Developer shows sense; Ruperra Castle for sale

Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)
Ruperra Castle, Newport, Wales (Image: Savills)

Run-down or derelict country houses are often an enticing prospect for a developer, especially where the house still retains some land, on which they can propose ‘enabling development’.  In theory this is the correct use of this exemption but frequently the developer will suggest too many houses or ignore the fact that the house has too little land to avoid any development compromising the setting of the house.  When this happens, it is often the house which suffers as the developers wait for appeals or a change in policy whilst allowing the house to deteriorate further.  So in the case of Ruperra Castle in Wales it’s encouraging that the owner has decided to bow out giving someone else the chance to restore this architecturally interesting house.

Ruperra is an early example of the ‘mock’ castles which became fashionable in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras and were an example of life imitating art as the idea of these houses drew from the ‘pageant castles’ as featured in court entertainment of the time.  These stage castles formed the centrepiece to the royal ‘masques’ and were laden with allegorical symbolism as they might be populated by damsels (signifying virtue) but successfully defended against attacking knights (signifying baser desires).  Works such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (published in 1590 and 1596) also fed a fashion for chivalry and heraldic forms. Importantly, the long period of domestic peace during Elizabeth’s reign meant that the design of houses moved from being primarily military and defensive to more simply domestic with the look of a house increasingly dictated by aesthetics.

Ruperra wasn’t quite the first of it’s type; that distinction could be said to be held by houses such as Michaelgrove in Sussex built for the Shelley family in 1536 (dem. 1830s), and Mount Edgcumbe in Devon, built between 1547 – 1554, which also were not fortresses and featured a square or rectangular central block with drum or square towers on each corner.  This was followed by the fabulous Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, begun in 1580, which was an altogether more grandiose statement of power but broadly followed the same layout – as did Hardwick Hall, although in an adapted form. However, the Renaissance ornamentation of Robert Smythson‘s design at Wollaton contrasted dramatically with more austere designs of the true ‘mock’ castles which harked back to the earlier simplicity of decorated castles such as Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, begun in 1440, with its many windows and regularised defensive elements (such as the arrow loops) making them almost decorative.

Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Lulworth Castle, Dorset (Image: Matthew Beckett)

The design for Ruperra Castle was clearly based on that for Lulworth Castle, just 100 miles away in Dorset, and built between 1603-05.  Always called a ‘castle’ but built with the instruction from Lord Howard of Bindon that it ‘prove pretty’, it was never military.  Indeed, Thomas Gerard writing in 1630 described it as ‘well seated for prospect and pleasure; but of little other use’. Bought by the Weld family from Lord Howard it remained their family seat until a devastating fire in 1929 completely gutted the interior – as it remains today, although the building itself has been restored.  Another house thought to have been built around 1612 is Compton Bassett House in Wiltshire (dem. c1929) which clearly shared a similar layout although the corner turrents were square.

The builder of Ruperra Castle was Thomas Morgan (b.1564 – d.1632), who made his fortune as the Steward for the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House, Wiltshire.  Morgan would have been regularly exposed to court life and would have been very aware of the latest architectural fashions.  Hence when he came to build his own house, which was finished in 1626, he deliberately drew on the latest architectural fashions and created one of the first of the ‘modern’ country houses.  The layout was a significant departure as the rooms were orientated to the outside to make the most of views – hence Ruperra’s elevated site chosen for its beauty rather than defensibility.  Interestingly the ‘castle’ design seemed to fall quite quickly from favour and so there are few other examples of this type – though one late example was Beaurepaire Park in Hampshire built in 1777 (sadly burnt down in 1942).

Ruperra Castle remained as part of the Morgan’s vast Tredegar estate and was traditionally used to house the eldest son before he inherited Tredegar House, the family’s principal seat.  The castle originally had dormers but these were removed during the rebuilding after a fire in 1785 and replaced with the crenellations there today.  It was last inhabited during World War II when a searchlight battery requisitioned it and they were there when the terrible fire caused by faulty wiring broke out in 1941.  Despite best efforts, the house was completely gutted and was eventually sold, along with the rest of the 52,000-acre Tredegar estate in 1952.

Since then, constant promises of restoration have come to nothing and it has steadily deteriorated, most dramatically when, in 1982, the south east tower largely collapsed.  Sold to the current vendor, Mr Ashraf Barakat, in 1998 he had hoped to convert the house into 11 flats and build 18 more houses in the 14-acre grounds that remained with the house.  After a final rejection at a public enquiry in 2009, Mr Barakat has now, wisely, put the still grade-II* listed Ruperra Castle on the market for £1.5m, rather than holding on and letting the house deteriorate further.  This should not be considered a development opportunity, so hopefully now someone with deep pockets will come forward to restore, as a single family house, this architecturally important building.  Its rescue would once again connect the modern history of country house design in Wales, bringing life back to a house which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated in the country.

Property details: ‘Ruperra Castle, Lower Machen, Gwent, Wales‘ [Savills]

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Credit: I’m indebted to the prior work of Mark Girouard (‘Elizabethan Architecture‘ 2009) and the late Andor Gomme for their knowledge of Elizabethan architecture.

Restoration continues inside and out; Wilton House and others

Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)
Wilton House, Wiltshire (Image: John Goodall/Geograph)

Any time of economic difficulties can often lead to any expenditure being put on hold, including vital restoration projects.  So it’s encouraging to see projects still being completed – but as some of these were approved and started back in the heady days of government largesse, perhaps these are the last we’ll see for a while except where private money can fill the gap?

One of the most impressive has been the award-winning restoration of the family dining room at Wilton House, Wiltshire – and maybe all the more impressive as it was funded privately by the owner, the 18th Earl of Pembroke.  Although ranked as joint 574th in the Sunday Times Rich List 2010, with an estimated worth of £115m, most of this wealth is tied up in the value of the house, the contents (including superb paintings by Van Dyck and Rembrandt), and the estate.

Anyone undertaking an architectural project at Wilton is following in some fairly illustrious footsteps.  The main house, one of the finest still in private hands, is unusual in that the scale of the house was a response to the incredible gardens designed by Issac de Caus in 1632.  The design is sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones but a drawing found by Howard Colvin at Worcester College by de Caus showed he was responsible for the original plan for a much larger, 21-bay palace, with a grand central portico, running to a total length of 330-ft.  However, the untimely death of the newly-married Earl in 1636 and the subsequent return of the huge £25,000 marriage dowry (approx £40m today) to the bride’s father, the Duke of Buckingham, meant that the scheme was now too ambitious and so just one half of the original design was built; which is what we see today. The half-a-house was considered plain so Jones became involved, adding the one-storey corner towers to the design.

Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)
Private dining room - Wilton House (Image: Historic Houses Association)

Wilton’s interior, in particular the celebrated set of seven state rooms in the southern facade which includes the famous Double Cube room, were largely the creation of Jones, assisted by his able deputy John Webb.  Yet there are other fine rooms which had become misused over the years and one has now been restored in sumptuous style as a private dining room.  Formerly cluttered with the normal ephemera of family life – CDs, books, old furniture etc – it was  fairly sorry sight.  The current Earl and Countess of Pembroke have spent an undisclosed, but undoubtedly substantial, sum on creating a glorious dining room but which will sadly not be included on the tourist trail.  Tapestries now cover the deep green walls, interspersed with family portraits by Reynolds, completing what James Stourton, chairman of Sotheby’s UK described as “…one of the outstanding country house renovations of the decade.” and winning the 2010 HHA/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

One of the largest of the recent projects has been the £5.6m restoration of grade-II listed Bedwellty House in Tredegar, south Wales.  Built in 1818 for the owner of the first iron works in Tredegar, it was increasingly at risk of falling into dereliction.  Realising the importance of the building, the local council spent four years securing grants to fund the ambitious programme from organisations such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Welsh Assembly, Blaenau Gwent council, and Cadw [Welsh equivalent to English Heritage] .  The works have included work on the ornate plaster ceilings, the sash windows and shutters, and the main structure.  Work will now continue on the parkland and gardens to bring them back to their former glory.

The grounds of our country houses were also not just a buffer to keep the world from intruding but also a stage on which to create idealised landscapes and views.  To this end they were often populated with follies or architectural creations to catch the eye of those looking out from the house but also those walking the grounds.  Sadly, the isolation of these buildings has often meant that in recent years they have been cut-off from the main house, forgotten, or neglected and vandalised.  Nowadays these wonderful architectural vignettes have been increasingly valued and urgent works undertaken to restore them.  One fine example is the grade-I listed Wentworth Castle Rotunda in Yorkshire.  Started in 1739 and finished in 1742, the design is based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli near Rome.  One of 26 listed buildings in the 500-acre parkland, the temple has now been restored following a grant of £300,000, which has enabled the removal of overgrowing shrubs, and the cleaning and repair of the stonework, roof, and floors.

Thankfully the official organisations don’t have a monopoly on generosity. Perhaps those selling a house in need of some restoration might take a lead from admirable seller of Newberry Hall, Ireland, Richard Robinson.  Realising that the elegant Palladian house with its wonderful flanking pavilions is in dire need of restoration, the elderly owner has put the house on the market but with the offer of a substantial contribution towards the costs of restoration to bring the house back to its former glory.  With such generosity, one hopes a suitably sympathetic buyer can be found who will be willing to take on the project and complete an appropriate restoration.

Restoration has always been expensive so in their straitened times we can only hope that funds for basic care and maintenance are found so that in a few years time we are not faced with a slew of houses and monuments suffering from any short-sighted desire to save a few pence today at the cost of many pounds tomorrow.  Long may the stories be of enhanced glories such as that at Wilton House rather than urgent appeals to save buildings at risk.

Full story: ‘Winner of Historic Houses Restoration Award 2010 Announced‘ [Art Daily]

Full story: ‘Tredegar’s Bedwellty House restoration work unveiled‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Restoration of Wentworth Castle Rotunda completed‘ [BBC News]

Full story: ‘Rotunda is reopened to round of applause for works‘ [Yorkshire Post]

Full story: ‘Deal for buyer who will rescue Kildare demesne‘ [Irish Times]