Houses of gods: country houses converted to religion and the sale of Hawkstone Hall

The 1920s and 30s may be remembered for many things, but it probably wouldn’t be for having any great public affection for the grand houses which had so dominated the landscape agriculturally, economically and politically.  Faced with the reality of the long slump in revenue from the land and wider economic difficulties, country house owners found themselves between the rock of their own financial situations and the hard place of a nation broadly unsympathetic to their difficulties.  Many an owner may have offered up a prayer for some form of divine intervention to alleviate their situation – and the miracle which appeared which saved their house, though not their lifestyles, was religious orders purchasing these grand piles for their ministries.  With the recent launch on the market of the impressive Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire, the cycle turns again, as it looks like the wealthy will rescue the religious.

Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)
Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire (Image: Gerard Carroll via flickr)

A nobleman’s residence in the medieval period was often a castle but this dramatically changed following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536-41.  The aftermath created one of the greatest transfers of land (in the 1530s, they were estimated to hold approx 16% of England) and property as the riches of these institutions were either given to favoured courtiers or sold, creating instant country estates.  Yet, at that time, they were seen more as industrial units; great agricultural establishments which brought in great wealth, with the beautiful priory churches often stripped for their materials. However, for some owners, the buildings were a fine opportunity to create a house – and what better way of creating the impression of an ancient family than with an ancient seat, especially if it came with prized feudal rights.

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: Arnhel de Serra / National Trust)

The suppression of the monasteries and convents brought to an end many of the longest standing communities but did give a boost to the secular, non-defensive country house. Many older houses today, both large and small, can trace their origins back to monastic roots, including (a small sample, admittedly):

Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)
Mapledurham, Oxfordshire (Image: scoutjacobus via flickr)

Of course, there is a long history of country houses being used for religious purposes as many recusant families continued practising their Catholic faith at great risk to themselves both financially and physically, such as at Mapledurham in Oxfordshire or Hintlesham Hall in Essex.  This secrecy led to the creation of many ingenious methods of hiding not only the chapels (either in attics such as at Ufton Court, Berkshire, or by being disguised as bedrooms) and items of their faith but also the priests themselves, usually in ‘priest holes‘ which could be concealed behind panelling and walls (e.g. at Harvington Hall – still owned by the Archdiocese of Birmingham), in chimneys, under fireplaces and so on.

Despite Catholic worship becoming legal again in 1791, there were still restrictions on Catholics in public office until 1829, and it was still viewed with some suspicion. A further influx in the 1790s was due to the French Revolution which forced many orders back across the Channel.  For any order seeking to establish itself, it was certainly easier to take over a country house as it would often meet their requirements in terms of seclusion and accommodation but without the challenges of trying to build a new convent or monastery. One of the earliest was the purchase of East Bergholt Old Hall, Suffolk which was bought in the 1850s but there have been many others since, including:

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: EPR Architects)

Catholics may have had the longer history but others have also taken the same route. Perhaps the most famous of these was the spectacular Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, designed by Joseph Paxton and built between 1852-54 for the Rothschilds, which was bought by the followers of the Marharishi Yogi to serve as the UK headquarters for the World Government of the Age of Enlightenment. This followed the scandalous refusal by the then Labour government to accept it for the nation with its incredible collections in lieu of just £2m inheritance tax and the subsequent sale which netted several times that. Others include:

There don’t appear to be any clear records of which houses have been used as convents/monasteries so it remains anecdotal (there’s probably a good PhD topic in there somewhere) but it’s possible that hundreds of houses have served in this use, especially if convent schools and retreats (e.g Capernwray Hall and Kinmel Hall) are included. For many of these, it’s likely that this alternative use saved them from joining the ranks of those demolished.

For the past 85 years, grade-I listed Hawkstone Hall has been a seminary and also a retreat for Catholic clergy.  The house was originally built in 1720 for Richard Hill (b.1655 – d.1727), a traveller and diplomat who had made a fortune through what was described as ‘lucrative arithmetick‘, and consisted of just the main block.  The design of this section is quite unique, certainly to the area, and pre-dates designs later shown in Campbell’s ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘ published in 1715-25.  Although it shares certain elements with other houses (Buckingham House, Chatsworth – east front), neither the listing description nor Colvin have details on the original architect so it is open to conjecture as to who designed it and where they got their inspiration (if anyone does know/have any suggestions, please do add a comment below or contact me).

Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)
Hawkstone Park, Shropshire (Image: Peter-snottycat via flickr)

Hawkstone was then inherited by his son Sir Rowland Hill, 1st Baronet (1705–1783), who added the wings as part of an enlargement in 1750, but who also, more importantly, started the landscaping for which the estate was to become famous.  Taking advantage of a natural rocky outcrop, Hill created a series of walkways on the cliffs, view points and follies which attracted many visitors.  This grew to such an extent that Sir Richard Hill, 2nd Baronet (b.1733 – d.1808) wrote the first guidebook for the park and also built the ‘Hawkstone Inn’ to cater for the visitors. Such was its reputation that Dr Samuel Johnson came to see and was duly impressed, remarking on “…the awfulness of its shades, the horror of its precipices….“. Johnson also commented that he thought there ought to be more water and so Sir Richard commissioned landscape designer William Emes, who created the Hawk River which still flows to the north-west of the house.  Hawkstone Park had become one of the most popular attractions in the country by the time of his death in  1808 and remained so under the care of his brother, Sir John Hill, 3rd Baronet (b.1740 – d.1824), who inherited.

Sadly, it was to be the next generation who sowed the seeds of the families financial troubles.  The house and park were inherited by Sir Rowland Hill, 4th Baronet Hill of Hawkstone, 2nd Viscount Hill (1800–1875) who, through extravagance or mismanagement, lost much of the family fortune. Inside, he commissioned, between 1832-4, various alterations including a new drawing room from Sir Matthew Wyatt, whilst in the grounds he carved a hugely expensive new drive through a cliff and built The Citadel, a strange castle-like dower house.  He even toyed with the idea of relocating the entire house to the other side of the river.

Such spending was always likely to lead to difficulties and the 3rd Viscount, Rowland Clegg-Hill, (b.1833 – d.1895), never managed to re-establish the fortune and was bankrupt by the time of his death.  This forced a sale of the contents and then the splitting up of the estate in 1906.  The park, with the many follies, tunnels and caves, was sold off and is now run as part of the Hawkstone Park hotel. The Hall was bought by George Whitely, later Baron Marchamley of Hawkstone, a wealthy mill and brewery owner and MP, who made minor alterations; reducing the height and length of the projecting wings and to the interior.

The house was then sold to the Roman Catholic Redemptorists who have remained there until a recent review of their activities prompted them to put the house, with its 7-acres of gardens and 81-acres of grounds, up for sale for £5m.  Any purchaser looking to make this a home again will need to demolish the ugly accommodation block tucked away behind the left wing and will also have to consider what they wish to do with the large chapel which was added in 1932; perhaps if bought by a non-religious family it would make a superb music room.  For a house which exhibits such architectural interest and grandeur, it seems like a fair price and one hopes it will attract someone willing to invest to recreate what could be one of the finest homes in Shropshire.

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Property details:

News story: ‘Hawkstone Hall goes up for sale with a £5m price‘ [Shropshire Star]

Official website: ‘Hawkstone Hall

A bad omen: the spring country house relaunch

One rather unscientific barometer of the health of the country house market is the thickness of Country Life magazine as it comes through the letterbox each week.  After the thinning of the issue in the run-up to Christmas it’s always pleasing to feel the first weighty edition of the new year.  Yet, though this week’s issue (2 March) boasts ’70 pages of property for sale’ it’s remarkable that the estate agents have so few significant country houses to offer and of those that are there, it seems, along with last week’s issue, the largest houses are relaunches.

Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)
Pyrford Court, Surrey (Image: Savills)

One of the most interesting is grade-II listed Pyrford Court, Surrey.  Originally built in 1910 for the 2nd Lord Iveagh, of the Guinness brewing family, it was one of a group of houses built around that time on the profits of beer (along with Polesden Lacey, Elveden Hall, and Bailliffscourt). The land was sold to Lord Iveagh by his father-in-law, Lord Onslow, whose family had owned the area since the 17th-century.  The house was designed by Clyde Young who had also worked at Elveden, another seat of the Guinness family, though the sensitively designed wings were added in 1927-29 by J.A. Hale of Woking to designs by Lord Iveagh.  The stylish neo-Georgian house is an elegant red-brick composition which originally sat in a 1,000-acre estate – though sadly now reduced to just 21-acres.  Lord Iveagh died in 1967 and the house sat empty until sold in 1977 – apart from a brief burst of fame as a location in the 1965 film ‘The Omen’.  The house then became an old people’s home with all the attendant damage until the current owners started their seven-figure restoration.

Pyrford Court was originally launched on the market in January 2010 for an ambitious £20m, a staggering rise in valuation from the £3.25m paid in 2000 and from the £8m asking price when it was offered for sale in 2002 (reduced, a year later, to £6.5m).  Yet this proved too much for the market to take; even for a ‘super-prime’ house within 25 miles of central London, and despite the high-quality restoration of the impressive interiors.  It subsequently languished and has now been promoted with a double-page advert – though the price is ‘on application’ meaning we won’t yet know quite how far the price has dropped.  However, looking at the other houses Savills have for sale in the area this is by far the most interesting and attractive house.

Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)
Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire (Image: Jackson-Stops & Staffs)

Another impressive house is the classically elegant, red-brick Brockhampton Park, Herefordshire.  Although the architect hasn’t been confirmed, the fact that it is virtually identical to Hatton Grange in Shropshire by Thomas Farnolls Pritchard, means it can probably be attributed to him.  The house was built in the late 1750s for Bartholomew Richard Barneby, probably using the £3,000 brought to him through his marriage in 1756 to one Betty Freeman. The Barneby family had owned the estate since the 15th-century and were to own it until 1946 when John Talbot Lutley (who was a descendent of the  Barneby family) left the house and 1,200-acre estate to the National Trust. Col. Lutley was a no-nonsense man who, on hearing of the NT country houses scheme, wrote them a short letter in 1938 saying that as he was a bachelor whose heirs were rather distant, would they be interested?

James Lees-Milne was duly dispatched – and almost rejected it on sight as it wasn’t pure Georgian due to some relatively small Victorian alterations.  However, after a tour of the estate and on seeing the beautiful Lower Brockhampton Manor, he felt that the latter two would be fine additions for the Trust – even if the big house would be a drain. It was duly left to the NT in 1946 following the Colonel’s death. Neither the house nor the contents were of sufficient quality to justify retaining or opening to the public so they sought to let it.  Unfortunately no private tenant wished to take it on, usually citing its remoteness, however in 1985 an insurance company let the house as offices and undertook a comprehensive restoration programme.  After they moved out in 1996 it was again restored as a private home and is now available with just 8-acres but surrounded by the rest of the NT-owned estate.  Interestingly the house is listed under the ‘Sales’ section of the Jackson-Stops & Staff website but I suspect this is due to it being leasehold – again ‘price on application’ so the price of the privilege is unknown, but the house has been advertised since last summer so it may be cheaper than before.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

Perhaps the most surprising house to still be available is the grand Ebberly House, Devon.  Rather than the expected provincial house, this is a house which displays remarkable architectural sophistication. Described by Pevsner as ‘unusual and attractive’, whose distinctive rounded ends ‘hint at the variety of room shapes inside; a provisional echo of the interest of contemporary architects such as Nash and Soane’.  Designed by Thomas Lee of Barnstaple, a pupil of Sir John Soane, the grade-II* house compensates for it’s remoteness with a fantastic house set in a fine 250-acre estate.  Offers in excess of £4m on the back of a postcard to Savills in Exeter.

Perhaps there are some clever marketing plans being hatched at the estate agents which means that rather than pushing their best properties in the first big property edition of Country Life of 2011 they’re saving them for…when?  Bonuses have just been announced and those looking to buy are probably active so perhaps there is just a general scarcity of significant country houses coming to the market.  Does this indicate 2011 will be rather thin for the agents as uncertainty limits buyers to the super-rich looking for somewhere in London or will the market pick up and a slew of new houses soon be released to whet our appetites?

Make a date: the strange world of the calendar house

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims.  With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.

The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science,  mathematics and astronomy.  They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.

Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device.  Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare.   In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.

The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year).  So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.  It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.

Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)
Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)

One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors.  Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north.  Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole.  Who knows?  What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate.  What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim.  Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.

Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)
Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)

It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses.  Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys.  The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole.  After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.

Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)
Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)

The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country.  The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.

Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925.  A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I.  Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.

The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)
The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)

Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor.  Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers.  Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’.  It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.

Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors.  The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did.  Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.

Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most.  Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges.  As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.

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Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:

  • Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
  • Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.

Can anyone confirm these? Thanks, Matthew

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]

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

For sale for the first time in 1000 years: Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire

Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)
Shakenhurst Hall, Shropshire (Image: Nick Edwards/Panoramio)

It has been estimated that there are approximately 2,000 large country houses in the UK with decent size estates  (over 100 acres) – but very few are still in the hands of the family which originally built them. Yet despite the many sales over the years it’s still possible for a house and land to remain with one family for many hundreds of years – though that is now coming to an end for Shakenhurst Hall in Shropshire, seat of the Meysey family for much of the last 1000 years and now on the market for the first time at £12m.

The lands were first given to a French Baron, Roger de Toeni, for his help in the conquest of Britain in 1066.  It has then passed through inheritance through various members of the Meysey family except when it passed for period to a godson in the 20th-century and then his wife, before being bequeathed to Michael Severne, a descendent of the Meyseys.  On his death in 2007 it passed to his only daughter Amanda who died of cancer in 2008 leaving the house and estate to her husband.

The grade-II listed Georgian house, built in the 1790s but with a 16th-century core, is now up for sale as it faces that age-old difficulty of an estate no longer providing sufficient income to maintain the house – and neither of their two sons are in a position to take it on.  Michael Severne had run a successful plastics business from outbuildings on the estate but with his death the business folded.  Interestingly this mirrors the challenges faced by country house owners in the 19th-century who relied also on a single source of income, agriculture, who were hit particularly hard by the 1870s depression in farm produce prices and land values.

Land has always been regarded as the most important asset (even if mortgaged) and so when faced with the choice of economising, selling land, or selling paintings or books it was usually the latter which went first.  This lead to the rise of the art sales particularly from the 1890s until the 1930s which dealers such as Joseph Duveen exploited as they extracted exquisite Old Master Italian paintings and others by the finest English artists which would then be shipped to the United States. Here a new class of exceptionally wealthy financiers and industrialists such as Hearst, Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie and Rockefeller would compete to secure the finest works of art before donating them to eponymous public galleries.

Although this did leave significantly smaller collections for some houses it did sometimes provide the finance to either diversify into investments or tide them over until agriculture recovered in the 1930s – although for some it merely delayed the more unpalatable choice of demolition which unfortunately was the outcome for hundreds of houses in the UK.  With demolition now thankfully out of the question an owner is left with few options and it can be easier to simply sell up which is what appears to be the case with Shakenhurst Hall.

Sad though it is that such a long connection is to come to an end, here’s hoping the next owner will respect the 1300-acre estate, the history and the house to create a rewarding new chapter for this elegant ‘minor’ country house.

Property details: ‘Shakenhurst Hall‘ [Savills]

PS: it’s interesting that two houses should be available which look so alike. I was struck by just how similar Shakenhurst Hall is to Peatling Parva Hall in Leicestershire which is currently on the market for £4.75m.  Interestingly the latter only took on it’s current form after alterations in 1910 after the Arts-and-Crafts architect Detmar Blow added two bays to the original house.  Was this just a coincidence of architects thinking alike or had Blow seen either Shakenhurst or something similar?

Property details: Peatling Parva Hall [Knight Frank]

Pell Well Hall finally sold – but will buyer finish the job?

Pell Well Hall (Image from Strutt & Parker)

After abandonment, institutional use, and a serious fire, there is finally some good news for Pell Well Hall.  It’s reported that an offer has been accepted and finally the house can move to what will hopefully be the final stages of restoration.   Originally with an asking price of £750,000 the offer accepted was £550,000 – but with estimated costs of between £2m – £5m to complete the restoration.

With such a huge project and the need for significant financing, the hope is that the new purchaser will complete the work sooner rather than later.  However, after neglect and fire the original interior has been entirely lost meaning that in many senses this is a recreation rather than a strict restoration.  Perhaps leaving some evidence of this sad state would be an honest approach – and heaven forbid that the interior ends up as just some identikit footballers Surrey mansion.  This a special house and deserves a careful hand on the design and budget.

Full story: ‘New owner for historic hall as offer accepted‘ [Shropshire Star]

Beauty – but at what price?‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Please someone buy the beautiful Pell Well Hall

Pell Well Hall (Image from Strutt & Parker)
Pell Well Hall (Image from Strutt & Parker)

Sir John Soane was one of the most important Regency architects, responsible for some of the most interesting buildings in the country.  However, many of his commissions were urban or were additions to existing country houses.  This makes the country houses which he designed alone quite rare – and as a master architect they are usually amongst the most beautiful and elegant buildings in the country. However, despite their rarity and elegance they have often been mistreated.

Pell Well Hall is one such example.  Built between 1822-28 for the wealthy iron merchant, Mr Purney Sillitoe, it later became a boys school until the mid-1960s when it passed again into private ownership.  This however was a period which ended with the house as a fire-ravaged shell on the verge of collapse.  There was widespread concern with the house appearing on the various ‘building at risk’ registers.  This led to a concerted effort which removed the unsympathetic Victorian and Edwardian additions (sorry SPAB) leaving an eminently manageable country house.  The restoration programme stabilised the building and interior and the house was put on the market about two years ago.  Unfortunately, like Soane’s other ‘at risk’ house, Piercefield in Chepstow (also for sale with Strutt & Parker), it failed to find a buyer.

So, once again, the elegant Pell Well Hall is again for sale.  Strutt & Parker are offering the Grade-II* house with 4 acres of land, with the guide price of £750,000 reflecting the level of work that will be required to restore this important house (think low single digit millions to do it properly).  It could be used for leisure or commercial purposes but really this house cries out for someone to make it a home.

Full details: ‘Pell Wall, Market Drayton, Shropshire‘ [Strutt & Parker]