A deceptive bargain: Halswell House, Somerset

Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)
Halswell House, Somerset (Image: Clive Emson Auctioneers)

When newspaper stories appear with headlines such as ‘One of Britain’s ‘finest’ mansions for sale with guide price of £250,000‘, it guarantees that many will immediately start dreaming of exchanging their current home for the life of a country squire.  The auction of Halswell House, Somerset, is the latest chapter in a blighted recent history of the house and the absurdly low guide price should be a warning. This is a house which will require equally deep reserves of money and heritage sensitivity for anyone wishing to take on this important house, a beautiful example of early English Baroque, described by Sir Nikolas Pevsner as ‘the most important house of its date in the country‘.

The Halswell family had been resident in the part of Somerset which took their name since the early 14th-century.  Though no trace of the early building can be seen in Halswell House today, the core – consisting of two rambling gabled wings around a courtyard – dates from the early 16th-century, specifically 1536, when Nicholas Halswell used some of his inheritance to build a new home.  The house and estate passed through the Halswells until 1667, when the then owner, Hugh Halswell, settled the inheritance on his daughter’s 18-year old son, who became, in due course, Sir Halswell Tynte – his daughter having married Sir John Tynte and wisely passing on the family surname as a first name.

It was Sir Halswell who was responsible for the building of the imposing great North wing, completed in 1689; a bold, three-storey addition which was placed so as to hide the older buildings from the view of visitors arriving along the main carriage drive.  As to the identity of the architect; in a letter, dated March 1683, among the Thynne papers at Longleat, a surveyor called William Taylor, states that before he can return to London he needed to visit Sir William Portman at Orchard Portman and then Sir Halswell. In his famous dictionary of architects, Sir Howard Colvin states that Taylor was almost certainly responsible for the rebuilding of Halswell. Taylor had several commissions in the south-west in the 1680s, including Chipley House, Somerset (built 1681-3, rebuilt 1840, later dem.), and in Devon; Wembury House (dem. 1803) and Escot House, which was destroyed in a fire in 1808, but was illustrated in Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus.

Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) - burnt down 1808
Escot House, Devon as shown in Vitruvius Britannicus (vol i, plate 78) – burnt down 1808

The design of Escot has been attributed to Sir Robert Hooke but Colvin quotes that in 1684 Taylor was contracted to ‘contrive, designe, and draw out in paper‘ and supervise the building of the house, for which he was paid £200.  Looking at the design of Escot House, especially the engaged pillars beside the door, the recessed doorway (inspired by Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow, London), surmounted window with pediment,  it’s clear to see the similarities in Taylor’s work at the two houses.  A similar style can be seen at nearby Ston Easton Park, a grand and beautiful house built in 1739, but designed by an unknown architect who appears to have taken inspiration from Halswell.

The importance of Halswell House stems from its very early use of the architectural language of the baroque – some five to ten years before the wider movement took hold in the country.  Sir Christopher Wren had been the midwife to the use of the style but it was only once he had handed over his responsibilities as the Queen’s Surveyor in 1692 that others such as Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh were able to develop their designs into a distinctive school of English Baroque which reached its peak with the grand palaces such as Castle Howard (built 1699-1712) and Blenheim (built 1705-24).  William Taylor was innovative in his use of the style although he was probably copying elements from French pattern books as he lacked the genius of Vanbrugh to bring it to its full expression.

Robin Hood's Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)
Robin Hood’s Hut, Halswell, Somerset (Image: Ian Sumner / Landmark Trust)

After Sir Halswell’s death in 1702, the house continued down the Tynte family line, with his son John’s marriage bringing Welsh wealth into the estate.  It was Sir John’s third son, Sir Charles, who looked beyond the house (completing only minor works there) and instead concentrated his energies on beautifying the parkland.  A series of new lakes, canals and ponds, avenues of trees all grew under his watch, but his best commissions were the hermit’s house on the hill, Robin Hood’s Hut (now restored by the Landmark Trust) and the Temple of Harmony, derived by Thomas Prowse from a Robert Adam design.  Extensive gardens and greenhouses ensured that the table at Halswell was as exotic as it was plentiful.

Sadly, the 19th-century was a time of neglect and disuse for Halswell as, although it was still owned by the family, it had passed to a niece and was regarded as old-fashioned.  It came back into use when Charles Theodore Halswell Kemeys-Tynte succeeded as Lord Wharton in 1916 and the house again became a home.  Any hope that this upward trend in the fortunes of the house could continue were dealt a cruel blow early on 27 October 1923 when Lord Wharton’s valet awoke to smoke seeping under the door to his room at the top of the house.  Despite the efforts of estate staff to both fight the fire and rescue the contents, by breakfast time the grand North wing was gutted, destroying ten bedrooms, the drawing room, reception hall and the dining room.  The local paper reported mournfully that ‘Practically all that remained of the front part of the building were blackened outside walls, the interior being a mass of smouldering debris‘.

The cause of the fire was eventually judged to be a newly-installed electricity supply.  Despite the estate being heavily mortgaged, the house was rebuilt at a cost of £41,534 with the work to such a standard that it was confused for being original.  During WWII, the house became a girls school and the grounds were used as a prisoner of war camp. Halswell House finally passed out of family ownership when it was sold in 1950, after which it was divided into flats (badly) and also used as a furniture store.  The house had a brief respite when it was bought by a businessman in 2004 who lived there and used it as an events venue (sometimes with unexpected results).  However, with the house and estate being repossessed Halswell is again looking for a new owner.

East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in 'Some Somerset Country Houses' by David Dunning')
East and North wings, Halswell House (Image: RCHME in ‘Some Somerset Country Houses‘ by David Dunning’)

The auction guide price is simply that – and in this case feels more like a marketing ploy to attract the greatest interest.  It’s likely that bidding will be keen and the final price for the house alone will be multiples of the original guide price, probably nearer £1m, though ideally they will be able to start putting this fractured estate back together, reuniting the parts to create the surroundings that this grade-I listed house deserves.  Beyond the sale price, will also be the certainty that the new owner – if they are the right owner – will need to be willing and able to spend large sums to restore the house, especially the Tudor ranges, to the state it deserves. So, rather than £250,000, this house will easily require £2-4m – and possibly more. Not such a bargain after all.

That said, Halswell House is not simply a home – it’s an important milestone in the development of the English country house and a source of wonder at the beauty and composition of the exterior, married to an equally impressive interior.  Hopefully the house will sell for a price which reflects its value and ideally to someone who will appreciate it and is willing to pour money almost beyond reason into restoring it.  In return, they will be the custodians of one of the finest houses in the country and proud owners of a piece of architectural history.

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Full auction details: ‘HALSWELL HOUSE & THE TUDOR BUILDINGS, HALSWELL PARK‘ [Clive Emson] – auction to be held on 17 December 2013 in Saltash, Cornwall. Halswell House and its five other outbuildings lots will firstly be offered as one lot, then separately if not sold.

Official website: ‘Halswell House

Listing description: ‘Halswell House‘ [British Listed Buildings]

Further history: ‘Halswell House‘ [Wikipedia]

Further reading: ‘The bargain-basement mansion: Historic house which has been a school, a PoW camp and even the site of an ORGY goes on sale for just £250,000 after owner went bust‘ [Daily Mail]

Country House Rescue – Season 4: Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Many have bought things on a whim; it’s quite something for that thing to be a huge country house which once played host to royalty and celebrity.  When plans don’t work out and problems mount, it can be understandable for a family with generations of emotional attachment to a house to doggedly carry on, but the owner of Chapel Cleeve Manor in Somerset, who features in this weeks ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Thursday 21 June, 20:00, Channel 4), displays a rare level of stoicism.

Chapel Cleeve would be a fascinating house even if it wasn’t on television, but sadly its decline is all to familiar.  The origins of the house lie as a medieval inn for pilgrims visiting the now lost St Mary’s Chapel and travelling to the Cistercian abbey at Cleeve, which owned much of the land in the area until it was surrendered to the Crown in 1536.  The estates then passed to the Earls of Sussex in 1538 who held it until 1602, after which it passed through a number of owners, including Lord Foley of Kidderminster in the early 1700s.

When the new house was built, the remains of the inn, dating from 1423, were then incorporated as part of the north-west wing of the house as it is today.  The house, built between 1818-1823, was designed by Richard Carver (b. c1792 – d.1862) whom Colvin believes to be the ‘R. Carver’, a pupil of Sir Jeffry Wyatville who submitted work for display in The Royal Academy in 1811 and 1812, before establishing his practice in Somerset and eventually rising to be County Surveyor.  Best known for his many churches, Colvin is critical saying “…though occasionally showing some originality in plan (e.g. Theale, and the octagonal Blackford), are poorly detailed, and were despised by serious Gothic Revivalists.” He was damned by the Ecclesiologist in 1844 as having “…proved himself entirely ignorant of the principles of Ecclesiastical Architecture.” He may have been grateful that his Tudor Gothic design for Chapel Cleeve Manor was outside their remit and so escaped their ire.

Dining Room - Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Dining Room – Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Just under a century after Carver finished, the house was enjoying what was to prove to be its heyday.   Bought by the Lysaght family, wealthy from their corrugated-steel business, the original five bay house, featuring a central octagonal entrance hall with a top-lit staircase, was extended between 1913-14 with a sympathetic addition which increased the size of the house to over 27,000 sq ft, with salons, a ballroom and a 100-ft long gallery. Of particular note are the high-quality interior plasterwork ceilings which were created by one of the leading Arts-and-Crafts sculptors; George Percy Bankart. Staffed by 50 servants, the house played host to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and with Fred Perry staying for tennis parties.

The death in 1951 of G.S. Lysaght triggering punitive death duties which forced the sale of the house and, worse, the sale of parts of the grounds as building plots.  The dense woodland which had thus far shielded the manor was now largely obliterated with housing claustrophobically creeping up on three sides. Perhaps the expectation was that the house would not survive and further housing could be built, but the house then enjoyed a resurgence when it became a hotel in the 1960s and 70s, becoming the place to be in the area. However, when that business closed, the rot, both metaphorically and physically, set in, so that when it was bought by the current owner for 14 years of Chapel Cleeve, Jeannie Wilkins, in 1998 ‘there was not one habitable room‘.

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Having spent £360,000 purchasing the property with her partner and with the help of two skilled friends, they started the mammoth task of restoring the house.  Correctly starting with the roof, it took two years to complete the task of making it watertight, with the restoration of the Edwardian wing taking many of the subsequent years.  The restoration was to a high standard, with care being taken to reinstate the many various mouldings and panelling, with the overall intention being to create six flats in the house, five of which could then be let – but, as with all the best laid plans, it went awry.

The inevitable challenges of finding an agreeable path through the stringent planning rules governing this Grade-II* listed house caused delays, and, sadly, Ms Wilkins relationship ended, following which she bought out her ex-partner, leaving her in sole charge of a vast partially-restored mansion with its 150-ft façade and spectacular views over the nearby hills.  With an income of just £5,000 per year from renting out a cottage in the grounds she faces a huge backlog of repairs (only 18 rooms are habitable out of 45 in total) and the costs of restoring it, which she estimates at around £500,000 (so, at least £750,000 – as anyone who has watched Grand Designs will know!).

Chapel Cleeve was offered for sale in early 2010 at £1.695m (and featured in a post at the time: ‘The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section‘), but it is still available. The combination of the restoration challenges, general economic climate and the severely compromised situation of the house – reduced to just 7-acres surrounded by a drab housing estate – have driven Ms Wilkins to call for the help of Simon Davis and ‘Country House Rescue’ to inject some new ideas – which he does, though none are the financial miracle she may have been hoping for.

In many ways, Ms Wilkins’ commitment to the house has to be admired – her dedication has almost certainly saved it from joining the sad, long list of lost houses.  However, it might be argued that her unwillingness to drop the asking price (especially considering the cost of the works outstanding) is also again putting the house at risk. A house of this size would ideally have much larger grounds to provide seclusion and planners ought to insist on a minimum 500-metre ‘green-belt’ around each house which would help protect their long-term viability. Undoubtedly Jeannie Wilkins deserves a just reward for the incredible work she has put in, but a quick sale at a reasonable price would certainly not only be best for her, but also for the long-term future of the house.

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Sales details: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [Fine & Country]

Official website: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor

Listing description: ‘Chapel Cleeve Manor‘ [British Listed Buildings]

News articles:

Country House Rescue – Series 4 [Channel 4]

A rural power house; literally – Fairfield House, Somerset

Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

To describe a country seat as a ‘power house’ was usually to allude to its status economically, politically, certainly as a local employer, usually even in matters of style. Yet, these houses also indirectly, and sometimes very directly, played an important part in the provision of the electricity which has grown to power our everyday lives.  Power stations play an obvious central role and their expansion has often been controversial.  In earlier decades, a local power house was sometimes sacrificed to the demands of industry and the needs for power stations, but now, for some, particularly Fairfield House in Somerset, they have proven to be a windfall.

Country estates have a long history of being the beneficiaries of the need for power. In medieval times, the natural resources of an estate, such as a fast-flowing river or extensive woodland would be harnessed or harvested to drive local industry.  The most productive land could prove especially valuable if it could support the entire production cycle such as for bread, with corn grown on the estate, being ground in the windmill or mill on the river, before being sold in the market in a town owned by the local lord, who, at each stage would profit.  As the Industrial Revolution flourished, so the need for power grew, leading landowners to fully exploit the natural resources which lay beneath their land as well, with coal becoming a leading creator of Victorian fortunes.

Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Methley Hall, Yorkshire - demolished 1963 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Yet, the almost insatiable need for power, and the coal which generated it, has also consumed some of our country houses, including one of the grandest, and threatens some even today.  One of the greatest threats from mining is subsidence caused by extensive mine workings which simply followed the coal seam – wherever it may lead.  Given the choice between a loss of income or the loss of the family seat, it was rarely the house which won.  It was, of course, the northern counties which were worst affected; Methley Hall, seat of the Earls of Mexborough, was eventually ruined by the coal workings which surrounded it (an issue even when Country Life visited in 1907) and demolished in 1963.  Kippax Park, once the second longest country house in the country, stood in the way of an open-cast coal mine which eventually consumed it in the late 1950s.  In County Durham, Coxhoe Hall, was eventually bought by the local coal board who proceeded to demolished it in 1956 to avoid having to fix the structural issues they had created.

Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website
Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire, Scotland - demolished 1919 (Image: Wikipedia) - more info from Virtual Reconstruction website

This is, inevitably, just a small selection of some of the many losses but easily the most spectacular casualty of coal mining would be Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire. Built for the Dukes of Hamilton, the Palace was the epitome of aristocratic wealth, creating both a home and a collection which would rival the best in Europe.  Built on the incredible wealth generated by the Lanarkshire coalfields they owned, the 10th Duke, Alexander, enclosed the existing house in a grand Classical embrace. The one-room deep extension of the house, in 1819, accommodated not only the many works of art he had acquired on his Grand Tour but also many of the treasures inherited from the fabulous collection of William Beckford which came via the Duke’s wife, who was Beckford’s youngest daughter.  Yet those same coalfields eventually fatally undermined the house, and faced with such a substantial problem, and not lacking other houses to move to, the decision was taken in 1919 to demolish the Palace – the most serious loss to Scottish country house architecture in the last 200 years.

Others houses were even more directly affected by the need for power stations which, ironically, shared similar requirements with the aristocracy for their homes; a level site with good access to roads (and later rail), a ready water supply and space to expand.  In the dark days of the mid-twentieth century, for an impoverished owner, the offer to be bought out by the local power company must have been very attractive – and perhaps may have helped their guilt by feeling that it was contributing to national infrastructure; though often the house had already gone.

Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Drakelow Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Lost Heritage)

One house which certainly matched these criteria was Drakelow Hall, Staffordshire, seat of 28 generations of the Gresley family and which, declared Country Life in 1902, “…is one of those seats of ancient eminence which win the regard of all Englishmen.“. Situated above the River Trent, the house was perhaps best known for the Painted Dining Room by Paul Sandby which was completed in 1793.  Sadly, declining family fortunes led to its sale in 1933, followed by ill-fated ventures such as a country club and motor racing circuit before the house was demolished in 1938, though, fortunately, a section of the Dining Room was saved by the V&A.  In 1948, the huge Drakelow Power Station rose on the site, attracted by the sizable 707-acre estate and its proximity to the river, and railways, road and, most importantly, the East Midlands coalfields. Hams Hall in Warwickshire similarly vanished under the same demands. One house which was rescued was Barlaston Hall in Staffordshire, a wonderful small villa by Sir Robert Taylor, which was bought for £1 by SAVE Britain’s Heritage to prove that it was possible to restore it.  The house is now again a home as a result of their valiant efforts. However, even today, subsidence from old coal workings threatens other houses such as at Wentworth Woodhouse, where the owner, Clifford Newbold, has lodged a claim for £100m in compensation to fund the stabilisation and restoration of this magnificent house.

The requirements for nuclear power stations were different in that they were obviously less dependent on proximity to the raw fuel but they did require vast quantities of water for cooling so were often sited on the coast – which thankfully also meant fewer houses would be affected. Of those, the small manor house at Calder Hall had already gone by the time the decision was taken to built the UK’s first nuclear reactor on the site in 1947. So although the opportunities for landowners are now primarily around wind turbines, a report in the Sunday Times (13 Nov 2011) highlights the windfalls from owning the land adjacent to a nuclear power station scheduled for expansion.

Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)
Main entrance - Fairfield House, Somerset (Image: Anthony Kersting)

Lady Elizabeth Gass, Lord Lieutenant of Somerset, and current owner of the 6,000-acre family estate, recently accepted a £50m offer from EDF to purchase 230-acres of farmland which will become the proposed Hinckley C power station.  The Fairfield House estate (a prime candidate for the Handed On blog of lesser-known seats) has descended through the Palmer-Acland-Wood-Fuller families for 800 years and has never been sold. The current part-Elizabethan house was begun in about 1580, but with later changes in 1633 to change it from a medieval courtyard layout to the more familiar E-plan which we see today.  Excitingly, traces of the old house are still embedded in the fabric today, with a cell for those awaiting the justice of the local magistrate and, once revealed behind some 19th-century plasterwork in the attics, the original finely-carved late-medieval roof timbers of a first floor hall.

The future of this wonderful estate is now secure and stands as a testament to how changing patterns of land use which once threatened and toppled grand houses can also enrich a country estate.  That it is going to support a rare survivor of familial descent is an added bonus and I hope Lady Gass feels rightly proud of her success.

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More details: ‘£50m deal as Somerset wind turbine land goes to nuclear plant‘ [This is Somerset]

Listing description: ‘Fairfield House, Somerset‘ [British Listed Buildings]

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An apology: you may have noticed that I haven’t been able to publish as frequently as I’d like but just to reassure you that this is definitely not due to any slackening of interest on my part but simply due to my day job requiring a greater commitment at the moment.  This hopefully will be temporary and as we go into the Spring I can pick up the pace again – but in the meantime, please do take time to re-read some of the old posts you may not have seen, and hopefully discover something new amongst the archives.

Thanks for your patience.

Matthew

Want to lease a Vanbrugh? Kings Weston House, Bristol for sale

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Knight Frank)

For some, the height of connoisseurship is to own a Picasso or a Rembrandt, and, in the same way, one can also aspire to live in a house designed by one of the great architects.  Yet, although some were prolific, the best were often to be found working on the largest projects, limiting their capacity to turn their hands to other projects, making their surviving buildings rare.  The damage and devastation which subsequent generations have wrought on our architectural heritage have also made these special houses all the rarer.  So it is always of particular interest when the opportunity to own one of these houses arises; such as Kings Weston House, Somerset, designed by the wonderful Sir John Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh (b.1664 – d.1726) was one of the most interesting architects this nation has ever produced.  Yet to think of Vanbrugh is inevitably to also think of Nicholas Hawksmoor (b.1661 – d.1736) who provided the technical support necessary to ensure that Vanbrugh’s flights of architectural fancy were realisable as solid buildings worthy of his aristocratic patrons. However, this was not a partnership which diminished one through association with the other – both were brilliant architects who each gained from their collaboration. As John Summerson put it in Architecture in Britain (1530-1839): ‘The truth can only be that both Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh were very exceptional men.

Vanbrugh was an intensely private person – the few hundred surviving letters in his hand betray few family details or about his early adventures as a soldier, spy, hostage, East India Company trader, or playwright.  His time in the Forces seems to have imbued his style with a tendency towards the militaristic, most clearly expressed in his work in landscapes where huge sham fortified ‘defenses’ march across parkland, defending nothing and fooling few.  Yet this bombastic nature is part of the flamboyant and theatrical nature of the man, part of what gave him the flair to succeed architecturally in an age when statements in stone were as important as any made in print or Parliament.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Castle Howard, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

In his grandest buildings, Vanbrugh appears to almost be designing monuments which happen to have living accommodation – but he was especially pleased that Castle Howard was as practical as it was impressive. Writing in 1713 to Edward Southall, his client at Kings Weston, he states:

“I am much pleased here (amongst other things) to find Lord Carlisle so thoroughly convinced of the Conveniencys of his new house, now he has had a years tryall of it.”

Proud of how draught-free the house was, which helped retain heat, Vanburgh stated;

“He likewise finds, that all his Rooms, with moderate fires Are Ovens.”

Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Kings Weston House, Somerset (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Kings Weston (built between 1710-19) was to be Vanbrugh’s fourth commission (after Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Kimbolton Castle) and was a house very much to Vanbrugh’s style, creating a ‘Noble and Masculine Shew‘.  The house, dramatically sited above the Bristol Channel, was built for Sir Edward Southall, a well-educated civil servant, well-versed in architecture who had spent considerable time travelling in Italy. Southall clearly had strong ideas as to the influences and design of his house; and Vanbrugh, with his long history of collaboration, was the ideal architect to work with this knowledgeable client.  That said, this is clearly a Vanbrugh house – the imposing giant pilasters, the strong Classical detailing, the almost military look which is reinforced by the unusual arcaded design of the chimneys which emphasised a castle-like quality of a central bastion.

(By the way, it’s interesting the close similarity between the entrance to Kings Weston and that of the smaller Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire (built 1722-24) by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren).

The house passed through several generations of Southalls including Edward’s great-grandson who employed Robert Mylne in 1763 to add stables and the Shirehampton Lodge and also remodel the principal rooms. Edward’s son, also Edward, lived there until his death in 1832 without issue. The house was then sold in 1833 to Philip John Miles for £210,000 (approx. £17m today) who became the local MP, as had the Southalls been before him.  Three generations of the Miles family lived there until the death of Philip Napier Miles in 1935, marking the last time the house was used as a home. The house was sold at auction for £9,800 (approx. £500,000) with the intention of using it as a school.  This was interrupted by the Second World War when it became a hospital – a role it has also fulfilled in the Great War.  Post-war, it became the Bristol College School of Architecture, before becoming a Police training centre from 1970-1995.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects is how the setting of this fine house has been compromised: to the north, a road and housing estate, to the west, more houses, and to the south, a golf course.  This is often the outcome of houses which lack a determined owner with the need to keep a large estate, and particularly of houses which fall into the clutches of local authorities who are only too happy to build over the parkland, often with little sensitivity as to the overall setting.

With the departure of the Police, the house was boarded up, neglected and facing an uncertain future.  However, in 2000, it was bought by a local businessman, John Hardy, who converted the house in to a successful wedding and conference venue, apparently pouring significant funds into the project.  His commitment ultimately cost him his marriage and the remaining lease – probably 115-years – is now for sale for £2m (the freehold is still owned by Bristol City Council).  Although this would still make an ideal family home, Mr Hardy has expressed a desire that it remain open to the public.  Whoever buys Kings Weston will certainly be buying one of the finest houses in the country. Perhaps it will remain open to the public, but it would be equally exciting to see the house restored as a home, a private retreat overlooking the Bristol Channel where the owner can contemplate the genius of Vanbrugh and enjoy knowing that an architectural DNA links their domain with the palaces of Castle Howard and Blenheim, a smaller scale distillation of the grand flamboyance which came to define English Baroque.

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Original story: ‘Bristol’s Kings Weston House up for sale for £2 million to help pay for owner’s divorce‘ [Bristol Evening Post]

More details: ‘Love affair with a £2m mansion that ended in divorce… King Weston House’s owner was ‘totally consumed’ by major Georgian renovation‘ [Daily Mail]

Property details: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Knight Frank] – £2m

More images: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [Country Life Picture Library]

History of the house: ‘Kings Weston House‘ [kingsweston.com]

Going to the country: more country houses of UK Prime Ministers – Part 2

The first part of this series, highlighted the aristocratic background of our early Prime Ministers – Earls and Dukes abound.  This meant that a country house was just where they had been brought up and simply regarded as home rather than the aspirational purchase.  It also highlighted that the architectural tastes of the PMs reflected their political beliefs with a strong preference for the Classical, representing structure and order.

So, to continue the tour of country houses of Prime Ministers, this time those who served  under George III (1760–1820):

Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)
Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire (Image: ickle_angel/Flickr)

The first was John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Originally a man of rather limited means who only acquired great wealth following his marriage to the rich heiress, Mary Wortley Montagu. The family seat was Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute; at the time a small Queen Anne house which burnt down in 1877 to be replaced by the Gothic palace we see today.  With his later wealth and prominence the Earl created two fine new country houses.  On his retirement as PM, he bought Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire in 1763 and in 1767 commissioned Robert Adam to create a large neoclassical mansion which, although this was never fully realised, the resulting house (now a hotel) is still sizable.  The wings are a later addition but faithful to Adam’s original conception. Ill health later forced a move to the Dorset coast and having bought a clifftop position he built High Cliff “to command the finest outlook in England.“.  Unfortunately it was a little to fine, the crumbling cliff not only necessitated the demolition of the house in the late 1790s, it also led to the Earl’s death in 1792 due to a fall whilst picking plants.

He was succeeded as PM in 1763 by George Grenville who was born, and lived, at the family seat, Wotton House, Buckinghamshire.  He is one of only nine PMs who did not become a peer on leaving office.

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (Image: geograph.co.uk)

If there was a competition for the most impressive house of Prime Ministers then Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham would be feeling rather confident.  His family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire, is one of the largest private country houses in Britain with a main front extending to over 600ft. Built over a 25-year period, the house exemplifies the grand palaces which became possible in Georgian England. Faced with the usual pressures on later owners, plus vindictive coal mining, the family moved out and the house was leased as a teacher training college but since 1999 it has been the home of architect Clifford Newbold and his family who have been undertaking a massive and very impressive restoration programme.

William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham was brought up in great comfort from the proceeds of the sale of the Regent Diamond by his father.  As the younger son, Pitt would not inherit the family seat and so made his own way, choosing politics and becoming PM in 1766.  His country residence was the relatively modest Hayes Place in Kent, which he had built after he bought the estate in 1757.  He later sold it in 1766 to Horace Walpole who encased the house in white brick and enlarged it before selling back to Pitt in 1768 on his retirement.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished and houses built on the land.

Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)
Euston Hall, Suffolk (Image: David Robarts / flickr)

Another Prime Ministerial seat to suffer later loss was Euston Hall in Suffolk seat of Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton who succeeded William Pitt.  The Dukes of Grafton were very wealthy with extensive land holdings in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and London.  Euston Hall had been extensively remodelled by the Palladian architect Matthew Brettingham for the 2nd Duke between 1750-56.  The house suffered a devastating fire in 1902 which destroyed the south and west wings, which were subsequently rebuilt on the same plan but then demolished again by the 10th Duke in 1952.  It should also be noted that the Dukes also owned the splendid Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, designed by William Kent, though it was tenanted and therefore the Dukes never lived there.

William Petty-FitzMaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelburne had the splendid fortune to be brought up in one of the finest of Georgian country houses, Bowood House in Wiltshire, which also became a scandalous loss when it was demolished in 1955/56.  Remodelled for the 1st Earl by Henry Keene between 1755-60, the house also featured interiors by Robert Adam, who also altered Keene’s original portico to create a much grander version.  Afterwards the stables were converted to function as the main house where the 9th Marquess of Lansdowne (as the Earls became) still lives today.

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire (Image: Mr Nibbler / flickr)

The next PM, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland inherited Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, which had also been the home of an earlier PM, his relative Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle.  As stated in Part 1, this is a fascinating house which has often been overlooked due to the fact that it has been rarely open to the in the last 100 years, public tours having finished in 1914. Extensive work was carried out between 1742-46 by the relatively unknown architect John James who reconstructed the south wing and remodelled the west front for Henrietta, Countess of Oxford.  The west front was subsequently changed again in 1790 to designs by Sir Humphry Repton.  The Dukes of Portland also had a southern seat at Bulstrode Park in Buckinghamshire, though this house was replaced in 1865 by the 12th Duke of Somerset who by then owned the estate.

In contrast to the vast wealth and aristocratic status of the preceeding PM, William Pitt the Younger was able to bring political heritage; his father also having served in the same role. In stark contrast to the size and splendour of Welbeck, his country home was Holwood House in Kent, a modest mansion set in 200-acres for which Pitt paid £7,000 in 1783 before commissioning Sir John Soane to alter and enlarge it in 1786 and 1795.  Soane’s work here led to Pitt recommending him for the work to build what was to be one of Soane’s masterpieces; the Bank of England building which was so sadly demolished in the 1920s.  Holwood was also to be demolished, in 1823, to be replaced by a much grander house designed by Decimus Burton.

The country houses of Henry Addington 1st Viscount Sidmouth have both largely now vanished under the sprawl that is Reading University.  Addington had a low-key record as PM and his houses were equally modest.  Although on becoming PM Addington moved into the beautiful White Lodge in Richmond, his main seat was Woodley House, Berkshire, which had been built in 1777 before being bought by Addington in 1789. At the same time, he also bought the neighbouring estate of Bulmershe Court which was then tenanted, before falling into disrepair in the 19th century leading to two-thirds of it being demolished. Woodley House was used by the Minstry of Defence during WWII but subsequent dereliction led to its demolition in 1960.

William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville, as well as abolishing slavery, also created one of the most elegant of the houses in this series; Dropmore House in Buckinghamshire.  Built in 1795 and designed by Samuel Wyatt (b.1737 – d.1807) with later work by Charles Heathcote Tatham (b.1772 – d.1842), it was Grenville’s refuge, describing it as ‘deep sheltered from the world’s tempestuous strife‘. The grounds were also lavished with attention with Grenville planting 2,500 trees, and creating numerous walks which took in the superb views and even going as far as to remove a hill which blocked the view to Windsor Castle.  Tragically, devastating fires in 1990 and 1997 left a ruined shell but it has been recently rebuilt as a series of luxury apartments.

The only PM to be assassinated, Spencer Perceval, never really had a country seat of his own but had grown up in Enmore Castle, Somerset though he would never inherit as he was the second son of second marriage.  Only a small section of the main house now remains after it was largely demolished in 1833, but originally Enmore, built c1779, was one of the largest houses in the county.  In later life, Perceval lived in a large house called Elm Grove on the south side of Ealing Common in London – though at the time this would have been quite a rural area but not quite enough to classify this as a true country house.

The final PM under George III was Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool who again chose to live close to London, though in a country house, at Coombe House in Kingston upon Thames in Surrey.  Originally Tudor, this brick house was replaced with a Georgian mansion which was later altered by Sir John Soane, including the addition of a library.  The house survived until 1933 when it was demolished with houses now covering the site.

So although the Gothic revival movement had started in the 1740s and was the main alternative to the dominant Classical architectural style, even by the 1820s, it did not reflect the tastes of any of the Prime Ministers.  Considering the system still echoed the exclusions of the Reformation with its explicit rejection of all things ‘catholic’ (architectural, theological, political) it was unlikely to change, especially as the Catholic Emancipation Bill wasn’t passed until 1828.  Architecture was taken an expression of belief and so to favour the Gothic could potentially have given the wrong signals.

Next: Prime Ministers under George IV and William IV

List of UK Prime Ministers

‘The National Trust can have it’: why the NT can’t accept all offers

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland

In an ideal world no country house would ever be at risk but poor finances, often caused by pernicious death duties, and insufficient income from the estate or investments leaves families facing the reality of being unable to stay in their ancestral home.  When this situation arises the cry has often been for the National Trust to step in and ‘save’ the house.  Yet the financial complexities of taking on a house and the responsibilities of the many others they already care for mean that it’s unlikely the National Trust would be able to unless it meets their necessarily strict conditions – a marked contrast to the rather more ad hoc approach of the early years of country house acquisitions.

The National Trust owns over 330 houses though only about half would be considered true country houses.  The first, Barrington Court, Somerset was acquired in 1907, though it wasn’t until the 1940s that the National Trust began to acquire houses in any significant numbers.  Instrumental in the early acquisitions was James Lees-Milne, the Secretary of the Country Houses Committee between 1936-51 (see also this fascinating reflection on JLM and the NT).  A complex man from a well-to-do family who got progressively poorer, but with his good looks and manners, and a certain charm, he was able to lay the ground for many of the later acquisitions through his aristocratic contacts.

The National Trust was initially focussed on the countryside with any houses being taken on as rescue missions to save them from demolition.  This changed after an impassioned speech in 1934 by Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, who argued that our country houses were a unique and valuable heritage and worthy of being saved. Following this, the Trust established the Country Houses Committee with James Lees-Milne at the important first Secretary who set the tone for years to come.  In the early years, Lees-Milne would travel the country meeting the many owners and starting a gentle conversation leading to more hard-headed negotiations – though some would approach the NT begging for them to take their houses such were their financial straits.

For many owners faced with the dramatic social changes after the wars, and their own impoverishment, the options were fairly stark; soldier on in an increasingly dilapidated house, rent or sell to a new resident owner, sell for demolition, or hand it over to the National Trust.  For many owners who were the latest in a line stretching back over hundreds of years the latter option was often the most appealing (especially as they could often continue living there), though many chose to take the other options leading to mass demolitions, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s.  Yet, as Lees-Milne acknowledged, his own enthusiasm meant, “I have to guard against a collector’s acquisitiveness.  It isn’t always to the advantage of a property to be swallowed by our capacious, if benevolent, maw.” (Diaries, 1 June 1945).  However, it was never an easy task as the rest of his entry for that day notes, “The lengths to which I have gone, the depths which I have plumbed, the concessions which I have (once most reluctantly) granted to acquire properties for the National Trust, will not all be known by that ungrateful body.  It might be shocked by the extreme zeal of its servant if it did.  Yet I like to think that the interest of the property, or building, rather than the Trust has been my objective.“. (Amusingly he finishes with “These pious reflections came to me in the bath this morning.“)

The troubled acquisition of Barrington Court had a profound impact on how the National Trust dealt with later offers.  Merlin Waterson in ‘The National Trust – The First Hundred Years‘ highlights that even thirty years later those with fears about unexpected costs for repairs and maintenance were citing Barrington Court in evidence.  Caught between the rock of their own very high standards and the hard place of not having limitless funds, the National Trust began insisting that any house they took on came with a sufficient endowment.  This was formalised in 1968 as the ‘Chorley formula’ (after Roger Chorley who created it and later served as chairman from 1991-1995) which calculates the endowment required, taking in to account expected high-level maintenance and repairs, likely revenues, workers wages and many other factors.

Initially though this meant that a strange paradox developed whereby the NT would only be able to accept houses from wealthy owners – who were unlikely to want or need to hand them over.  However, in 1937, Parliament enabled the National Trust to make money from its properties by allowing it to accept additional property, cash or securities to provide income producing endowments.  One of the first to do so was Philip Kerr himself who, in 1941, bequeathed Blicking Hall in Norfolk along with its content, more than one hundred other houses and cottages, and over 4,700-acres of woodland.  By the end of WWII, the NT owned 23 houses including West Wycombe Park and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, and Polesden Lacey in Surrey, each of which had come with generous endowments.

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

However, where owners didn’t have the money other sources had to be found, as the protracted negotiations around Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire proved.  This stunning neo-classical mansion of the Curzon family was designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and has one of the finest collections of Chippendale furniture in the world.  Faced with crippling death duties and a need to pay the grandson a ten-percent inheritance (which he demanded regardless of the threat this posed to the house and estate), the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale opened negotiations with the Trust who determined that it would need a £6m endowment plus another £2.5m for immediate repairs.  Faced with the breakup and sale of the house and its collections, English Heritage, the National Trust, American donors, and the Curzon’s themselves all contributed. This neatly demonstrated the broad spectrum of public and private sources that now had to be called upon to meet obligations such as this – and the difficulties of marshalling such a diverse range each time an opportunity presented itself.

The Trust has been consistent in this policy even when offered fine houses such Heveningham Hall, designed by Sir Robert Taylor with interiors by Wyatt, which had been accepted by the Goverment from the Vanneck family in lieu of inheritance tax in 1970.  Without endowment the Trust refused to take ownership but were happy to manage it for five years whilst the Government found a buyer.  Conversely, when the Dryden family were looking to offload the 16th-century Canons Ashby in 1981 the newly established National Heritage Memorial Fund was able to provide the endowment to fund the family’s gift.

These cases have now formed the model for subsequent campaigns such as the impressive Tyntesfield in Somerset and recently Seaton Delaval Hall in Northumberland where a combination of grants and generous local support enabled them to raise £7m to repair and endow the property.

For many within the National Trust the thinking is now that they have enough houses – for them, current campaigns are mostly around the protection of landscape.  Yet, their obvious financial and political power means that when the need arises they are able to step up to ‘save’ a house.  However, as it is usually preferable that a house remain with the family, hopefully the careful trust arrangements many now have in place mean that increasingly they are able to stay in their home.  Perhaps more houses could have been saved if the National Trust had accepted more of those offered to it, but in reality it is difficult to see how they would have been able to fund so many, especially where the existing owners had proved just how difficult it was to stay financially afloat.  Rather than just saying ‘the National Trust can have it’ we all must be aware that it is not a simple solution and that the long-term care of our country houses requires exceptional planning and commitment – and, ideally, very deep pockets.

The National Trust’s policy on acquisitions [National Trust]

The state of the country house market: Autumn 2010

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)
Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Throughout September, the increasing weight of each week’s ‘Country Life‘ magazine heralds the starts of one of the busy periods for launches of country houses.  As an relatively unscientific barometer it would appear that the market is doing well with some impressive estates and houses being offered up to tantalise the armchair enthusiast and serious purchaser alike – but a few houses are still proving difficult to shift.

The September 1 magazine provided a summary of the successes of the year-to-date with glowing reports from estate agents who, despite some fears in January about an uncertain year ahead, are happy to highlight their successes.  The article quotes Crispin Holborow of Savills who rightly points out that ‘best in class‘ houses will always sell quickly and for above their guide price if the right buyers start competing.  He cites Ropley House in Hampshire which sold at over it’s guide price of £4.25m, as did the grade-I listed Shanks House in Somerset which was offered with 70-acres for £5.5m, but their biggest success was the coveted Chadacre estate in Suffolk with 680-acres which reputedly sold for more than double it’s £10m asking price.  Other houses such as the elegant grade-I Worlingham Hall – regarded by Norman Scarfe as ‘the most beautiful house of manageable size in Suffolk’ – also sold over it’s guide price of £3.9m.

Other houses sold close to their guide include Peatling Hall in Leicestershire (mentioned on this blog in July) which was offered at £4.75m, whilst the stunning Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset suffered from an unfortunately timed launch in September 2008 at £17m which knocked buyer confidence meaning that it hung around until Febuary 2010 before selling at £15m.  Others had to drop their prices or accept being sold in lots with Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire selling for £15m to Jemima Khan once the rest of the 2,000-acre estate had been sold (originally offered as one for £42m), whilst Fillongley Hall in Warwickshire has yet to find a buyer even after selling 400- out of the original 500-acres originally offered when it went on the market in 2005 (£3.5m, Savills).  Pusey House in Oxfordshire, which was originally launched with 643-acres but when featured as the lead property advert in the September 15 magazine it was offered with just 67.

So who are the awkward squad?  Grade-I listed Noseley Hall in Leicestershire is still with Knight Frank with the same acreage; though now at £12m rather than the original £14m asking price, and Iver Grove in Buckinghamshire, a pocket Palladian gem, is still being offered (again with Knight Frank) – though mysteriously with no price, so probably less that the £4.5m guide in February 2010; and way down from it’s original price of £6.5m when it was first launched in 2007.  Up country, Yester House in Scotland is still available despite having had it’s price halved from £15m to £8m since the original launch in August 2008.

So, although the property market does seem buoyant, it does seem that some are struggling.  Perhaps the flurry of launches will bring an influx of new buyers who may take a renewed interest in the harder-to-sell properties, but they equally may well wonder why they are still available and pass them over.  It seems that some owners who are keen to sell are being flexible, either dropping the price or selling in lots, but for owners who refuse to budge the market may take a very long time to rise to meet what they think their property is worth.  It seems flexibility is still a vital attribute whatever rung of the property ladder you are on.

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.

Conran collects another Georgian gem: Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

The recent financial crisis has forced many properties onto the market and easily one of the grandest was the main apartment of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire which has now been bought by the fashion designer Jasper Conran.

The Apartment (as it’s imaginatively known) includes the wonderful central staircase, described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’, plus the other major state rooms which were restored with the assistance of John Pawson, the high priest of Minimalism.  This particular property has featured twice in this blog, once for suggested conversion back to being a single family home, but also later with the news that the property was one of the grandest repossessions in the country.

Ven House, Somerset (Image: Mike Searle/wikipedia)
Ven House, Somerset (Image: Mike Searle/wikipedia)

What is interesting about Conran’s purchase is that he appears to be collecting fine Georgian houses in the same way one might collect furniture or paintings.  In 2007 he bought the incredibly elegant Ven House in Somerset for just less than the £8.5m asking price. At the time the house had languished on the market for two years before Conran took it on.  Although more famous as a fashion designer, Conran has a good track record with property restoration having bought Walpole House in Chiswick, London for £7.25m which was sold following refurbishment for £12.5m in 2008 or Flemings Hall in Suffolk which he sold for £2m in 2006. Ven required comparatively little work and has remained his country home, opening it up for use by local organisations for charity fund-raisers.

It seems fashion designers have a taste for Georgian as Jasper’s father Terence Conran lives in Barton Court, an elegant red-brick villa-style house in west Berkshire which he bought in the 1970s and has carefully restored.  On a much larger scale, the American fashion designer Leon Max famously bought the magnificent Easton Neston in Northamptonshire for £15m in 2005.  The grade-I listed house, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1695-1710, was the home of the Hesketh-Fermor family for nearly 500-years before the current Lord Hesketh decided to sell up. Leon Max purchased the house with the intention of converting a fire-damaged wing into a base for his fashion company.

Perhaps the natural grace and light of the best of the Georgian homes appeals just as much to the aesthetic eye of the designer as it does to most of us, confirming their broad appeal.  Happily for Wardour Castle it seems that has caught the eye of someone who has a good track record of looking after the wonderful homes he has bought.  Perhaps he might be open to suggestions for others that need some attention: Melton Constable Hall perhaps?

Full story: ‘Conran captures the repossessed castle: Fashion designer Jasper snaps up £7m ‘Billy Elliot’ house – for just £2.75m‘ [Daily Mail]

The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section

Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)
Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)

The usual spring rush of country houses coming to market has been later this year – a combination of the hangover from the uncertainty in the market of the last couple of years along with that of the General Election.  That traditional shop-window of the country house – the Home section of the Sunday Times – has this week (16 May 2010) heralded what it sees at the start of the rush by including three pages of those for sale.

For those who like their country houses to look traditional from the outside but prefer a more modern interior then the Grade-II listed, six-bedroom Sandley in Dorset, set in 178-acres, might be perfect – if you have the necessary £9m.  The owners decided that the rather ‘quaint’ style of the house was not for them and so they spent ‘a couple of million pounds’ and over two years to strip it back and then make it look very ‘London’.  Personal taste is the final arbiter for whether you think this is a good thing – but not all tastes are the same and it can mean that the appeal of the country house is taken to new markets.

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

However, if your tastes are more usual and traditional then there are other options. Holt Manor in Wiltshire, set in 94-acres, mixes both old and new with a more traditional interior cleverly concealing the latest in sound, television and security systems.  With parts dating back to the 12-th century, the Grade-II listed house has been thoroughly modernised whilst still being a recognisably English country house. £5.95m [Holt Manor: Knight Frank]

If, however, you are looking for a more architecturally impressive house, the Ebberly House, near Winkleigh in Devon, could well be the house for you.   Designed by Thomas Lee, a student of Sir John Soane, Ebberly was described by Pevsner as an ‘unusual and attractive house’ and was the first to sell in Devon for over £1m when it sold in 1997.  The Grade-II* listed house possibly benefited from Soane’s personal influence as he was working nearby at Castle Hill which may explain the elegant, and very Soanian, top-lit oval stair hall with its fine cantilevered wooden staircase and curved doors, or the drawing room divided using three shallow arches. Set in  250-acres it has a wonderful estate featuring 20-acres of woodland, estate cottages generating £20,000 p/a in rental income, and spectacular views across to Dartmoor. It was also given an excellent and detailed write-up in Country Life – always a good seal of approval.  [Ebberly House: Savills]

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Perhaps one of the most interesting of the houses featured is unfortunately only given a photo and no details is Chapel Cleeve Manor in Minehead, Somerset. Perhaps now not strictly a country house as it only has 7-acres, at £1.695m for 17+ bedrooms, it may seem a bargain for someone who wants to live in a country house but doesn’t want the responsibility of an estate. Although such a situation a hundred years ago could have led to the demolition of the house as happened to so many others. Yet, with so much wealth now generated without the need for a large estate to support the house, it’s now entirely reasonable for someone to take on and enjoy such a pleasing Gothic-Revival house. The house has been used as a conference venue for a number of years but with careful restoration this could be rescued from commercial use and be a spectacular home for someone who requires a lot of space. [Chapel Cleeve Manor: Webbers]

So has the rush started?  Nobody really knows and asking estate agents is never an exact science.  Several house which have been launched recently are still waiting to find new owners but the right house launched at the right time for the right price usually does find the right buyer.

Full story: ‘The landscape has changed‘ [The Sunday Times: Home section]