Make a date: the strange world of the calendar house

Knole, Kent (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the main satisfactions of having a house built is that, as it’s your money, you get to decide the style, design, scale and detail according to your whims.  With many of the stranger flights of fancy now curtailed by cost or planning controls it’s interesting to look at earlier houses built without such restraints and, in particular, those which incorporated horological elements creating the phenomena of the ‘calendar house’; that is, where the architecture was influenced according to the number of days, weeks or months in a year.

The genesis of the calendar house appears to have been in the intellectually fertile Elizabethan period when the elite of society revelled in the advances of science,  mathematics and astronomy.  They also had a great love of the ‘device’ which in the 16th-century meant any ingenious or original shape or concept. Mark Girouard, in his excellent book ‘Elizabethan Architecture – Its Rise and Fall, 1540 – 1640‘, states that although there are precursors to the idea of an entire building as a device – which can be seen in the designs of Henry VIII’s forts and and contemporaries’ gatehouses – this was its extent.

Under the Elizabethans, this idea can be seen to grow – from gatehouses to entrance fronts to courtyards (before they disappear) and the whole house is the device.  Yet for all the intellectual attraction, the idea of the form of a house being dictated by the calendar is actually quite rare.   In fact, Girouard’s book doesn’t mention the idea at all, as technically the first house to incorporate these principles, Knole in Kent, was built in 1604 by one of her courtiers, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, a year after Elizabeth I‘s death.

The principle of the calendar house is that the number of external doors, windows or panes of glass, chimneys, or staircases etc should total either 4 (the number seasons), 7 (days in a week), 12 (months in a year), or 365 (days in a year).  So in Knole’s case, the calendar is represented through the 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 7 courtyards.  It is this choice of the number of which elements that provides the variation to the theme and can lead to the creation of palaces such as Knole. It also helps explain the relative scarcity of these houses as they require a certain commitment from the owner to complete the build and not compromise on the plans for fear of spoiling the totals.

Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)
Scout Hall, Yorkshire (Image: boxfriendly / urbexforums)

One of the most compact of the calendar houses was built in 1681 – Scout Hall in Yorkshire. This wonderful house – which would give Hardwick Hall a run for its money for the phrase ‘more glass than wall’ – was built for a local silk merchant, John Mitchell, by an unknown designer and includes 365 panes of glass and 52 doors.  Considering the rarity of calendar houses, it’s interesting to consider how this concept suddenly appeared over 70 years after the first and several hundred miles north.  Perhaps Mitchell’s trade had taken him south and he had been to, or heard of, Knole.  Who knows?  What we do know is that this grade-II* house has been on the ‘buildings at risk register‘ for many years and has been derelict since the 1980s.

aberdeenshire-cairnesshouse
Cairness House, Aberdeenshire

The next appearance of a calendar house is in the far north at Cairness House in Aberdeenshire, designed by the renowned architect James Playfair and built between 1791-97 for Charles Gordon of Cairness and Buthlaw as the centrepiece of his 9,000-acre estate.  What’s particularly remarkable about the house is that it resolutely neo-classical in design – a very unlikely style to marry with such a whim.  Yet Charles Gordon had something of the Elizabethan love of the ‘device’ as the design contains numerous Masonic and pagan symbols with even the overall layout of the house making the initials ‘CH’.

Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)
Holme Eden Hall, Cumbria (Image: Smiths Gore estate agents)

It would be another forty years before the idea would be used again – this time in Cumbria in the construction of Holme Eden Hall in 1837. Built in a Tudor gothic style for a local cotton mill owner, Peter Dixon, to designs by John Dobson, a prolific local architect responsible for the remodelling of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and who worked on over one hundred country houses.  Dobson had the rare facility of being able to competently design in many styles so it’s possible that the idea of the calendar house came from the owner; this time featuring 365 panes of glass, 52 chimneys, 12 passageways, 7 entrances and 4 storeys.  The choice of the number of which elements was probably dictated by the budget as Dixon couldn’t have afforded to construct a house on the scale of Knole.  After becoming a convent, the house fell into some decay but was converted by intelligent developers who kept the theme going and created 12 apartments, each named after a month.

Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)
Balfour Castle, Isle of Shapinsay, Scotland (Image: Balfour Castle)

The next house appears in Scotland again; Balfour Castle on the Isle of Shapinsay. This was a remodelling of an existing house by the famous Scottish architect David Bryce, who did so much to popularise the ‘Scots Baronial’ style we now associate with the country.  The owner was David Balfour whose grandfather had originally purchased the house and estate in 1782. The Bryce alterations were completed in just two years from 1847 and the calendar theme this time produced 365 panes of glass, 52 rooms, 12 exterior doors, and 7 turrets.

Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Bradgate House, Leicestershire - dem. 1925 (Image: Lost Heritage)

Bradgate House, Leicestershire was built in 1854 for the extravagant George Harry Grey, the 7th Earl of Stamford, though it was only to survive 70 years before being demolished in 1925.  A gentleman sportsman with a liking for the Turf, the 7th Earl was probably inspired by the contemporary Victorian fashion of connecting families with their real (or sometimes imagined) ancestral past and building an Elizabethan style house would remind everyone that the Grey family had first been elevated to the peerage by Queen Elizabeth I.  Exactly why he chose a calendar scheme is unknown but the house included 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 main chimneys.

The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)
The Towers, Didsbury, Lancashire (Image: Paul F Hamlyn)

Although perhaps not strictly a country seat, The Towers, in Didsbury, Lancashire was built between 1868-72 as a rural escape for the proprietor and editor of the Manchester Guardian, John Edward Taylor.  Designed by Thomas Worthington in a bold gothic style, it was reputed to have cost £50,000 to build – equivalent to around £3.3m today, and features 365 windows, 52 rooms and 12 towers.  Pevsner appears conflicted about it describing it as both ‘…grossly picturesque in red brick and red terra cotta’ but also as ‘the grandest of all Manchester mansions’.  It was subsequently purchased in 1920 for just £10,000 and became the headquarters for the British Cotton Industry Research Association and became known as the Shirley Institute, before becoming rental offices sadly surrounded by bland office blocks.

Bedstone Court, Shropshire was designed in a completely different style – mock Elizabethan – but again followed the pattern with 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys and 7 external doors.  The house was designed for Sir Henry Ripley by Thomas Harris, and had survived largely intact despite changing from use as a home to a school, until a serious fire in 1996 severely damaged large sections of the house necessitating extensive restoration.

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)
Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (Image: Avon Tyrrell Activity Centre)

Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire, completed in 1891 and now grade-I listed, was, as far as is known, the last calendar house to be built in the UK and incorporates 365 windows, 52 rooms, 12 chimneys, and 7 external entrances. Designed by the distinguished Arts & Crafts architect W.R. Lethaby, a founding member of the architectural conservation charity the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, he was also particularly interested in architectural theory and design, so it is likely that he would have suggested the idea of the calendar house to Lord Manners. The client was a wealthy racehorse owner who built the house on the back of his winnings from a famous bet he made in 1881, that he could buy, train and ride the winner of the 1882 Grand National – which he did.  Lord Manners donated the house to the “Youth of the Nation” and it is now an activity centre.

Considering that the idea of the calendar house was essentially Elizabethan in conception, it’s interesting to note that only one was built in that time, with the next in the late 17th-century, one in the 18th-century, but that it was the Victorians who produced the most.  Perhaps this was a reflection of their interest in time, order and structure but also a revival in the Elizabethan delight in science and challenges.  As a distinct group of houses they deserve to be better known – and in the case of Scout Hall, it deserves to be treated as a priority for rescue and restoration before it runs out of time.

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Two other houses may also be calendar houses but I haven’t been able to reliably confirm this:

  • Kinmel Hall, north Wales – said to have 365 windows on the front elevation, 52 chimneys and 12 external doors.
  • Welcombe House, Warwickshire – now a hotel and has undergone significant alterations but is supposed to have 365 windows, 52 chimneys, 12 fireplaces and 7 entrances.

Can anyone confirm these? Thanks, Matthew