40 years on from the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition

Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’ – Sir Roy Strong [Diaries, 1974]

'Destruction of the Country House' exhibition, 1975 - V&A
‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition, 1975 – V&A

In October 1974, one of the most influential exhibitions ever staged by a UK museum opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  The ‘Destruction of the Country House‘ laid bare the scale and depth of the losses the UK had suffered, showing how four centuries of architectural tradition and achievement in country houses had been severely damaged by the depredations of the 20th-Century. It was conceived as a dramatic display to waken the nation to the threat faced by country houses and the danger faced by all aspects of heritage.  This was in an age with weak legal protection and which seemed to be growing ever more apathetic, or even hostile, to the idea of preserving what represented the cultural character of the UK.  The exhibition was a huge success, not only in terms of the impact on the public, but also in being the catalyst for a long-term shift in how we seek to save and manage our heritage.  From 13-21 September, a new exhibition at the V&A, ‘Country House – Past, Present & Future‘, seeks to revisit this ground-breaking event and look at the future of the country house.

Thorington Hall, Suffolk - demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)
Thorington Hall, Suffolk – demolished 1949 (Image: Lost Heritage / Tiger Aspect Productions)

By the 1970s, relatively few people would have been aware of the parlous state of a significant number of country houses and how many had been lost in the demolition binges of the 1930s and the 1950s.  However, that there was a crisis was recognised not only by the owners of the houses, but also by the government which in 1948 had created a committee to look at ‘Houses of Outstanding Historic or Architectural Interest’ and tasked it:

To consider and report what arrangements might be made by the Government for the preservation, maintenance and use of houses of outstanding historic or architectural interest which might otherwise not be preserved, including, where desirable, the preservation of a house and its contents as a unity.

The committee’s conclusions, which became known as the Gowers Report, were published in 1950 and the tone could be determined from the first paragraph which stated that ‘What our terms of reference require us to consider is not whether houses…should be preserved, but how this is to be done‘. The report made a number of recommendations including the creation of the Grade listing system we are so familiar with today, combined with tax concessions to which owners would be entitled, and also financial assistance for which they may be eligible. The aim to create a legal framework where restrictions on the rights of the private owner were compensated by financial incentives to ensure the preservation of these houses.

Trentham Hall, Staffordshire - in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)
Trentham Hall, Staffordshire – in its heyday and during demolition in 1912 after being polluted by nearby industry  (Images: Lost Heritage)

Yet, by the early 1970s it was clear that the crisis had not been solved, as demonstrated by the title of a report published in 1972: ‘Country Houses of Britain – can they survive?‘. Written by noted architectural historian John Cornforth, he sought to explore why the issues surrounding the sustainability of the country house had not yet been resolved, but also to cast the debate in a new era of soaring inflation, economic malaise, and with threatened punitive taxes on the asset rich (though cash poor).

In was at this time that Sir Roy Strong had conversations with Christopher Gibbs but the core of the idea came from John Harris, now noted architectural historian, but also a keen fisherman who, in his youth in the 1950s, had surveyed many an abandoned parkland and empty country house whilst fishing the ornamental lakes (adventures later recounted in his book No Voice from the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper). Combined with Marcus Binney, then at Country Life, they conceived and created this most remarkable exhibition, quite unlike any before or since.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A

Designed by Robin Wade, the layout took visitors through a short display showing the glories of the country house, but then, as they turned a physical and symbolic corner, were faced with an almost full-height portico tumbling to the ground.  On the pillars and walls were photos of some of the hundreds already lost, whilst in the background, John Harris sombrely intoned a roll-call of their names.

Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition - 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Original poster advertising the Destruction of the Country House exhibition – 1974 (Image: Victoria & Albert Museum)

The exhibition captured the public imagination, with queues forming to see it at the weekends and the catalogue becoming a best-seller.  Yet, it wasn’t just the public who were captivated by it; in the last week, the Queen, Princess Margaret, Lord Mountbatten, and various government ministers all visited too.  1975 was designated the European Architectural Heritage Year and so focused minds on how to help ensure the survival of the nation’s heritage. This resulted in further legislation which strengthened the legal protection afforded to buildings.   The exhibition also led Marcus Binney to form SAVE Britain’s Heritage, a campaigning charity which took a far more pro-active approach than had traditionally been the case, achieving many notable successes, as it continues to do so today.

Politically, the exhibition could not have opened at a more awkward time – just two days before a general election which brought in a Labour government whose proposed ‘wealth tax’ would have made private ownership of most of these houses unsustainable, probably leading to further wholesale demolition.  Yet, the exhibition also has been identified as ‘…a pivotal moment in the history of country house preservation and heritage politics more generally.’ (Ruth Adams). In truth, a shift had started, as shown by the strong reaction to the proposals by John Baring to demolish The Grange in Hampshire in 1972 which prompted angry exchanges of letters via The Times. However, after the exhibition, no longer were country houses an elite interest for just the owners or art historians, but now the public started to identify with them as part of their national heritage, as something which embodied characteristics and history which they wished to be saved. That broad public sense of attachment to heritage has grown and become almost a natural part of the national psyche (apart from, it seems, in the minds of developers and their occasionally pocket planning committees).

For me personally, the lost country houses were the subject which were the catalyst for my own passion for country houses, leading to the creation of the Lost Heritage website in 2005. The aim is to create the most comprehensive list of all notable lost English country houses – and as far as I’m aware, is the only current ongoing research into the topic. Having seen the ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House about ten years ago, I then started trying to find out more, with two of the most important sources being the superb Catalogue of the exhibition and Giles Worsley‘s later book, the beautiful and elegiac ‘England’s Lost Houses‘.  These contained a gazetteer of known losses – the version in the Catalogue compiled by John Harris and Peter Reid, with Giles’ list building on theirs to take the total to 1,169.  John had estimated that as many as 2,000 had been lost since 1800 and after nearly a decade, sadly my Lost Heritage research has a total of 1,925 (as at Sept 2014), largely proving him correct.

The ‘Destruction of the Country House’ was as much a platform as an exhibition. Although aimed at the public, it was also a touchstone for a wide variety of heritage interests to coalesce and focus their energies and arguments. This helped to create a society which increasingly understood and appreciated heritage but also one which felt there was some collective responsibility towards its defence.  One can only hope that, as a nation, we can continue to recognise the importance of the country house, as well as heritage more broadly, to ensure that those in the future can continue to appreciate their beauty and the rich cultural history they represent.


Events – 2014


Further reading

An academic assessment of the impact of the exhibition: ‘The V&A, The Destruction of the Country House and the Creation of ‘English Heritage‘ – Ruth Adams [Museums & Society]

The finest SAVE, now for sale: Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Knight Frank)

The wholesale destruction of UK country houses in the 1930s and 1950s was undoubtedly a tragic waste; not only of materials but also the embodied beauty and history of the hundreds of houses lost. Barlaston Hall, recently launched on the market for sale, and which was so valiantly fought for by SAVE Britain’s Heritage who famously bought it for £1, provides a case study which shows what might have been possible if circumstances had been different. How many more of our country houses might have survived to still be found nestled at the end of a tree-lined drive?

Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Collapse of Hague Hall, Yorkshire, due to mining subsidence, 1910 (Image: Lost Heritage)

The plight of the country house in the 20th-century struck at both the large and the small, the grand and the intimate.  A financial crisis could, in a generation, take a family from a secure status enjoying thousands of acres to one of ruin and a forced retreat from the family seat.  For some houses the demise was swift – for sale intact one year but the following year could see sales of contents, then fixtures and fittings, and finally the materials. The alternative fate for a number of houses was a lingering demise – abandoned, at risk from thieves and the weather, to an increasingly hostile environment with threats coming from every angle, even from below.

The elegant Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire was one house which fell firmly into the latter category. A remarkable house, it represented an important development of the Palladian tradition; the moment it moved from ‘copying’ to evolving.  The house was built c.1756-58 for Thomas Mills, a local lawyer, with the design convincingly attributed to Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714-1788).

Architecture was not his first choice of career. Taylor was the son of a master mason and sculptor, also called Robert, who was successful enough to build a villa in Woodford, Essex, but who was also rather profligate.  The father managed to get his son apprenticed to the sculptor Henry Cheere and on completing his time, found his father had just enough to send him on to Rome to study.  Whilst there, his father died so he came back to find his inheritance was no more than debts, but friends enabled him to set up as a sculptor and by 1744 he was sufficiently accomplished to be commissioned by Parliament and to carve the pediment of the Mansion House in the City of London.  It became clear that he paled in the shadow of his contemporaries – Roubiliac, Rysbrack and Scheemakers – so at the age of 40 he turned to architecture.

Outside influences often act as catalysts for development. In the same way that Blenheim Palace was enriched by Vanbrugh‘s theatrical experience, so Taylor had the advantage of his earlier, if unsuccessful, sculptural career which brought a more developed sense of shape, form, and movement to his architecture.  Colvin praises him as an architect of ‘considerable originality‘ and that ‘his villas…represented a new departure in country-house architecture‘. What Taylor provided was an evolution of the strict Palladian designs of the previous generation, marrying them to a more tolerant approach that allowed the interiors to be more Rococo, with decorative plasterwork and patterns, drawing on his knowledge of the original sources in Italy. Taylor created wonderfully elegant villas for his clientèle of bankers and merchants, who needed smaller houses for entertaining rather than seats for a rural family empire.

Braxted Park, Essex - note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)
Braxted Park, Essex – note the octagonal window frames (Image: Braxted Park)

Although Taylor undoubtedly designed many buildings, he seems to have almost conspired to make it impossible to attribute them as he left no record of his practice and also apparently never signed his drawings.  There are, therefore, large gaps in both his chronological and stylistic history but starting with his first country house, Braxted Park, Essex in 1753-6, it is clear that his skill and legendary capacity for hard graft meant a sizeable output.

Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)
Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: Stephen Richards via Geograph)

Of particular note, in relation to Barlaston Hall, is Taylor’s design for Harleyford Manor, Buckinghamshire, in 1755. Part of a group of second-generation Palladians – along with Flitcroft, Keene, Paine, Ware, and Wright – Taylor saw Palladio as an inspiration but was not a slavish disciple.  The core principles relating to proportion and preserving a necessary elegance were respected but it was in the interpretation that they introduced variety.  At Harleyford, Taylor took a more vernacular style to the idea of the Villa Rotonda (a standalone villa with four equal fronts, allied with its landscape) but also combined with a sculptors appreciation that it should be attractive from all angles.

Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Asgill House, Richmond, Surrey (Image: Matthew Beckett)

Built between 1756-58, the layout and style of Barlaston Hall clearly shows the kinship with Harleyford. The elegant simplicity of the ground floor layout with the four principal rooms pushing out into the arms of the cross with a double-height central hall clearly can be derived from the Villa Rotonda but rotated on the axis to create more interior space, as opposed to the Rotonda’s open loggias.  One of the most distinctive features is the pleasing ‘chinese’-style woodwork, with octagonal window tracery on the exterior, a pattern mirrored in the library in the bookcase doors.  For one so early in his career, Taylor was showing remarkable invention, elegance and practicality, all of which served to launch his practice, which continued for 35 years. After Barlaston, further commissions such as Asgill House (1761-64) on the riverside at Richmond, Surrey, for his friend Sir Charles Asgill, also helped establish Taylor’s reputation.

Not that any of this innovation and elegance mattered to the Wedgwood company who applied twice in the early 1980s to demolish Barlaston Hall.  The house and estate had been bought by the famous pottery firm in 1937 as part of a scheme to create a new factory and model village for their workers.  These were built some distance away but the now grade-I listed house was badly neglected with serious water damage causing it to become increasingly derelict, with ceilings and the staircase collapsing, and the structure affected by subsidence caused by coal-mining.  The house also sat across a geological fault and future mining plans risked the whole area sinking by about 40 feet.  Clearly, this was a house very much at risk.

Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Entrance front, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

In 1981, the second application to demolish was called to public inquiry, due to the importance of the house, where the architectural conservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage argued the case for the preservation and restoration of the house. As Barlaston Hall had been designated as ‘outstanding’ this placed certain obligations on the National Coal Board who would be required to pay for not only repairs but also preventative measures, such as the huge concrete raft they devised to prevent further movement.  After a few days of arguments, Wedgwood decided that they would make a bold move and offer the house to SAVE for £1 on the condition that it was restored within five years or they could buy it back for £1 (after which the house would no doubt be swiftly demolished).  The then Secretary of SAVE, Sophie Andreae, immediately phoned the President, Marcus Binney (who was in the USA) with the news.  Conscious that he had to make a decision there and then, Marcus called Wedgwood’s bluff and bought Barlaston Hall.

Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire - 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Dining Room, Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire – 1981 (Image: SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

A few days later when Marcus was able to visit the house for the first time, the scale of the challenge became starkly apparent.  Stepping into the debris-strewn hallways, light shone through all three floors from gaping holes in the collapsed roof and 4″ cracks indicated where the subsidence was taking hold.  Although most of the fireplaces had been stolen, the good news was that much of the original plasterwork on the walls and the distinctive woodwork had survived.  SAVE immediately organised a temporary roof, after which, the house took nearly 2 years to fully dry out.  Specialist heritage builders and professionals swiftly set to work on both the structural and conservation issues.

East front, Barlaston Hall - 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain's Heritage / Knight Frank)
East front, Barlaston Hall – 1981 / 2014 (Images: SAVE Britain’s Heritage / Knight Frank)

Although work had started well, delays in securing the necessary certificates from the Secretary of State meant that the National Coal Board then decided to try and renege on their agreement to fund the work.  SAVE sought leave for a judicial review which prompted the Secretary of State to immediately fulfil his promises, which ultimately forced the National Coal Board to capitulate from their shameful position and fund the repair and preventative works – and SAVE’s legal fees too.  With immediate funding secured, which was followed by further grants, the conservation work continued.  It was put up for sale in 1992 and bought by the current owners who have sensitively completed the restoration of this captivating and fascinating house.

That the value of a house can go from £1 to £2.3m in the space of 30 years shows that the fortunes of country houses can rise as swiftly as they fall.  Barlaston Hall not only represents an important link in our understanding of the domestic Anglo-Palladian tradition, but is also a testament to how determined action can succeed even against larger opponents.  Today, the house still stands proudly displayed from the road, a bold statement of hope and preserved beauty.

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If you would like to support the fight to preserve our architectural heritage, please do become a Friend of SAVE Britain’s Heritage.  You will receive a regular newsletter plus access to the online database of ‘buildings at risk’.  You can also follow them on Twitter: ‘@SAVEBrit‘.  I am on the Committee of SAVE.

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The sale was announced in Country Life magazine: ‘A Country House Reborn‘ [16 April 2014]

Sales particulars: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ [Knight Frank]

A more detailed account of SAVE’s fight: ‘Barlaston Hall‘ – the Wedgwood Museum also has a brief history of the house on their website but which skips over the bit where Wedgwood tried to have it demolished. For historical images, see ‘Neville Melkin’s Grand Tour of the Potteries‘.

A country house at risk of demolition: Winstanley Hall – and how you can help save it

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

That the headline above is even possible today is shocking; that it almost came with the acquiescence of English Heritage is even worse.  The wealth of Britain allowed the creation of thousands of wonderful country houses; stores of learning, art, literature, music and much more.  Yet hundreds have been lost, the contents scattered, the fixtures and fittings sold for a fraction of their worth and the history and visual value of these beautiful buildings lost to the demolisher’s pickaxe.  Many a country house has been restored from a serious state of dereliction, so for demolition to even be proposed is to be deplored. Winstanley Hall, near Wigan, has long been a cause for concern but a new campaign, run by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, hopes to quickly raise the funds needed to rescue this fascinating house.

The Country Seat blog is an off-shoot of my earlier interest and research into the lost country houses of England.  Initially sparked by the ruins of Guys Cliffe House in Warwickshire, I have been building on the remarkable work of Peter Reid, John Harris and Marcus Binney who produced an initial list of nearly 1,200 houses which had been lost since 1800.  This list formed the backbone of the ground-breaking 1974 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London which dramatically brought home the shock that so much of our architectural heritage had been lost already and the then legal constraints were insufficient to stop it continuing. My list now totals over 1,800 houses which have been lost since 1800 – every county has been affected and each has their own sad roll-call of losses.

Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Hall of Lost Houses, from the 1974 Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A
Uppark House, Sussex - on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)
Result of a bad workman and his tools: Uppark House, Sussex – on fire, 30 August 1989 (Image: National Trust)

Houses can be lost for a number of reasons but two of the main causes are fire and finances. Country houses are unfortunately particularly susceptible to fire; the wooden construction, the flammable contents, the open fires and the restoration work which often brings careless workmen with their blowtorches.  Beyond mitigating the risk, preventing these devastating blazes has always been a challenge.  Yet, diminishing or insufficient finances are equally pernicious but harder to combat as the decay can quietly take place over generations, with the realisation of the seriousness only coming too late.

Many houses were traditionally supported by their estates but the agricultural crisis of the 1880s led to a reduction in income which was largely staved off through the sale of contents, until, in the early 20th century, this was no longer sufficient and the houses themselves were demolished – at a stroke removing the running costs and raising funds through the sale of the materials.  This continued through that century, spiking in the 1920-30s and again in the 1950s, reaching a nadir in 1955 when a significant house was being demolished every five days.  This fascinating video below shows rare footage of a country house in Kent, Pickhurst Manor, as it was destroyed in the 1930s:

The impact of the ‘The Destruction of the Country House‘ exhibition cannot be over-stated in heritage terms. It can be said to have jump-started the heritage movement, creating the current mass interest in country houses which can still be seen today in the popularity of the National Trust and the many individual owners who open their houses to the public. It also led to the formation of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has since then been one of the countries most effective campaigning charities; saving not just country houses, but working to find viable uses for a broad range of historic buildings including factories, churches, offices, and, most recently, terraced housing threatened by the wasteful and pointless Pathfinder Scheme. In the interests of transparency: I am involved with SAVE as a member of the Committee which is consulted about current cases, but this post was not written at their request and the views expressed are my own.

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire - print
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire – print showing the original Elizabethan house

Which brings us to the Grade-II* Winstanley Hall. One of only three surviving Tudor buildings in that borough, the house was built shortly after James Bankes, a London goldsmith, bought the estate in 1595.  The core of the Elizabethan house, with its two projecting wings, can still be seen on the garden front of the house, thought the original gables were replaced by parapets during alterations designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1818-19.  It was Wyatt who created the new entrance tower to the west with its Ionic portico and his work can still be seen inside with some surviving plasterwork and the fine cantilevered staircase.  What makes Winstanley particularly interesting is that it contains layers of work but with each grafted onto the last making the house quite ‘readable’.  A new wing to the south-west was added in 1780, with further changes, marked by keystones, in 1843 and 1889.

The stable court is especially fascinating architecturally as it contains a range of different styles, chosen at the whim of the owner; Meyrick Bankes II.  This delightfully eccentric but still functional range of buildings reflect his life as a well travelled, well educated man and includes Norman, Tudor, and Baroque motifs (and even his own likeness) in the masonry which creates a varied design which adds to the charm of the setting.  The visual interest of the courtyard, combined with the house, really does set Winstanley apart as many houses have lost one or the other of these core elements which make up an estate.

The house started declining in the 1930s and was last occupied in the early 1980s, with the parkland being open-cast mined during the post-war period and later the M6 being built along the edge of the parkland.  However, the parkland has now been restored and the road, which is some distance to the west of the house, is hidden in a cutting and by banks of trees, resulting in the Winstanley estate forming a precious rural space on the edge of Wigan, still approached from the east along a long, secluded drive which dips in between romantically landscaped woodland.

When the family sold up, the house and 10-acres were bought by a local developer who submitted a scheme which proposed enabling development, even though, as Green Belt land, it was unlikely to succeed.  With the failure of this scheme, the house remained unused, sliding further into dereliction to the point where another scheme was suggested which would have involved the conversion of the buildings in the courtyard but would have resulted in the demolition of the main house – and it’s this shocking scheme which English Heritage almost approved in 2011 (though EH, to be fair, also cannot be praised highly enough for their saving of Danson House and Apethorpe Hall – which is still for sale, by the way).

Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Proposed restoration of Winstanley Hall (Image: Huw Thomas / SAVE Britain’s Heritage)

SAVE stepped in and prevented the demolition and has been working with leading consultants to draw up plans for emergency repairs but also to find a long-term, sustainable solution which not only preserves the house through re-use but also brings the other buildings in the complex to life.  The leading country house conversion architect Kit Martin along with the Morton Partnership, a leading firm of heritage surveyors, have been working with Roger Tempest of Broughton Hall (who has a track record of creating business space in estate buildings), in conjunction with the Landmark Trust, and the Heritage Trust for the North West, who have been consulted about creating heritage training skills opportunities.  The overall aim is to create a community which is not just residential but also hosts businesses and events, with public access via an exhibition space and café.

How you can help: English Heritage have agreed a major grant of £217,000 for the emergency works but SAVE urgently needs to raise a £50,000 contribution.  Any donation, large or small, will help rescue this wonderful house and estate and help prevent the loss of yet more of our heritage.  Since 1974 no house of this size or quality has been lost, so, if you can, please do help.

Ways to donate:

  • Online via the SAVE website
  • Phone: donate £3 or £5 by texting RESTORE3 (for £3) or RESTORE5 (for £5) to 70500. (This will cost £3 or £5 plus your standard message rate and 100% of your donation will go to SAVE Britain’s Heritage.)
  • Cheque: made payable to ‘SAVE Britain’s Heritage’ and sent to SAVE Britain’s Heritage, 70 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6EJ.

Thank you!

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Full SAVE campaign brochure: ‘Help us Save Winstanley Hall‘ [PDF – SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Photos of the house in better days ‘Winstanley Hall: gallery‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A very unofficial tour: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [YouTube]

A view of the interior: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [WiganWorld]

Aerial view of the house and outbuildings: ‘Winstanley Hall‘ [Bing]

Listing description: ‘Winstanley Hall

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.

‘Take a Chance on Me’ – Buildings at Risk Register 2011

'Take a Chance on Me' - 2011 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register
'Take a Chance on Me' - 2011 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register

Despite the obvious deep and passionate interest society has with historic buildings every year the SAVE Britain’s Heritage Buildings at Risk Register highlights just how many properties are still under threat from neglect and those in power who believe the only good building is a new one with their name on the opening ceremony plaque.  The 2011 BaR register – ‘Take a Chance on Me‘ – has just been published and sadly, as always, it contains some country houses which really deserve a better fate.

Perhaps the one of the most attractive, both architecturally and in terms of being a  case for restoration is Blackborough Hall, near Cullompton in Devon. This elegant, if thoroughly dilapidated grade-II house, is a remnant of the grand building plans of the Earl of Egremont whose many-columned main house, Silverton Park, was demolished in 1902.  The house is actually two, as when built in 1838, it formed one house at the front and a second at the rear for the local rector.  In recent years it became a car scrap yard which covers most of the immediate grounds and would obviously need clearing first – though I suspect the costs could be made back through selling some of the classic cars. The house is currently for sale for a nice round £1m and has been listed with Winkworths who, after an initially poor showing, have now managed to put a few more photos and a floor-plan online.

Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire (Image: Steve Tomkinson / Friends of Elvaston Castle)
Elvaston Castle, Derbyshire (Image: Steve Tomkinson / Friends of Elvaston Castle)

Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire has a grade-II* listing putting it in the top 4% of buildings nationally but that hasn’t stopped it making an entry into the Register this year.  Originally built in 1633 for the Earls of Harrington it was largely rebuilt in a ‘Gothick’ style c.1817 to designs by James Wyatt.  Now owned and managed by Derbyshire County Council (who had a fairly poor record in the 20th-century of demolishing country houses in their ‘care’) it is today mostly vacant and with the Council now claiming it can’t afford to maintain it they are seeking a developer to get them out of a hole of their own making.  Luckily an active local campaigning group – the Friends of Elvaston Castle – have been objecting to these plans and trying to force the Council to face up to their responsibilities – though perhaps there is an opportunity for someone else to come up with a viable plan.

Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria (Image: HiddenShadow / 28dayslater)
Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria (Image: HiddenShadow / 28dayslater) - click for more images of the house today

Stone Cross Mansion, Cumbria presents the interesting confusion of a Scots Baronial design in England.  Built in the 1870s by a stubborn man, one Myles Kennedy, who wanted to buy Conishead Priory for £30,000, but who met an equally stubborn vendor who wouldn’t accept less than £35,000.  Mr Kennedy may have come to regret his obstinacy when presented with the final bill which totalled nearly £45,000.  The sum reflected the high quality of the workmanship, particularly the impressive High Victorian Gothic grand hall (scroll down) which originally had a fine staircase which was later removed when the house became a special school to make it easier to play indoor football (seriously, where do they find these people?!).  The house then became a corporate headquarters during which it time it was restored to a high-standard before falling into neglect.  Repeated enabling development proposals have been rejected (not that the council is against it) so this house either needs someone willing to restore the house on the back of a sensitive ED proposal – or, ideally, someone to rescue this house and make it a home again.

Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

Another house which would make a fantastic home is Plas Gwynfryn in south Wales.  This house has been featured before on this blog (‘Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd‘) which sparked some passionate debate in the comments about who the owner is – and that same unresolved question is why the house makes an appearance in the BaR this year. Built in 1866 to replace an earlier one, this distinctive house – described in the listing description as ‘romantically assymetrical’ – was a hospital in WWII, before becoming an orphanage and then a hotel before a serious fire in 1982 gutted it.  Although in a derelict condition this house can be restored and would once again be a fine part of the local architectural heritage.

The Register is available from 1 June 2011 priced at £15 (£13 to Friends of SAVE) and can be ordered from the SAVE website. The BaR contains many other types of property so even if your budgets are less lavish than these house might require it is well worth having a look.  Of course, SAVE does superb work across the country to protect our architectural heritage and I would strongly urge everyone to become a Friend to help support their efforts (well, I would say that as I’m on the Committee – but I’d also say it anyway!) which will also give you access to the online version of the BaR register which contains hundreds of other potential future success stories.

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A more comprehensive list of country houses currently at risk can be found on my Lost Heritage website: ‘Houses at Risk

The front line: the campaigners for country houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Matthew

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Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses:

 

A salute to determination: Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire

Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)
Goldsborough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: Goldsborough Hall)

Love is a strange emotion which by chance can leave a person very attached to something.  For Clare and Mark Oglesby the object of their affections is the elegant Goldsborough Hall in Yorkshire, which, after five years hard work and a substantial budget has been rescued from dereliction and possible development.

Goldsborough Hall was built between 1601-1625 for Sir Richard Hutton, a London judge who used his wealth to establish himself in Yorkshire and was High Sheriff in 1623.  The internal plan of the house is interesting as it features a lateral corridor on all three floors and originally included fashionable features Sir Richard probably learnt of from his London friends such as a long gallery which useful for exercise in the inclement weather. Slightly unusually it was on the first floor (though not uniquely as Beaudesert, Condover Hall, and Treowen House also have this) when they were normally on the upper floors as, high up, their excess of glass gave visitors the most impressive view of the house – see, most famously, ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’.

The house was then rebuilt in the mid 18th-century for Richard Byerley before being bought by the Earls of Harewood, the Lascelles family, who employed the famous architect John Carr of York to remodel the interior in 1764-5, whilst he was also working on their main house, Harewood.  Goldsborough features numerous mementos of the family with their crest embedded in rainwater heads and in stained glass.  The house remained in the Lascelles family until 1965 when it was sold to pay death duties.  It then became a school, a private home, a hotel and then nursing home before being put up for sale in 2003 when the Oglesby’s first saw it but had their offer rejected.  At that time the house was still in good condition but this had changed dramatically when the estate agent contacted them again in 2005 to say it was between them and a developer. They successfully bid but now, just two years later, water was running down the 17th-century oak staircase and the panelling in the library, and the house lacked heating or working plumbing.  Undaunted, over the last five years they have spent around £2m on the restoration which has now rescued this wonderful house from ruin and is back to being a family home which pays it way by hosting weddings.

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

Another house which needed work and has now been restored explicitly as a wedding venue and family home is Rise Hall, also in Yorkshire.  Set in a beautiful small park laid in the 1770s, the grade-II* listed seat of the Bethell family was rebuilt between 1815-25, though the architect is disputed with some claiming it’s by Robert Abraham (whose eldest daughter was conveniently married to the owner, Baron Westbury) but more likely, as given by Howard Colvin, it was by Watson & Pritchard who also designed a Doric lodge for the house in 1818.  The slightly austere, 9-bay ashlar Georgian facade is dramatically enlivened by a full-height, tetra-style Ionic portico.  Inside the house features a top-lit staircase hall and some neoclassical decoration with an Adam-style dining room.  The house remained in the Bethell family until 1946 when they moved into the former rectory, now Rise Park, and let the house to the Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine, who ran a Catholic boarding school there until 1998.

The house was then bought as a second home by Sarah Beeny, star of many property restoration TV shows.  She and her husband used the house for many years but realised that the 97-room house was simply too large to function as just a weekend retreat and it also needed to pay for its own restoration. Beeny seems to take a rather hard-headed approach – unsurprisingly given her background – but is committed to achieving the right result. The location ruled out use as a hotel so they decided that they would convert it into a wedding venue in just eight months as part of a TV show called ‘Beeny’s Folly‘ which will be broadcast in Autumn 2010 on Channel 4.  This will be a chance for the wider public to get a real insight into just how much work is required to restore and maintain a stately home.  Who knows, it might even inspire someone with deep pockets and hopefully a sympathetic attitude, to find and fall in love with a one of our other country houses at risk and bring it back to life as a home.

Full story on Goldsborough Hall: ‘We’ve moved from our 4-bed detached to an 80-room stately home‘ [Daily Express]

Official website: ‘Goldsborough Hall

Detailed architectural description: ‘Rise Hall, Yorkshire

More buildings at risk: ‘Live and Let Die – 2010 Buildings at Risk Register‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]