A Sleeping Beauty: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire

The temptation when Country Life magazine arrives each week is to flick through the properties and make tabloid-esque comparisons about how a detached Regency villa in Dorset with space for a family, chickens, and an excitable spaniel, could be had for the price of a tatty flat in London. Yet sometimes these comparisons seem almost too unreal when faced with the exemplary beauty of a country house like Ombersley Court, Worcestershire, which, along with 39 beautifully wooded acres, has just been put up for sale for just £3.5m; the price of a 3-bed terrace house in Chelsea.

Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)
Ombersley Court, Worcestershire (© Savills)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Worcestershire lies a house which, either through deliberate privacy or convenient obscurity, is little known to the world. Yet Grade-I listed Ombersley Court is one of the finest houses in Worcestershire, arguably even in the wider region, due not only to the sublime architecture and surrounding estate, but also the fine collection of paintings and artwork. The estate has long been the seat of the Sandys family who acquired the manor in the late sixteenth-century. The current house was originally built for the 1st Lord Sandys (b.1695 – d.1770) between 1723-26, replacing earlier monastic buildings on the site.  The house was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick (b.1672 – d.1738), one of the leading regional architects and, working with his brother William (b.1661- d.1724), ‘one of the most successful master builders in English architectural history’ (Colvin).

‘Smith of Warwick’, as Francis was more commonly known, was a clients ideal contractor due to his famous honesty and reliability, able to deliver buildings on time and on budget. His reputation spread amongst the Midlands gentry and aristocracy with almost all his work within a fifty-mile radius of Warwick.  Such was his standing that even the fractious Duchess of Marlborough (who had famously fallen out with Vanbrugh over Blenheim), demanded that for her house in Wimbledon, Surrey, ‘that Mr Smith of Warwickshire the Builder may be employed to make Contracts and to Measure the Work and to doe everything in his Way that is necessary to Compleat the Work as far as the Distance he is at will give him Leave to do’ (1732-33).

Smith’s solid reliability also manifested itself in his repetition of his well-developed plans and designs for houses, creating a distinctive style which is quite recognisable as his own. Broadly, this would be a three storey house with the centre section either projected or recessed, consistent fenestration, and relatively sparse external decoration, usually only decorative stone dressings such as keystones, quoins or balustraded parapets. This consistency was perhaps a double-edged sword, with the Hon. Daines Barrington stated in a letter in 1784, that although ‘all of them (are) convenient and handsome […] there is a great sameness in the plans, which proves he had little invention’.

Yet, this is to overlook that Smith was, at heart, a successful commercial builder whose understanding and appreciation for architectural ornament and variety was inevitably tempered by his determination to deliver the commission on time and on budget. As the architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin highlights, the core design is that of a standard seventeenth-century house such as Belton House, Lincolnshire, but with stylistic updates as fashions evolved.  ‘Smith’ houses such as Umberslade, Alfreton, and Wingerworth all share this readily accessible style, one which married domestic practicality with exterior grandeur.

Perhaps Smith’s greatest achievement was the tragically now-ruinous Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire; a house with a facade so stately as to rival Chatsworth. Built for the 4th Earl of Scarsdale in 1724, Sutton Scarsdale was one of the finest houses in the country. Although the form is familiar, the masterful control of a palisade of pilasters and columns topped with Corinthian capitals, gives it a gravitas, whilst the detailing such as the scrolled window surrounds to the projecting wings hint at Renaissance motifs; Fausto Rughesi (Santa Maria in Vallicella, 1605/06) filtered through William Talman (design for Thoresby House, 1685, – shown in Vitruvius Britannicus, C1, Pl.91) and James Gibbs (to whose designs Smith was building Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, 1722).

derbyshire-Sutton_Scarsdale_Hall_circa_1900

One regret with Ombersley Court is that although the form and plan of the house and much of the superb unaltered early-Georgian internal decoration is still Smith, the exterior is now not his. The original design featured a hipped roof, and what looks to be pilasters, giving it the recognisable ‘Smith’ characteristics.  This was lost when the existing brick was refaced with ashlar in 1809 by the architect John Webb for Mary Sandys, the Marchioness of Downshire. In fairness though, this was a lucky escape as John Nash prepared a much more ambitious scheme in 1808, which proposed adding a two-storey pavilion to each side, linked by a seven-bay screen of giant Ionic columns, though this seems to have been rejected on cost.

Ombersley Court - proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808
Ombersley Court – proposed alteration by John Nash, 1808

One of the glories of the house are the interiors and especially the plasterwork and carving. With a desire for privacy which was rarely breached, few had seen the exceptional decorative work, except through the lens of a Country Life profile by Arthur Oswald in 1953. This extolled the virtues of many aspects including The Chippendale Room which featured bamboo framed silk wall pieces, remarking that ‘it is uncommon to find a Regency example as complete as this or as charming’. The rest of the house struck a careful tone of stately refinement; enough decoration to proclaim wealth and taste, but never excessive.

Ombersley Court - Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Hallway (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Drawing Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court - Morning Room (© Savills)
Ombersley Court – Morning Room (© Savills)

With the death of Lord Sandys in 2013 the house passed to Lady Sandys but following her recent death, concerns were raised and rebutted via letters in Country Life that this wonderful house would be forced (for complicated reasons) to become a care home; a fate which would have despoiled this jewel of a house. Instead, for the first time since it was built in 1724, it has been placed on the market. This is a house created by one of the finest craftsmen of the early-Georgian period, with connections to a wider, distinct Midlands architectural tradition which epitomises all that one would hope to see in a country seat. As an important house which deserves respect, one hopes that the new owner will appreciate this remarkable situation and that perhaps the best approach would simply be to buy the house and contents and perhaps another couple hundred acres to truly secure an Arcadian ideal, one which would be hard to better anywhere in the country.


Sales particulars: Omblersley Court, Worcestershire [Savills] – £3.5m with 39 acres

Listing description: Ombersley Court, Worcestershire [British Listed Buildings]

HS2 Northern Extensions, Part 1 – Birmingham to Leeds: good for some, bad for others

One of the major UK infrastructure projects of the next 20-30 years, assuming it gets the go-ahead, will be the construction of the long-awaited High-Speed 2 (HS2) railway line, linking London with some of the major cities of the North.  Any construction project on this scale was always going to upset someone, and the initial route for the first phase managed to rile not just those in the towns and cities but also those who care about the rural areas and our wonderful country houses, which faced being blighted by the new trains rushing through their once peaceful idylls.  With the announcement of the route of the next sections beyond Birmingham, have the planners learnt their lessons?

Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) - threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement
Edgcote House, Northamptonshire (Image: Bacab) – threatened by the initial London-Birmingham plan with a serious visual impact, the route was moved in the final announcement

There are undoubted merits in encouraging the use of greener transport options such as rail over other forms such as cars or planes. However, by their nature, high-speed trains rely on longer straight stretches and the easiest way to achieve this is by picking the most efficient route.  The particular challenge arises when that route involves beautiful countryside and an adverse impact on some of our finest country houses – and it was always going to cause a row.  An initial examination of the route in an earlier post (‘The price of progress: country houses and the High Speed 2 rail project‘) highlighted how surprisingly damaging some of the route choices had been.  When the final announcement came, although not perfect, the route was much improved and had mitigated many of the earlier concerns (‘The axe falls: route of High Speed 2 rail line announced‘).

The good news is that the route for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds route shows a greater sensitivity than was shown in the first phase and, after skirting past the sites of the long-vanished Hams Hall (dem. 1920) and Willesley Hall (dem. 1953), it wisely follows existing major roads, minimising the blight to areas already affected.

However, there are a number of houses which are significantly affected as the line moves north and the meanderings of the road network are ironed out into straighter lines for the high-speed trains.  One of the first is the smaller Grade-II* manor house of Pooley Hall, on the edge of Polesworth, as the line cuts to the south of the motorway it takes it within a hundred metres, sacrificed to save the Pooley Fields country park.

Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)
Langley Priory, Derbyshire (Image: Langley Priory)

The first significant country house to be affected is the attractive Grade-II* Langley Priory, near Diseworth, with the line cutting a rather dramatic slash through their 500-acre parkland, barely 200-metres to the west of  the main house.  Even the addition of a significant railway cutting, the close proximity of the house will inevitably have an adverse impact on what is currently a secluded and rural estate.  This will be an interesting test case for the generosity of the compensation scheme and how tightly it draws its boundaries and criteria for deciding the level of awards.

Further north, the line slices off the tail end of the western parkland at Thrumpton Hall, a wonderful Jacobean house with links to the Gunpowder Plot, which is the family home of the writer Miranda Seymour.  The house itself faces north and with the line passing nearly a kilometre to the west, the effect on this house should be minimal – and if one was to worry about existing blights, look south-west and the rather dramatic bulk of the Ratcliffe Soar power station dominates the skyline.

As HS2 emerges from Long Eaton, the route thankfully passes far to the west of the spectacular Wollaton Hall, but nearby, two smaller country houses which have so far escaped the ravaging pressures of urban development will now be drastically affected by this new development.  The first is Trowell Hall, originally built as a rectory in 1846 in a Jacobean Revival style, possibly by the architect Thomas Chambers Hine, it was then sold to a racehorse breeder in 1927.  It later became a dormitory for the workers at the M1 service station before again becoming a private home.  The new line will pass within 500-metres, though a high embankment may mitigate some of the effects. (Listing description: Trowell Hall, Nottinghamshire)

Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)
Strelley Hall, Nottinghamshire (Image: Strelley Hall website)

For Strelley Hall, a rather elegant smaller manor house, tucked away next to the local church, and now used as serviced offices, the route lines up almost straight past their back door but will dive into a tunnel just over the road.  Unfortunately for them, it appears that their newly built B&B business lies directly in the path of the new ‘cut & cover’ tunnel and so will have to be demolished.  Hopefully, once the work is over, and the trees and other planting have taken effect, the disturbance from the trains should be lessened but the disruption during the construction will be significant, especially with the loss of the B&B business.

The line now weaves a path through the outer edges of Nottingham passing far to the west of the impressive former home of Lord Byron, Newstead Abbey, but a bit closer to that long ‘At Risk’ country house, Annesley Hall, though still far enough to not be a concern.

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Xavier de Jauréguiberry via flickr)

The next section sees a routing decision which seems highly likely to be motivated by a desire to protect a country house.  Considering the scale of the project it would have to be a special house and it is; the line switches from the east side of the M1 [PDF] to continue on the west side, thus avoiding the need to go near the wonder that is Hardwick Hall, the incredible Grade-I listed seat of Bess of Hardwick, and which was famously immortalised in rhyme as ‘Hardwick Hall, more window than wall‘ (Pevsner preferred that version). Now owned by the National Trust, they must be relieved the planners have not chosen to pick a battle with them (unlike with parts of the first phase of HS2).

The line now heads out past the forlorn but still discernible grandeur of Sutton Scarsdale before nipping between the village of Renishaw and the railway line, thankfully preserving the parkland to the west of Renishaw Hall, seat of the famous Sitwell family and portrayed so beautifully by John Piper. After Sheffield, the village of Thorpe Hesley perhaps forces the line to the west, conveniently taking it further from the breathtaking Wentworth Woodhouse.  The last section up to the final destination of Leeds, skirts the various large towns, diving into green spaces and across parkland, such as at Methley, where if the grand Methley Hall had not been demolished in 1963, it might now look out on the final junction for the new HS2 Birmingham to Leeds branch.

All in all, the planners have seemingly learnt the lessons from their initial bruising encounters and have sought to find a route which deals more sensitively with the natural and built environment which already exists.  There are inevitably some houses which will be adversely affected and wherever possible this should be challenged to ensure that each intrusion can be fully justified, and where sustained, that appropriate compensation is paid.

This is just the first of the extensions to be examined; we will see shortly if the Birmingham to Manchester route holds any further threats to our country houses.

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

Guest blogger: Jeremy Musson – ‘English Ruins: an odyssey in English history’

Having written all nearly 200 posts since I started writing this blog I now thought it would be interesting to try and broaden the voices involved.  So as the first post in this new direction/experiment, I am delighted and honoured that one of our leading architectural historians, Jeremy Musson, kindly agreed to write a piece on country house ruins linked to his new book published this month, ‘English Ruins‘, a fascinating look at their role in shaping our perceptions of the past and our architecture.

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Jeremy Musson
Jeremy Musson

The English landscape is a landscape of ruins. Fragmentary or sometimes only roofless and windowless, these part dismantled buildings stand out to mark our national history in a number of different ways, and above all, provide a sense of historic scenery for our journeys, physical and imagined – and glimpsed from motorways and footpath alike. In this new book, photographer Paul Barker and I wanted to explore something of this particular cultural landscape and through this exploration trace something of how the English see themselves and their past.

I feel that we live in an old country, and the past is always there, to paraphrase T.S.Eliot, “pressing on the future”. Some love the past, some hate it, many are indifferent to it, happy enough to take pleasure in a good day out, with a dash of historic scenery. But the whole process of our encounter with ruins, is somewhat special – a deeply subjective, and in effect, an almost artistic experience. It is personal and often emotional, while it is also formed and shaped by a whole series of sometimes opposing cultural inheritances: Romanticism, anti-establishment, veneration for the classical, veneration for the Gothic, history seen through the very shape of the landscape.

There is something that seems to appeal about ruins to the English imagination over the centuries. Think of how John Aubrey, for instance, the late seventeenth antiquary and author of that amusing volume of English biography Brief Lives, observed that

“the eie and mind is no less affected with these stately ruines than they would be if they were standing and entire. They breed in generous mindes a kind of pittie; and set the thoughts aworke to make out their magnificence as they were in perfection.”

Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)
Piranesi: 'Temple of Hercules, at Cori' - 1769 (Image: Mattia Jona Gallery)

During the 18th century, the Grand Tour, part of the expected education of a gentleman or aristocrat, consisted of a journey through Holland and France to visit the great monuments of the Roman world, excited the aesthetic and cultural awareness of the 18th-century English gentleman, who was in turn the patron of artists and architects following the same path in trying to import the drama and excitement of great classical ruins to an English audience. Walk through any major house built in the 18th century, with anything of its original collections still in situ and the ruin is visible in painting after painting, and then echoed in the classical temples of the park.

The phenomenon of creating artificial ruins, in which the English seem to be pioneers, belongs to this period, and while the earliest garden temples seem to be classical, the contrivance of designing ‘ruined’ structures, was largely sourced in England’s own Gothic past. Horace Walpole the 18th-century diarist, who designed his own Gothic style house, Strawberry Hill, hugely admired the work of Sanderson Miller who designed a ruined tower at Hagley Park, with the perhaps slightly teasing phrase that it had “the true rust of the barons’ wars” referring to the Wars of the Roses.

When making this tour of England in tandem with photographer Paul Barker, I could not help noticing that we were often treading in the footsteps of the great landscape painter, J.M.W.Turner, for whom the evocative power of the ruin played a central role in his career, although we perhaps think of him most naturally as a landscape painter, and a painter of skies.

In the last years of the 18th century he exhibited numerous studies of great historical ruins in landscapes, appealing to the Romantic spirit of his audience – characteristically these are the foil for dramatic expositions of sky or sea. He continued to make special studies of ancient ruins, castles and abbeys on tours around the whole of England, for his ambitious Liber Studiorum project, and many were published in different histories, especially in Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales.

Turner looked principally at abbeys and castles, but abandoned country houses have come to be a feature of our landscape too. The dramatic changing status of the country house from the first world war, into the great depression of the late 20s and early 30s, becomes even more intense after the second world war – think of John Harris’s memoir, No Voice from the Hall. This was a period which resulted in so much change in English life, that it is easy to overlook the symbolic collapse of the world of the English country house. This was a feature of interwar life too, with the rise of income tax and death duties, but the upheaval of the Second World War, the widespread institutional use of country houses for military and other government purposes often hastened their subsequent abandonment.

Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)
Cowdray House, Sussex (Image: Cowdray Heritage Trust)

Inevitably, given my interest, the country house looms large in our new book. We focus on the story of buildings from different themes and for the ruins of country house, beginning with Cowdray House, in Sussex, a substantial Elizabethan mansion damaged by a fire in the late eighteenth century, and then abandoned, partly as a result of complications over inheritance; but quickly becoming a destination for artists, for instance, Turner visited the ruins while staying at Petworth – it is now looked after by a newly formed trust, and feels like the sets left over from a Grand Opera, standing amongst the meadows and paddocks on the edge of Midhurst.

We also visited the ruin of an elegant early-seventeenth-century lodge at Wothorpe Towers, a lodge once part of the Burghley estate, which was used as a dower house and then, apparently, part dismantled to provide an eye-catcher in the new landscaped park. It was falling into serious decay and has recently been taken on by the Griffin family, who putting the main house into a trust, which is restoring the gardens, are converting the ancillary seventeenth century buildings into a new home.

Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)
Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (Image: Alan J. White / wikipedia)

The classical country house tradition is represented in our book, by 1720s Seaton Delaval Hall, near Newcastle – one of the finest houses by Sir John Vanbrugh, re-roofed after a major fire, the interiors are otherwise the very picture of a ruin. In Derbyshire, we encountered the memorable and mournful spectacle of Sutton Scarsdale Hall in Derbyshire, also built in the early 18th century. The latter, partly due to its proximity to mine-works, acquired in 1919, by businessman out to profit from its materials and fittings. The panelling was sold United States collectors, and some at least found its way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Its demolition was in fact prevented by local landowner Sir Reresby Sitwell, whose family later presented it to the state.

James Lees Milne, looked at the Sutton Scarsdale ruins for the National Trust, but said that “classical ruins in England are much satisfactory than Gothic ones, the lack picturesque gloom.” English Heritage look after it now, as they do Witley Court, a multi-layered great house and former seat of the Earl of Dudley, a splendid Italianiate palace with a vast portico by John Nash, was burnt out in 1937, and by some chance was not demolished during the 1950s, like so many abandoned houses, and it was subject to preservation order in the 1970s, and in the early 70s taken into state protection. Christopher Hussey thought that it conjured the beauties of the classical ruins visited by the Grand Tourist in the 18th century, as much as anything else.

Lowther Castle, Cumbria
Lowther Castle, Cumbria

Forgotten Victorian Gothic mansions such as Lowther Castle in Cumbria, possibly become more Romantic in their ruined state. Lowther, the historic seat of the Earls of Lonsdale, designed by Smirke in Gothic baronial style was not re-occupied after the second world war, and in 1957, de-roofed and only the exterior walls preserved. A haunting presence in the beautiful Cumbrian landscape, a new trust has been created to protect the runs and open them and the overgrown Edwardian gardens to the public, in the course of 2011.

For myself, as a historian of the English country house, there is no doubt that the ruin occupies a special place in English culture; the castle, the abbot’s lodgings, the country houses of the sixteenth century onwards, when they stand open to the elements, draw us in to a dialogue with our history and the mutability of fortune.

Jeremy Musson’s ‘English Ruins‘ with photographer Paul Barker, is published by Merrell publishers.

Text by Jeremy Musson, choice of links and images by Matthew Beckett.

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Dear Readers – as always I welcome your comments and feedback.

Views of seats; the mixed relationship between houses and motorways

Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Image: Bolsover Online)

Our best motorways draw us through beautiful landscapes, by turns revealing hills, valleys, broad vistas and narrow glimpses, sometimes punctuated with a country house.  Yet, country house owners have long fought many battles to keep the roads from carving up their precious parks and ruining the Arcadian views.

A recent article in the Guardian (‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘) highlighted three great houses of Derbyshire each visible from the M1 motorway: Bolsover Castle, Sutton Scarsdale, and Hardwick Hall.  In our haste to get to destinations it’s easy to forget that where we drive was once part of great estates and previous owners would have wielded sufficient political power to ensure roads were routed away from their domains.  The echoes of this power can still be seen today if you look at aerial views of some of the great houses – major roads circle the gardens and immediate parkland such as at Chatsworth, Eaton Hall, and Clumber Park (though for the latter the house was demolished in 1938).

Yet, in other cases, officials either due to sheer bureaucratic efficiency, malice, or philistinism have carved roads through some historic parklands, cutting off the house from its setting, sometimes playing their part in step towards the eventual demise of the house. Sometimes the motorway is the gravestone; tarmac lies across the original sites of two lost houses so spare a thought for Tong Castle as you drive northbound just past junction 3 on the M54, or for Nuthall Temple, just north of junction 26 on the M1.

For planners, bypasses naturally need space and the obvious choice would be through the convenient estate which often borders a town.  From their perspective, taking on just single owner seems the easiest option, especially as it can be difficult to muster public support to defend a private landowners personal paradise.

One country house owner who has had several run-ins with roads is the National Trust, with varying degrees of success.  When they accepted Saltram House in Devon in 1957 they knew that a road was proposed which would cut across the parkland to the east of the house.  However, as a matter of principle they had to fight when finally earmarked for action in 1968, particularly as the road was much wider than originally proposed – though ultimately they were unsuccessful. For the private owners of Levens Hall in Cumbria, it was their research which prevented a link road to the M6 cutting across an avenue by proving it was originally planted in 1694 by garden designer Guillaume de Beaumont.  Yet other battles were lost; Capability Brown’s work at Chillington, Staffordshire was butchered by the M54, with the road now running just 35 yards from the grade-I listed Greek Temple.  At Tring Park in Hertfordshire the A41 slashes through the original tree-lined avenue.

The longest running, and most successful battle has been by the National Trust at Petworth House in Sussex.  The Trust has long accepted evolutionary changes but opposes drastic alterations regardless of the possible benefits to the local area – convenience does not trump heritage.  The village of Petworth suffers from heavy traffic so in the 1970s a four-lane bypass was approved which would run through the middle of the 700-acre, Capability Brown parkland, forever destroying the celebrated views painted by J.M.W. Turner in the early 1800s.  After objections were raised, an alternative, but equally damaging plan was suggested which used a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel – causing just as much destruction, particularly to the gardens, but then hiding their vandalism.  However, after a spirited public campaign, which included a dramatic poster showing the house with tyre tracks rolling over it (designed by David Gentleman for SAVE Britain’s Heritage), the plan was blocked and has almost certainly been killed off permanently.

So although the motorway has helped us to visit our wonderful country houses they also have, and continue to, pose a threat to them.  Thanksfully, stronger planning legislation which recognises the value of historic parkland has made it harder for the planners to simply draw a line between A and B without regard for the beautiful and important landscapes they would destroy.

Article: ‘Britain’s best views: motorway mansions‘ [The Guardian]