The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced

Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport has now announced the final route for the HS2 rail line which will carve its way through some of our most beautiful countryside and require the demolition of many homes so that we can get to Birmingham 15 whole minutes quicker! And it will only cost £32bn – honest. Despite claims of popular support, when faced with loud opposition from those living in its path or near enough to be blighted by it, those who care about our heritage and the environment, rail users, road users, opposition politicians, coalition politicians, Cabinet members, and MPs from their own parties, some important improvements have been wrung out as to the route – some of which have significantly enhanced the prospects for some of our country houses previously affected.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One of the most significant houses to be affected by the initial route was Edgcote House, a glorious, grade-I, Georgian gem, which faced having the main view from the house out over the lake terminated by a not inconsiderable viaduct.  However, the new route has moved the line to the east, leaving the lake, and the view, largely preserved.  I wonder how much this change was influenced by the prospect of having to pay compensation for ‘statutory blight’ on a multi-million pound house and estate – a possibly more forceful reason, sadly, than just ruining the setting of a fine country house.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

More broadly, Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, has cautiously welcomed the alteration to the route, though, there are still concerns.  Having seen off very early proposals which would have had the route disturb the stunning West Wycombe Park, the later revisions did propose to run the line, with inadequate measures to minimise the impact, rather close to the National Trust’s grade-I Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  It seems that the powerful voice of the NT has succeeded in increasing the mitigation measures with extended deep cuttings to minimise the visual and sound impact – but it’s certainly not the tunnel they were hoping for.

Another house which has definitely escaped the blight is Shardeloes, also in Buckinghamshire.  The route originally ran across the other side of the shallow valley in front of the house on the other side of a main road (which already cuts through the parkland).  Although this section was to be in a cutting, under the new plans, the extended tunnelling completely removes the above ground elements near the house.

Of the other houses, Waddesdon Manor was never really going to be affected, the route past Stoneleigh Abbey hasn’t changed, still slicing through the agricultural showground which had already blighted the setting of that fascinating house, nor have there been any changes to the situation for Chetwode Manor.  On the positive side,  The Vache benefits from the extended tunnel at Chalfont St Giles, and that same tunnel means that the route now sweeps well to the south of Pollard Park House.  Grade-II* Doddershall Hall has also gained further protection.

Although it is easy to be sceptical about HS2, I am, in principle, a strong supporter of railways, particularly over domestic flights and more roads.  However, where projects of this scale and expense are proposed, it is even more important that the full costs – financial, social, material, and environmental – are fully understood, especially where irreplaceable built heritage will be compromised.  Commenting on the changes, Justine Greening said: “The changes mean that more than half the route will now be mitigated by tunnel or cutting and there will also be a reduction in the impacts on people and communities, ancient woodlands and important heritage sites. The revised route offers considerable improvements to communities, with the number of dwellings at risk of land take almost halving and the number experiencing increased noise levels reducing by a third.“.

So, overall, the effects on the country houses nearest the line have largely been removed or minimised. But what seems a shame is that so much energy and expense had to be deployed to achieve this – why were these considerations not taken into account as a matter of course when the initial plans were drawn up?  Sadly, it seems that cost pressures demand that civil servants start with the most damaging option and then must be forced to not spoil the nation they are supposed to be looking after.  Perhaps, one day, heritage will be valued so highly that such proposals are not even considered.  One can always hope.

Full plans: ‘HS2 revised line of route maps‘ [Department for Transport]

The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project

One of the sadly almost inevitable side-effects of urban and industrial growth is the loss of more of our countryside. Sometimes it can be on a smaller scale for residential developments and industrial units but occasionally society’s plans are much grander and require a greater sacrifice. This has been shown with the publication of the latest proposed route for the new High Speed 2 rail project to provide a fast link between London and Birmingham.  In previous generations, landowners could influence the path of developments such as roads or canals to their benefit but as their power has diminished so routes of these developments can now threaten the settings of our country houses.

The High Speed 2 railway is aiming to dramatically reduce the need for internal domestic flights in the UK by linking London to, first, the West Midlands, followed by Leeds and Manchester.  The plan has always been controversial, requiring the loss of hundreds of homes in the urban areas around the terminals and also a significant loss of farmland.  Following an initial proposal, the latest route was announced to the House of Commons on 20 December 2010 which reflected some concerns about the initial proposal.  However, 13 of the 30 sections (yes, I have been through all of them!) contain a number of country houses and manors which will still be significantly affected by the plans.

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab)

One bit of good news is that fears over the proximity of the link to the wonderfully elegant West Wycombe Park (raised in a blog post in Oct 2009) have been alleviated as the new route is further away.  However, another significant house will still be badly affected; the Georgian, grade-I listed, Edgcote House, Northamptonshire.  The proposed route now slices through the remarkably unlisted grounds with the line passing just to the east of the ornamental lake which forms one of the main axial views from the house.  Edgcote was built between 1747-1752 for London merchant Richard Chauncey by architect William Jones and featured as ‘Netherfield’ in the 1995 TV adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  The house and grounds form the centrepiece to a 1,700-acre estate which was bought for £30m in 2005. Interestingly, this value has not deterred the planners (who moved the line from the original position cutting across the lake) so it will be interesting to see if the owner submits a claim a for ‘statutory blight‘ [.pdf]. This gives the Secretary of State the option to buy the property at the current market value if the owner can show that they have been unable to sell due to the Government proposals, or only at a substantially lower value.

Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)
Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire (Image: Giano via Wikipedia)

Amendments have also been made to protect another significant property; Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.  A grade-I listed house, now run as a hotel, it was built in the early 17th-century for the Hampden family but was later let to the exiled King Louis XVIII of France who lived there between 1809-14.  Originally Jacobean, it was substantially enlarged and ‘Georgianised’ between 1759 and 1761 by the architect Henry Keene.  Again, following initial concerns, the route has now been moved further away from the house so that it would not be visible and will benefit from extra earth works and planting to reduce the noise.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire (Image: PinkyVicki via Flickr)

Another grade-I house which would have been worse affected if it hadn’t been blighted already is Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.  This imposing house, now converted into apartments, is part medieval, part Georgian designed by the talented Francis Smith of Warwick, exists in a seriously compromised setting with the Stoneleigh Park exhibition and conference venue built in one half of the immediate parkland.  The proposed line will not only cut through the conference venue but also forever separate the house from the northern edge of the original park – though the massive scale of development already means this was never a house which was going to be returned to splendid isolation.

Another compromised house is Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire where the train will pass in front but quite some distance away.  The house itself, a beautiful Baroque-style Georgian mansion was built in 1757 to a design by Benjamin Wyatt and remained the home of the Swinfen family for nearly 200 years.  After the death of the last Swinfen in 1948 the land was sold and later a huge youth detention centre built to the immediate north-west with the house being left to deteriorate until it was converted into a hotel in the 1980s.  Having a railway line in the middle distance is the least of the concerns for the setting of this house.

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)
Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire (Image: National Trust)

Despite the vocal complaints of Lord Rothschild it seems that the route will be quite far from their old family seat of Waddesdon Manor.  However, Rothschild has become one of the leading opponents of the scheme – along with 16 other Conservative MPs whose constituencies will be affected.

With the rail route cutting across the countryside it was unavoidable that it would pass near to country houses, ironically which, of course, were often built to get away from the industrial blight.  Other houses which now lie close to the proposed route include:

  • The Vache (image), Buckinghamshire
  • Pollard Park House – a 1903 house built to a Lutyens design.
  • Classical Shardeloes, built between 1758-66 for William Drake MP by the architect Stiff Leadbetter would also suffer from the high speed line cutting across the main view from the house.
  • Grade-II* Doddershall House would be within a couple of hundred metres of the line on which up to 18 trains per hour are expected to rush past at speeds of up to 400kph.
  • Chetwode Manor
  • Oatley’s Hall
  • Berkswell Hall, Warwickshire – a grade-II* listed house now converted into apartments
  • Coleshill Manor, Birmingham – now offices and already suffering from being surround by motorways, the house will now have the line within metres, also necessitating the demolition of a new office complex next door.

The route also cuts across the old estate of the now demolished Hints Hall in Staffordshire – an elegant two-storey Georgian mansion with giant pilasters to enliven the facade.  It’s unlikely that if the house had survived it would have prevented the proposed route but again, without the house, an estate becomes even more vulnerable.

These are just the houses affected by the first 120 miles of the proposed 355 mile scheme.  If successful, we can expect more houses to be blighted as the route carves through the Midlands and up into Lancashire, shattering the peace and quiet that were the original reasons for the creation of these refuges from the industrial reality of the cities.  Although progress can often bring benefits, in this case the price is being paid by our country houses as their parklands and estates are judged the path of least resistance.

More information: High Speed 2 [wikipedia]