Country House Rescue: spectacular spats – Hill Place, Hampshire

Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Hill Place, Hampshire (Image: Historic Houses Association)

The challenges of inheritance have been a recurring theme throughout Country House Rescue.  The obvious challenges are perhaps more tangible; taking on the new house, contents, gardens and the related discoveries – for good or ill.  Yet part of the nature of inheritance is often the bequeathing of disappointment to others who expected to benefit or who disagree with the choices of the new owners.  Country House Rescue this week (17 April) visits Hill Place in Hampshire where Ruth Watson’s skills seem to be in demand to placate some disgruntled aunts rather than to simply identify business opportunities.

Hill Place is an elegant, grade-II listed Georgian villa, built in 1791 on the back of wealth made in India.  The architect is unknown but there is a beautiful simplicity to it, with each side five bays wide with a canted three-bay projection on the entrance front and a graceful three-bay bow front to the south.  The style is in the fine traditions of Sir John Soane and there are even suggestions that it may have been by the man himself.   At some stage, a mansard roof was added and then later removed, leaving an unfortunate flat roof with the stub end of the staircase still rising to a small access extension.  Overall, this is a particularly neat example of the smaller country villa which was to prove so popular at that time.  However, what is of particular interest that the current owner, Will Dobson, inherited the house due to his grandparent’s commitment to the tradition of primogeniture – that of the eldest male inheriting, which, in Will’s case, meant the bypassing of his grandparent’s four daughters, which is the cause of the strife in the programme.

The rules of inheritance in the UK have ensured that ownership of country houses, estates and contents can be passed down as a unified possession.  This has ensured a multi-generational continuity which has benefited the country by embedding a very long-term perspective to plans and that a culture of paternalism was fostered; the spirit of noblesse oblige. Ironically, in France, the Napoleonic code demands equal shares for all potential inheritors, forcing the break-up and sale of large estates, preventing the same depth of connection between the nobility and society.  Yet, for this culture to be preserved it is important that the estate is kept together – especially as it usually has to fulfil its traditional role of funding the main house.

Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)
Knighton Gorges, Isle of Wight (Image: wikipedia)

Yet inheritance has caused incredible friction for hundreds of years between those favoured by those who inherit and those who do not, leading to extreme outcomes and court cases.  One example of the former was Knighton Gorges, a manor house on the Isle of Wight, where, in 1821, the owner George Maurice Bisset had the entire ancient house demolished to ensure that his heir (his daughter or nephew – accounts vary) wouldn’t be able to cross his threshold even after his death, their having angered him through an unauthorised marriage.  In Kent, Lynsted Park was originally a huge Elizabethan E-plan house built for Sir John Roper, later Lord Teynham, in 1599, but an inheritance dispute between two Roper brothers in the 1800s led to the one living there demolishing all but the entrance porch (later Georgian additions created the current house) as he thought he would lose the case and have to give the house to his brother.

Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)
Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Lost Heritage)

Perhaps the most famous litigation from inheritance was that surrounding William ‘the Rich’ Jennens which reputedly took nearly 120 years before the cases finished being heard and was also thought to be the inspiration for Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House – though recent scholarly opinion now discounts that. The Jennens family had created a huge family fortune as ‘ironmasters’ in Birmingham but due to a lack of heirs and, more importantly, a will, when William died intestate in 1798, his fortune (including houses such as Gopsall Hall, Leicestershire and Acton Place, Suffolk) was passed to three distant – though very aristocratic – relatives.  This was the catalyst for a small cottage industry of claimants who all thought themselves related and therefore due a share of the inheritance.  This was partly due to a popular fad at the time for novels to feature an unexpected inheritance – though, in real life, it was usually just the lawyers who became richer.

So, inheritance can often be a mixed blessing, laden with expectations and complications.  A recent survey by Country Life magazine (6 April 2011) found that 61% of current owners were concerned that estates stay in the family – with only 25% not bothered if their heir were to sell (it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between whether those in the latter group were also those whose family had owned for the least time).  For some, it’s particularly important to ensure that the family name is preserved. In the same Country Life article, David Fursdon, whose family have been on the Fursdon estate in Devon since 1289, highlights that after 750 years in single ownership the pressure is on to ensure that a male heir is produced to provide that continuity (though with three sons he should be OK).

Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)
Holker Hall, Cumbria (Image: andrew_j_w / flickr)

Primogeniture, or full inheritance by the eldest son, has been the rule for hundreds of years.  It was expected that all other children either had to marry or make their own fortune or living with the second son often going into the Army and the third to the clergy.  The strict rules may now be relaxing with parents choosing the child most inclined and best equipped to take on the inheritance – the Country Life article highlights how Holker Hall in Cumbria will be inherited by the middle child, Lucy Cavendish, who has moved back to the estate to learn the ropes before her parents ‘retire’ and move out in a few years time.

The challenge for families such as the Dobson’s is ensuring that the one who inherits feels they have complete ownership and is able to take decisions for the good of the house and estate without sniping from other quarters.  It is no light responsibility to be the owner of a country house and the Dobson’s should be thanked for taking on such a lovely home when others might have simply sold up and enjoyed the spoils.  Here’s hoping they can truly make a success of the house as a business to ensure that they can also pass it on to future generations.

Country House Rescue: ‘Hill Place‘ [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: see complete previous episodes

Official website: ‘Hill Place

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

What goes around; the use of rotunda in UK country houses

The UK aristocracy brought back many souvenirs from their grand tours to Italy – pictures, sculpture, drawings etc – but also a delight in the architecture inspired by the ancient ruins.  This fascination manifested itself in country houses across the UK with a profusion of arches,  Serlian windows, porticos and pediments.  However, one device, despite its impressiveness, has been notable by its relative rarity; the rotunda – that grand circular space often featuring a parade of columns leading the eye up to a spectacular dome.  So why would this grand centrepiece be so infrequently used inside our country houses?

Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)
Italy - Villa Capra or 'La Rotonda' (Image: Marco Bagarella / Wikipedia)

The most famous rotunda, and that which was so influential on the Anglo-Palladians, was the Pantheon in Rome.  Built in AD 124, this vast space under a 142ft diameter dome was closely studied by Andrea Palladio and became a key destination for UK architects who later travelled to Rome.  Palladio then developed the use of the rotunda as the central circulation space in his residential villas, most famously with the Villa Capra or “La Rotonda” in Vicenza, begun in 1567.

Palladio was not the first to use a rotunda in a residential setting; the artist Mantegna built his own home in Mantua in the 1470s using a layout and scale very similar to that later used at Villa Capra, using a design probably suggested by the architect-engineer Francesco di Giorgio.  Palladio then modified it and used it to great success to create what is regarded as one of his finest houses.  The rotunda would have neatly solved the challenge of the Villa Capra in that a visitor may at any front, thus negating the traditional linear plan which assumed only one main entrance.

Mereworth Castle, Kent
Mereworth Castle, Kent

Looking through Colen Campbell‘s ‘Vitruvius Britanicus’ – a highly regarded collection of plans and prints of the best Georgian houses published between 1715-1725 – that over the three volumes a rotunda is only used twice.  The first is in a proposed (but never executed) design for Goodwood House in Sussex for the Earls of March designed by Colen Campbell in 1724 which featured a 40ft diameter space.  The second is the 35ft diameter version which forms the dramatic central hall of Mereworth Castle in Kent.  Mereworth (built 1722-25) was one of only four Georgian houses to be built in the UK which closely followed the design of the Villa Capra; the others being Chiswick House, Middlesex (1726-29), Foots Cray Place, Kent (1754 – demolished 1949), and Nuthall Temple, Nottinghamshire (1757 – demolished 1929).

A later use of the rotunda was at the slightly eccentric Ickworth House, Suffolk. Built in 1795 and based on the designs of Mario Asprucci, an Italian architect;  it was later adapted by Francis and his brother Joseph Sandys who also oversaw construction.  This later use of the rotunda showed how it could be employed as a single dramatic centrepiece in its own right, not hidden in the centre of the house.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Yet, if it was hidden, it could form a dramatic and surprising irregularity to the procession of square and rectangular rooms which often dominated houses.  One example of this is at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire where Robert Adam was inspired by his own 1764 study of the ‘Ruins of the Palace of the Emporer Diocletian at Spalatro [Split]’ which paired the circular rotunda with a square vestibulum. Adam also later proposed to convert the courtyard at Syon Park into a huge rotunda. Perhaps one of the most impressive and beautiful expressions of the rotunda is the central staircase at New Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, designed by James Paine, and built between 1769-1776 and later described by Pevsner as ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’.

So, despite its impressiveness why are most entrances and staircases so determinedly right-angled?  Simple finance can explain it in part; it would be more expensive to create a rotunda as they are more complex, require more space and also usually compromises in the floor plan to include the curvature.

Fashion can also play its part. As architectural taste moved in the Victorian era towards a preference for the gothic, so the opportunities for the use of the rotunda diminished. With its origins in the temple ruins of Classical ancient Rome, the most famous Gothic Revival architect, A.W.N. Pugin (b.1812 – d.1852) considered it part of a more pagan tradition – and therefore completely antithetical to his belief that gothic represented the only true expression of Christianity through architecture. And where Pugin led, others followed.

Or perhaps the answer is more pragmatic.  One of the primary purposes of the country house was to impress visitors.  Often a political power base, the grandest houses were designed to create an impression even before the visitor actually met the owner.  As one of the principal spaces in a house, entrance halls have often played an important role in this domestic ‘theatre’ – and the use of a rotunda requires perhaps too many compromises.

Traditionally the grand rooms where visitors would be met were often on the ground floor and would be processed through, with only the most important visitors reaching the best rooms.  Elizabethan houses changed this with the principal rooms moving to upper floors, such as at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, requiring more impressive staircases which, through the use of heraldic and political symbolism in the carving on balusters and handrail could make many a statement before the guest reached the required floor.

Palladian designs continued this with the preference for the piano nobile which moved the principle rooms to a raised ground floor.  The large empty wall spaces of the staircase also formed a useful space for the display of paintings including family portraits or a large selection to show the owner’s taste and style.  The staircase also provided a way to make a dramatic entrance – think ladies in their evening gowns gliding down to join the party.  Yet if a house used a rotunda it compromised both these features.  A curved wall made it difficult to hang the largest and most impressive works of art and staircases were usually spiral and tucked into the walls in the corners, meaning those coming down would only be seen when they emerged at the ground floor – which would never do.

Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Henbury Hall, Cheshire (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Yet, the rotunda has not died out and those with the vision and wealth can still create these dramatic spaces.  One of the most impressive has to be Henbury Hall in Cheshire, built between 1984-86 for Sebastien de Ferranti and designed by the architect Julian Bicknell from a painting by the artist Felix Kelly. A faithful recreation of Villa Capra, the dome rises to 15m with the principal rooms radiating from the central hall.  Nigel Anderson at Adam Architects also designed a replacement country house in Surrey which, according to them, is based (I’d say loosely – at least externally) on Villa Capra.  Another fine example is that at Tusmore Park in Oxfordshire, winner of the best new building in the classical tradition award from the Georgian Group in 2004 where the scagliola columns in the central rotunda are said to rival those of the imperial palaces of St Petersburg.

These examples show that, although comparatively rare, the impressive traditions of the rotunda are being continued by architects and clients determined to create the most dramatic interiors in contemporary country houses despite the compromises which have perhaps unfairly limited their use in previous centuries.

Looking for a saviour: St Osyth Priory, Essex

St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)
St Osyth Priory, Essex (Image: Stephen Dawson/geograph.co.uk)

Of the phrases most likely to cause concern for those who love our country houses, up there with ‘dry rot’, ‘water leak’ and ‘death duties’ has to be ‘enabling development’.  Originally designed to protect heritage assets by permitting limited development to fund repairs, it appears to now be used to circumvent local and national planning guidelines to facilitate inappropriate development where it otherwise ought to be refused.

In Essex, perhaps one of the largest examples of its kind was submitted by the Sargeant family who bought St Osyth Priory in 1999 through their development company ‘City and Country Group‘ (CCG) .  The company applied to build 190 houses as part of an enabling development to fund repairs to the main house and the other 22 listed buildings in the complex claiming that some £30m-worth of repairs were required (and personally I doubt the cost would be that high – happy to be proved wrong by an independent survey from a SPAB scholar).   This number would naturally bolster the calculation for the total conservation deficit (that is, the amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum beneficial use if appropriate) of a significant place exceeds its market value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs, but assuming a nil or nominal land value).  But is this a case of a developer using the provisions of enabling development to gain permission regardless of the consequences for the house – and the local area?

After passing through various Royal hands, it was sold to Lord Darcy in 1553 and remained the home of various Earls, Viscounts, Lords and Baronets until it was eventually bought in 1954 by author Somerset de Chair who, in 1974, married Lady Juliet Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, daughter of the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse. The couple lived in the gatehouse, with much of the valuable Wentworth Woodhouse art collection, but de Chair died in 1995, so in 1999 Juliet married Dr. Christopher Tadgell and sold St Osyth to CCG and went to live in Bourne Park, near Canterbury.

CCG have a track record of taking on historic houses and have recently restored Balls Park, Hertfordshire and Herringswell Manor, Suffolk and previously Cheverells and Gilston Park – but these were easier to convert as they had all been used for other institutional or commercial purposes rather than as a family home.  St Osyth Priory and related buildings have sad recent history of insufficient maintenance over many years and have been included on the various buildings at risk registers and undoubtedly needs significant work – but can the repair bill really be £30m (by comparison, the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral was recently restored for £40m)?

To play Devil’s advocate, perhaps this figure might be explained by the provisions of ‘enabling development’ which require that;

It is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the place”
– ‘Enabling development and the conservation of significant places‘ English Heritage (2008)

…so to secure a development of sufficient size to make it profitable for CCG, it would need a suitably large repair bill to justify this (see letter from local resident).  It has been suggested on the St Osyth Parish Council website that offering the house for sale (with just 20-acres rather than the full estate) is merely part of the process of proving that no-one is willing to take on the house and restore it and therefore the enabling development is the only option.  In reality, for someone to invest that much in a house (purchase+restoration) they would expect an estate of at least 100-acres, if not two or three times that.  The plans also seem inappropriate with regard to other provisions of the English Heritage guidance:

  • It will not materially harm the heritage values of the place or setting.
  • It avoids detrimental fragmentation of management of the place.

This all seems depressingly familiar where a developer ignores what’s best for the house, and, in this case, what seems to be determined to bloat the size of the local village in pursuit of this unpopular and out-sized scheme.  An active and well-supported local campaign has been highlighting the various flaws of the scheme and the potential damage to the setting and the village if the scheme were to go ahead, but of course, it’s the house which is continuing to suffer.

In an ideal world, the house would be restored for much less than £30m thus showing that the scale of development proposed was unjustifiably large. This again would show that ‘enabling development’ is apparently being used as a means to try and circumvent the usual planning restrictions which are there to protect our heritage and countryside. Then perhaps one day the house with the full estate (hopefully once CCG realise they won’t get permission) will be offered for sale and someone will get the chance to take care of this important house and estate without sacrificing it for housing.

Property details: ‘St Osyth Priory, Essex‘ – Bidwells

More details:  ‘Priory battle gathers pace‘ [Daily Gazette]

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.

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]

Lodges to lost houses: Thorington Hall Gate Lodge, Suffolk

Thorington Hall Lodge, Suffolk (Image: buildings_fan on Flickr)

Often the only visible sign of  a grand estate is the lodge house seen as we drive past; their varied size and designs indicating the wealth and aspirations of the owners.  Although still a integral part of the functioning of some estates, providing security and accommodation, sometimes these beautiful buildings lie abandoned, intriguing those who go past them everyday.  ‘The Restoration Man’ series on Channel 4 has been showing people who have been willing to take on abandoned listed buildings and bringing them back to life. The episode to be shown on Sunday 25 April features Thorington Hall Gate Lodge, a forlorn reminder of Thorington Hall, one of the many elegant demolished Suffolk country houses.

Although their main function was to provide shelter for the estate worker who opened the gates, lodges were often designed by the same pre-eminent architects who were working on the main house.  Far from being an afterthought, these houses were often strongly imbued with the overall architectural style of the estate and were seen as an important way of announcing the status of the estate and owner.  Alternatively they gave scope for the owner to indulge in some architectural experimentation.  The styles of the lodges are as varied as the many houses they protected, from Victorian Gothic follies to small thatched cottage orne to minature Greek temples, such as at Thorington Hall.  The publication of ‘pattern books’ such as Joseph Gandy’s ‘Designs for Cottages, Cottage Farms and other Rural Buildings, Including Entrance Gates and Lodges‘ (1805) also enabled the discerning owner to select particular buildings from an established design without the need for an architect.

Many of these lodge cottages are now no longer part of the estate and have been turned into interesting family homes.  Their smaller, more domestic, scale also ensured that they often survived the demolition of the main house.  One example is Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire where all nine lodges at each of the estate entrances survive despite the palatial mansion being demolished in 1938.  Increasingly, the modern estate owner is buying back these buildings to reintegrate them with the overall estate.  However, some still survive as neglected shells and these can prove to be an exciting opportunity to create a home.  One important factor bear in mind is that these houses are often very small (sometimes only two rooms) and their listed status means it’s not always possible to add significant new extensions.  One of the joys of these houses is their diminutive size and that should be respected when considering restoration, but completed sensitively, these houses can be an interesting feature of your local heritage.

To find lodge houses which may be available for sale, join SAVE Britain’s Heritage and access their ‘Buildings at Risk Register’ where you can search for these properties plus many others.  Their latest ‘Buildings at Risk’ report – ‘Live or Let Die’ – will be published on 1 June 2010 and can be pre-ordered now.

To find out more about the many country houses which have been demolished in Suffolk there is a superb book which has been recently published called ‘The Lost Country Houses of Suffolk’ by W.M. Roberts [amazon.co.uk].

Programme details: ‘The Restoration Man‘ [Channel 4]

Posh B&B – stately home owners diversify

Sennowe Park, Norfolk (Image: sennowepark.com)

A country house was traditionally the centrepiece of an estate usually absorbing huge amounts of money in running costs and improvements.  This model was sustainable when the estate or other source was sufficient to provide the necessary income but today often a family can inherit a large house with all the costs but not the means to fully maintain it.

In another example of the diversification that has allowed so many of our country estates to survive, aristocratic families are now offering the chance for those willing to pay from £1,000 per day to experience life as it is for those lucky enough to live in these beautiful homes. A Suffolk firm, ‘More than Good Manners‘ arranges these luxury stays with an emphasis sharing in some of the best country pursuits in houses such as Sennowe Park, the grand Edwardian family home of Thomas Cook and his descendants.

Some may complain that these are a devaluation of the grandeur of the country houses and the families who live there. However it could be argued that there is a long tradition of these houses hosting visitors for gain when years ago the monarch would be lavishly entertained in hope that honours or privileges would be bestowed on the hosts. This modern twist on the theme sees income being provided in a way which doesn’t greatly increase the wear and tear on the fabric of the house and is largely in keeping with the original purpose of the house as a centre for leisure.

Full story: ‘Take a break – with an aristocratic family‘ [Eastern Daily Press]

Remembering the lost country houses of Suffolk

Each county in England has suffered the loss of at least some of its wealth of country houses.  Although nearly 1,800 have been identified so far, it’s clear that some counties, such as Somerset, escaped relatively lightly whilst others such as Yorkshire were severely depleted.  Of course, the losses are not simply about numbers as these can mask the importance of the individual houses.  One county which has been deprived of not only a significant number but also some houses of national importance is Suffolk in East Anglia.  Financed by early wealth from the wool trade followed by large scale agriculture, Suffolk boasts some of the finest houses in the country including Somerleyton Hall (built for rail magnate Samuel Morton Peto), Ickworth (the spectacular home of the Marquesses of Bristol), and superb Elizabethan Long Melford Hall.

Yet Suffolk has also lost nearly 60 other country houses of all ages and styles to both fashion, finance and fire.   A new book focussing on these losses called ‘Lost Country Houses of Suffolk‘ (Boydell & Brewer, 2010) has just been published by a Suffolk author W.M. Roberts.  This superbly produced and researched book highlights 40 of these now vanished houses, including the larger houses such as the beautiful Rushbrooke Hall, and the lavish Flixton Hall, but also the smaller ones such as Assington Hall, and provides detailed histories of the ascendancy of the houses before explaining their demise.  Lavishly illustrated, the book is also a wealth of detail with further details and sources for anyone, be they genealogist or local historian, looking to research even deeper.

The book is available direct from the publisher or via Amazon or all good bookshops.

Full disclosure: I contributed a little of my research into England’s lost country houses to this book but I make no gain from sales.

Shrubland Hall finally sold

When the Grade-II* listed Shrubland Hall near Ipswich in Suffolk was put on the market for £23m in 2006 it included over 40 cottages, several farms, over 1,400 acres and one of the finest Italianate houses in the country. The house was originally designed by James Paine in the 1770s it was extensively altered by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s.  Lord de Saumurez had decided to start afresh with a grand country house auction rarely seen such a scale since the 1950s, and which included Meissen porcelain, paintings, and many fine pieces of Georgian furniture.  The sale was a roaring success but the house itself languished on the market as the especially as the growing global credit crunch limited the desire for buyers wealthy enough to take on the 40,000 sq ft. house.

However, after three years, and selling off much of the estate in smaller lots, the house plus a few hundred acres of parkland including the listed gardens designed by Sir Humphrey Repton, has now finally been sold for £6.5m to a London businessman.  It will now be interesting to see how the estate develops as without the larger estate it will be simply a home supported by income from elsewhere.  Here’s hoping that the new owner fully understands and appreciates the architectural gem they have acquired.

Full story: ‘Shrubland Hall sold‘ [Evening Star 24]