Littoral translation: country houses on the coast

The very name ‘country house’ implies a certain rural solitude; a fine house surrounded by its own acres.  Yet, some owners, for reasons of preference or amenity, chose to site their country house on the coast – and the recent quick sale of Barton Manor on the Isle of Wight, despite the generally slow market, has proved that the lure of the sea is still as strong as ever.

Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)
Mount Edgcumbe, Devon (Image: Brownie Bear via flickr)

Some areas, particularly in the south of England, have a long tradition of country houses being built to take advantage of some beautiful coastal scenery.  The harsh, combative weather of the north may have discouraged some owners, bar those living in castles, into seeking calmer situations further inland.  Yet in the balmier south, with more clement weather, landowners have long sought peninsulas and headlands to build their manors.  Cornwall has many examples of just such situations. One of the earliest was Mount Edgcumbe, built  in 1550, for the Edgcumbe family, in a commanding position overlooking Plymouth Sound. Devastated by a bomb meant for the docks in WWII, the house was rebuilt by the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, even though his son had been killed in the war.  Inherited by distant relations, it was finally sold in 1987 to the local councils and is now a museum – but standing in the grounds one can imagine the attraction of the location which drew the first Edgcumbe to build there.

Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)
Prideaux Place, Cornwall (Image: Ute&Hajo via flickr)

Forty years after Mount Edgcumbe was built, in 1592 the Prideaux family chose an equally dramatic spot, a hill overlooking Padstow, to raise their beautiful house, Prideaux Place, which is still looked after by the family.

Yet for less dramatic locations, what’s the lure? For most of the very grandest estates, the house was the focal point; the termination of roads, views and rides – the landscape emphasising the dominance of the owner.  To compete with natural beauty of nature, even a more benign one, the house would have to equal to the challenge.  The coast at Holkham can hardly said to be dramatic, but the house, Holkham Hall, is certainly spectacular – an architectural tour de force of neo-Palladianism.

Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)
Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: About Britain)

The builder of Holkham, Thomas Coke, (b.1697 – d.1759) 1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation), was a passionate follower of the ideals of Palladio, and he was determined that his own house should follow the strict rules of Palladianism.  The archivist at Holkham, Christine Hiskey, confirmed that she is unaware of any specific mention of the sea in his choice of location and has suggested that he might have been simply very attached to the original manor house, the seat of the Holkham branch of the family since 1612, and his childhood home until the age of 10.  In fact, even while building the new Hall, he lived for most of his life in the old house – it was linked by a passage to the first wing of the new Hall and demolished only in 1756, three years before Coke, then Earl of Leicester, died. Perhaps though, he was looking for a location similar to the Ventian plains where Palladio had completed many of his commissions.  Certainly his friends, Sir Thomas Robinson and Lord Hervey, could not understand why he had chosen such a wind-whipped position.

Yet, even here, the house was surrounded by a manufactured landscape as a foil to the rather austere provisions of the natural world. Initially created by Thomas Coke, the builder of Holkham (in conjunction with the famed designer William Kent), a later Coke, another Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester (seventh creation), on inheriting the 30,000-acre estate in 1776, commissioned Humphry Repton to contribute proposals towards his own plans.  Repton devised a complex series of paths, snaking through the woods, along the lakes, and around the estate, but curiously, not to the sea, tolerating only a view of it from a particular point.  His designs perhaps reflected the unease Coke of Norfolk felt at the location; he is quoted as complaining that:

“It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but my own. I am Giant of Giant Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours – my nearest neighbour is the King of Denmark.”

Lacking his ancestors affection for the sea, Coke of Norfolk seems to have employed Repton to create an alternative landscape which tries to almost ignore it.

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

Another group for whom such glum thoughts may also have played on their minds were those whose trade relied on shipping.  In the same way that traditional country estates were at the heart of agricultural production, so too, with the rapid growth of overseas trade in the Georgian period, ship-owners wished to be able to see their vessels returning to port, or, at least, the source of their wealth.  This led to a number of houses being built along the coastal areas leading up to major ports such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Hull; though, sadly, many have been lost as the cities have expanded.  The sea could also provide the vantage point from which to select the site of a house, with Tapeley Park,  (previously featured in this blog when it appeared in Country House Rescue)  situated on hill overlooking Bideford in Devon, chosen by a captain returning home.

Other influences were also coming  to bear, not least the concept of the ‘Picturesque’ which provided a renewed appreciation of the power of nature. One effect of these ideas was the reversal of the role of the house from being the focal point of the view, instead now emphasising the importance of view from the house. Advances in transportation technology such as more comfortable sprung carriages, enabled the Georgian wealthy to travel greater distances in shorter times, so the coast became more accessible.

Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Culzean Castle, Scotland (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

Soon country houses were taking advantage of the dramatic possibilities; perhaps none more so than Culzean Castle, Ayrshire.  Perched on the edge of a cliff, the castle, built between built 1777-1792 for David, 10th Earl of Cassillis, was an architecturally forceful response to an spectacular location.  The architect was the talented Scotsman, Robert Adam, whose interior style is so recognisable as to have become a named genre.  Adam, as an architect, was also skilled in making the best use of locations and having been originally commissioned for some minor additions to the original, smaller tower house, Adam realised the potential of the site and convinced his patron to add the massive round tower in 1785 with its circular Saloon, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, which open onto a balcony overlooking the cliff and crashing waves below. Less dramatically sited, but also impressive, was Hooton Hall, Cheshire, built in 1788 to designs by Samuel Wyatt which was described as “…a beautiful structure, standing on a gentle eminence, and commanding an extensive view of the river [Mersey], and of the entire coast of Cheshire and Lancashire…“. Sadly, such charms were not enough to save the house which, after serving time as a WWI airfield officer’s mess, was demolished in 1932 and later replaced by a Vauxhall car factory.

Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Highcliffe Castle, Dorset (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Fifty years later, the lure of the sea was still strong.  Highcliffe Castle in Dorset was the result of the long-harboured dream of Lord Stuart de Rothesay, a distinguished diplomat, to build a home once he had finished his overseas duties. Drawing on happy childhood memories, he went back to a site he had known as a boy and, in 1840, built Highcliffe Castle, a classic evocation of the Pictureseque and Romantic architectural ideals in a smaller country house and which incorporated significant quantities of carved Medieval stone from the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and the Grande Maison des Andelys which had become derelict after the French revolution.

As with many popular Victorian trends, a house by the sea gained widespread fashionable credibility through the support of Queen Victoria and Price Albert.  Early in her reign  the Queen had decided to purchase a summer retreat and favoured the Isle of Wight having stayed at Norris Castle as a young girl. In March 1844, she bought the neighbouring Osbourne House, but decided that it was insufficient and so should be rebuilt, the foundation stone being laid in June 1845, and was finished in 1848.  The architect was Sir Charles Barry, who had built other houses which the Queen had stayed at such as Trentham Hall (demolished 1912).  The prominent position and royal patronage made this a hugely influential design; the style and elements from it can be seen in many country houses from the 1840s-1870s.  The loggias, choice of axis to maximise the views and the terraced gardens all emphasise the coastal attractions which had originally brought the Queen to the Isle of Wight (as it did many others, including the architect John Nash, who built his own Picturesque home, East Cowes Castle, (dem. 1960) there as well).

Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby's International Realty)
Barton Manor, Isle of Wight (Image: Sotheby’s International Realty) – listing still available but house has been sold. Click for more images.

The launch of Barton Manor, Isle of Wight in the March 14 issue of Country Life was considered the first of the major residential estates to be offered in 2012.  Built on the site of a priory, the estate, was bought by Queen Victoria in 1845 at the same time as neighbouring Osbourne, and then had it completely rebuilt in 1853, reusing the old stone.  Although the Queen herself had an apartment there, it was mainly used as supplementary accommodation for visitors to Osbourne House. With the royal connections, well-proportioned house, superb gardens and fine coastal location it was no surprise that the 202-acre estate sold within a month, proving the enduring lure of the littoral is still a powerful attraction.


My thanks to Christine Hiskey, archivist at Holkham Hall, and James Crawford at Knight Frank (agents for Barton Manor) for their help with this article.

As always, dear Readers, delays between posting caused by pressures of work – apologies.

Country House Rescue: a matter of taste – Monreith House, Galloway

Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)
Monreith House, Scotland (Image: Mike Harrison / UK Wildlife Photography)

Country House Rescue heads from Tapeley Park in Devon to the other end of the country to Monreith House in Galloway, Scotland.  A dignified house, it has suffered from a classic problem for those that inherit, as the current owner Sir Michael Maxwell did in 1987, that: “…to put it politely, my relatives’ expenditure exceeded their income by many times.”. The necessary economies forced on Sir Michael have meant some cut corners which Ruth Watson quickly identifies as hindering his attempts to move upmarket.

The Maxwells of Monreith were certainly aristocratic with their baronetcy granted by Charles II in 1681 and various family members marrying well including the 8th Baronet’s wife, Lady Mary, who was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, one of the richest and largest landowners in England. The Maxwells had been based at Myrton Castle since they bought it in 1685, obviously needing a house to match their newly elevated status.

Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)
Leuchie House, Scotland (Image: John Small - 1883 / buildings fan on flickr)

Monreith House was built in 1791 by Sir William Maxwell, 4th Baronet, to replace Myrton, which was partially demolished to provide building materials for the new one.  The architect was the Edinburgh-based Alexander Stevens, son of a better known Alexander Stevens who specialised in designing and building bridges.  His design at Monreith shows that he was well versed in the Palladian vocabulary but is in contrast to his other principal design; the impressive Raehills in Dumfriesshire, built for the 3rd Earl of Hopetoun in 1786, which is an imitation of Robert Adam‘s castle style.  Monreith shows closer similarities with Leuchie House in Lothian, built for Sir William Dalrymple between 1779-1785, to designs by the little known Alexander Peacock who was also based in Edinburgh.  By the 1790s, the first wave of Palladianism had long ago swept through the country and much provincial design can be traced back to the many architectural pattern books which had been produced.  Stevens’ limited but varied output could indicate he used also used them, though perhaps more competently than most.

The Maxwells of Monreith became one of the most important families in the area with a substantial estate which totalled 17,000-acres.  The house has passed down through the Maxwells, though it never went to the most famous of the family, the writer Gavin Maxwell, heir to the 8th Baronet, Aymer Maxwell, but who died of cancer in 1968.  Gavin’s books were best-sellers, with his most famous being the autobiographical ‘A Bright Ring of Water‘ about his pet otter, the profits of which might have helped the estate but for his profligate ways.  His father also faced financial difficulties and, lacking funds to maintain the house, apparently felt it easier – and cheaper – to let the house deteriorate rather than pay to have it demolished.

When Sir Michael inherited the house from his uncle it was in a seriously neglected state, saying he remembers that “When it rained hard the water would run down the stairs and land in puddles on the floor.”.  Sir Michael had trained as a surveyor so he was able to approach much of the work himself – though this also appears to be part of the problem. One money-making scheme was to convert the top floor into holiday flats but these, and the rest of the house, all show signs of his major flaw – a determination to do things as cheaply as possible leading to various poor choices which compromise his aspirations.

Sir Michael displays an admirable duty towards maintaining the house – a contrast to that displayed initially by Hector Christie of Tapeley Park in the previous episode.  Sir Michael says “It would be too easy if your great-grandfather dropped dead and left you money to end up a drunk in the gutter – so it’s a challenge. Essentially, you’re not given much choice when you inherit a house like this.”.  Thankfully he does appear to want to listen to Ruth Watson’s advice and one hopes that this will put him on the path to a sustainably prosperous future which will ensure the Maxwells remain at Monreith.

Official website: Monreith House, Galloway

Programme website: Country House Rescue: Monreith House [Channel 4]

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park, Devon

Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)
Tapeley Park, Devon (Image: chatoul / flickr)

The subject of the 13 March episode of Country House Rescue, Tapeley Park in Devon, carries on the wonderful tradition for country house eccentricities – and eccentrics.  From how the site was chosen to the manner of the inheritance, this beautiful house has a fascinating history – though more recently it’s been a little neglected.

According to Simon Jenkins, “Few Devon houses have so spectacular an outlook” – and few would disagree.  Situated above the pretty seaside town of Bideford, the site of the house was apparently chosen by the builder, Captain William Clevland, who apparently spotted the location through his telescope as he sailed up the Torridge in 1702.  He made good on his wish, rebuilding the existing manor house in an austere and somewhat uninspiring style but which took full advantage of the fine views from its elevated position – though this was later largely negated by an enthusiastic blocking up of windows to avoid the window tax.

Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image:
Tapeley Park, Devon - before Belcher alterations (Image:

The house eventually passed to the Christie family through marriage when Agnes Clevland married William Langham Christie in 1855.  The Christie fortune was made when one Daniel Christie joined the East India Company and was later given a fortune in gems by a Sultan in thanks for having prevented troops from pillaging a harem.  On his return he married the daughter of Sir Purbeck Langham of Glyndebourne in East Sussex and Saunton Court in Devon.  His grandson, Augustus Langham Christie, inherited both estates and now being a very eligible and wealthy man was able, in 1882, to marry the daughter of the Earl of Portsmouth, Lady Rosamund, whose family seat was the nearby Eggesford House (demolished in 1917).  Coming from such a grand house she was fairly unimpressed with Tapeley, writing in her diary:

“When I first saw Tapeley it was in the winter of 1881 before my marriage to Augustus Langham Christie. It was a Georgian stucco house, very plain and rather dreary in appearance, for many of the front windows had been blocked and the sunk apertures painted black with halfdrawn paint blinds, cords and tassells, looked very dull. The terrace walk and garden did not exist and the drive approached between iron railings.”

The marriage was not a particularly happy one with Lady Rosamund eventually banishing Augustus to the other Christie estate, the nearby Saughton Court, for his ‘eccentricities’ which apparently included ‘childish behaviour’ such as kicking the furniture repeatedly to annoy her.  In his absence, Lady Rosamund poured her energies into rebuilding Tapeley and engaged one of the leading neo-baroque architects, John Belcher (b.1841 – d.1913).  Due to limited finance, the work was to last from 1896 until 1916 but the professional relationship between client and architect was a happy one – so much so that on his death she had a plaque added to a wall in his memory.

Belcher is not as widely known as perhaps he should be, though his work is well regarded. He worked mainly on commercial buildings and institutions including the Whiteleys department store in London, and the brilliant Mappin & Webb building in the City of London which was scandalously demolished in 1994 to build No.1 Poultry (the only good view is looking out from the top of it!). More prominently, Belcher also designed in 1907  the imposing Ashton Memorial in Lancaster for Baron Ashton.

Belcher transformed the ‘dreary’ house to create an imposing but elegant ‘Queen Anne’ style Georgian villa of brick with stone pilasters, parapet and a pediment, sitting above the impressive terraced gardens. The interiors are also of note, featuring a grand staircase hall and also several good fireplaces and plaster ceilings from the original house.  Lady Rosamund had to fight to keep hold of her creation as, in an act of revenge, Augustus left the house in his will on his death in 1930 to a distant cousin in Canada, forcing her to have to go to court to argue, successfully, that Augustus was obviously insane.

The house and estate were inherited by her son, John Christie, who founded the famous opera at Glyndebourne, where he spent the other half of his time when he wasn’t at Tapeley.  Tapeley was then inherited by his daughter, another Rosamund, who frugally ran the house until her death in 1988 and was known for conducting the tours with a parrot on her head.

The current owner is one Hector Christie, Rosamund’s nephew, who apparently decided with his brother which was to inherit Glyndebourne and Tapeley by flipping a coin whilst in a Brighton nightclub.  Hector, though Eton-educated, is something of a rebel, once sneaking into a Labour party conference to heckle Tony Blair about the Iraq war, and also extending a fairly broad invitation to various hippies to create something of an eco-commune at Tapeley.

Though almost all the hippies have now left, Hector has now decided that he should focus on managing the house and estate on a more commercial basis, and not a moment too soon judging by the deteriorating condition of the grade-II* listed house, where part of the dining room ceiling fell in shortly before Ruth Watson’s first visit.  Fingers crossed her advice can provide a means for the family to stay in their ancestral seat without compromising either the architecture or setting or his principles.

Official site: Tapeley Park, Devon

Country House Rescue: Tapeley Park

Country House Rescue returns for Series 3: Wyresdale Park, Lancashire

Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)
Wyresdale Park, Lancashire (Image: Channel 4)

The history of the country house is sadly often a cycle of rise and fall with the main variable being the speed of each respectively.  The old phrase was ‘one generation made the wealth, the second enjoyed it, and the third lost it’. Over recent decades the trend has changed slightly in that, with longer life expectancies prolonging the older generations, the houses have had fewer chances for the rejuvenation which inheritance often brought.  As an alternative, Ruth Watson uses Country House Rescue as a catalyst for the type of entrepreneurial change which is the only way for these houses to survive – if only the owners would listen!

The first episode in Series 3, to be broadcast at on Channel 4 at 21:00 on 6 March 2011, takes us to Wyresdale Park in Lancashire to meet a father and son who don’t agree on the best way to maximise the obvious potential of the beautiful estate.

Wyresdale Hall was built between 1856-65 for Bolton cotton-magnate-turned-banker, Peter Ormrod, who bought 6,000-acres from the Duke of Hamilton to create his estate.  The house, which cost £50,000 (about £4m at today’s value) at the time, was designed by noted local architect Edward Graham Paley (b.1823 – d.1895) who had an extensive practice, partnering first with his mentor Edmund Sharpe, then, following Sharpe’s retirement, Hubert Austin, before being joined by his son, Henry Paley. The work of Paley & Austin in particular was well-regarded with Pevsner  saying they “did more outstanding work than any other in the county” and was “outstanding in the national as well as the regional context”.

Paley worked on relatively few country houses, being much better known for his ecclesiastical output, with included the design of Lancaster Cathedral.  Paley was brought up in deeply religious home and, working with Edmund Sharpe, who was heavily influenced by Pugin, it was unsurprising that Paley adopted the strict ecclesiastical style with the ‘correct’ use of Gothic elements.  Perhaps looking a little too much like a convent rather than a home, the house is, nonetheless, still a good example of the type of regional interpretations of Pugin’s architectural theories which gained ground in the 19th-century.

The grade-II listed house and estate passed through the Ormrod family before the land was bought by the Whewell family in the 1920s who then bought the house in 1967.  Now the family are facing the usual struggles of a listed house, an extensive list of improvements, and the need to make the changes which sometimes sit uncomfortably with the more traditional older generation.


Country House Rescue – Series 3

My usual powers have slightly failed me and I haven’t a verified list of all the houses in Series 3 but here are the ones I have identified so far:

See also: