England’s most ‘at risk’ country houses; English Heritage 2013 report

Though he his House of polish’t marble built
Yet shall it ruine like the Moth’s fraile cell.*

Nymans, West Sussex - gutted by fire in 1947 (Image: sjr60 via flickr)
Nymans, West Sussex – gutted by fire in 1947, now a romantic ruin (Image: sjr60 via flickr)

There is a long tradition of the romanticisation of ruins and decay, but watching once grand houses slide into dereliction is thankfully now seen as a failure; on the part of the owner, and of the official bodies charged with the preservation of our shared architectural heritage. With those local experts disgracefully being seen as expendable by councils, it’s important that English Heritage has produced the 2013 ‘Heritage at Risk Report‘ [PDF] – a sad national roll call from which the priority sites list contains a surprising selection of country houses.

To be included in the list is not to say that a house is derelict, but is more a reflection that there are concerns about the long-term future of the house and current signs of deterioration.  Owners can often find that there are significant projects which require substantial investment which may not be currently possible through their own means, though inclusion on the ‘Priority’ list does open doors to grants and other funding.

Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)
Knebworth, Hertfordshire (Image: June Buck / Country Life Picture Library)

Perhaps one of the best known to appear is Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, a Victorian fantasy that is now faced with a modern reality.  Home to the Lytton family since 1492, the house was originally a mid 16th-century courtyard house before losing three sides in 1811, leaving just the west wing which was remodelled externally in 1820 and 1843 in the Tudor-revival style, with interior alterations by Lutyens in 1907 (see Listing description for details).  Still a family home, the Lytton-Cobbolds (as they now are) have worked hard to open the grade-II* house and, famously, host vast pop concerts in the park.  Major grant-funded repairs in the late 1990s restored half the house, but now, as a priority case, a further £240,000 has been allocated for works on the roof and to restore the upper rendering and two pinnacles.

Sockburn Hall, County Durham (Image: Sockburn Hall Project)

For an estate once reputedly tormented by a dragon, the modern threats to Sockburn Hall, Darlington were much more prosaic, but which have meant years of restoration work.  The current house was built in 1834 for the younger brother of Sir William Blackett (1758-1816) in whose family it remained until sold in 1920.  A varied ownership history led to the period which left it in the current damaged state, when the house was owned by two sisters who were later convicted of keeping many dogs in terrible conditions in Sockburn Hall.  The accumulated excrement rotted the floors and a lack of maintenance led to water ingress.  New owners and a dedicated team of volunteers have rallied and started restoration, part-funded by English Heritage grants, though work clearly has some way to go before the house will be safe again.

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

Scraptoft Hall, Leicestershire has long been a cause for concern, faced as it is with threats from the weather, vandals and poor local planning decisions.  Originally built in the 1720s, this elegant smaller house, although still on the edge of Leicester, had earlier suffered the usual short-sighted urban development, which now encroaches on it and its condition had deteriorated significantly.  However, the setting of the house is still worth preserving, though previous proposals would have unsympathetically left it as a mere architectural bauble in the middle of a much larger development.  Sadly, in 2010, despite going against English Heritage advice, the local planning department, council, and MP, were all happy to cast this fine piece of local architectural heritage onto the scrapheap of their own inadequate vision.  A reduced scheme was approved in July 2013, which although at a more appropriate scale, still contains some regrettable choices such as separating the house from the lake and ruining the approach to the hall by lining the drive with houses (See Planning Documents: Presentation Layout). This plan will result in the house being restored as eight apartments, but neither the local council or the developer can claim any sort of credit from this outcome.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire (Image: Paul Barker / Country Life Picture Library)

For anyone stumbling across the Gothic Revival majesty of Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, it might seem as thought they had found a university rather than a house – in fact, they had found one of the most remarkable buildings of the Victorian age.  On inheriting in 1833, Charles Scarisbrick embarked on a huge project to embellish his home, initially spending £5,500 between 1836-1846 on old antique carvings.   As one of the oldest Recusant families, the Scarisbricks had an affinity to the Gothic style and one of the reasons for the Hall’s grade-I listing is the creation in 1812-16 of the first new domestic ‘great hall’, to designs by Thomas Rickman and John Slater. One of the key reason for the highest listing is that the house is one of the greatest surviving examples of the work of A.W.N. Pugin, especially after the ruination of his masterpiece, Alton Towers.  Pugin was the architect who thought Gothic was the only ‘true’ architectural path for a Christian nation and, although Charles Scarisbrick initially only asked for a garden seat and a fireplace, Pugin eventually re-designed the interiors before being asked to alter the exterior, creating a more picturesque aspect.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire - the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)
Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire – the bell tower (Image: Alexandre R. dos Santos via flickr)

Pugin died in 1852, and Charles Scarisbrick in 1860, after which, Charles’ sister inherited and employed Pugin’s son, Edward Welby, to continue the alterations including the spectacular tower – though without the planned clock so rendering it somewhat pointless.  The house passed out of the family in 1872, and was eventually sold for demolition in 1962 but became a school instead, a role it retains today. However, a mounting repair bill (estimated at £2.46m in 2008) has led to the house being added to the ‘at risk’ register, with particular concern about the main hall, and east and west wings.  On all counts, this is a remarkable house and warrants close monitoring and support to ensure that this magnificent example of the Gothic Revival doesn’t fall into a more parlous state.

An estate can contain many more buildings than just the main house, such as stables or follies, which form an important part of the a part of the character of an estate, but which can also become at risk. Below are examples from the same priority report:

In more positive news, although the grade-I Castle Goring, West Sussex, is included in the list, it also notes that this remarkable house has been sold and work to rectify the maintenance backlog has now started.  Congratulations to the South West and West Midlands regions which have no country houses or related buildings included in the 2013 list.

These Registers are a valuable opportunity to highlight the ongoing threats to our shared national architectural heritage, for although many of these country houses and buildings are in private ownership, we all enjoy the wider benefit of their beauty and history. If anyone demands justification as why anyone should care, why we should protect them, just ask them to imagine our country without them.

Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham (Image: Webb Aviation)
Ruins of Ravensworth Castle, County Durham which also feature on the ‘Priority’ list (Image: Webb Aviation)

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Full list (PDF): ‘Heritage at Risk Register – 2013‘ [English Heritage]

Previous blog post: ‘How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

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* – Quote by Gaston Boissier, ‘Rome and Pompeii‘ (1896), as quoted in ‘The Pleasure of Ruins‘ by Rose Macaulay

How to get depressed quickly: the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register 2010

Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)
Winstanley Hall, Lancashire (Image: English Heritage)

This blog has highlighted several country houses which are at risk but the true scale of the issue is unfortunately much larger, as the publication of the 2010 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register shows.

Country houses all too easily can move from being secure, watertight buildings to having minor problems to becoming seriously at risk due to their size and the high standards required to repair them necessarily making even simple tasks much more expensive.  For the owners this can mean that the burden of looking after their ancestral family home becomes a daily challenge which, rather than facing, can be easier to ignore – especially if they are able to simply shut the door to a wing and forget the damp and leaks.

One of the greatest enemies of the country house is obscurity – particularly when combined with negligent or incapable owners. For some the house is merely an obstacle to redevelopment and so it is in their interest to forgo maintenance and hope that the house quickly and quietly deteriorates to the point where they can apply for permission to demolish.  Unfortunately under-resourced councils are rarely able to regularly survey all the listed buildings in the area meaning that houses can slip through the cracks.  The current economic climate means that it is even more unlikely that councils will be able to fully fund the heritage teams to ensure that they are able to ensure owners meet their obligations.

Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)
Melton Constable Hall, Norfolk (Image: English Heritage)

Although English Heritage have had some limited successes (e.g. Sockburn Hall, County Durham) there are still far too many houses at risk – I counted nearly 100 in a couple of searches.  It should be noted that houses are included even where works are planned or under way such as at Clarendon House, Wiltshire which was recently sold (with estate) for a reputed £30m and where restoration is expected to be completed by the end of 2010).  However, other examples include:

Others on the list include:

The head of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said at the launch:

“Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

One can only hope that this proves to be the case and that EH are able to fully fulfil their role particularly in relation to country houses and ensure that these beautiful buildings aren’t allowed to quietly slip into dereliction, depriving future generations of wonder of these grand houses.

More details: English Heritage Buildings at Risk 2010 or you can search the 2010 Register