two-storey, nine-bay block only enlivened by a grand pedimented portico with Ionic columns.  The house was built in 1820 for Henry Brooke (b.1770 – d.1834) who was created a baronet in 1822 (second creation), as a statement of his position, but one which was to be built on a budget – though a substantial one; the house was completed for £10,381 – approx £7m today.  Sir Henry had inherited the house and estate from a rather profligate uncle and clearing the debts and establishing a comfortable fortune had taken three decades – the house was a reward and a monument to his sound management.  Despite being a cautious man, Sir Henry still succumbed to the suggestions of his architect that he compete with the nearby Castle Coole by James Wyatt (built 1790-97), increasing the dimensions of the house so that it was larger, and then later in the summer, approving the enlargement of the Library to 36ft by 18ft.

Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)
Rise Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Pastscape)

For those who regularly watch TV programmes featuring country houses, Colebrooke Park may trigger a vague sense of deja vue.  This is because the house is, bar a few details, quite similar in design to Sarah Beeny’s Rise Hall in Yorkshire (mentioned in this previous blog post).  Both houses were built around the same time but by different architects; Colebrooke in 1820 by William Farrell and Rise Hall in 1815-20 by Watson and Pritchett.  Yet it is likely that this was more co-incidence than copying as there is a clear architectural lineage for the ‘rectangular block with portico’ style of house which goes back to Colen Campbell‘s masterpiece of architectural propaganda, Vitruvius Britannicus.  Published in 1715, this collection of designs helped shift the national preference away from the more florid Baroque houses of Vanbrugh toward a simpler architectural style; one which Campbell himself exemplified with his quite radical first design for Wanstead Hall, Essex. Although Wanstead as built was significantly different in the detailing, the core architectural idea was for a rectangular central block, fronted by a bold, pedimented portico.  This was to be one of the most influential designs produced by an architect; shaping national taste, it was widely imitated for decades afterwards – see Prior Park in Bath, built in the 1730s and 40s, and Adlington Hall, Cheshire, built in the 1750s, and even today.  Of course, this design is a derivative of the rectangular, double-pile plan developed by Sir Roger Pratt at Coleshill, Berkshire (built 1650-64, burnt down 1952).

Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell - first proposed design - 1715
Wanstead House I by Colen Campbell – first proposed design – 1715

Despite the grandeur, the agricultural depression in the 1880s hit the estate and the decline began. This was only arrested by the return in 1918 after WWI of Sir Basil Brooke who instituted changes to bring the estate back. It was, though, a struggle; many rooms were left unused in the 1930s and by 1939 the timber was being felled as ‘the only way to save Colebrooke’.  Poor tax planning meant that when Lord Brookeborough died in 1973 the contents of the house had to be sold to pay the death duties, leaving a rather forlorn house for the present Lord Brookeborough when he took over in 1980.  Realising the scale of the challenge, an architect was engaged to explore what options were available; including the dreaded conversion to a golf club with the grounds becoming fairways.

Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)
Colebrooke Park, Northern Ireland (Image: Colebrooke Park)

Luckily, a better solution was found; the house became an exclusive country sports destination, with sporting rights over 10,000-acres and the Viscount and Viscountess welcoming the guests as though friends into their home.  The house was sensitively adapted to meet both the requirements of discerning visitors and official regulations whilst preserving the architectural fabric of the house to the greatest extent.  Despite their success, the Viscount and his wife wish to pass on the house and 1,100-acre estate to their nephew in an even more robustly healthy condition; hence the invitation to Country House Rescue.   It will be fascinating to see if this series presents radically different ideas to those proposed by Ruth Watson.  Obviously one hopes that whatever happens, the solutions enable the families to remain in their homes whilst providing sufficient income to not only maintain them but invest in them to give them a stronger future.

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A more detailed history of Colebrooke Park [Colebrooke Park]

TV makeover for stately home‘ [Belfast Newsletter]

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4] – Colebrooke Park (episode 1: Thursday 14 June – 20:00)

Country House Rescue – Series Listing [Wikipedia]

School’s out: seats of learning for sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A poor prognosis: Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire

Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)
Great Barr Hall, Staffordshire (Image: English Heritage)

Many of the houses featured in this blog are shown as a celebration of the brilliance of our architects and craftsmen in creating one of the finest bodies of buildings of their type in the world.  Yet, in abundance is, perhaps inevitably, failure; where an interesting house becomes a victim of circumstance, policy, incompetence or, sometimes, all of the above.  Great Barr Hall, once outside Birmingham, now encircled by advancing urbanisation, is a sad example of where a house can languish and deteriorate whilst deliberate vandalism and institutional lethargy condemn it to its fate – and unless something is done soon, Great Barr Hall will join the already far-too-long list of the lost country houses of England.

Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)
Great Barr Hall c1800 (Image: artist known / sourced from Bill Dargue)

Despite its current sorry state, Great Barr Hall was once a sizable house – though precisely how large is unclear.  An early print in 1798 Stebbing Shaw’s ‘History and Antiquities of Staffordshire‘ shows a 11-bay castellated house with four corner turrets but the present house is 9-bays.  For comparison, it’s interesting to note the stylistic similarities with Syon House in west London, a seat of the Dukes of Northumberland, though it is also 9-bays wide and has an imposing porte cochere.

What is known is in the 1760s, Sir Joseph Scott, then head of a family line which had been in the area for 600 years, built a new house in a ‘gothick’ style.  The original architect is unknown but Stebbing Shaw describes how ‘The present possessor [Joseph Scott], about the year 1767, began to exercise his well known taste and ingenuity upon the old fabric, giving it the pleasing monastic appearance it now exhibits – and has since much improved it by the addition of a spacious dining room at the east end, and other rooms and conveniences‘. If Scott was his own architect, perhaps he was, in part, inspired by the remodelling of Syon House by Robert Adam which started in that same year.

Sir Joseph Scott’s original extensive works led to some financial difficulties and so, from 1785, he moved to the Continent and rented the house out.  The lease was taken by Samual Galton junior, a controversial Birmingham Quaker, banker,  gun manufacturer, and intellectual who hosted meetings of the Lunar Society at Great Barr Hall leading to it becoming a noted crossroads for industrial ideas, a crucible for the Midlands industrial growth and the wider Industrial Revolution.

Where Great Barr becomes particularly interesting from our point of view is with the arrival of the young architect John Nash and his business collaborator and famous landscaper, Humphrey Repton. Nash was there to provide the buildings which Repton needed to complete his  gardening visions. This worked well for both men; Nash was to pay Repton 2.5% for any work the latter passed his way so Nash charged his clients the then rather high fee of 7%, giving him a 4.5% fee. There is no record of Nash ever putting any work towards Repton – but Nash benefited with work on over one hundred estates. There seems to be some uncertainty as to exactly when Nash started working there but John Summerson gives the date as 1800 for the construction of a gothic archway to the adjacent chapel, but other works such as the gate lodges, an icehouse and a new steeple for the chapel started in 1797 and were probably also by Nash and Repton.

Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)
Corsham House, Wiltshire - copper engraved print published in The Beauties of England and Wales, 1813 (Image: Ancestry Images)

About this time, the house was also updated to create the appearance we can just make out today – but it hasn’t been confirmed that Nash was the architect.  However, there are tantalising clues that it could well be by him. Nash had been developing his particular style of Picturesque gothic during his time in Wales and had been applying it with varying degrees of success since then during alterations at Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire, (1795) and at Corsham House, Wiltshire (1797 – a disaster due to poor workmanship with Nash’s work later demolished).  Yet, some of the architectural fingerprints of each of these can be seen in Great Barr.  Externally, one such feature is the crenellations applied to both the roof and the tops of the projecting towers, another is the hooded Elizabethan-style windows. Another interesting piece of the jigsaw is a house which Nash was working on in 1800 in Buckinghamshire,  Chalfont Park, which bears not only a superficial stylistic similarity but also one of form – a long rectangular main body with a projecting 3-bay centre.  However, Chalfont Park was also altered by Anthony Salvin in 1840 so it’s not possible to tell how much of the gothic detailing is Nash’s.

The Scott’s return in 1797 prompted the works of Repton and Nash before further work in 1830 and 1848 which included moving the entrance from the west side to the north.  In 1863, a chapel was built to a design thought to be by Sir George Gilbert Scott, though it was never consecrated and so became a billiard room.

The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'
The replacement windows (Image: Simon Cornwell) - click to see 'before and after'

The house remained with the Scotts until the house became a hospital for the mentally ill in 1918 following the death of Lady Bateman-Scott in 1909.  As is usual, the institutional nature of hospital use was not kind to the house.  Beyond the extensive network of buildings which marched across Repton’s parkland (and the south eastern corner of the estate being carved up by the M6 motorway), the house itself had a modern two-storey extension added in 1925 and in 1955 the clock tower, stables and much of the east wing were demolished.  In the 1960s, some sensitive architectural ‘genius’ removed the two splendid first-floor oriel windows which flanked the main entrance and inserted a pair of non-matching government-issue casement windows.

The current plight of Great Barr Hall can largely be laid at the door of Bovis Homes and John Prescott, formerly the Deputy Prime Minister, and the one who eventually signed off on the architectural blight that now affects the house.  Considering that the hospital buildings were in two distinct campuses, one to the north west and another to the north east, if there had to be development, replacing the buildings to the NW would have placed them furthest from the house, with the advantage of creating a more complete parkland around the house, with the possibility of re-instating, to some extent, the earlier Picturesque drive.  To hope that someone of Prescott’s aesthetic insensibilities would see such a solution was always forlorn but one might hope that someone on the local council or in English Heritage might have proposed a more sensitive outcome.  Sadly it was not to be and now a large development of 445 executive-style homes has been built, the closest being scarcely a hundred metres from the back of the house.  Worse, following the sale of the house to a building preservation trust, little progress has been made, with questions now being asked about the trust’s failure to restore it as promised earlier.  It was again put up for sale in May 2011 by the Trust at the unrealistic price of £2.2m with the option to buy a further 100-acres of parkland – with the threat of even more development.

Despite some architectural uncertainties, what is clear is that those charged with its care in the recent decades have failed.  Perhaps this is a broader failure of policy, that without an explicit mandate to determine that the architectural heritage must be managed, maintained and preserved as far as is possible, it will fall to all-to-fallible councillors to look beyond their own short-term interests; sadly, an unlikely prospect.  The NHS generally has a poor record of managing historical assets once it has no further use for them e.g Sandhill Park, and Stallington Hall are just two examples and don’t forget that Soane’s Moggerhanger survived despite the NHS, not because of it. A strong national policy should provide a clear strategy for preservation of heritage assets taken over by the state rather than just relying on existing listed buildings legislation.  In Great Barr Hall’s sad circumstance, one can only hope that someone will be able to extract the money owed as part of the enabling development, which can then be devoted to restoring this interesting and significant house so that it once again can be something for the local residents to be proud of, rather than the monument to NHS, central government and local council incompetence which it is today.

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Still for sale? (thanks to Andrew for spotting this): Great Barr Hall might still be for sale – there is a page with details but it’s not listed on the agent’s website: ‘Great Barr Hall‘. Now listed for £3m but with 150-acres but with another 100-acres of parkland by separate negotiation.   Considering the Building Preservation Trust paid just £900,000 for the entire site this seems a little odd – perhaps someone will enlighten us.

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Listing description: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

‘At Risk’ Register entry: ‘Great Barr Hall‘ [English Heritage]

Recent history of house and some proposals for rescue

News stories:

For sale: a Soanian springboard – Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk

Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)
Burnham Westgate Hall, Norfolk (Image: Savills)

For any architect starting out, the early commissions are perhaps the most important; establishing them both in terms of not only their designs but also how they operate in the execution.  In architectural terms, the early buildings of some architects are sometimes less prized, and therefore protected, than their later works which benefit from the full measure of their developed skill and experience.  In that light, Burnham Westgate Hall deserves to be cherished as not only a fine house but also the first substantial country house project of Sir John Soane.  It provided the springboard for one of our finest architects and is important for the promise shown but also for securing one of the most important prizes in the Georgian era: patronage.

For someone who ended up a knight of the realm, with fame and a noble client list, Sir John Soane (b.1753 – d.1837) had a very ordinary start in life as the son of a bricklayer from Goring-on-Thames, near Reading.  Patronage and connections were to define Soane’s personal and professional life, providing opportunities to establish himself in a way that his competitors, often connected from birth, already enjoyed.  Almost nothing is known of his early life but his obvious talent must have been spotted as he entered the office of George Dance the Younger in 1768, though only starting as errand boy, via an introduction by James Peacock, an employee of Dance who knew Soane’s older brother.

Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)
Claremont, Surrey (Image: Claremont Fan Court School)

His talent and work ethic propelled Soane to join the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, where he quickly won the silver medal for a measured drawing of the facade of Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House.  What was particularly clear during Soane’s time at the Royal Academy was his ambition and an industriousness that was to serve him well in later periods, combined with an attention to detail which proved to be a blessing in his professional life.  In 1776, he won the Academy gold medal, which made him eligible to compete for the highly coveted King’s travelling scholarship which, for someone of Soane’s limited financial means, would be his only chance to see Italy first-hand.  Soane had heard that George III thought him a suitable candidate and so he rashly gave up his position with Henry Holland (where Soane was known to have assisted on three country house commissions: Claremont in Surrey, Benham Park in Berkshire, and Cadland in Hampshire (dem. 1953)) only to find out that Sir Joshua Reynolds had intervened to demand the winner of the scholarship be by vote from the Academicians. This delayed his departure by a year but it was put to good use completing smaller tasks for Henry Holland such as estimating bills and measuring work which exposed him to clients such as Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford; a man of noted taste and an amateur architect who was to prove particularly important in Soane’s career.  Though delayed, in 1777 Soane set off on the single most important trip of his life to Italy; one which was to establish him professionally and socially.

Arch of TItus, Rome - drawing by Sir John Soane
Arch of TItus, Rome – drawing by Sir John Soane

The Grand Tour had become an institution amongst the younger aristocrats as a way of experiencing the glories of classical art and architecture in their native environments.  It was also a fine opportunity for the wealthy to indulge their passion for art collecting but, for novice architects, days were largely spent measuring and recording the wonders of Roman architecture.  On a more practical level, Soane would have seen and experienced during his time with Dance and Holland how useful family and professional networks were in securing commissions.  In Italy, Soane worked assiduously to develop his own connections; travelling with his friend Robert Furze Brettingham (nephew of the famous architect Matthew Brettingham the Elder who had designed the original Burnham Westgate Hall, then called Polstede Hall) and visiting the English Coffee House; a central meeting point for the English nobility abroad, whom Soane courted as clients.

Soane's proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane's Museum) - click to see full sketchbook page
Soane’s proposed design for Downhill, Northern Ireland (Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum) – click to see full sketchbook page

Patronage could also be a double-edged sword, with the ambitions of the client giving what could turn out to be false hope to an architect.  Of all those Soane met in Italy, Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry, later the 4th Earl of Bristol, was a prime example of the capricious client – though despite the Earl’s failure to deliver, he did introduce Soane, once again, to Thomas Pitt, Lord Camelford, and cousin of William Pitt the younger, and who became a lifelong friend, supporter, mentor and patron.  Soane had fallen under the influence of the Earl, a charming, witty aristocrat who had a growing reputation for being a difficult client.  How much Soane knew of this is unclear but after travelling through Naples and Sicily for many weeks together discussing architecture, Soane believed he would be given a handsome commission to improve Downhill (now a ruin), the Earl’s rather bleak seat, set in the coastal hills of County Derry, Northern Ireland. However, after persuading Soane to cut short his travels by a year and luring him over to Ireland in 1780, after six fruitless and frustrating weeks with the disagreeable Earl not committing to any of Soane’s designs, he left Ireland in despair, seriously out of pocket, and with the hopes of his first significant commission of his architectural career in tatters.

Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran's)
Rustic dairy at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire (Image: Sotheran’s)

Back in London, Soane’s wealthy and well-connected friends, particularly those he had made in Italy, and especially Pitt, sought to ease his plight by asking for his designs for smaller estate buildings or their own houses, such as for his friend John Stuart at Allanbank, Berwickshire.  Again, although the smaller projects were built, the larger plans failed to materialise – the only one of significance being some limited  alterations to Petersham Lodge, one of Lord Camelford’s homes.  After this, Soane took on a few smaller commissions from other clients which allowed him to develop his skills as an architect, not just in designing but the delivery of the projects, including the elegant dairy in the fashionable rustique, Rousseau-esque style at Hammels Park, Hertfordshire for the Hon. Philip Yorke, later 3rd Earl of Hardwick – another of his Italy contacts.

Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)
Proposed design for Allanbank, Berwickshire by Sir John Soane (Image: Sir John Soane Museum)

However, it was his main supporter, Lord Camelford, who provided the largest commission in 1783, the one which elevated Soane from dreamer of grand plans but only executor of small estate buildings.  Camelford’s wife had inherited Burnham Westgate Hall and now her husband wished to create a seat of suitable standing near to that other fulcrum of political influence in north Norfolk, Holkham Hall, home of the Earl of Leicester.  Burnham Westgate is curious in that it is one of the early examples of Soane’s practice of reusing his designs.  Compare Burham Westgate Hall today with the unexecuted design illustrated right which Soane completed for John Stuart at Allenbank – the overall form of the house is similar, differing only in the striking chimneys and the size of the flanking wings.  Soane seemed to do this less as he grew as an architect but it can be seen in his bow-fronted design for Saxlingham Rectory and enlarged version seen on the south front of Tendring Hall (dem. 1955), and even more directly between Shotesham Hall in Norfolk and Piercefield near Chepstow.

Burnham Westgate Hall has perhaps been a little overlooked in the literature, perhaps suffering from being overshadowed by Soane’s next project: his first solo, entirely new-build house; Letton Hall, which was started in the following year in 1784.  However, the innovation of Letton could only be created on a sound architectural foundation which Soane had spent years building; the smaller commissions of temples, kennels and interiors, before Burnham Westgate gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that he was capable of working on a project of that size.  Bar the limited and hotly contested public works, private country houses were some of the most significant commissions available to any architect and Burnham Westgate was Soane’s calling card; his proof of his ability, imagination and practical ability to deliver a fine house suitable for those in upper society.  That it is a close variation on a earlier design can be forgiven considering the nascent stage of his career; this sale offers a new owner the chance to own the project which gave Sir John Soane the springboard which helped establish this most brilliant of architects.

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Property details: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ – £7m, 38-acres [Savills]

Detailed listing description: ‘Burnham Westgate Hall‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further information:

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A Salvin for sale: Mamhead House, Devon

Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Strutt & Parker)

One of the pleasures of running your own blog about country houses is that you get to play favourites.  I’m often asked which is my favourite but this is a difficult one to answer; is it the one I want to live in (currently Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire), the one I most want to visit (Mereworth Castle, Kent), or one that I think is just stunning (Bruern Abbey, Oxfordshire)?  However, there are some which just hold a special affection – and that, for me, has to be Mamhead House in Devon, partly for its beauty and also for no better reason than it having been local to where I grew up.

Mamhead’s main claim to fame is that it was the project which established one of the best Victorian architects; Anthony Salvin (b.1799 – d.1881).  Described as a pioneer of Gothic Revival architecture, Salvin could be seen as the secular equivalent to the religiously driven Pugin. Both sought to restore Gothic as the traditional form of design most suited to the nation, but whereas Pugin saw this as a devotional mission to return Britain to how it might have been had the Reformation never occurred, Salvin saw Gothic as the form which was best suited to our landscape and aesthetics.  Salvin’s historically rigorous approach saw him create some of the most interesting country houses of the Victorian era – and Mamhead is a rare example which has now been restored to its former glory.

According to Mark Girouard, Salvin’s reputation appropriately rests on his country houses, dismissing his churches as ‘seldom interesting‘, and that it’s ‘hard to regret‘ that his designs for larger buildings such as the new Houses of Parliament and the Carlton Club were never built.  However, in the sphere of the country house; his success rested on his ability to combine three elements; “the domestic or castellated architecture of the Middle Ages and the Tudors; the design techniques of the Picturesque; and the needs of the Victorian upper classes“*.

The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828
The first Mamhead House, Devon shown c.1826, demolished c.1828

Salvin specialised in the restoration and modernisation of ancient buildings, building on a precocious interest in medieval architecture which saw him elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1824, aged just 24.  His obvious scholarly talent marked him as someone to watch but it’s still unclear exactly how he secured his first commission at Mamhead – especially as he replaced a more experienced architect whose plans he then had to adapt.  The owner, a merchant called Robert Newman, had commissioned Charles Fowler, who had designed a classical house to replace the existing house (altered by Robert Adam for the Earl of Lisburne in 1774), which Newman appears to have decided not to proceed with, possibly seeing the winds of fashion shift towards the Gothic.  He may also have been influenced having seen Kitley (now a hotel), also in south Devon, which had been remodelled by George Stanley Repton between 1820-25, in one of the first attempts at authentic Elizabethan.  This change of heart gave Salvin his opportunity.

Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)
Moreby Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Country House Picture Library)

For Pevsner, Mamhead was the house which established Salvin as the chief Victorian architect for large country houses in the Tudor style. Salvin was constrained in that he was working from the existing symmetrical plan and denied the chance to introduce the projection and recession of elements so traditional with Gothic.  However, this plan does have tradition in that it has the feel of an Elizabethan E-plan house; though one where the main door has been moved to the corner rather than the expected middle. These minor quibbles were to be later offset by the masterly later additions.  Mamhead’s cost of £20,000 was financed from income, so although work started in 1827-8, the final interiors (strangely being the entrance hall) weren’t finished until seven years later.  During this time Salvin’s knowledge and experience grew – not least through his second commission for a new country house; Moreby Hall in Yorkshire, built between 1828-32. Here he enjoyed a freedom to create and developed his own arrangement of a central, two-storey hall off which came the main rooms and which also allowed warm air to circulate – not only visually impressive but also practical.

Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)
Conservatory - Mamhead House, Devon (Image: Devon Life)

It was perhaps the later additions of stables and the conservatory at Mamhead where Salvin clearly demonstrated the flair which marked the original thinking of a great architect.  Rather than continue strictly in the same style, the stables were now to be housed in a mock, red sandstone castle, modelled on Belsay Castle in Northumberland, slightly above and behind the house, with the conservatory in a more correct Gothic design.  The conservatory is a beautifully elegant single-storey extending from the north-west of the main house featuring four Perpendicular windows leading to a two-storey pavilion leading to the garden.  The skyline features many pinnacles with an interior decorated with carved scrolls and verses, shields, and carved panels – all in stark contrast to the rather severe fortifications which Salvin chose for the stables at the other end of the house.

Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)
Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire (Image: stemurphy4 / flickr)

Mamhead is fascinating as it not only shows early brilliance in an architect’s career but unusually also is a house which shows all the styles in which he worked – both the Gothic and the fortified.  Salvin’s skill with the Gothic form and vocabulary perhaps found its greatest expression in his third country house commission: Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire; a fantastical composition which took full advantage of its location and the wealth of the owner.

Harlaxton must be seen to be believed and even when one has seen it, it is not always easy to believe it.” said Mark Girouard – and who can disagree?  Harlaxton takes the elements of Gothic and Elizabethan but then injects the visual flair to give it a skyline to rival Kirby Hall, Burghley or the lost Richmond Palace. The house is almost theatrical but coherent enough that the look isn’t overwhelmed by any element.  Inside, the most spectacular feature is the famous Cedar Staircase which seeks to match the outside with an unexpected Baroque interior.  The design demonstrates how quickly Salvin’s skills had developed, with the work at Harlaxton starting just three years after Mamhead.

Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)
Peckforton Castle, Cheshire (Image: the pepper tree / flickr)

By contrast, Peckforton Castle would be recognisable to a medieval knight as a useful fortification.  Rising prominently above the relatively flat Cheshire countryside, the imposing red sandstone castle is very much in the tradition of BurgesCastell Coch for the Marquess of Bute, and the later Castle Drogo by Lutyens.  However, a significant difference is the much greater degree of historical accuracy, perhaps appropriate considering it was visually challenging the truly medieval Beeston Castle on a neighbouring hilltop, but also to reflect the benevolent feudalism of the owner, John Tollemache who spent huge sums on buildings and homes for his workers.  However, the widespread public discontent at that time, with the risks of mobs and rioting, meant that it is also possible that Tollemache chose a castle with the intention that it be defensible.  So successful was Salvin’s design that even a critic (fellow architect George Gilbert Scott) called it a “…a perfect model of a Medieval fortress…“.  I think Salvin enjoyed the challenge of this design; a rare chance to build an uncompromising castle in a way which hadn’t been necessary for 500 years, fully taking advantage of his encyclopaedic knowledge of fortifications.  Today, despite being badly damaged in a recent arson attack, the castle is still a fascinating example of his work.

Apart from ecclesiastical work and alterations to existing houses such as Warwick, Alnwick and Dunster castles, he also designed a number of notable country houses including, in addition to those already mentioned: Cowesby Hall, Scotney Castle, Parham Park, Skutterskelfe Hall (one of Salvin’s rare Classical designs), Crossrigg Hall, Keele Hall, and Thoresby Hall, which still survive today.  Sadly, Flixton Hall, Campsea Ash High House, Congham High House, Stoke Holy Cross Hall and Hodnet Hall have all either been completely demolished or, in the case of the latter, significantly reduced.

Salvin was one of those rare Victorian architects whose work started strongly and just got better.  To have the opportunity to purchase the first major work at Mamhead is a rare privilege and one that I hope the new owner will recognise and appreciate.

Sales details: ‘Mamhead House‘ – £8m, 164-acres [Strutt & Parker]

Lovely article with many photos in ‘Devon Life’: ‘Mamhead House

More details:

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* source: foreward to ‘Anthony Salvin: Pioneer of Gothic Revival Architecture‘ by Dr Jill Allibone which I can highly recommend, and which was very helpful for this posting.

Inspired by Park Place? Other country houses for sale to restore

The recent restoration and sale of Park Place was certainly on an epic scale – £42m to buy, a further £100m to complete – but thankfully not all projects need be so expensive (though they’ll never be cheap).  The story of the country house has, for many, featured a cycle of ascendency, enlargement, and enjoyment, followed by neglect but – hopefully – rescue. As the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Building’s at Risk’ Register sadly makes all too clear there are any number of country houses which have reached quite a serious state of disrepair, even dereliction. Yet even for these there may be someone who is willing to step up and rescue part of the nation’s architectural heritage. Houses in need of a saviour are often for sale, their forlorn state in Country Life magazine a stark contrast to their better loved brethren.

The UK generally has a much more positive attitude towards restoration than many other countries.  The Victorians would often be tempted to restore an ancient seat due to the contemporary popularity of the romantic notions of ‘Ye Olde England’.  Living in an Elizabethan or Jacobean house gave the owner associations with older family lines (not necessarily their own) and was a short-cut to perceived greater respectability.  Today, those who take on a restoration of one of our beautiful older houses are rightly lauded over those who simply buy a super-sized Barrett home.  Yet, restoration requires sensitivity and a willingness to submit an individual’s grand designs to work within the boundaries of the listed building regulations and the character of the house.

Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)
Marske Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Carter Jonas)

One house with hidden character and which will require careful planning is Maerske Hall, Yorkshire.  Originally built by the Hutton family in 1597, they were still in residence in 1730 when the house was rebuilt and extended in a Classical style. The grade-II* house was mainly used for shooting parties by the family in the 19th-century saving it from alteration but in the 20th it was threatened with requisition by the Army in WWII.  Luckily the family were able to arrange for pupils from Scarborough College to take up residence instead which saved it from the worst damage.  After the war, it again came near to destruction, as it was sold in 1947 to local builders George Shaw and his son George William who intended to demolish it for the materials.  However, they baulked at taking down such a lovely house and so sympathetically converted it into 10 apartments.  Still divided but now empty it is for sale at £2.5m with 19-acres of beautiful, mature gardens, and presents a fascinating opportunity to recreate a single family home. For more on the history, there’s a brochure: ‘Marske Hall‘ PDF [Carter Jonas].

Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Walton Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Knight Frank)

For those wanting a more straight-forward restoration, Walton Hall, Derbyshire perhaps offers a more appealing option.  This fine and elegant grade-II* house, prominently sited above Walton on Trent, was built between 1724 -1729 to designs by the architect Richard Jackson. The most striking feature are the full-height pilasters, giving dignity to a slowly deteriorating house which has become such a concern as to be listed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register.  Inside, the most impressive feature is the grand staircase, reputedly copied from a building in The Hague.  The house is basically habitable but requires significant sensitive restoration, hence the price; £1.5m for the house plus just 7.5-acres.  That said, once restored this will be a quintessential Georgian  house to be enjoyed for generations.

Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)
Felix Hall, Essex (Image: Savills)

For those who prefer a real challenge then the next two houses could be ideal.  The first is Felix Hall, situated just outside Kelvedon, Essex – the picture (right) immediately showing the scale of the challenge.  At its core, this house is firmly in the tradition of the Palladian villa with a compact footprint but featuring wonderful architectural flourishes such a fine portico (added in 1825) and, to the rear, four engaged columns and a pediment.  Originally built between 1760-2, it was purchased by the Weston family of Rivenhall Place in 1793 and was significantly extended with flanking wings in the early 19th-century, possibly on the occasion of Charles Callis Weston’s  ennoblement as Lord Weston of Rivenhall in 1833.  However, as with many larger houses, a reduction in  size was thought prudent and so in 1939 the two wings were removed, leaving just a 7-bay central section.  Sadly, during the course of renovations it caught fire, completely gutting the fine interiors leaving the gaunt shell with the proud Ionic columns we can see today.  The remains were bought in 1953 and the basement rooms restored as an occasional country retreat but this is a house crying out for a full restoration (for which there is planning permission).  However, the estate buildings such as the nearby stables have been separately converted and there is only a small amount of land – it would be lovely if the new owner could also purchase the buildings and gardens and if they could also acquire the field in front, they could create a superb small parkland in which to truly display the house.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)

Another shell available is the one I would be heading for: Piercefield, near Chepstow, Wales.  Designed by the peerless Sir John Soane in 1785 for George Smith, the actual completion of the house was delayed until 1793.  Of particular interest  here is that the design is not entirely unique – Soane appears to have used very similar plans for Shotesham Park in Norfolk which was also built in 1785, although that house was brick with stone dressings, whilst Piercefield is faced entirely with stone. The house was sold 1794 as Mr Smith had run into some financial difficulties and it was bought by Sir Mark Wood who employed Joseph Bonomi to add a saloon and a winding staircase – though not the two pavilions as has been suggested.  The house was sold in 1926 by the Clay family, who had bought it in 1861, to Chepstow Racecourse who abandoned it, leaving it become increasingly derelict, apparently helped by American troops stationed nearby in WWII who used the house for target practice.  After 90 years of neglect, the house still has the power to impress with its refined façade and elegant temple pavilions.  Although on the market for over six years the price has remained at a rather ambitious £2m (although it does include 129 grade-I listed acres of parkland). However, recent comments by the director of the race course have indicated that they might entertain offers of around £1m; though, of course, the restoration bill would be many times that – but what a prize at the end!

Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)
Ruperra Castle, Wales (Image: Jeffrey Ross - Estate Agent)

Even further down the scale of dereliction is another important house, also in Wales, which has been stubbornly mis-priced.  Ruperra Castle near Newport is one of the few ‘mock’ castles designed for pleasure and not as defensive installations – a subject examined in more detail in an earlier blog post related to Ruperra: ‘Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale‘ (Sept 2010).  Few of these style of houses were built and Ruperra’s importance derives from it being one of the earliest of the country houses of this type, having been built in 1626.  Sadly, many of the other examples have been lost (most recently, fire gutting the interior of Lulworth Castle in 1929) so for someone Ruperra offers the opportunity to not only restore an architectural gem but also to be able to enjoy the same stunning views which attracted Thomas Morgan to build there in the first place.  Unfortunately, although the owner has now switched agents, the price is still ambitious at £1.5m – especially considering the immense challenges and costs of restoration and the location.  Hopefully, as with Piercefield, the owner ought to be willing to entertain realistic offers and allow the house to be saved before it is lost forever.

Perhaps the last is stretching it to call it a restoration opportunity as Bellamour Hall, Staffordshire now exists only as two walls and a few piles of stones!

Restoration is never a cheap or easy approach but the satisfaction and pride in knowing that the work has saved another part of our architectural heritage must be immense.  For too long our country houses have been under threat from neglect, vandalism and poor maintenance and the selection above (and there are more) show that the degrees of restoration and commitment required can vary dramatically.  That said, I can only hope someone is out there with the wealth and sensitivity to take on these houses and bring them back to life.

The most expensive UK country house: Park Place, Oxfordshire

A new record price for a UK country house has just been achieved with the sale of Park Place, near Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire.  One of three most notable estates on that stretch of the Thames, it was also the most expensive country house ever sold in its unrestored state in 2007.  Now, after five years and many millions of pounds, the house again has set the record having been sold to an unknown Russian billionaire for £140m.

'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image
'A view of Park Place, Henley' - artist unknown - c.1742-3 (Image: Royal Collection) - click to see full image

Park Place is, at its core, a more modest Georgian house built in 1719 for Lord Archibald Hamilton, son of the Duke of Hamilton.  The proximity to London and the beautiful setting has long attracted the wealthy to the area as a convenient escape from the city, with several riverside estates featuring a series of impressive houses.  Starting at Marlow, the first house is Bisham Abbey (now the national sports centre), then the now lost Temple House (dem. 1910), Harleyford Manor (beautiful small villa restored in 1989), Whittington House [pdf] (rebuilt by Reginald Blomfield c1897, now HQ of SAS Ltd), Danesfield House (now a hotel), Medmenham Abbey (now two houses), Culham Court (sold for £38m in 2006), Greenlands (now Henley Management College), Fawley Court (sold for £13m in 2008, possibly for conversion back to a private house), and then finally, just past Henley, lies Park Place.  Of particular interest are the architectural similarities between Fawley Court (built 1684 – reputedly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren), the original Park Place (built c1718), Culham Court (built 1771), and Reginal Blomfield’s 1897 rebuilding of Whittington House, all of which are on based on a red-brick 5- or 7-bay, two storey villa with bulls-eye window inserted into a projecting pediment.

Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image
Park Place, Henley - c1810 (Image: Thames Pilot) - click for the full image

Sadly, Park Place is no longer part of this architectural brethren having undergone a series of substantial changes.  The house was sold by Lord Hamilton in 1738 to Prince Frederick, then Prince of Wales and eldest son of King George II, who split his time between there and Cliveden. After Frederick’s death, the house was then bought by General Henry Seymour Conway in 1752 and it was he who made the first significant changes both to the house (including a library by Sanderson Miller in 1757) and, perhaps more importantly to the grounds, which are now grade-II*. His works, to designs by Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, included the installation of an ancient stone henge given as a gift from the people of Jersey where he was Governor, the lightning-damaged steeple from St Bride’s Church as an obelisk, four more obelisks as gateposts, an underground cavern, and a bridge, using stones from Reading Abbey, which was subsequently admired by Horace Walpole.  There was also an artificial classical ruin designed by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)
Park Place, Oxfordshire - c.1900 (Image: henleyonthames.org)

The house was sold to John Noble in 1871 but was largely gutted by fire a year later, giving Noble the opportunity to indulge something of an architectural whim.  The pattern and style of the Victorian country house was much admired around Europe and our expertise was exported widely around the continent – but it rarely flowed back (a topic already covered in an earlier post ‘The rise and fall of French taste on UK country houses‘).  Park Place is one of the few houses in the country build using the French Renaissance style, creating an impressive château in the heart of England.

The design of the rebuilt house is widely attributed to Thomas Cundy [III], the son and grandson of two previous Thomas’ who had also been country house architects. Although the latter two are given sizeable entries in Howard Colvin’s ‘Biographical Dictionary of British Architects‘, the grandson is given only a paragraph as part of his father’s, leaving us somewhat in the dark as to what, bar some London churches, he may have been involved with. However, considering his father had good form with the chateau style having built Grosvenor Gardens in London, so Thomas III would have been schooled in the style before his father’s death in 1867.

The house remained with the Noble family until 1947 when it and the 670-acre estate was parcelled up into 22 lots and sold off.  The main house was bought by Middlesex County Council who converted it into a special school, which it remained until 1988 when it closed. The house was then bought by John Latsis, the Greek shipping tycoon, but it seems unlikely that he lived there as it remained unrestored, with the vestiges of the school – gymnasium, classrooms, a woodwork studio etc – all still in situ, along with various outbuildings, as can be seen from these images of the house.

Those who had a chance to look around the house when it was for sale in 2006 all noted that beneath the shabby institutional veneer, the potential of the house was clear; glimpses of fine tiles, the original stone fireplaces, stained glass, and grand spaces with impressive views.  The house was then sold to a consortium who intended to create a superior country club – until Wokingham council said ‘no’.  Put on the market for £45m, it was finally sold for £42m to Mike Spink, a property developer who specialised in high-end houses in central London. With this experience, Spink transformed this once dilapidated house into a palace fit for a billionaire with all the requisite features such as a helipad, swimming pool, panic room etc.  Somewhat disappointingly, the house now only comes with 200-acres, with the remaining 300 with which it was sold retained by Spink for as yet unspecified ‘development’ – a phrase which will no doubt spark local concerns.

Even when it was first sold, those in the property business were predicting that Park Place would sell for possibly up to £100m, and the rising ‘super prime’ market has proven even those estimates conservative.  Sadly, this record is not for a spectacular historic house at the centre of a large estate but instead one where the location (location, location!) has elevated the price to such a stratospheric level. Nevertheless, many country houses were built as retreats for wealthy industrialists and financiers and this house is proof that the lure of the trophy country estate is as strong as ever – which can only be a good thing for those seeking to prove their desirability in modern times.

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Story about the original sale: ‘Sold for £42m… still in need of renovation‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Latest sale: ‘Park Place: Britain’s most expensive home sold for record £140m‘ [Daily Telegraph]