How tourism split a house from the estate: Warwick Castle, Warwickshire

Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire (Image: Gernot Keller/Wikipedia)

A small advert tucked away in a recent Country Life marks the final split of a house from it’s estate. With the sale of the parkland associated with Warwick Castle in Warwickshire, another house loses control over an important asset – though this separation is very much tied up with the history of the opening of country houses to tourists, and this castle in particular.

Country house visiting is perhaps thought of as a more modern phenomenon but Warwick Castle was one of the first houses to be truly exploited as a tourist attraction with visitors coming in significant numbers from 1815 onwards. The growth of the industrial Midlands in the Victorian era and consequently a growing middle class seeking excursions, shifted the pattern of ‘show-houses’ (that is, ones regularly open to the public when the family were absent or on specific days) northwards, away from the more aristocratic 18th-century London-Bath axis.  The Midlands were particularly well provided for with many houses open to the public from the 1850s including Eaton Hall, Chatsworth House, Haddon Hall, Newstead Abbey, and Belvoir Castle amongst perhaps a hundred.  This reached a peak in the 1880s when the most popular houses would receive tens of thousands of visitors a year, reflecting a popular interest in the houses of ‘Olden Time‘ as popularised by writers such as Joseph Nash and Sir Walter Scott.

Warwick Castle, with it’s prized medieval origins, was particularly popular – to the extent that not opening it was considered unthinkable.  That the public expected to be allowed to see inside these houses could be shown in a comment in the Daily Telegraph in 1871 which said:

An Earl of Warwick who would make his whole castle his own in the spirit of an inhospitable curmudgeon, who would shut out all eyes but his own from the feast within those walls, is a being so opposed to every English tradition that it is difficult to realise him.

For the aristocratic owners, economics certainly played a stronger role than any sense of public generosity.  For some, having a popular house in the country was no inconvenience as, such as at Dunster Castle in Somerset, it was remarked in 1845; ‘The owner, an inveterate Bachelor, lives in London and hardly ever comes here‘.

Especially convenient for trippers from Birmingham and the nearby resort of Leamington Spa, Warwick Castle was hosting as many as 6,000 visitors per year in 1825-26 and when the Earl of Warwick’s housekeeper died in 1834 she was said to have left £30,000 earned from tips.  Yet it was the devastating fire of December 1871 which firmly moved the castle from being simply a home to a business. The fire destroyed the family apartments but luckily left the oldest parts of the castle untouched.  The Earl of Warwick’s financial situation meant that he simply could not afford to restore the house to its former glory, a prospect which scared the local tradespeople, fearing the loss of the tourist trade and so a restoration fund was created.  However, to ensure the Earl’s pride was not dented it was presented as recognition of the burden he bore as owner of a national treasure.

However, a furious response from no lesser figure than John Ruskin marked the start of a backlash, saying ‘If a noble family cannot rebuild their own castle, in God’s name let them live in the nearest ditch till they can‘.  Behind this was the growing social democratic movement which moved from support of national treasures privately-owned towards a more socialist belief that national assets ought to be owned by the ‘people’.  The purchase of Aston Hall by Birmingham Council in 1864 as a public museum and park was no doubt playing on the minds of both certain radical sections of society and Lord Warwick – though for different reasons.  The appeal eventually raised £9,000 which paid for restoration by Anthony Salvin but the importance of opening the house as an attraction was highlighted as a way of not only funding costs but also as a way of keeping the public happy that they had ‘access’ to what they now felt of as ‘theirs’.

From this point, the house was never really a private home again.  The Earl and his son embraced the tourist industry but in 1885 closed the castle for a year to re-organise the showing on a more commercial basis.  Gone were the old servants acting as guides; in came professionals paid for by the one shilling admission tickets.  The new system was a success, with 20,000 visitors in the first full year of the new regime.  The new domestic arrangements were confirmed by the 5th Earl who inherited in 1893 and preferred to live at his wife’s estate Easton Lodge in Essex.  In the same year, the castle staged its first historical pageant, which was repeated on a grander scale in 1906.  The 6th Earl, who took over in 1924, further promoted the tourist business, pushing visitors to a peak in 1930 of over 80,000.  Even during the war years, there were over 10,000 visitors in 1943-44, and numbers had recovered to their pre-war peak by 1949-50.

All this increasingly showed that the wider estate, for all its charms – landscaped by Capability Brown in 1747 and much admired by Horace Walpole, it was considered secondary to the primary purpose of the enterprise; to get people into the castle. When the 8th Earl decided to abandon Warwick Castle once and for all in 1978, selling it to the Madame Tussauds group which underlined just how much a tourist attraction it had become, the estate was included but farmed by tenant farmers leaving the grounds as a mere sideshow.  The 679-acres now under offer (guide price: £3m) is the bulk of the estate bar a few acres around the castle.  Land and house have been separated as assets and are unlikely to be reunited. This leaves a house without control of the setting which, although sidelined, has been an important part of what made it into such a popular tourist attraction, and leaving fans of our country houses sad that another has been split up in this way.

Property details: ‘Warwick Castle Park, Warwickshire‘ [John Shepherd]

For more history on country house tourism I can strongly recommend ‘The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home’ by Peter Mandler which proved very useful in relation to this article.

The danger of interpretation: Abbotsford House, Scotland

Abbortsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)
Abbotsford House, Scotland (Image: The Scotsman)

For Abbotsford House in Scotland, home of the famous author Sir Walter Scott, the recent news that it was to receive a £4.85m Heritage Lottery Fund grant is the sort of news which should be welcomed as that level of funding can usually remedy any necessary maintenance or repairs.  However, the grant is not actually to be spent on the house (despite headlines such as ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]) but mainly on a new, separate visitors centre.

Sir Walter Scott (b.1771 – d.1832) played a key part creating a literary context for the developing Picturesque movement which sought to reject the rigid formality of the Georgians and create a more organic architecture, which he developed in the construction of his own house.

The theory of the Picturesque raised the importance of how one ‘felt’ about a scene or view – a definite break with the austere, ‘correct’ classicism which so dominated.  The exploration of more fluid forms had started in the 1750s and had been adopted by such noted figures as Sir Horace Walpole for his own house at Strawberry Hill in Surrey.  However it was a local Surrey parson, the Rev. William Gilpin, whose guidebooks were to lead the way for those who came afterwards such as Herefordshire squires Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight who had the funds to realise these ideas.

Inspired in part by the idealised landscapes of the artists Nicholas Poussin or Claude Lorrain, architects sought to provide an almost ‘arcadian’ vision of buildings integrating naturally with an environment, forcing them to think of the building and environment as a whole rather than simply viewing their particular work in isolation. This also affected the plan of the house, with rooms now being aligned along the best viewing lines rather than simply lined up. One architect who took on this new style was John Nash who met Uvedale Price in about 1790 during Nash’s time in Wales.  Price was at the time building a small summer house and Nash, after meeting him, proposed a typical villa – a design antithetical to Price’s own philosophy.  Price instead guided Nash to design a new house where rooms followed views, and the overall design echoed its rocky coastal location; as he wrote ”The form of it is extremely varied from my having obliged him [Nash] to turn the rooms to different aspects‘.  Castle House, sadly demolished in 1897, was a watershed in the rejection of the dominant Georgian style and Nash quickly developed new designs based on these radical principles which became his distinctive ‘cottage orne‘ style.

Sir Walter Scott didn’t set out to link literature and architecture – in fact his ‘Waverley’ novels were simply a quick way to make some money after financial difficulties.  The books, which he initially wrote anonymously, were the first truly successful historical fiction, and brought Scott considerable wealth and, once his authorship was known, praise.  It was this wealth that enabled him to set about creating his ideal house.  Raised in the Scottish borders he had a close affinity for the natural landscape and so the Picturesque style would have appealed.  However, Scott ensured the existing designs for Abbotsford House had a distinctly Scottish twist, creating what is known today as the ‘Scots Baronial’ style so closely associated with our romantic notions of Scotland today.

Scott bought a small farmhouse in 1811 and engaged William Atkinson (b.c1774 – d.1839) who, between 1814-24, created the house we see today.  Atkinson was not considered one of the best ‘Gothick’ architects, with Howard Colvin thinking that his designs lacked the elegant charm of the 18th-century work and the scholarly accuracy of the 19th-century.  However at Abbotsford, the architectural vocabulary he employed – steeply pitched slate roofs, turrets, bartizans, and crowstepped gables – became the standard language of Scots country houses for anyone not following the Classical style.

So Abbotsford House is an architectural genesis – the first of it’s kind.  It seems a shame to lavish millions on a separate interpretation centre in a modern design which will only compete with the existing architecture of the house and estate.  It’s also a competition the new building is unlikely to win.  Perhaps it would be better for the money to be spent on sensitively incorporating the displays and materials from Scott’s life and work into the home he so lovingly and thoughtfully created.

More details: ‘Lottery cash means Walter Scott’s beloved Abbotsford will get £10m facelift‘ [The Scotsman]

Official website: ‘Abbotsford House

Background: the Picturesque movement [Wikipedia]