HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 2 – Birmingham to Manchester: a delicate dance with one mis-step

Having looked at the impact on country houses of the first branch of the next phase of the HS2 line between Birmingham and Leeds (‘HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others‘) it’s clear that the damaging heritage choices which marred the plans for the first phase between London and Birmingham have been largely avoided.  Can this new spirit be successfully continued as the line tries to find a path to Manchester through a landscape shaped by the many country houses in the area?

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The line emerges from the urban sprawl of Birmingham and swings past Lichfield into the Staffordshire countryside, equidistant between the rivers Trent and Blithe, well to the west of the remains of Hamstall Hall with its beautifully weathered gateway, and Blithfield Hall, which now sits next to the Blithfield reservoir. It also sweeps past well to the north of the first of the great estates on the route, the grand Shugborough Park. The core of the house was built in 1693, but the house house seen today was largely the creation of the architect Thomas Wright, between 1745-48, followed in 1794, by Samuel Wyatt who added the dramatic, ten-column portico. Across the river, the splendid Tixall Gatehouse (to the demolished, later Tixall Hall) also can continue in its peaceful repose.

Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)
Ingestre Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Langstraat via Wikipedia)

Sadly, a poor route decision follows immediately after, with the line cutting within 400 metres to the south-west [PDF] of the grand front of Ingestre Hall (historical details here).  A former home of the Earls of Shrewsbury, the house is a wonderful example of the Jacobean tradition, that short period which developed the drama of the Elizabethan house with classical principles, combining architectural flamboyance with symmetry.  Although Ingestre is no longer a home, and the park a golf course, the embankments of the HS2 line may not be enough to mitigate a serious incursion into the environs of this house.

Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)
Swynnerton Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Simon Huguet via Geograph)

The route continues to the north of Swynnerton, placing the village between the trains and the beautiful seat of Lord Stafford, Swynnerton Hall, which still sits in a 3,000-acre estate. After Newcastle-under-Lyme, the line passes to the east of Doddington Hall, still the seat of the old Staffordshire family, the Broughton-Delves.  The route continues northward, neatly bisecting Winsford and Middlewich, passing to the east of the impressive but now hugely over-developed Bostock Hall with its housing estate at the back.

Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)
Tabley Hall, Cheshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy via Wikipedia)

As HS2 heads into Cheshire, the delicate dance to avoid the grand houses and their estates requires some deft footwork. Knutsford is surrounded by important houses but importantly, for us, the line passes west of the beautiful Tabley Hall and estate, which was so atmospherically painted by J.M.W. Turner (the painting can be seen at Petworth in Sussex).  One of the finest examples of the work of John Carr, the house replaced Tabley Old Hall which remained on the estate and was incorporated as an eye-catcher in the landscape as a picturesque ruin.  Also untroubled is Viscount Ashbrook’s family seat of Arley Hall, also well to the west of the line.  Similarly, the ever-grand Tatton Park, once seat of the Egerton family, now owned by the National Trust, and its thousand acres of parkland are kept well clear of the line.

Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)
Dunham Massey, Cheshire (Image: Danny Beath via flickr)

Past Knutsford and heading towards Altrincham, the line splits with one branch curving gently west away from another National Trust property, Dunham Massey. Following this line, heading north of Lowton, the attractive small family home of the Byrom family, Byrom Hall, built in 1713, loses its rural outlook and will instead be at the edge of a rolling stock maintenance depot at the end of that line.  The other branch heads south of Altrincham and heads towards Manchester, skirting the edge of the city but by now the semi-urban fringe is no longer the setting for country retreats and so the line passes into the city without any further threats.

So again, the route of HS2 from Birmingham has avoided many of the pitfalls of the first phase and has mostly been able to step lightly around the historic estates which have brought such beauty to our landscapes.  However, the one mis-step is around Ingestre Hall, where the line will create a dramatic slash through the parkland and perhaps impinge on the future ability of the house to be rescued from its current use as an arts centre and golf course to one day become a home again.  This is unlikely if the economics of conversion and restoration are upset by the overall value of the house and estate being seriously compromised by HS2.  With farmland to the south, it would make sense to move the route just another couple of hundred metres to ensure tranquillity for this fine house.  Overall though, the planners at Arup and Mott Macdonald ought to be congratulated on plotting a sensitive course through a difficult landscape and one hopes that the final plan maintains this.

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Source for route: ‘HS2 phase two initial preferred route plan and profile maps‘ [Department for Transport/HS2 Limited]

Aristocratic tenants of the National Trust; Shugborough House, Staffordshire

Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)
Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Neilsvrx via flickr)

The news that the area of Shugborough House open to the public is to ‘double in size’ with the inclusion of the Lichfield family apartment, is a reminder of just how advantageous some of the deals were for the owners who gave their houses to the National Trust.  The Trust today is perhaps almost best known for its country houses which form an important part of its work.  However the houses were not simply museums but, due to the often very generous terms under which the families ‘gifted’ the houses, they were often able to stay on in private apartments.

When founded in 1895, the original aims of the National Trust were very much focussed on the preservation of countryside with houses only coming later. The first house the NT acquired was Barrington Court, Somerset in 1907 but the unexpectedly high cost of maintenance and repairs meant that another wasn’t acquired for over 30 years.  With the first crisis period of the country house in the 1930s, leading to many demolitions, there was a growing realisation that the National Trust was well placed to rescue some of the threatened homes.  In 1936 they set up a ‘Country House Committee’ in response to the suggestion of Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian at the 1934 AGM that the NT should be able to accept the gift of country houses, with endowments in land or capital, free of tax. This new regime was then given legislative powers through the National Trust Act of 1937 with Lothian then providing the first donation of one of his four great houses, Blickling Hall with its 4,760 acres, in 1940. To help guide them, Country Life magazine was asked to draw up a list of those properties (which totalled 60 larger and 600 smaller houses) which ought to be saved for the nation.

Having created the legislative backing the NT was well placed in the second period of crisis in the immediate post-war period when the tireless, if not faultless, Secretary of the Committee, James Lees-Milne, travelled up and down the country persuading owners to part with their inheritance.  He was helped by the pernicious, and still highly damaging, death duties which, since 1904 had risen from 8% (for estates valued at over £1m) to 50% by 1934, leading to massive sales of land and contents to fund the demands of the ever-grasping Exchequer.  The multiple sets of duties levelled against the aristocratic families who had sometimes lost father and then son in WWI (and who had been particularly vulnerable as they were often officers and so first over the top) meant estates were inherited by an uncle with no deep connection to a house and estate who would happily sell up.  However, for some who were loathe to simply sell, the National Trust seemed to offer an attractive alternative where someone else would pay the maintenance bills whilst they were still able to live in the house.

The degree to which the family remained in the house was sometimes simply down to how well the family had negotiated with the NT and dependent on the chips they had to bargain with.  For some such as Lord Faringdon at Buscot Park where he retains ownership of the contents, this is powerful position as the house would be severely diminished without the collection of furniture and art.  For others such as Throckmorton family at Coughton Court and the Dashwoods at the glorious West Wycombe Park, long leases (250-300 years) ensure their continued presence.  For some, the pre-eminent importance of the house gave them the edge with Sackvilles at Knole, an Elizabethan treasure-house, living in a large section of the house and still owning vital parts of the house and the entire 1000-acre parkland.  At other houses, the family remain living in the almost the whole house but with almost all the rooms open to the public such as at Anthony where the Carew-Pole family have just a small kitchen and sitting room as their own.  For others such as the Hyde-Parkers at Melford Hall they were retained by the NT as the paid administrators of their own family home which is almost completely open.  Other families like the Lucy’s at Charlecote Park have just a private wing or simply a flat in a wing such as the Drewe’s at Castle Drogo.

For the grade-I listed Shugborough House, begun in 1695, the elegant enlargement and magnificent plasterwork and decoration by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart between 1760-70, ensured that the house would always be on the list of ‘major’ houses to be saved.  When the then Lord Lichfield gave the house and 900-acre estate to the NT in 1966 in lieu of death duties the agreement regarding the house only included the state rooms on the ground floor and a small section of the first floor with the rest was leased as private apartment for the family.  The rooms to now be opened include the Boudoir with original real silver leaf wallpaper dating from 1794, and the impressive Bird room which was Lord Lichfield’s private drawing room.  The 6th Earl of Lichfield has now surrendered the lease allowing Staffordshire County Council, who run the house on behalf of the NT, to include the rest of the ground and entire upper floors.

It may seem like a strange anachronism to have the donor family still living and enjoying the family seat (although they pay rent) whilst having the National Trust pick up most of the bills for maintenance. However, the family add a rich layer of history and their commitment to the care of the houses is second-to-none with their residence helping the houses avoid the awful fate highlighted by Philip Kerr that ‘nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums’.

Full press release: ‘Shugborough mansion is set to double in size‘ [Shugborough Hall]

Superb post by Fugitive Ink on ‘James Lees-Milne and the National Trust‘ [fugitiveink.wordpress.com]

Thanks to Andrew for original link.