Posted by: mike on Nov 14, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry HousesLatest

Sion Hill Hall

Sion Hill Hall has been described – convincingly but imprecisely – as “the last of the great country houses”.  It was built for Percy Stancliffe, the son of a wealthy brewer by one of Yorkshire’s foremost local architects, Walter H Brierley, in 1912-3. 

Walter Brierley (1862-1926) was a partner in the dominant York architectural practice which was begun in the eighteenth century by John Carr and had included in the intervening years such figures as J P Pritchett (1789-1868) and G T Andrews (1804-55, architect to the North Eastern Railway).

Like John Carr, Walter Brierley’s fame was limited because his work is concentrated in the North.  He built a rich collection of houses, churches and public buildings including a distinctive series of 1890s school buildings for the York School Board and the Principal's House at the King's Manor in York.  He restored Sledmere House after the major fire in 1911 and designed Welbeck Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, which was built (1930-1) after his death.

At Sion Hill Hall there were temperamental clashes between the rich but parsimonious Percy Stancliffe and his perfectionist architect, whose belief that “cheap work is always there to remind and annoy us” did not encourage a quiet relationship.

Nevertheless, the resulting building made Brierley’s reputation as “the Lutyens of the North”, and its expansive horizontal façades, enlivened by generous hipped roofs and tall chimneys, have a strong air of assurance, with an ambitious classical doorcase, dated 1913, as an entrance and on the south-facing garden front, roundels and painted shutters.

In fact, the house is only one room deep, with connecting corridors the length of the north front and all the principal rooms facing the sunny south.  At the western end the corners are stepped, so that Percy Stancliffe’s study and his wife’s boudoir share the advantage of south- and west-facing windows.

(The real Edwin Lutyens, on one of his rare Northern commissions, took no nonsense from his rich Yorkshire client, whom he despised.)

Percy Stancliffe lived at Sion Hill House until his death in 1949.  It was eventually purchased in 1962 by a remarkable collector, Herbert W Mawer (1903-1982), who rose from humble origins, trained as a chef at the Royal Station Hotel in Hull and started his own model bakery, “Our Herbert’s”, at Stokesley in 1926.  The family business prospered enough for Herbert to retire in his forties with sufficient wealth to support a passion for antiques which had begun with the purchase of two candlesticks for £1 5s in Hull when he was eighteen.

In the late 1930s he bought Ayton Hall near Guisborough, but by the 1950s that modest Georgian house was too small to house his accumulating possessions.

Herbert Mawer chose, in the absence of an heir, to establish the H W Mawer Trust to administer Sion Hill Hall and the Mawer Collection, which has since his death been increased to include the remarkable pot that contained the Breckenbrough Hoard (discovered in 1985) and paintings by the identical twins Dorothy and Elizabeth Alderson (respectively 1900-1992 and 1900-1987), who were Herbert Mawer’s aunts.

The house is open for group visits by prior arrangement:

Posted by: mike on Oct 24, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, Bavaria

Hohenschwangau (foreground) and Neuschwanstein (background)

Among the tourist highlights of Bavaria are the fascinating castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the former built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria (1811-1864) and both most vividly associated with his son, Ludwig II (1845-1886), who is a most interesting, sad figure.

Hohenschwangau reminded me a great deal of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, whereas the vast, unfinished Neuschwanstein has the dark, dreamy Gothic quality of Pugin’s Alton Towers and Alton Castle, and Burges’ Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch.

Both sit high above the valley – Hohenschwangau beside the lake Alpsee on a prominent hill which is no great problem to surmount by stairs or a circuitous driveway;  Neuschwanstein high up the valley side.

There’s no easy way to Neuschwanstein:  the shuttle bus only runs in the summer;  the horse-drawn carriages are in heavy demand;  the line of least resistance is, paradoxically, to walk.  It took me over half an hour, with regular stops on the way.  Even the wheeled transport gives out well below the castle gatehouse.

Both castles operate a strict timed-ticket admission system, to the nearest five minutes, and there are no compromises for latecomers.  My guide at Hohenschwangau was audible, precise and unhurried.  Neuschwanstein was a very different matter.  When I arrived at the gatehouse there appeared to be a species of riot going on, which turned out to be a large group of Italian teenagers who stood between me and the gents, though not for long.

When we got inside we were herded round in a group of over forty, with a determined lady guide who did surprisingly well in the circumstances.  The traipse through a series of astonishing interiors, intricately decorated like a mad version of the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, is crowded with swans (hence Neuschwanstein – new-swan-stone) at every turn.

There’s little wonder that Ludwig, a seriously damaged personality, brought up by distant parents, conflicted about his sexuality and his Roman Catholicism, introverted and reclusive and addicted to building using his own rather than the state’s financial resources yet drowning in debt, was eventually dethroned by despairing practical politicians.

His mysterious death four days after his deposition secured his place as a national hero. 

Neuschwanstein was opened to the public six weeks after his death, and his castles, ironically, have become a significant source of prosperity to the surrounding district.

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2013

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall Theatre, Nottinghamshire 3

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, Theatre wing

The Stanford Hall estate on the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border has been in limbo ever since the Co-operative College moved out in 2001.  Two developers have successively raised schemes to finance the restoration of the hall and its grounds by constructing houses and apartments in the park, and both have come to nothing.

Its long history is both complex and sensitive – owned by two successive gentry families, a Burton brewer, the eccentric furniture millionaire Sir Julien Cahn and latterly the College.  In particular, Sir Julien’s external additions – various sporting facilities and a fully-equipped private theatre – have been greatly valued by the local community during the years that the College ran the place.

In 2011 the Duke of Westminster bought the Stanford Hall estate as a future base for the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, which supports members of the armed services and civilians as they recover from traumatic injuries.

This work currently takes place at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Epsom, Surrey, but this facility is no longer capable of expansion, though the need continues to grow:  casualties now survive injuries which would have been beyond recovery even ten years ago.

Stanford Hall is considered ideal for this new purpose because of its Midlands location, its tranquil environment and the space for magnificent new facilities which need not overpower the historic landscape.

Members of the local community have expressed concern about the future of the Stanford Hall Theatre, which Sir Julien built in 1937 as a venue for his private conjuring shows.

There’s a potential conflict between the desire of local groups for access to the theatre such as they enjoyed in the days of the Co-operative College and the needs of the Defence and Rehabilitation Centre, which will make active use of the theatre and requires higher levels of security than were ever needed by the College.

The proposed physical alterations to the Theatre, primarily to provide level access for wheelchairs, seem relatively benign:  a wrap-around block will provide much better access to the auditorium, and Sir Julien’s top-floor bedroom suite for his private cricket team will be stripped out to reduce loading on the outer walls.  I can find no mention in the planning application of the bomb shelter beneath the auditorium rake.

The plans don’t appear to stretch to a full restoration of the theatre facilities and the Wurlitzer organ, and this has exercised a consortium of local amateur-dramatic societies:

Let’s hope that the heroes and the thespians can live amicably together.

Posted by: mike on Aug 28, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Renishaw Hall, north front

Of all the eccentrics associated with Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire [see Chatterleys not at home], Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), whose legend was immortalised by his three famous children, Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sir Osbert (1892-1969) and Sir Sacheverell (1897-1988), is my favourite.

He appeared oddly myopic about the roots of his prosperity:  Evelyn Waugh describes him standing on the terrace at Renishaw gesticulating towards Barlborough across the “farms, cottages, villas, the railway, the colliery and the densely teeming streets” and remarking, “You see, there is no-one between us and the Locker Lampsons.”  His children, however, told of sitting in the quiet of a Renishaw evening, listening to a faint tapping below which came from the miners hewing the black wealth beneath their feet.

He had a toothbrush that played ‘Annie Laurie’, and a miniature revolver for shooting wasps.  He considered stencilling blue willow pattern on the white cows in the park, “to give distinction to the landscape”, but found it impractical.  His schemes for estate improvements were never ending.

He had a passion for gardening, and began altering the surroundings of Renishaw in 1887.  He also had a passion for local history, particularly when its minutiae illuminated the distant doings of his remote ancestors.  Sir Osbert said that his father was “adept at taking hold of the wrong end of a thousand sticks”;  John Pearson commented that “much of Sir George’s life was...spent correcting experts”.  He was particularly proud that he “captured a spirit at the headquarters of the Spiritualists, London, 1880”.

He passed on a considerable share of eccentricity to his children, some of it deliberately:  he advised Edith on one occasion that there was “nothing a young man likes so much as a girl who is good on the parallel bars”.  She it was who in her youth at Renishaw once disguised herself as an armchair, covered in a dustsheet, in order to be carried upstairs by her brothers to avoid an aunt.  Sir Osbert described himself as “educated during holidays from Eton”.

Sir George befriended the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and brought him to Renishaw repeatedly:  Sir Reresby Sitwell describes Lutyens’ effect on his grandfather’s plans as “restraint rather than...guidance”.  It was on the Sunday morning of one of these weekend visits that Lutyens asked the butler, “Is Lady Ida down?”

From 1909 onwards Sir George became increasingly preoccupied with the restoration of the castle he purchased at Montegufoni in Tuscany, until eventually in 1925 he moved out there permanently, and handed over Renishaw to his eldest son, Osbert, and his other English estate, Weston Hall, Northamptonshire, to Sacheverell.

His nephew, the late Sir Reresby Sitwell (1927-2009), carried on the tradition of celebrating eccentricity, particularly the manifest oddities of his grandfather.

A guided visit to Renishaw Hall features in the Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014) tour, which is based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Castell Coch:  Drawing Room overmantel

While William Burges was unhurriedly transforming Cardiff Castle for the 3rd Marquess of Bute, the question arose of what to do about the crumbling Castell Coch (the Red Castle), an outlying Bute property in Tongwynlais, north of the city centre.

Presenting William Burges with a medieval ruin inevitably led to a plan to rebuild it.  Presenting the Marquess of Bute with a project to rebuild a castle could have only one outcome.  He opened his cheque-book.

The result is a beguiling Victorian fantasy of medieval life and art, a wealthy magnate’s weekend retreat into a Gothic dream world.

Though the project was compromised by being brought to a conclusion after Burges’ death, it contains some of the finest examples of his design genius, such as Thomas Nicholls’ figures of the three Fates, Clotho spinning the thread of life, Lachesis measuring its length and Atropos with her shears.

Lord Bute’s bedroom is fairly spartan, but a spiral stair leads from it to Lady Bute’s bedroom, a huge vaulted space decorated with symbols of love.

And to ensure privacy, this High Victorian castle was fitted with a fully functioning drawbridge.

Castell Coch is administered by Cadw:

Posted by: mike on Aug 17, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Cardiff Castle:  Animal Wall

John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847-1900), was born with every advantage.  His father, the second Marquess, had tapped the trading wealth of the South Wales coalfield by establishing Cardiff Docks on his ancestral lands from 1822 onwards.  John came into his vast patrimony when he was just over six months old.

Though he was a conscientious Victorian aristocrat and landowner and nurtured his great inheritance, he had time and energy to spare for his fascination with art, architectural and the medieval.

The architect William Burges (1827-1881) was also born with advantages.  His civil-engineer father, who outlived him, provided him with an ample private income, so he could travel extensively and, when he set up his practice, pick and choose his collaborators, and pick and choose his clients.

When the 3rd Marquess of Bute came of age, he called for Bruges to transform the Roman, medieval and eighteenth-century structures that made up Cardiff Castle, first into a bachelor residence which was then extended, after his marriage in 1872, into a palatial residence from which to dominate the port and city growing on the doorstep.

Burges’ capacity for solid, sculptural, dramatic skylines and mysterious, whimsical interiors makes Cardiff Castle a fascinating place.  Every surface is thronged with colour, relief and meaning.  The craftsmanship is of the highest quality.  And the humour is quirky and irreverent, like medieval manuscripts and misericords – a monkey bell-push, a crocodile sitting at the top of a bannister eyeing a baby beneath.

Such was Bruges’ creative power that his team of craftsmen – William Frame (1848-1906), Horatio Walter Lonsdale (1844-1919), the Carrarra-born sculptor Ceccardo Egidio Fucigna (1836-1884) – that after his unexpected death the work carried on for years.  The sculptor Thomas Nicholls (c1825-c1900) completed a typical piece of whimsy, the boundary wall of Cardiff Castle, bristling with escaping animals, designed in 1866 but only executed ten years after Burges’ death.

Cardiff Castle is open to the public:,57&parent_directory_id=1&id=159.

Posted by: mike on Aug 6, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Needle's Eye

The most enigmatic of the Wentworth Monuments is the Needle’s Eye.

It is simply 45ft-high ashlar pyramid penetrated by an ogee arch sitting at the topmost point of a ride that runs in a direct line from the home-park gate to the distant Lion Gate at Rainborough, which was described on a 1778 map as “the coach road from Wentworth House to Pontefract”.

It’s a distinctive eye-catcher with no discernible purpose.

The story universally but vaguely told is that it enabled the second Marquis to win a wager that he could drive a horse and carriage through the eye of a needle, contradicting Matthew 19:23-26 (and also Mark 10:24-25 and Luke 18:24-25).

The date of the wager, 1780, would associate the design with John Carr, who also designed Keppel’s Column (1773-80) and the Rockingham Mausoleum (1784-1788), but it appears on a bird’s-eye view dated 1728, and there is evidence of an “obelisk” on the site as early as 1722-3.

The nearest approach to firm corroboration of this likeable story is an account of the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam driving a gun carriage through the Eye at the time of the Great War.

If he did so he was probably also good at reverse parking.

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 4, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Hoober Stand

Hoober Stand is an intriguing building, whichever way you look at it.

It’s triangular in plan, pyramidal in profile, with a cupola at the top which always looks off-centre, though in fact it isn’t.

It ostensibly celebrates the victory of King George II at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, while also marking the elevation of the Thomas Watson-Wentworth, 1st Earl of Malton, to the superior title of 1st Marquis of Rockingham.

It was designed by Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington’s Harry”, the super-conventional Palladian designer of the east wing of Wentworth Woodhouse,– here allowed to go a little crazy at the crest of a hill to provide a grandstand view of the mansion and the park of Wentworth Woodhouse,

Like the later Rockingham Mausoleum, it is maintained the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust and opened to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer:

98 feet high, it has 150 steps to the platform.  The view is spectacular.

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 2, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Rockingham Mausoleum

Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, who built Keppel’s Column, died unexpectedly in 1782, a few months after he became prime minister for the second time.

His nephew and heir, the 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, erected a great monument to him within sight of the front door of the mansion.

Designed, like Keppel’s Column and much else on the estate, by John Carr of York, the Rockingham Mausoleum isn't actually a mausoleum.

Rockingham is buried in York Minster, so this memorial to the prime minister is in fact a cenotaph.

The three-stage structure contains a fine statue of the Marquis in his Garter robes by Joseph Nollekens, surrounded by niches containing busts of his political allies – Edmund Burke, Lord John Cavendish, Charles James Fox, Admiral Keppel, John Lee, Frederick Montagu, the 3rd Duke of Portland and Sir George Saville.

After years encased in steel to protect it from post-war mining, the Rockingham Mausoleum is now maintained the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust and opened to the public on Sunday afternoons in the summer:

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 31, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Monuments:  Keppel's Column

The landscapes around the two great Strafford mansions of Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle are dotted with towers, columns, obelisks and other structures, making statements about status and politics.

When I take people to explore the Wentworth Woodhouse estate I like to begin at Keppel’s Column, the column on the horizon marking the southern boundary of the estate.  From there you can see the mansion and all the most significant monuments dotted around the miles of parkland.

It was erected by Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham to celebrate the acquittal of his friend, Admiral Viscount Keppel, who had been court-martialled for losing a naval engagement against the French.

Rockingham was at the time leader of the opposition between his two terms as prime minister, and made a point of celebrating Keppel’s political victory over the Tory court party of George III.

The column is not as the architect John Carr would have wished.  It was intended to be a 150ft rostral column (with ships’ prows projecting) surmounted by a 30ft-high statue of the admiral.

During construction the height was reduced to 115ft, which made the proportions unsatisfactory:  the entasis – the bulge which is necessary to make any classical column appear straight-sided – changes uncomfortably part way up.

There is a spiral staircase to the platform at the top of the Column, at present unsafe and inaccessible.  Keppel’s Column is now maintained by Rotherham Borough Council.

There are recent photographs of the view from the top – taken from a cherry-picker when the structure was last inspected.

None of these seem to have found their way on to the web, but Kenny Fox has a fine aerial view:

The tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, includes visits to all the major Wentworth Monuments and a Connoiseur's tour of Wentworth Woodhouse.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 15, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Grimsthorpe Castle:  north front

It’s curious how the flat lands of Lincolnshire produce architectural surprises.  Tattershall Castle can be seen from miles away, but Grimsthorpe Castle, though it’s visible from the main road, is a sudden revelation.

The show front is unmistakably the work of Sir John Vanburgh, the architect of Castle Howard (1699-1726), Blenheim Palace (1705 onwards) and Seaton Delaval Hall (c1720-8).

Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus Volume III (1725) shows three elevations, dated 1722, respectively for the north, south and west or east sides of the house.  These façades were intended to mask rather than entirely replace the earlier fabric behind, as at Vanburgh’s Kimbolton Castle, Huntingdonshire (1707-9).

Vanburgh was commissioned by the first Duke of Ancaster who died in August 1723, but Vanburgh was almost immediately summoned by his son, Peregrine, 2nd Duke, to begin construction which was under way before Vanburgh’s death in 1726.

Once the north front and forecourt were completed, possibly under the supervision of Nicholas Hawksmoor, around 1730 the project abruptly stopped.

Walking round the four sides of this huge courtyard house shows that it is in fact a palimpsest:  though the facades were tidied up in 1811, it’s obvious that the fabric grew over centuries:  the earliest identifiable fragment dates from the twelfth century.

It’s one of the English country houses that developed in interesting ways during the twentieth century.

When Gilbert, 2nd Earl of Ancaster, inherited Grimsthorpe Castle in 1910, he and his American wife, Eloise, brought in the architects Detmar Blow and Fernand Billerey and the decorators Lenygon & Company to modernise the house and built a service wing in the courtyard.

After wartime military occupation, the estates and titles passed in 1951 to the 2nd Earl’s son, James, 3rd Earl of Ancaster and 27th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, who with his countess, Phyllis Astor, employed the architect R J Page and the decorator John Fowler to alter and improve the house, replacing the Edwardian service block with a single-storey kitchen range and turning the riding school into a garage.

Now Grimsthorpe Castle belongs to the third Earl’s daughter, Jane Marie Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby.

It’s one of the finest country-house experiences for miles around.  It deserves a whole day:  there’s plenty to see, do, eat and drink.

Of all the entertainments on offer at Grimsthorpe, the ranger-led Park Tour by minibus is particularly good value:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 9, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Cannon Hall, South Yorkshire

Visiting Cannon Hall, at Cawthorne near Barnsley, is a game of two halves.

The extensive park, which includes a farm and a garden centre, is a magnet for visitors.  The house, which was the seat of the Spencer-Stanhope family until 1951, opened as Barnsley’s municipal museum six years later.

Barnsley Borough Council acquired a completely empty house:  the contents have been collected since 1957 and so the visitor sees an elegant eighteenth-century house, substantially as it was designed by John Carr of York, with a late-Victorian ballroom wing added, and elegant eighteenth-century furniture that doesn’t necessarily belong.

That needn’t detract from the enjoyment of the place.  It’s not a house-that-time-forgot, like nearby Brodsworth Hall, nor is it a fully displayed glass-case museum like the Doncaster museum at Cusworth Hall.

The best way to enjoy the country-house aspects of this particular country house is to join a guided tour, when curatorial staff can explain and explore the furniture and bring to life the lifestyle of the family of Walter Stanhope (1750-1821), who commissioned Carr, the plasterer James Henderson of York, and “the most eminent Cabinet Makers” whose original items have long since been scattered.

The other historical interest of Cannon Hall lies in the family associations with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The younger son of Walter Spencer-Stanhope’s heir John Spencer-Stanhope (1787-1873) was the artist John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (1829-1908).  A dreamy video of his work can be seen at

Two of Roddam’s nieces were Gertrude Spencer-Stanhope (1857-1944) and Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919).  Three of Gertrude’s bronze sculptures belong to the Cannon Hall collection.

Many of Evelyn’s paintings belong to the De Morgan Foundation, a collection gathered by Evelyn’s sister Wilhelmina, the formidable Mrs A M W Stirling (1865-1965).  The De Morgan Centre is housed adjacent to Wandsworth Museum:

A guided tour of the domestic rooms at Cannon Hall is intended as one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield, though the exact timing of the visit doesn't yet feature in the tour-outline.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 25, 2013

Category:Country HousesBirmingham's Heritage

Soho House, Birmingham

Soho House, Birmingham

The poet Robert Southey declared in 1807, “Probably in no other age or country was there ever such an astonishing display of human ingenuity as may be found in Birmingham.”

If any one location within the city epitomises this display of ingenuity it is three stops up the Metro tram-route from Snow Hill, where stood the Soho Manufactory, an integrated workshop, powered at first by water:

This was the work-base of a manufacturing genius, Matthew Boulton (1728-1908), initially a “toy” manufacturer, producing not playthings but miscellaneous small metal articles ranging from buttons and buckles to high-quality decorative products in steel, ormolu, Sheffield plate and precious metals.

Boulton is best remembered for his partnership with the Scottish inventor, James Watt, because between them they made possible the production and sale of stationary steam-engines for use in mines and mills.  As Boulton explained to James Boswell, “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER.”

The steam engines were eventually prefabricated at the Soho Foundry, opened in 1796, while Boulton developed the Soho Mint (1788) to manufacture coinage resistant to counterfeiting.

He was also primarily responsible for establishing the Birmingham Assay Office (1773), the New Street Theatre (1774) and the town's first hospital and dispensary.

He lived in elegant surroundings at Soho House (Samuel Wyatt 1766), a building full of surprises.

The exterior is not stone, but slate cladding covered with sand-dredged paint.  The glazing bars, some of which survive, were of “Eldorado”, an experimental metal supplied by James Keir, a Lunar Society member.

Boulton installed a practical steam-heated indoor bathroom and was supplied with a Bramah patent water closet in 1787. Evidence of the warm-air circulating central-heating system, installed c1810, can still be seen in the cellars, on the stairs and in one of the upstairs rooms.

Though the parkland surrounding Soho House has long since been built on, the main block of the house survives and is beautifully restored:

Its interpretation makes it easy to recreate the exciting, welcoming atmosphere of the eighteenth-century equivalent of Silicon Valley.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Birmingham's Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's Birmingham's Heritage lecture, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 21, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Woodhouse, west wing

Wentworth Woodhouse, west wing

I wrote about the rivalry between the descendants of the 2nd Earl of Strafford that littered eighteenth-century South Yorkshire with mansions, temples, obelisks and columns in an article about Wentworth Castle, 'Keeping up with the Wentworths'.

The race to amass the most and best titles and houses was ultimately won by Thomas Watson-Wentworth (1693-1750) who became Baron Malton (1726), 1st Earl of Malton (1734) and then 1st Marquis of Rockingham (1746), and built not one but two magnificent houses, consecutively, back-to-back.

He began what is now the west wing of Wentworth Woodhouse, a fine but not entirely symmetrical baroque house in brick, in 1726.

The gentleman-architect, Sir Thomas Robinson, disciple of the pioneer of the Palladian style, Lord Burlington, thought little of it:  “...partly patchwork of the old house...little can be said in its praise...”

Even before this brick house was finished in 1734, Lord Malton turned his back on it and began the vast east wing, designed by Henry Flitcroft, “Burlington’s Harry.”

A plan dated 1725 proves that an east wing was always intended, but Flitcroft’s beautifully proportioned design was a gigantic version of the long-gone Wanstead House in Essex, stretched to 606 feet.

By this means Wentworth Woodhouse became the largest and grandest semi-detached house in Britain.

After the Second World War this vast place became impossible to maintain, especially when the Minister of Power, Emmanuel Shimwell, insisted on bringing opencast coal mining to within sixteen feet of the west wing.  The 8th Earl Fitzwilliam’s aunt, the Labour councillor Lady Mabel Smith, arranged for the East Wing to be leased to West Riding County Council as a teacher-training college.

After the death of the tenth and last Earl in 1979 and the closure of the college some years later the two houses were reunited and now belong to Mr Clifford Newbold who is gradually restoring the buildings and grounds.

At last it’s possible to visit Wentworth Woodhouse, and to marvel at the way it’s being brought back from the brink.

And wherever you step from the East Wing to the West Wing and back again, there are always a couple of steps, because the two parts of the house are on different levels.

The Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse will form the finale of the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 21, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Alton Castle

Photo:  Maureen Mannion

When you drive down the hill from the entrance to Alton Towers, into the steep valley of the River Churnet, you see on the opposite cliff the gaunt outline of Alton Castle, built by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for Charles, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.

Quite why Lord Shrewsbury wanted a Bavarian-style mock castle on top of the twelfth- and fifteenth-century remains of the original Alton Castle is unclear.

He might have wanted a more compact retreat from the extravagant splendours of Alton Towers.  He could have intended it as a dower house for his mother.

He was a major patron of the Catholic Church, a great deal more pious than his predecessor, and the unfinished castle includes a spectacularly tall, narrow, unexpectedly tiny private chapel.

Lord Shrewsbury also had Pugin design a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which became known as Alton Hospital (in the original sense of a home, rather than a medical facility).

Pugin took against the Earl’s suggestion that the hospital might look like a castle:

I implore and entreat your Lordship, if you do not wish to see me sink with misery, to withdraw that dreadful idea about the alteration to the hospital.  I would sooner jump off the rocks than build a castellated residence for priests.  I have been really ill since I read the letter...for heaven’s sake, my dear Lord Shrewsbury, abandon this suggestion which must be a device of the Devil to spoil so fair a design.

There wasn’t a lot of point in arguing with Pugin.  The Earl rarely constrained the great architect's genius with a budget, and the result – though not fully complete – is an exquisite complex of Victorian Gothic buildings by the greatest architect of the day, working for one of the most generous patrons.

Alton Castle was used by the Sisters of Mercy for a prep school from 1919 to 1989.  It stood empty until 1996 when the Archdiocese of Birmingham put it to good use as a retreat centre run for, and largely by, young people:

Posted by: mike on Apr 19, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Alton Towers ruins (1977)

Alton Towers ruins (1977)

Individual adult visitors to the Alton Towers theme-park currently pay £46.20 for a thrilling day out:

It’s a pity that there isn’t a way of enjoying the place for its own sake at any reasonable price.

Alton Towers was one of the greatest of all British country estates.  The gardens were developed on an unpromising valley site by Charles, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury (1753-1827), who adapted a lodge into an increasingly grand residence which he spuriously named Alton Abbey.

The writer Christopher Hussey described it as “...the last achievement in England, and on the grand scale, of the Georgian passion for creating private elysiums, which produced Stowe, Stourhead and their derivative landscape parks in the eighteenth century.”

His nephew and heir, John, 16th Earl (1791-1852) carried on his work, and after a fire at his main house at Heythrop, Oxfordshire, he relocated to Alton after 1831.  He was a champion of the Catholic Revival, and the principal patron of the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who contributed, among much else, the Banqueting Hall and Chapel of the vast house.

His heir Bertram, 17th Earl (1832-1856) was his second cousin once removed.  After his early death the title was disputed between Bertram’s designated Catholic heir and a Protestant descendant of the Jacobean 7th Earl.

As a result the entire contents of the house were sold in a forty-day auction.  When the Protestant Henry, 18th Earl (1803-1868) took possession, a quarter-mile-long procession of tenants and yeomanry welcomed his train at Uttoxeter station.  The incident figures in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870).

The eighteenth Earl refurnished the house, but it was never as splendid again.  Henry’s grandson, Charles, 20th Earl (1860-1921), caused a great scandal by running off with Ellen Miller-Mundy, the wife of a Derbyshire coal-owner, in 1881.

They eventually separated, and she lived at Alton Towers, which he neglected in the hope of driving her away.

This, rather than wartime neglect, started the physical decline of the building, which was sold with the estate in 1924.

Between the wars it was a highly successful and entirely decorous entertainment centre.  The Coronation Street actor William Roache discovered that his enterprising grandmother, Zillah Waddicor, ran the catering operation there, providing lunches for up to a thousand covers at once:

From 1973 onwards John Broome, son-in-law of the majority shareholder Denis Bagshaw, began to develop the spare land away from the house and garden as an adventure theme park, which was taken over by the Tussauds Group in 1990.

As a business it’s clearly never looked back, and provides entertainment to millions.  But it’s a pity you can’t spend a day exploring the house-ruins and the gardens for less than a year’s subscription to the National Trust.

Posted by: mike on Feb 18, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall, near Halifax, is one of those black-and-white country houses that was spruced up in the early nineteenth century:  Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) vigorously modernised the place after she inherited it from her uncle in 1826.

Anne Lister’s remarkable diaries have been edited by Helen Whitbread.  The paperback edition of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (1791-1840) (1988;  Virago 2002) bears the strap-line, “the Dead Sea Scrolls of lesbian history”.

Anne Lister recognised her unequivocal attraction to her own sex at an early age, and determinedly lived her life according to her inclinations, flirting, taking lovers and eventually finding a life partner.

In her voluminous journal she recorded everyday events in what she called “plainhand”;  about a sixth of the four million words are encrypted (her “crypthand”) so that she could write frankly and securely about her emotions and passions for future reflection.

After her unexpected death during a journey to Russia, the diaries remained at Shibden Hall.  Anne’s ultimate heir, John Lister, and his antiquarian friend Arthur Burrell deciphered the crypthand code towards the end of the nineteenth century.

They were so shocked by the content that Burrell proposed to burn the lot.  John Lister, who apparently had secrets of his own to conceal, simply hid them behind the panelling in the Hall.

When Halifax Corporation took over the Shibden estate in 1933, the town clerk enquired about Anne Lister’s diaries and Arthur Burrell delicately suggested “someone...should be, so to speak, armed with a knowledge of what the cipher contains”.  The most suitable person, it was decided, would be the borough librarian.

So the diaries remained under lock and key for decades.  In the 1950s, two female researchers explored the crypthand passages:  one described them as “excruciatingly tedious to the modern mind... and of no historical interest whatsoever”;  the other reticently remarked that the coded content was essential to understanding Anne and her lifestyle.

In an increasingly enlightened social climate, from the 1980s onwards, Helen Whitbread systematically researched Anne’s life and journals and brought them at last to public attention.

Here is a militantly individual landed lady, known to her intimates as “Fred” and to the unfazed locals as “Gentleman Jack”, striving with difficulty and increasing success to be true to her nature.

At one point she contracts a venereal complaint indirectly from her lover’s husband, and takes a surreptitiously acquired prescription to the local pharmacist, Mr Suter.  She enquires if he is ever asked for this particular prescription and he replies, “Yes, very frequently.”

Clearly there was a great deal of private activity in Halifax in the 1820s, as there is everywhere, all the time.  We know a good deal more about it, thanks to Anne Lister and Helen Whitbread, than several generations of Halifax’s male spinsters would have dared reveal.

Visitor information about Shibden Hall is at

Posted by: mike on Feb 15, 2013

Category:Country HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Little Moreton Hall Long Gallery

Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, built in stages from c1450 onwards, epitomises for many the black-and-white timbered architecture of north-west England.  Its curious bay-windows, crowding each other in a corner of the courtyard, and the famous view of its gatehouse, tottering over the moat, make it one of the most memorable Elizabethan manor houses.

The final stage, the long gallery over the gatehouse, is almost certainly an afterthought, probably built in the 1570s by John Moreton.  It defies logic, gravity and time.  Indeed, an architectural model inside the building shows where judiciously hidden modern steel joists hold it rigid.

The Elizabethans were fascinated by height in houses, and many owners built galleries and belvederes so they and their guests could take indoor exercise while admiring the gardens and the distant views from above.

Present-day visitors can still pace back and forth between two plaster reliefs, taken from Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (1556), reminding them of “The Sp[h]eare of Destinye whose Rule is Knowledge” and, on the other hand, “The Wheele of Fortune whose Rule is Ignorance”.

Not many people realise, though, that Robert Recorde was the Welsh mathematician who first introduced, in his The Whetstone of Witte (1557), the equals sign =.

If you visit Little Moreton Hall you can astonish your companions with that little-known fact as you breeze up and down the long gallery, and if they’re not suitably impressed, add that Robert Recorde also contrived the word “zenzizenzizenzic” to represent the eighth power of a number.

Where would we be without Wikipedia?

Visitor details for Little Moreton Hall are at

Posted by: mike on Feb 13, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Burton Agnes Hall

I never tire of visiting Burton Agnes Hall in North Yorkshire.  It has so much to offer the visitor.

It’s one of the most beautiful of Jacobean country houses, in warm brick with distinctive round “compass bays”, with extraordinarily fine wood panelling, fireplaces and a magnificent staircase. 

The history of the place goes back a long way.

In the grounds, behind a seventeenth-century façade, are the standing remains of the original Norman manor house.

The Jacobean house was built by Sir Henry Boynton after he was appointed to the Council of the North in 1599.

His daughter Anne was attacked nearby and subsequently died of her injuries.  She asked her sisters to make sure that after her death her skull should kept within the house saying that “if my desire be not fulfilled, my spirit shall, if it be permitted, render the house uninhabitable for human beings”.

Initially, her corpse was buried intact in the churchyard, but the supernatural ructions were such that, in consultation with the vicar, the sisters had the grave reopened and the skull brought within, upon which peace was restored.

Subsequent attempts to remove the skull from the premises – in one instance by burying it in the garden – always led to terrifying consequences until eventually the skull was interred within the walls.  Anne, and Burton Agnes, now rest in peace.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton, who owed Burton Agnes Hall between 1947 and 1989, resolved when he inherited to live “quietly, but not too quietly”, and spent his life modernising and beautifying the house and its gardens.

With the Yorkshire architect, Francis Johnson, he brought in panelling and fireplaces from neglected and unwanted houses and restored the long gallery, which had been divided into bedrooms and a store.

Marcus Wickham-Boynton was an astute art collector, bringing to Burton Agnes an impressive array of English and French paintings by such artists as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gaugin, Duncan Grant, Augustus John, Edward Lear, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Walter Sickert and Maurice Utrillo, alongside two impressive bronze busts by Sir Jacob Epstein.

His heir has added further items that are displayed in the Long Gallery, such as a tapestry by Kaffe Fassett and furniture by John Makepeace including the Millennium collection, ‘Tuscan Obelisk’, ‘Spiral’ and ‘Coppice’.

Visitor information for Burton Agnes Hall is at

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Feb 11, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Hardwick New Hall

You would not mess with Bess of Hardwick.  Her descendant, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, described her as “hideous, dry, parched, narrow minded, but my prudent, amassing, calculating buildress and progenitrix” and Edmund Lodge, an eighteenth-century historian, characterised her as “...a woman of masculine understanding and conduct, proud, furious, selfish, and unfeeling”.

Like her monarch, Queen Elizabeth, she was adept at the epistolary put-down from which there is no recovery.  She told Sir Thomas Stanhope, with whom she was clearly displeased:

Tho you be more wretched, vile and miserable than any creature living, & for your wickedness become more ugly in shape than the vilest toade in the worlde and one to whom none of reputation would vouchsafe to send any message, yet she hath thought good to send this much unto you:  that she can be contented you should live, and doth no wayes wish your death, but to this end that all the plagues and miseries that may befall any man may light on such a caitiff as you are.

She outlived four husbands, each of whom enriched her.  By her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, she was the direct ancestor of two great dukedoms, Devonshire and Newcastle, and indirectly a third, Portland.

She bought the estate of her yeoman father from her debt-ridden older brother and extended the manor house in which she was born into a splendid hill-top tower-house, Hardwick Old Hall.

No sooner had her fourth and final husband, George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, expired in 1590 than she began work on one of the most adventurous of all Elizabethan houses, Hardwick New Hall, the finest work of the architect Robert Smythson.  She moved into the New Hall in October 1597 and there she died on February 13th 1608.

Built almost entirely from the materials of her extensive estates, exuberantly exhibitionist and famously “more glass than wall”, its most audacious motif is the series of strapwork parapets around the turrets, emblazoned with her initials ES (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and her coronet.

Several of the turrets served as banqueting houses, for the serving of desserts in the open air on summer evenings.

When, in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, Capulet urges his guests to stay longer, he tells them, “We have a trifling, foolish banquet toward.”  In the Elizabethan way, he was giving them the menu in a witty conceit.

Hardwick Old Hall is in the care of English Heritage:  Hardwick New Hall and the surrounding gardens and park are maintained by the National Trust, who are extremely proud of their new visitor centre:  Both buildings are visible from the Derbyshire stretch of the M1 motorway, between junctions 28 and 29.

Posted by: mike on Feb 9, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Barlborough Hall

Barlborough Hall, on the borders of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, is one of a number of country houses which Mark Girouard ascribes to the architect Robert Smythson.

It has all the Smythson trademarks of Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall – symmetry, height, lots of glass – and it was built (c1583-4) for Francis Rodes, an ambitious lawyer, staunch Protestant and associate of George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, the fourth and last husband of Bess of Hardwick.

It’s ironic that Rodes’ house is now a Catholic prep-school, and Mass is celebrated in his drawing room.

I was very surprised to be told, on a recent guided tour of Barlborough, that there’s a priest’s hole in the building.

Why, I asked, in a Protestant house?

Because, the guide replied, Francis Rodes’ wife was a Catholic.

I’ve not checked this further, but if it’s so it must have been an odd marriage.

Barlborough Hall is a preparatory school and as such is not open to visitors:  However, the Barlborough Heritage Centre [] welcomes visitors.

Posted by: mike on Feb 7, 2013

Category:Country Houses

Wollaton Hall

I once took a friend who was reading for a town-planning degree to see Wollaton Hall, on the outskirts of Nottingham.

I told him it wouldn’t get planning permission now.

The crazy silhouette, high on the hill above the old village, was designed for Sir Francis Willoughby and “built with rare art” by Robert Smythson, the first man in England ever to call himself an architect.

It’s an Elizabethan progidy-house, defying logic and gravity to hoist an enormous prospect-room high above the great hall of a house that in addition had two long galleries.

The Prospect Room is amazing, both from outside and within its empty, extravagant space.  It lacks a fireplace and has only the narrowest of staircases for access.  It can never have been intended for any purpose other than looking down on the surrounding countryside.

Later generations of Willoughbys never seemed to know what to do with it:  at one point it was used as a servants’ dormitory, called – after the custom – “Bedlam”, but the noise disturbed the whole house below.

It seems likely that Sir Francis, part way through the building-period, took it into his head to urge Smythson to build higher.

The ‘Chinese lattice’ joists supporting the Great Hall ceiling would have been adequate to support a lead roof, but have proved too weak to carry the weight of the tower above:  even in the late seventeenth century external buttresses were added at clerestory level to stabilise the structure.

Wollaton Hall is a fascinating, improbable place that has astonished visitors from the day it was built.

Indeed, it’s a wonder it’s still standing.

Wollaton Hall is open to the public, together with the Nottingham Industrial Museum in the adjacent stables:

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Kedleston Hall Chatterton statue

On the way from the house to the lavatories at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire there is a disconcerting moment when one comes upon a recumbent marble figure at the base of the garden wall.  It appears that an eighteenth-century gent has fallen from the top of the wall and expired.

In fact, the statue is a reproduction of Henry Wallis’ painting ‘The Death of Chatterton’, which hangs in Tate Britain.

Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) was the sad, unregarded poet who passed off his work as “The Rowlie Poems”, the rediscovered work of a fifteenth-century monk.

He was found dead of arsenic poisoning in his London attic at the age of seventeen.

Horace Walpole took against what he saw as a literary fraud, but Keats dedicated his ‘Endymion’ to Chatterton’s memory, and Wordsworth thought well enough of his talent to describe him as “the marvellous boy”.

How his statue came to Kedleston – or who sculpted it – remains obscure.  Apparently Lady Ottilie Scarsdale, wife of the second viscount, found it in pieces in the yard of a monumental mason, and bought it.

I admire her wit in positioning it where it startles passers-by.  It’s something to chat about.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see

Posted by: mike on Sep 19, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Kedleston Hall royal bathroom

When my friend Jenny and I visited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, I was disappointed not to be able to show her the royal bathroom.

The early twentieth-century owner of Kedleston, the Viceroy Lord Curzon [see Love Match] was ambitious to entertain King George V and Queen Mary, and in anticipation had an en-suite bathroom discreetly added to the State Bedroom.

I had the opportunity to photograph this some years ago, but the room stewards assured us, with regret, that it’s not usually shown to the public.

Apparently there’s a second modern (that is, early twentieth-century) bathroom, which I haven’t seen, nearby.

As consolation, Jenny and I were allowed to see the po-cupboard next to the dining room.  This common, convenient feature of grand dining was for the use of gentlemen after the ladies had retired to the drawing room.

It saved a long trek in white tie and tails.

I duly photographed the po-cupboard, but the royal bathroom is far finer.

For visitor information about Kedleston Hall see

Posted by: mike on Sep 17, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Kedleston Church Monument to Lord & Lady Curzon

Nestling against the cool classical pile of Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire is the far older medieval parish church of the long-vanished village of Kedleston.  The north aisle of the church is an early-twentieth century Gothic memorial to a great love match.

George Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Marquis and Earl Curzon, Viceroy of India (1859-1925), famously the “superior person” of an undergraduate ditty, like a number of his contemporaries married the daughter of an American millionaire.

Mary Victoria Leiter’s father was a co-founder of what became the Chicago-based Marshall Field department-store empire.  Her wit, charm and elegance was legendary.  The breaktaking peacock coronation gown, by Worth of Paris, which she wore as Vicereine at the Delhi Durbar in 1902 is on display within Kedleston Hall.

Perhaps the only sadness about their relationship was her inability to produce an heir, and the medical complications following a miscarriage destroyed her health.  She died in her husband’s arms on July 18th 1906.

Curzon commissioned the Gothic Revival architect George Frederick Bodley to design the memorial chapel at Kedleston, and employed the Australian sculptor Bertram Mackennal to carve her effigy in 1913.  Mackennal, by then Sir Bertram, ultimately provided an effigy of Lord Curzon which was installed in 1931.

Lord Curzon’s second wife, who has no obvious memorial at Kedleston, was Grace Elvina Duggan, a rich American widow aged 38 at the time of their marriage in 1917.  Though she had three children from her first marriage she did not provide a Curzon heir, and the marriage deteriorated into a separation.

The finest monument to Grace Curzon is not at Kedleston.  She was the subject of John Singer Sargent’s final portrait in oils, now in the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire,_Marchioness_Curzon_of_Kedleston.jpg.

Posted by: mike on Aug 27, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Duncombe Park Terrace

You can spend an enjoyable day in North Yorkshire pretending to be an eighteenth-century aristocrat lording it over the landscape.

Visit (in either order) Duncombe Park [] and Rievaulx Terrace [].

In the grounds of Duncombe Park, stretching along Ryedale towards Rievaulx Abbey, are a series of artificial high-level terraces.

Duncombe Terrace is significant because it’s one of the first such features to ignore formal geometry and follow the contour.

It’s punctuated by two temples dating from around 1730, an Ionic rotunda which closely resembles Vanburgh’s Rotondo at Stowe (1721), and a circular Doric temple.

The terraces at Rievaulx are rather later, dating from about 1758.  The pattern is the same, with a temple at either end, and the Rievaulx temples follow the same classical orders as their companions at Duncombe, but in this case a circular Doric Temple is paired with a rectangular Ionic Temple.

Both are spectacularly expensive ways of giving guests somewhere to stroll, and apart from the landmark temples, each provides dramatic vistas:  the Duncombe terrace looks across to Helmsley Castle, while the walk at Rievaulx provides a whole series of views, cut through the trees, to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in the valley below.

The two sets of terraces are some three miles apart, and it’s probable that they were meant to connect by means of a scenic ride.  Large worked stones found in the intervening river-bed could have been the basis for a viaduct.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s comment [The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The North Riding (Penguin 1966)] on Rievaulx Terrace sums up the breathtaking assurance of the eighteenth-century handling of natural and man-made beauty:

The whole a superlative example of large-scale landscape gardening and of that unquestioning sense of being on top of the world which the rich and the noble in England possessed throughout the Georgian period.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Aug 25, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Duncombe Park House

After decades of talk of “the destruction of the English country house” it’s refreshing to find more and more houses that were given over to institutional use have been restored as homes in the past twenty years.

One such is Duncombe Park House, North Yorkshire, (1713) designed by the gentleman-architect William Wakefield, possibly with assistance from Sir John Vanburgh, who was at the time coming to the end of his work at Castle Howard.

It’s a house that has survived a succession of crises.

All but the shell of Duncombe Park was destroyed by fire on a snowy night, January 11th 1879.  The parish magazine describes how the maids woke to the sounds of crackling and extremely hot carpets.  The water-supply to the house had been turned off to prevent frozen pipes, so the main block burnt to a shell although all of the family, guests and servants and – after desperate efforts – many of the contents were saved.

Work on rebuilding the main house stopped when the heir, Viscount Helmsley, died unexpectedly in 1881, leaving a two-year-old son to inherit from his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Feversham.

When rebuilding resumed in 1891, the architect William Young based his plans on the original design and some surviving fabric, but with an additional bay projecting the east front further into the garden.  He also made the original round-headed windows square, and reduced the interior size of the entrance hall, converting the design of its plaster ceiling from an oblong to a forty-foot square.

In 1894 a further fire destroyed furniture, tapestries and £6,000-worth of jewellery that had escaped the 1879 fire.  The damage was quickly restored, with the addition of a chapel by Temple Moore, in 1895.

When the second earl, grandson of the first, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, a year after inheriting the title, his son took the title at the age of ten, inheriting an estate encumbered with two sets of death duties in rapid succession.

Duncombe Park House was let to the Woodard Foundation and opened as Queen Mary’s Girls’ School in 1926.  The third earl throughout his life lived at Nawton Tower elsewhere on the estate.

At his death in 1963 the earldom died out but the older barony passed to his fourth cousin, the 6th Lord Feversham, at the age of eighteen.  It now belongs to his son, the 7th Lord.

The school’s lease did not cover repairs, and Lord Feversham was not prepared to allow modern buildings to be added, so when a break-lease fell due in 1986 Lord and Lady Feversham chose to reclaim the house, and the school removed to Baldersby Park near Thirsk – another fine early-eighteenth century house, though much altered, by Colen Campbell.

The restoration of Duncombe Park was carried out by Martin Stancliffe to such a standard that it’s difficult to visualise that the place was for sixty years a thriving, though apparently well-disciplined boarding school.

It’s a shame that it’s no longer possible for the general public to tour the house at Duncombe Park, though the gardens remain open:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 4, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Dobroyd Castle

Dobroyd Castle (2007)

The Pennine border-town of Todmorden is founded on the acumen and discipline of the Fielden family, and particularly “Honest John” Fielden (1784-1849).  The son of a clothier, he built up the Fielden Brothers’ cotton-spinning business and pursued an energetic political career as MP for Oldham alongside William Cobbett.  As a successful millowner, he argued a powerful case for an eight-hour day, saying that shorter working days would equally benefit factory-owners and workers by restricting production and thereby increasing prices and wages.

He also founded the first Unitarian church in Todmorden, and served as its Sunday School superintendent, exerting a “severe and wholesome discipline”.

He handed on the business, first to his brother Thomas (1790-1869), and then to his three sons, Samuel (1816-1889), John (1822-1893) and Joshua Fielden (1827-1887). 

Fielden Brothers became an extremely powerful business, employing at its peak two thousand workers with, in addition to the Todmorden mills, trading offices in Manchester, Liverpool, London and New York.  In the period 1850-65 it generated net profits of around £1.2 million.  During the cotton famine of 1861-5, Fieldens paid half wages to their unemployed workers for road-building and other public works.

Of the three, Joshua was the most prominent.  He became a Conservative MP, retired from the business in 1869 and bought Nutfield Park, Surrey.  There and on his yacht, Zingara, he lived an opulent lifestyle, particularly after giving up his parliamentary seat in 1880.  He died at Cannes, and was brought back to Todmorden for burial:  despite his expensive tastes he left an estate of half a million pounds.

John Jnr lived a quite different lifestyle.  He chose as his wife a mill-girl called Ruth, for whom he built Dobroyd Castle, designed by John Gibson and completed in 1869 at a cost of £71,589.  This sombre, domineering pile on a hill high above the town remained in family ownership until 1942, when it became a Home Office approved school for boys and later an independent boarding school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

In 1995 it was purchased for £320,000 by the New Kadampa Buddhist Tradition and opened as the Losang Dragpa Centre for meditational retreats.  The Buddhists peremptorily moved out in August 2007, and the Castle reopened as an outdoor pursuits centre, operated by Robinwood Activity Centres [], in March 2009.

Dobroyd Castle is not open to the public.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2012 Yorkshire Mills & Mill Towns tour, with text, photographs and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 14, 2012

Category:Taking the Waters: the history of spas & hydrosLife-enhancing experiencesThe Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

Buxton Old Hall Hotel

When I lectured to the Cavendish Decorative & Fine Arts Society in Buxton [], I was taken for an enjoyable lunch to the Old Hall Hotel [], where the food was as excellent as the service was leisurely.  I chose wild boar burger which, to be honest, tasted much like any other hand-made burger – very good indeed.

The Old Hall is at the heart of historic Buxton.  It stands on the site of the Roman bath and medieval holy well, and was constructed as a typical Midland four-storey high house [compare with North Lees Hall, Hathersage] by George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury who recovered from an attack of gout after trying the “baynes of Buckstones” in 1569.  It had a battlemented roof and contained a great chamber and lodgings for up to thirty guests.

Here he entertained most of the greatest names in Elizabethan politics – Lord Burghley (1575), Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (five times between 1576 and 1584) and his older brother Ambrose, Earl of Warwick (1577).  Queen Elizabeth herself never travelled this far north, but did receive a delivery of Buxton water, which gave her no benefit:  it was said not to travel well.

Lord Shrewsbury was the fourth husband of the formidable Bess of Hardwick and the custodian of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here nine times between 1573 and 1584.  Caught between his domineering wife, the duplicitous Scottish queen and the volatile English one, he lived an unenviable life [See Des Res].

Buxton Old Hall was substantially rebuilt in 1670 and again in the late eighteenth century, but its core survives within the present-day hotel, as becomes obvious when you move from room to room through thick walls and odd doorways.

Celia Fiennes hated it when she visited in 1697:  

Its the largest house in the place tho’ not very good... the beer they allow at the meales is so bad that very little can be dranke...if you have not Company enough of your own to fill a room they will be ready to put others into the same chamber, and sometymes they are so crowded that three must lye in a bed;  few people stay above two or three nights its so inconvenient:  we staid two nights by reason one of our Company was ill but it was sore against our wills, for there is no peace or quiet...

Needless to say, it’s much improved over the past three hundred-odd years.  They take their time over the boar burgers, and the result is worth waiting for.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture, Taking the waters:  the history of spas and hydros, please click here.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Derbyshire-based Taking the Waters:  the history of spas & hydros tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 18, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Castle Howard Mausoleum

Horace Walpole, a man not easily impressed, was bowled over by Castle Howard:

Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive;  in short, I have seen gigantic places before, but never a sublime one.

Charles, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, proclaimed in his inscription on an obelisk near the house that he –


Of all these out-works and monuments, the most sublime is undoubtedly the Mausoleum, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1728-9, begun in 1731, and completed substantially to the original design in 1742, six years after Hawksmoor’s death and four years after Carlisle’s.

This great domed rotunda, seventy-six feet high, its twenty slender Doric columns set deliberately narrowly together, sitting on a bastion of gargantuan proportions, is a noble monument not only to Lord Carlisle, whose remains were finally laid to rest there, but also to its designer, who never saw it.

Members of the Howard family continue to be interred in the Mausoleum, which is off limits to ordinary visitors.

But it is possible to see inside the Mausoleum, and to visit other inaccessible parts of the estate, on pre-booked walking tours which are detailed in the Castle Howard website at

The walking isn’t strenuous, though the tour can take up to 2½ hours.  It’s worth every step.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Apr 16, 2012

Category:Country Houses

Castle Howard Great Hall

Great Hall, Castle Howard, with murals by Scott Medd (1962-3)

Castle Howard is not Brideshead, though it owes a great deal to Brideshead Revisited.

It’s acknowledged that Evelyn Waugh’s wartime novel was based on the Lygon family who lived at the very different Madresfield Court, Worcestershire, which has its own stock of stories:

The scandal which envelopes Lord Brideshead is nowhere near as dramatic as that which overtook the 7th Earl Beauchamp, a man who always carried £100 in cash “in case I have to hire a train”.  When his brother-in-law, ‘Bendor’, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, maliciously outed him, Lady Beauchamp remarked absently, “Bendor says that Beauchamp is a bugler.”

The only connection between Brideshead and Castle Howard is through television, and it’s proved crucial to the fortunes of the house and its family, the Howards.

The house was built by their ancestor, Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (c1669-1738), who hired the multitalented playwright, John Vanburgh (1664-1726), to design a baroque palace on the site of the ancient castle of Henderskelfe.

The Great Hall is a stupendous space, seventy feet high and fifty-two feet square, surmounted by the great dome.  The paintings of the hall, dome and high saloon were by the Venetian Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and the Huguenot Jean Herve.

In the period before the Second World War, canny country-house owners offered their properties to well-behaved girls’ schools:  the Duke of Devonshire, for example, saw to it by this means that Chatsworth was well looked after, but at Castle Howard an accidental fire on November 9th 1940 gutted much of the interior and destroyed Vanburgh’s dome.

The owner George Howard (1920-1984) spent much of his adult life breathing life back into Castle Howard.  The dome was restored in 1960 and the lost Pelligrini murals reproduced a couple of years later by the Canadian painter, Scott Medd (1911-1984).

George Howard, who was at the time Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC, was very glad to hire the place to Granada TV for their series-adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981).  The proceeds enabled him to rebuild some of the rooms on the south front, to the designs of Julian Bicknell with paintings by Felix Kelly.

His son, the Hon Simon Howard, the present owner, similarly welcomed Julian Jarrold’s feature-film production in 2007 (released 2008).  This enabled further rooms to be brought back to use, and the story is told in an exhibition ‘Brideshead Restored: The Story of Restoration at Castle Howard and Brideshead Revisited’.

For thousands of visitors and millions of viewers, Castle Howard is Brideshead.  It isn’t really, but it might as well be.

Castle Howard deserves a day to itself, at almost any time of the year:  If the house is open don’t miss eating in the Fitzroy Room restaurant.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Mar 23, 2012

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modernVictorian architecture

Petwood, Woodhall Spa

Petwood, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire

There is no shortage of places to eat and drink in Woodhall Spa – the Dower House Hotel [], the Golf Hotel [] and the Woodhall Spa Hotel (formerly the Eagle Lodge)[].

The most historically interesting of them all is the mock-Tudor Petwood [], built by the Baroness Grace Von Eckhardstein, daughter of the furniture-store owner Sir John Blundell Maple in 1905.

In 1910, she divorced her German husband and married Captain Archibald Weigall, grandson of the eleventh Earl of Westmorland, who served as land agent for the Earl of Londesborough’s nearby Blankney estate.

The following year they commissioned the London architect Frank Peck to extend Petwood, building a staff wing to the east on what the Horncastle News described as “an enormous scale”.

Peck’s carefully stylised modifications give this wholly twentieth-century house a “borrowed history”, suggesting a series of additions through the Tudor and Jacobean periods.  The main staircase, often attributed to Maples carpenters, is more likely the work of Peck’s foreman-carver James Wylie.  At an unknown later date – but probably not much later – the grandiose two-storey oriel-windowed entrance bay was added.

Also, mainly during 1913-4, Harold Peto was employed to design the ambitious gardens. 

In 1933 Petwood became a hotel, and during the Second World War this was the officers’ mess for 617 Squadron, the “Dam Busters”.

Now, it’s an exceptionally relaxing place to eat, drink or stay.  Indeed, you could spend a very satisfactory weekend staying at any one of the Dower House, the Golf, Petwood or the Woodhall Spa, and wandering off to have coffee, tea or a meal at each of the others.

And you could take home a picnic from the Bakery & Delicatessen at 14 Broadway (01526-352183):  they’re far too busy selling superb food to bother with a website.

The history of Petwood, successively as a house and a hotel, is detailed and illustrated in Edward Mayor, Petwood:  the remarkable story of a famous Lincolnshire hotel (Petwood 2000).

Posted by: mike on Dec 22, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesCountry HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Edgwarebury Hotel

Branching off Station Road, in the middle of the North London suburb of Edgware, is Edgwarebury Lane, lined with elegant thirties houses.

It crosses the busy A41 Edgware Way, otherwise the Watford by-pass, where pedestrians are provided with a very grand footbridge.

North of the A41 the houses eventually give way to tennis courts and a cemetery, and the road diminishes into a bridleway, though the bridge over the M1 motorway is built to main-road dimensions.

Edgwarebury Lane then climbs steeply past the Dower House, and eventually reaches what is now the Edgwarebury Hotel.

The name, and the persistence of the route against the grain of the modern road-system, suggest that Edgwarebury must have been at least as important as the once-rural village of Edgware.

This is, of course, not a sensible or practical way of reaching the Edgwarebury Hotel.  It’s reached via Barnet Lane and the last few hundred yards of the old lane.

The hotel was originally Edgwarebury House, the residence of Sir Trevor Dawson (1866-1931), managing director of the armaments company Vickers Ltd.

As an essay in Victorian or Edwardian black-and-white revival, it has one attractive show front, looking south across a gently-sloping garden surrounded by trees and looking across to distant views of London.

Within, the major rooms are embellished with antique carved timber and stained glass.  It has all the hallmarks of a late nineteenth-century interest in collecting architectural antiques.

It served as a location for the Hammer horror film The Devil Rides Out (1968), the rather more cheerful Stardust (1974) and much else.

It’s my favourite place to stay in the London area, whenever its special deals are cheaper than Premier Inn.

I like to walk down Barnet Lane, where the local motorists often drive at absurd speeds, to the crossroads and eat at the Eastern Brasserie [0208-207-6212], which serves the sort of Indian meals where you savour every mouthful, from the popadoms at the start to the slices of orange at the finish.

It’s my favourite start-of-the-weekend-in-London experience.

The Times, March 30th 2012, reported that Corus has sold the Edgwarebury Hotel to the Laura Ashley group as a "brand showcase":

Posted by: mike on Dec 8, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Aston Hall, South Yorkshire

There’s a setting for a novel around Aston Hall, in the south-east corner of South Yorkshire – a sort of Alan Hollinghurst meets Jane Austen, with more than a dash of Anthony Trollope.

The key character, probably the narrator like Mr Lockwood in Wuthering Heights, is the poet Rev William Mason (1724–1797), the Rector of Aston, whose Musaeus (1747), a monody on the death of Alexander Pope, and his historical tragedies Elfrida (1752) and Caractacus (1759) have hardly stood the test of time.

He’s better known as the editor of the poems of his friend Thomas Gray, whose ‘Elegy written in a country churchyard’ is one of the best-loved eighteenth-century poems in English.

Mason and Gray shared friendship with Horace Walpole, whose catty observations are so vivid you can almost hear his voice.  Walpole’s residence, Strawberry Hill [see Strawberry Hill forever] was a gathering ground for some of the brightest and most sophisticated wits of the day.  Mason’s rectory was similarly a centre for creativity, conversation and cyncism.

He was rector of Aston from 1754 to 1797, and though he didn’t live there continually, he must have watched from the rectory the rebuilding of Aston Hall on the opposite side of the church after a fire in the 1760s. 

The owner, the fourth Earl of Holderness, had it rebuilt in the Palladian style by the ubiquitous, versatile and highly respected architect John Carr of York.

Once it was finished in 1772, Lord Holderness declined to move in:  Walpole declared this was “because it is too near the ducal seat at Kiveton”;  in other words, the earl didn’t want to be overshadowed by the Duke of Leeds at Kiveton Park.

After all, Robert Darcy, 4th Earl had been ambassador to Venice and The Hague, Secretary of State (then one of the great offices of state) and later became tutor to two of George III’s sons, in which capacity Walpole described him as “a solemn phantom”.

Lord Holderness let the house to Harry Verelst (1734-1785), whom Walpole described as “the Nabob” – the term for an opportunist who had made money in India.  He was Governor of Bengal from 1767 to 1769.

Verelst purchased Aston Hall in 1774-5 and employed the local architect John Platt [see Money well spent] to install a finer staircase and the west wing.  His descendants lived there until 1928.

Mason was distantly related to both Lord Holderness and Harry Verelst.  One may imagine the twitching of curtains at the rectory, and the comments of Rev Mason and his wife about the nabob’s taste. 

Sitting in the bar and lounge of the Aston Hall Hotel [], it’s possible to see Lord Holderness’ viewpoint.   Even though Carr’s rooms have been much carved about by institutional use it’s clear that they would hardly have been grand enough for an earl to entertain.

It’s more than comfortable for modern visitors, set in a quiet village literally within two minutes of Junction 31 of the M1.  It’s an interesting alternative to a comfort stop at Woodhall Services.

The Aston Hall Hotel provides a lunch-stop on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014).  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 14, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Cusworth Hall south front

Mrs Pearse, the last private owner of Cusworth Hall [see Money well spent and Wilful progeny], didn’t make her land agent’s life at all easy.

After selling the contents of the house in 1952 to help pay her late brother’s death duties, she insisted that the sale of the Hall must not interfere with the use of the Chapel which, as Mother Mary Francis of the Order of St Hubert, she opened for worship in 1953.

She belonged to the Liberal Catholic Church (not to be confused with the Liberal Catholic Church International, the Liberal Catholic Church Grail Community, the Liberal Catholic Church Theosophia Synod, the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church or the Reformed Liberal Catholic Church []).

At one point there was a practical threat that Cusworth Hall would be purchased, compulsorily or otherwise, for use as a female Borstal.  Two separate occupiers moved in without legal contracts, and were removed with difficulty.  Doncaster Corporation considered turning the place into a zoo.

Eventually Doncaster Rural District Council – at the time the most prosperous rural-district authority in the country because of the wealth of coal-mining in its area – purchased it for £7,500 in 1961, first proposing to convert the Hall into a hospital.

In 1967 it opened to the public as an industrial museum and after transfer to the newly-formed Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council in 1974 it became the Museum of South Yorkshire Life.

As such it presented a rich clutter of displays about every conceivable aspect of local life and culture – far more than could comfortably fit into the elegant ground-floor rooms and the bedrooms above.

In 2004-7, the council emptied the building and invested £7½ million in a superb restoration of the house and park.  And then they put all the stuff back inside.

The result is that the Georgian rooms, with the exception of James Paine’s superb chapel, are dominated by beautifully designed modern display cases which would fit well into a disused textile mill, a warehouse or a spacious church.  At Cusworth, you can’t see the room, and for that matter you can’t see the display case, though you can see the contents quite well.

It matters not, because the thorough restoration will last longer than any museum-display fashion.

Doncaster’s proud history needs much more space to celebrate the market-town, the agriculture and the mining industry, as well as the Great North Road, the Great Northern Railway and the racecourse, home of the St Leger.

The Borough of Wakefield has found means to move its art gallery out of a cramped Georgian terrace into Hepworth Wakefield [], a superlative new building by David Chipperfield.

Doncaster’s history deserves no less.  And Cusworth Hall would make a fine art gallery, like Tabley House in Cheshire [] or a beautiful hotel-restaurant, like Colwick Hall in Nottingham [].

Cusworth Hall is one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 12, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Cusworth Hall north front

Cusworth Hall, on the outskirts of Doncaster, is one of those country houses where the life-stories of the owners rival in interest the magnificent architecture (for which see Money well spent).

Ownership passed directly from the original builder of the present house, William Wrightson (1676-1760) for over two hundred years.

When William Henry Battie-Wrightson died suddenly in 1903 his widow, Lady Isabella, took on the responsibility of running the estates in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland and residences in London and St Leonard’s-on-Sea while bringing up her son and daughter, then aged fifteen and thirteen respectively.

She was a formidable character, eldest daughter of the third Marquis of Exeter of Burghley House near Stamford.  She fought off a rival claim to the estates from her brother-in-law, and improved the house by building the dining-room north of Paine’s chapel-wing and installing hot-water central heating and electric lighting.  She regularly gave fancy-dress parties for the estate workers, and mounted a magnificent celebration when her son came of age in 1909.

Her son, Robert Cecil Battie-Wrightson (1888-1952), must have been a disappointment.  In 1914 he married a widow, Mrs Louie Evelyn Lupton, daughter of the landlord of the Elephant Hotel in Doncaster.  After serving throughout the First World War he settled down to a life of ease, preferring the company of public-houses and maintaining cordial relationships with his own staff.

When his marriage with Louie Evelyn broke down they separated but did not divorce:  he had formed a relationship with Mrs Christabel Florence Bentley, whose divorced husband also ran a pub in Doncaster.  He did not mix with other local gentry families.

When he died of a stroke in 1952 the estate passed by entail to his sister Barbara, though he left his personal estate, valued at £64,000, to Mrs Bentley.

Barbara Battie-Wrightson (1890-1989) was perhaps even more independent-minded than her brother.  She had considerable musical talent, played violin and cello, and appeared on the music-hall stage without her mother’s knowledge in a song-and-dance routine as Hazel Barnard.  She held socialist opinions and trained as a nurse, working with poor and homeless people in London.  She changed her forenames to Maureen Leslie.

Her Cecil relatives effectively disowned her and her mother’s will threatened to cut off her income if – as seemed likely – she became a Roman Catholic.  Her first marriage, in 1917, to Major Oswald Maslen Parker was not a success, but only ended with his death.  Her second, to a dentist, Dr Walter Leslie Pearse, gave her much greater happiness, though her husband and her brother famously failed to get on.

Death duties of £280,000 on Robert Cecil Battie-Wrightson’s estate forced the sale of almost the entire contents in 1952.  Among the items dispersed were numerous pieces of Chippendale furniture, a gold presentation cup won at York races in 1725 and the Titian ‘Holy Family with Elizabeth and St John’, which fetched 130 guineas.  The total proceeds of the nine-day sale were £36,000.

The Hall itself was eventually sold to Doncaster Rural District Council for £7,500.

Mrs Pearse never occupied the house.

Cusworth Hall is one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 10, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Cusworth Hall Chapel

Cusworth Hall Chapel

William Wrightson (1676-1760), the builder of the present Cusworth Hall was, like his father, an able and successful lawyer, who successively married two Northumbrian heiresses, one the daughter of a coal-merchant, the other co-heiress to a landed estate.  He acted as steward for the Duke of Norfolk’s Sheffield estate, and was still accumulating lucrative government offices at the age of 84.

By the time he inherited Cusworth in 1724 he was easily in a financial position to improve the property:  he enlarged the gardens, and in the late 1730s commissioned George Platt of Rotherham (1700-1743) to design a completely new house to the south of the earlier Hall.  When George Platt died his son John, then in his mid-teens, continued the project, possibly assisted by his grandfather William Rickard.

The Platts’ building work was finished in 1745, and shortly afterwards the heir, John Battie (1722-1765), suggested that the central block was “too tall for its length”, and recommended James Paine (c1716-1789) to extend the wings to improve the house and correct its proportions.

Paine’s suggestions included extending the side pavilions to make a chapel wing to the west and a library to the east.  Wrightson seems to have kept a close eye on the accounts, preferring quality to ostentation, and employing the excellent craftsmen recommended by Paine, such as the plasterer Joseph Rose and the artist Francis Hayman whose ‘Ascension’ remains in situ.  All this work was completed by 1755.

The only substantial further addition is the dining room of 1907, tactfully inserted behind the chapel for Lady Isabella Battie-Wrightson (1853-1917).

Cusworth Hall and its park can be enjoyed throughout the year as an amenity of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council:  its excellent teashop is as cramped as the fascinating museum inside the house, but the parkland and the view is a breath of fresh air.

For further information see

Cusworth Hall is one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Photo:  Mike Higginbottom, courtesy of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council

Posted by: mike on Oct 17, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Stainborough Castle

Thomas Wentworth, Lord Raby, was furious when he failed to inherit the estate of Wentworth Woodhouse [See Keeping up with the Wentworths].

He bought the nearby Stainborough estate and had the family earldom revived in his favour.

Even after he’d tacked on to the existing house a grand baroque wing gazing east towards Wentworth Woodhouse he felt a need to impress his superiority over his Watson neighbours, so he built himself a ruined castle, Stainborough Castle, which its inscription describes as “rebuilt” in 1730.

Mining subsidence has made it even more of a ruin than Lord Strafford had intended, and it has in recent years been tidied up.

It’s the literal high spot of the longest walk round Wentworth Castle Gardens [], which takes in a sample of the other garden buildings that Lord Strafford and his son scattered about the estate – the Corinthian Temple, Archer’s Hill Gate and Lady Mary’s Obelisk which commemorates the bluestocking Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her encouragement of inoculation against smallpox.

The restored garden has outstanding interpretation boards at regular intervals, so that it’s possible to understand the significance of near and distant features at leisure, strolling through a succession of small gardens, informal wildernesses and formal linear walks.

At a greater distance – up to four miles – there are walks around the park, taking in a greater series of monuments, including the Queen Anne Monument (1734), the Rotunda (1742-6) and the Duke of Argyle Monument.

Wentworth Castle Gardens has a superb visitor centre with a café and a programme of events throughout the year:  Christmas is particularly attractive:  Santa feeds the deer, answers letters and hands out presents in his grotto, while parents are kept occupied with mulled wine.

There’s something for everybody, almost every day of the year.

Wentworth Castle and Garden features in the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 15, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Castle baroque front

Wentworth Castle, East (baroque) Front

Wentworth Woodhouse [see Plenty of room for guests and Quirks of fate] is but one of the great estates of South Yorkshire.  Its literal neighbour, Wentworth Castle, is the result of a saga of gargantuan rivalry between distant relatives, expressed in grand architecture, extensive landscapes and demonstrative garden buildings.

Thomas Wentworth (1672-1739), Lord Raby, had what might now be called “issues” because he had expected to inherit the great estate of Wentworth Woodhouse from his cousin, the 2nd Earl of Strafford.  James Lees-Milne pinned him down as “an unbending Tory, an arch snob...and remarkable for ‘excess of bloated pride’ in his own descent”.

Lord Strafford chose to bequeath Wentworth Woodhouse to his sister’s son, Mr Thomas Watson, who took the name Wentworth and liked to be known as “His Honour Wentworth”.

Lord Raby, who had other names for the man he regarded as the usurper of his birthright, bought the neighbouring estate of Stainborough in 1708, and built a baroque wing, designed by the Huguenot Jean de Bodt, on to the existing house (1710-20).

He also persuaded Queen Anne to revive the Earldom of Strafford for him in 1711, while “His Honour” remained a commoner.

Thomas Watson Wentworth’s son, also Thomas, accordingly built a brick baroque wing at Wentworth Woodhouse, the so-called “back front”, and in 1728 took the title Baron Malton.

Then, six years later, he began the huge Palladian east front of Wentworth Woodhouse, back to back with the baroque wing, designed by Henry Flitcroft.  This huge project, later enlarged by John Carr of York, was still being completed at the start of the nineteenth century.

In 1746 Lord Malton became the first Marquess of Rockingham – in fact, the first marquess in the British peerage, and superior to an earl.

Quietly determined not to be outdone, William, 2nd Earl of Strafford of the 2nd creation, built the Palladian south wing at Wentworth Castle (1759-62).

And in between times this ludicrous competition in houses and titles was maintained by a descant of monuments – obelisks and columns, temples and follies.

The whole area is dotted with the mementoes of this rivalry, and there is much to see.

Wentworth Castle is now the Northern College, and though the tours of the house are available, the building is in active educational use throughout the year:  Wentworth Castle Gardens, however, are open to tourists almost every day of the year, and are well worth an extended visit:

Wentworth Castle and Garden features in the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 13, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Wortley Hall

In the uncertain times after the Second World War, when many country-house owners had to decide whether they could ever live in their big houses again, Wortley Hall, South Yorkshire became a socialist stately home, and for more than sixty years now has been a home for stately socialists.

In 1950 Archibald, 3rd Earl of Wharncliffe (1892-1953) leased the much-battered house to a consortium of Labour organisations under the leadership of Vin Williams, the South Yorkshire organiser for the National Council of Labour Colleges.

Trade union organisations have unusually good access to craftspeople, and in May 1951, powered by the efforts of a small army of volunteers, Wortley Hall opened as a conference centre under the title Wortley Hall (Labour’s Home).  Even with masses of goodwill from the Labour movement, the initial conversion cost the then huge sum of around £10,000.

John Cornwell’s account, The Voices of Wortley Hall: the sixtieth anniversary history of Labour’s home, 1951-2011, tells this remarkable story in detail.

Ever since, Wortley Hall has grown and thrived, hosting groups from Britain and abroad, from the Workers Music Association Summer School to the Clarion Cycling Club, and providing an entertaining series of public events from car rallies to comedy nights.  Friends of mine count themselves lucky if they are quick enough to book the Wortley Hall New Year’s Eve celebration.

Wortley Hall Ltd, as it's now called, is a shining example of the spirit of co-operation which traces back directly to the Rochdale Pioneers.

It’s a very beautiful place – a Palladian show-house by John Platt of Rotherham on a more modest scale to the nearby Wentworth Castle and the gargantuan Wentworth Woodhouse, vigorously extended in Victorian times, and surrounded by elegant grounds with a panoramic view to the east across the Yorkshire countryside.

In the days when I ran senior-student training at Wortley Hall for a local comprehensive school, the younger kids aspired to become senior students so they could go to “that mansion”.

There is a detailed photograph-album of Wortley Hall at  The conference-centre website is at

Wortley Hall near Sheffield is the stately home-from-home for the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014).  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Oct 7, 2011

Category:Country HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Samlesbury Hall

Samlesbury Hall is only a couple of miles away from Hoghton Tower [see Jumbled chronology] and can easily be visited on the same day.  It too is a palimpsest, though its architectural significance is completely different:  the current volume of Pevsner describes it as “one of the outstanding Lancashire halls of the timber-framed variety”.

The chapel was licensed in 1420 and was probably built around that time;  the hall is of a similar date, and the south range dates from around 1545, except for the west end which is 1862.  Originally the home of the Southworth family, the hall was apparently an inn by the 1830s.

There are all sorts of fascinating details.  The traceried window in the chapel, and presumably others, were imported from Whalley Abbey after the Dissolution.

The great hall had a movable screen like the one at Rufford Old Hall, and the bizarre carved finials were later incorporated in the minstrels’ gallery.  The hall fireplace is Victorian, probably dating from 1845.  The oriel at the dais end houses a magnificent Bechstein grand piano.

A frankly modern bridge leads visitors over to ancillary buildings in the courtyard.

The place was threatened with demolition in the 1920s and was bought by a group of Blackburn businessmen who established a Trust to preserve it for public enjoyment.  As such, the building has to earn its keep.

Consequently, several rooms are given over to the sales-floor of an antiques emporium and there are regular exhibitions of art, ceramics, sculpture and jewellery.  There is a wonderfully relaxed coffee-shop, stuffed with sofas, and a restaurant.  You can hire the place for many kinds of events, from a funeral to a hog roast.

For the casual tourist the presentation experience is completely different to Hoghton.  Visitors wander at will, guided by display panels which the lady greeter made no bones about declaring were incomplete.

Is it worth paying £3.00 admission to see?  Most definitely.  But I think I’d take exception to paying £3.00 for the privilege of buying antiques.  Perhaps they knock the admission charge off the price of the chaise-longue or whatever.

I think they would in Yorkshire.

Card-carrying Friends of the Historic Houses Association are admitted free to Samlesbury Hall:  see

Posted by: mike on Oct 5, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Hoghton Tower

I visited Hoghton Tower (pronounced ‘Horton’) in Lancashire because I happened to be passing on my way to Poulton-le-Fylde.  Consequently I drove up the steep avenue knowing nothing at all about the place;  I left knowing little more and considerably confused.

Most country houses are palimpsests, and Hoghton Tower more than most – a document repeatedly erased and rewritten.  Layout and chronology matter in understanding how the building fits together.

According to our guide, one particular room was apparently completed for the present owner’s father’s twenty-first birthday and had been a schoolroom when William Shakespeare was tutor to the family.  The panelling, I was told, was by “young Mr Gillow” (which must be eighteenth century, though it depends which Gillow).  There were two marble fireplaces of obviously different periods, but I decided not to ask.

The current volume of Pevsner identifies this room as “pure Victorian Jacobean, the work of R D Oliver”.  Indeed, the whole house is a fascinating concoction by different generations, all of them aiming to suggest an earlier history.

There may well have been a medieval building here, perhaps on the site of the Well House in one corner.  The earliest standing remains are known to have been begun in a conservative manner by Thomas Hoghton in 1561-2.  Civil War damage was made good by Sir Christopher Hoghton at the end of the seventeenth century.  Planned modifications by Lewis Wyatt (1816) and George Webster (1835) were unbuilt.  Sir Henry Hoghton, 9th baronet, commissioned a careful, scholarly restoration in the 1860s, and his next two successors continued the work until 1901.

This makes for a fascinating structural and decorative jigsaw which illustrates country-house lifestyles as well as attitudes to the past over four centuries.  I simply don’t believe that members of the general public are so dim that they can only cope with disconnected anecdotes about kings and banquets.  I think visitors to historic places value being allowed to think.  It’s more interesting, if skilfully presented.

The interiors now have an atmosphere of a museum and a wedding and conference centre, which is what the place is.  The extensive underground service area is littered with dummies and skeletons, as if it’s not interesting enough without artificial aids [cf Finding a secret tunnel:  Stoke Rochford Hall and More country-house railways].

If you visit Hoghton Tower, read it up first.  Or, as our guide disarmingly suggested, buy the guide-book.

Or, better still, go and stay there.  The Irishman’s Tower is available as a self-catering let for two:  I rather fancy that as a base for seeing Blackpool Illuminations.

Card-carrying Friends of the Historic Houses Association are admitted free to Hoghton Tower.

Posted by: mike on Sep 21, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Scampston Deer Park Lodge

When you look out of the upstairs windows of the south front of Scampston Hall [see Stop short of Scarborough] your eye is caught by a red-brick castellated lodge in the distance.

This is Deer Park Lodge, built by John Carr of York in Gothick style c1768 as an eye-catcher across the lake.  Originally, it was stuccoed in white, so that it stood out from the now-vanished forest behind it.

As well as being an ornament to the view, the lodge served a practical function.  To each side of the central bay were arcades to provide shelter when the deer came to feed.  Behind the building was a modest cottage in which the deer-keeper and his family lived.

The three-sided bay, with its castellated gable embellished with a trefoil, contains two grand rooms, connected by a steep, straight staircase.  Both have marble fireplaces and were decorated, apparently, with marbled paper.  The upper room, where visitors from the great house would take tea and admire the view, has a delicate plaster ceiling decorated with hunting horns and sheet music.

The current owners, David and Jane Crease, have carefully restored the lodge, and Jane explains how the three sides of the bay offered completely different views – the forest to the right (nature), the house straight ahead (culture) and the mill to the left (commerce).

Mr & Mrs Crease entertained the members of the Art Fund South Yorkshire to tea on their way back from an art day in Scarborough.  It’s a rare privilege to enjoy a sumptuous afternoon tea sitting outside the lodge gazing across the lake towards Scampston Hall in the distance.

One of the ironies of an eye-catcher is that it commands at least as good a view as the view it belongs to.  No doubt that’s why the St Quentins and their descendants, the Legards, drove over to admire the big house in its setting.

Scampston Deer Park Lodge is a private residence and is not open to the public.

Posted by: mike on Sep 19, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Scampston Hall

Motorists hammering along the A64 to the coast have little chance of noticing that they fly through the Capability Brown park of Scampston Hall.  An understated road-sign indicates ‘Scampston only’.  It’s worth following.

Apart from its historic interest, Scampston Hall has a superb restaurant, offering better lunches than you’ll find within sight of the A64.

Its historic interest is considerable.  Five St Quintin baronets, all of them called William, developed this estate.  The 3rd baronet built the original house, parts of which are still visible at the back, in the 1690s.  The 4th baronet brought in Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the park.  The 5th baronet accumulated a significant art collection.  His heir, William Thomas Darby St Quintin, employed the architect and interior designer Thomas Leverton to transform the house in 1800-3, so that it looks – inside and out – Regency in style.

The man who takes your ticket when you start a house tour is, in fact, the current owner, Sir Charles Legard, 15th Bt.  He and his wife Caroline took on the place in 1994 when it was, as Sir Charles puts it, “tired”, reroofed, rewired and replumbed it, and welcome the public on a limited number of days each year.  Their son Christopher’s family now lives there.

Lady Legard had, through her voluntary involvement in the National Trust, gained an invaluable apprenticeship from the interior designers John Fowler [see Southern Comfort] and David Mlinaric, planning the restoration of Beningborough Hall, Nostell Priory (after a fire) and Nunnington Hall.  She was more than qualified to take on the challenge of managing the restoration of her family home to the highest standards.  Scampston Hall was the Country Life House of the Year in 2000:  John Cornforth’s account of the house and family appeared in the January 27th and February 3rd 2000 issues.

Lady Legard then set about finding a purpose for the former kitchen garden.  She commissioned the internationally renowned Dutch designer Piet Oudolf [see] to create a flower garden to attract public visitors, and engaged the local architects Mark Bramhall and Ric Blenkharn to design the restaurant.  The Walled Garden opened in 2004.

The result is an utterly delightful visiting experience.  Sir Charles shows groups round his house in relaxed style:  visitors are encouraged to ask questions and to sit on the furniture.  Outside, a half-hour walk around the inner park, the Cascade Circuit, passes the Pump House with its plunge bath, the Palladian Bridge and the ruined ice-house.  The Walled Garden is a fascinating essay in contemporary garden design.  And the restaurant offers the sort of menu you need to return to.

You can always go to Scarborough another day...

Details of all that Scampston Hall has to offer are at  Card-carrying members and Friends of the Historic Houses Association are admitted free.

Posted by: mike on Aug 19, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Brodsworth Hall

Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire, is remarkable because the entire house and garden were built and furnished within a short period, 1861-70, and have hardly been changed since.  It was designed by an Italian architect, the Chevalier Casentini, who appears never to have visited the site.

The money to build it came from the proceeds of the Thellusson will of 1797, which distributed the bulk of a £700,000 fortune in trust to the surviving descendants after three generations (or, in the absence of such survivors, to pay off the National Debt).  The protracted litigation that arose among Thellusson’s descendants is recognisably portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-3).

When the last descendant of the original builder gave Brodsworth Hall to English Heritage in 1990, the decision was taken to restore the house as found, in “arrested decline”, rather than return its decoration and contents to their appearance when new.  This is not a “house that time forgot”, like Erddig or Calke Abbey or Mr Straw’s House at Worksop;  it retains evidence of each of its occupiers from the date of building to the late twentieth century, and chronicles the increasing difficulty of maintaining a home on the scale that was common among prosperous landed families before the First World War.

Walking through the front door, crossing the hall and glancing up the impressively grand staircase gives a very powerful feeling of stepping into the 1970s on some errand to meet Mrs Grant-Dalton.  The light, the colours, the patina of the furniture and walls look exactly as if the place has been untouched for decades.

On the route through the principal rooms it’s easy – apart from the apparently new carpets – to imagine oneself into almost any decade since the house was built.

But further into the tour, upstairs, bleak bedrooms with folded bed-linen on bare mattresses, presumably unoccupied since early last century, are interspersed with spruced-up facilities for visitors, complete with interactive computers belting out canned historic voices.

And there are several rooms simply displaying found objects, like a lugubrious version of a trip to Ikea.

Here English Heritage is playing to the crowd, as perhaps it must in economically straitened times, where visitor footfall is the name of the game.

That said, Brodsworth is worth exploring:  the long-neglected gardens are well on their way to recovery, and the café deserves more than one visit per visit.

Details of opening arrangements at Brodsworth Hall are at

Brodsworth Hall is one of the sites visited on the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 16, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Strawberry Hill: gallery

Horace Walpole (1717-97) didn’t expect his house at Strawberry Hill to last much longer than he did:  he built in plaster and papier-mâché and decorated his “little plaything-house” with wallpaper.

The house that gave its name to a style, “Strawberry Hill Gothic”, was for amusement only, so small that one of his visitors, Lady Townsend, declared, “Lord God!  Jesus!  What a house!  It is just such a house as the parson’s where the children lie at the end of the bed.”

As a reaction to the stern mansion at Houghton in Norfolk built by his father, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, and indeed to his own town house off Piccadilly, Walpole extended Strawberry Hill between 1749 and 1776 asymmetrically, as if built over centuries, because he was “fond of the Sharawaggi, or Chinese want of symmetry”.

He commissioned a group of friends as his “committee of taste” – among them John Chute (1701-1776) and Richard Bentley (1708-1782) – to advise on designs based on medieval originals.  This is why the chimneypiece in the library imitates John of Eltham’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, and that in the Holbein Chamber is based on Archbishop Warham’s tomb at Canterbury, while the gallery ceiling is derived from the side aisles of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey.

The house was a cabinet of curiosities, a Schatzkammer, filled with every kind of object from Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat to the gilded armour of the French King Francis I, James I’s gloves to a lock of Edward IV’s hair “cut from his corpse in St George’s Chapel at Windsor”.    Stripped of Walpole’s collections in a sale of 1842, its rooms currently stand virtually empty.  Yet they have the unmistakable feeling of what Walpole called “gloomth”, which inspired his Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1765), an important milestone on the road which leads to Frankenstein, Dracula and Hogwarts.

For a building that was outrageously against the prevalent architectural fashion, it was the object of insatiable curiosity.  Walpole was so pressured by visitors that he issued timed tickets.  “Never build a charming house for yourself between London and Hampton Court,” he wrote to a friend.  “Everyone will live in it but you.”  He declared that he should marry his housekeeper, because her gratuities were such that she had more money than he did.

Strawberry Hill, for many years the core of a Catholic teacher-training college, is now – at a cost of £9 million – as bright and crisp as Horace Walpole would have remembered it.

Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, is open to the public by timed ticket:  see  The café, called The Committee of Taste, is superlative:  I couldn’t bring myself to eat the cheesecake until I’d photographed it:


Posted by: mike on Aug 2, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Renishaw Hall

Sutton Scarsdale Hall [see The survival of Sutton Scarsdale] may have provided the nucleus of the idea for D H Lawrence's characters Clifford and Constance in Lady Chatterley's Lover, because the marriage of William Arkwright, the last owner, was blighted by the consequences of a hunting accident.

Sutton Scarsdale is not, however, Lawrence's "Wragby Hall" – "a long, low old house in brown stone, begun about the middle of the eighteenth century, and added on to, till it was a warren of a place without much distinction".  It's generally agreed that Lawrence was visualising Renishaw Hall, in the north-east corner of Derbyshire, though the actual house is anything but lacking in distinction.

The late eighteenth-century owner, Sitwell Sitwell (his name is another story) built the elegant apsed dining room in 1794, and the grand east wing, with plasterwork by the local sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey, in 1803-8.  When it was finished the Prince Regent visited, and made Sitwell Sitwell a baronet.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda met Sir Osbert Sitwell, who invited them to call at Renishaw on one of their rare visits to Derbyshire in the 1920s.

When they eventually visited there was no-one at home but the butler, who took against the odd-looking couple:  it's likely that their accents wouldn't quite fit the bill, he the son of a Derbyshire miner, she the daughter of a German baron.

Consequently, all they saw of the house was the front hall.  They were shown in the front door and straight out the back into the garden – with the result that Wragby Hall is based on, but is only a shadow of, the actual Renishaw Hall.

The gamekeeper called Mellors, by the way, worked at Welbeck.

UPDATE:  The Observer of November 13th 2011 contained an edited reprint of Dame Edith Sitwell's account of the Lawrences' visit.  Evidently they met only once.

"He talked to us a great deal about our parents, explaining their characters to us.  Mrs Lawrence...explained the natives of Bloomsbury to me..."

Afterwards, in a lecture she gave in Liverpool, Dame Edith described Lawrence as the head of the Jaeger school of poetry – hot, soft and woolly.  The Jaeger company took exception, saying that their clothes were indeed soft and woolly, but not hot.  Dame Edith was contrite, and told Messrs Jaeger that "their works were unshrinkable by time, whereas the works of Lawrence, in my opinion, are not".

Renishaw Gardens, Museum and Galleries are open regularly through the summer.  The Hall can be visited only on pre-booked tours.  Details are at

A guided visit to Renishaw Hall features in the Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014) tour, which is based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 31, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Sutton Scarsdale Hall

Southbound travellers on the M1 in Derbyshire are sometimes intrigued by a splendid ruin on the offside which is virtually invisible travelling north.  This is Sutton Scarsdale Hall, second only in scale to Chatsworth among the surviving classical country houses of Derbyshire.  It has survived, but only just.

It was built in 1724-9 for Nicholas Leake, 4th Earl of Scarsdale by the major provincial architect Francis Smith of Warwick.  Smith's grand façades are oddly oriented because he built around a much older core which stands alongside the medieval parish church, so the main entrance is on the north front.  When the house was intact its chief glory was the plasterwork by the Italian stuccadores Giovanni Battista Arturi and Francesco Vasalli.

Lord Scarsdale died without heirs and deeply in debt, and Sutton Scarsdale passed through a succession of owners until it was bought by Richard Arkwright of Willersley, the financier son of the cotton inventor, for his younger son, Robert Arkwright, who married the "single-minded, simple-hearted" actress Fanny Kemble.

Their descendant William Arkwright is thought to be the model for D H Lawrence's Clifford Chatterley, though the novel Lady Chatterley's Lover is not set at Sutton Scarsdale.

After the First World War, the Arkwrights sold up the Sutton estate, but couldn't get rid of the house, which was first vandalised and then stripped by a speculator for the value of its materials.

Fifty tons of lead were removed from the roof, and a collection of interiors including the drawing room, the main staircase and some fireplaces were shipped to the United States.

Three rooms, their proportions altered and their provenance irreparably confused, can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a fourth, purchased by William Randolph Hearst for San Simeon, remained in a New York warehouse in packing cases until it was bought by Paramount Studios and used as a set for the film Kitty (1945).

This was donated in 1954 to the Huntingdon Library, Pasadena, but remains, apart from two doorcases, in storage.

Chairs made for the 1724 house are now at Temple Newsam House, Leeds and in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection.

The shell of the house stood abandoned, until it was rescued by Sir Osbert Sitwell in 1945, just before bulldozers were about to clear the site.

By the time his nephew, then Mr Reresby Sitwell, inherited it in 1969 the ruins were unstable.  Reresby Sitwell found himself caught in a bureaucratic maze:  the then Ministry of Public Buildings & Works wouldn't help because Sutton Scarsdale was built after 1700, while the Historic Buildings Council, as part of the Ministry of Housing, couldn't support a building which, being roofless, was no longer a house.

Eventually, after a change of legislation, it was taken over by what is now English Heritage, and travellers who can find their way through the by-roads from the M1 junction 29 at Heath may wander the ruins that were very nearly flattened in 1945.

Opening arrangements for Sutton Scarsdale Hall can be found at

Posted by: mike on Jul 29, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Wingfield Manor

Wingfield Manor (1976)

Ralph, Lord Cromwell, was a big hitter in the politics of the reign of King Henry VI.  He made a great deal of money and owned five major houses, two of which still survive – Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire [see Camp castle] and Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire.  (The other three were Collyweston Manor House, Northamptonshire, Lambley Manor House, Nottinghamshire, and Ampthill Castle, Bedfordshire.)

Its position at the top of a steep hill, its dry moat and its robust High Tower indicate that it was seriously defensible, yet Wingfield has a much more domestic atmosphere than Tattershall.  Nevertheless, it was – and is – a magnificent complex of palatial dimensions.  John Leland, the Tudor antiquary, commented, "Winfield, or Wenfield, in Derbyshire, is but a maner place, but yt far passith Sheffeld Castel".

Significantly, when it passed on Cromwell's death in 1455 to the 2nd Earl of Shrewsbury, it needed no major extension for the grander nobleman.  Only when the 6th Earl, long-suffering husband of Bess of Hardwick, used it to accommodate the captive Mary, Queen of Scots were extensions made.

Mary took against it, saying the air made her ill, and Shrewsbury retorted that "the very unpleasant and fulsome savour in the next chamber" came from "the continual festering and uncleanly order of her own folk".

It was slighted – rendered indefensible – after the Civil War, and the Great Hall was adapted as a two-storey residence by the astronomer Immanuel Halton (1628-1699), whose connection with the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, is explained in

His successor, Immanuel Halton III, took stone from the ruins to build his Georgian house in the valley below.

Wingfield Manor has been for generations the site of a working farm, so that although it is conserved by English Heritage, public access is extremely limited.  Arrangements are set out at

Otherwise, public access to the site is strictly prohibited.

Posted by: mike on Jul 27, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Tattershall Castle

Tattershall Castle is a designer castle – practically capable of being defended but primarily intended to make a statement.

It was built by Ralph, Lord Cromwell (1403-1455) who did very well out of the post of Treasurer of England under King Henry VI.  His badge of office was the tasselled purse and crossed money-bags.  Tattershall was one of his five residences.

He was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as "a tenacious man with a great gift for administration, a tidy mind, a faith in accurate records, and an ability to steer a safe course amid the intrigues of the age of Henry VI."  He built the huge brick Great Tower within the inner bailey of an earlier castle, and established a college of clergy – the customary medieval insurance against damnation – to worship in the adjacent parish church.  In his will he asked his executors to restore to their previous owners lands worth almost £5,000 "for conscience's sake".

The Great Tower is a series of splendid state apartments, stacked one on top of the other rather than laid out in a line.  From the roof it's possible not only to drop missiles on unwelcome visitors, but to see the towers of Lincoln Cathedral and Boston Stump.

This medieval skyscraper was characterised by the guide-book writer Dr M W Thompson as reminiscent of "the self-dramatisation so characteristic of fifteenth-century life".  The finished building would have been startling to contemporary eyes, just as its surviving remains are impressive to ours.  It was designed for someone who had a clear idea of the effect he wished to create.

It's possible that the whole tower was originally rouged with ochre.  It's not so much a masculine building as a butch one.

We owe its survival to a particularly quirky personality in early twentieth-century politics, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon (1859-1925), who went through life, poor man, encumbered with the anonymous undergraduate ditty –

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My face is pink, my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.

This much derided, stiff, unhappy man, when he wasn't working incredibly hard in the "Great Game" of British politics in which he rose to be Viceroy of India (1898-1905) and Foreign Secretary (1919-24), purchased the derelict site of Tattershall Castle in 1911, renovated the Great Tower, restored the moats and reinstated the original fireplaces which had been crated up ready for sale to the USA.  His action provoked the passing of the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913.  He bequeathed Tattershall to the National Trust, along with Bodiam Castle in Kent which he bought in 1916.

Tattershall Castle is open to the public throughout the year, but not every day:  see for up-to-date details.  The ladies of the parish serve excellent tea and cakes in the collegiate church of the Holy Trinity most days between Easter and the end of September:  check at

Posted by: mike on Jul 7, 2011

Category:Manx HeritageLife-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Milntown House

The Isle of Man's latest historic site to open is Milntown, a country house and garden on the outskirts of Ramsey.  (This is a reversal of history, for Ramsey was, until the late 1880s, on the outskirts of the Milntown estate.)

The house is a delightful early-nineteenth century Gothick confection, built around a seventeenth-century core on an estate that belonged to the McCrystyn, later Christian, family from the early fifteenth century at least.

This was the birthplace of the great Manx hero, William Christian, otherwise Illiam Dhone or Brown William (1608-1663) [See].  Fletcher Christian, the instigator of the mutiny on the Bounty was of the same family.

After the Christian family left, Milntown was a school, a hotel and then a private house belonging to the owners of Yates' Wine Lodges.  The last owner, Sir Clive Edwards, left the estate in trust to the Manx people, and it's now gradually opening up for public enjoyment.

In an interesting reversal of UK National Trust practice, visitors enter through the tea-shop to reach the proudly organic gardens, which provide produce for the kitchen and an array of the sort of flowers that the monochrome photographer Cecil Beaton sourly described as "retina irritants".

Designed by Richard Lucas, the garden is a vivid, crowded, complex place to wander, with woodland walks, seats and a mill-pond.  The waterwheel of the 1794 mill turns idly, and the mill will one day open to the public.

This will be a site to return to – not least for the serious catering.  When you walk in to pay your admission, you see satisfied customers tucking into the full cake-stand for afternoon tea.  It's difficult to resist the temptation on the way out.

Details of Milntown's opening arrangements are at

Posted by: mike on Jun 22, 2011

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesCountry Houses

Leadenham House

As you drive eastwards along the A17 from Newark-on-Trent, it's difficult to miss seeing a splendid Georgian house sitting on the top of the escarpment.  This is Leadenham House.  Despite its prominent position, it was virtually invisible when the main road clambered up the slope to Leadenham village;  since the by-pass opened in 1995 it's become an attractive landmark for travellers.

Built for William Reeve by Christopher Staveley of Melton Mowbray in 1792-6, the house has a cantilevered staircase said to be the work of John Adam, oldest of the three famous Adam brothers.  It was extended by Lewis Vulliamy in the 1820s, and the morning room, originally the kitchen, was decorated with antique Japanese rice-paper panels discovered by Detmar Blow in 1904

Leadenham House is open to visitors on a limited basis:  William Reeve's descendant, Mr Peter Reeve, uses visitors' fees to support the Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust.

Opening arrangements can be found at which cheerfully advises prospective visitors to "ring the front door bell, as they aren't open in any sort of commercial sense and all the money they receive from visitors goes to a village charity, so there is nobody waiting expectantly for anyone to arrive".

There is a fulsome description of the house and its owners at

The other reason to visit Leadenham is much more freely open.  The George Hotel is my favourite pit-stop on journeys along the A17, whether for morning coffee or a sandwich lunch.  The pub prides itself on using beef from Lincoln Red cattle.

It also has a world-beating collection of seven hundred malt whiskies, collected since 1970.  Just think:  if you lived within walking distance you could go to the George for what Denis Thatcher referred to as a "tincture" every night for two years without repetition.  Ranged round the walls of the bar is a positive library of malt whisky.

The only down-side is that the prices of a single single malt range from £2.10 to £350.

The George website [] recommends the malt liqueur Drunkeld Atholl Brose [sic] which you can sip on its own or with fresh cream floated on top.

Denis Thatcher would have been appalled: he avoided ice because, as he said, it dilutes the alcohol.

(Drunkeld Atholl Brose – it seems – is really spelled Dunkeld:

Posted by: mike on Jun 9, 2011

Category:The Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

Chatsworth west front

About fifteen years ago Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire, commissioned an extensive archaeological survey of the Chatsworth estate, a summary of which was published as John Barnatt & Tom Williamson, Chatsworth:  a landscape history (Windgather 2005).

It's a revelation.

Chatsworth has, of course, been repeatedly written up, ever since the Bachelor 6th Duke produced his privately printed Handbook of Chatsworth and Hardwick in 1845.  The recent survey pulls together a full review of the archaeology and the estate's enormous archive, backed by the evidence of maps, illustrations and modern photography.

This reveals a layered chronology of a significant area of the upland Derbyshire Peak back to prehistoric times.  In particular, since the mid-eighteenth century much of the landscape has been undisturbed, leaving evidence of prehistoric, medieval and early modern agriculture and industry that has been obliterated elsewhere in the county.

The shadowy presence of the great landscape designer, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, who is mentioned only once in the entire Chatsworth archive, is made clearer because almost all payments in the estate accounts were addressed to his "foreman" or contractor, Michael Millican.  Their work in creating the naturalistic landscape that stretches from Chatsworth House to the horizon began in 1759, financed to a great extent by the 4th Duke's lucrative copper mine at Ecton in Staffordshire.

Another recent discovery is the complexity of the patterns of drives and roads around the estate.  It seems that the eighteenth-century landscape was primarily designed to be seen from and near the house, and largely enjoyed on foot, rather like the characters' explorations of Mr Rushworth's Sotherton property in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814).

During the early Victorian period, the time of the Bachelor Duke, the park was crisscrossed with wide drives, carefully contrived to give advantageous views.  Many of these have since been grassed over and largely forgotten.  It seems that in the Bachelor's time visitors were encouraged to enjoy the mature landscape in the comfort of a carriage.

When I take groups to Chatsworth, particularly visitors from outside the UK, I make a point as the coach climbs the steep road (realigned in the early nineteenth century) from Beeley Bridge (1759) of explaining that everything within sight – buildings, grass, trees, water – is in fact contrived by man.  And you wouldn't get planning permission for it now.  Especially as it lies in a National Park.

The portal for information about visiting Chatsworth is

Posted by: mike on May 24, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Woodhouse east front 2

The Sheffield Star for May 21st 2011 announces 1,500 jobs in £200m plans to open Black Diamonds stately home, the first public news that Wentworth Woodhouse, the vast Palladian mansion on the borders of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley, will become accessible to the general public for the first time, possibly by 2015.

Without doubt this is one of the greatest classical Georgian houses in the British Isles – actually two houses, because the rarely seen "back front", a baroque west wing built for the Lord Malton who became 1st Marquis of Rockingham, is overshadowed by the enormous Palladian east wing designed by Henry Flitcroft for the 2nd Marquis, who served as prime minister from in 1765-6 and again briefly in the year of his death, 1782.

Flitcroft's façade is 606 feet long, with pavilions each the size of a small country house.  The great rooms inside include the magnificent Great Hall, decorated with fluted Ionic columns in Siena scagliola, embellished, like the wooden doorcases, with verde antico, and the Whistlejacket Room, which still houses a reproduction of Stubbs' famous painting (c1762) of a Fitzwilliam stallion, now in the National Gallery.

This house figures in architectural, political and social history as strongly as the celebrated Stowe, which survived as the centrepiece of a public school, its landscape now maintained by the National Trust.  Arguments over the family inheritance, leasing to the county council as a teacher-training college, the malicious excavation of the park by a vindictive Minister of Power, Emmanuel Shinwell [see], and the family's refusal to resume the liability when the college closed in 1986 have made Wentworth Woodhouse a mystery house.

The circumstances in which the family loosened and then released its grip on the place are vividly described in Catherine Bailey's superb Black Diamonds (Viking 2007).  [See Quirks of fate.]  The house and ninety surrounding acres were sold as a private residence in 1989 to Wensley Haydon-Baillie, who went voluntarily bankrupt nine years later.  Latterly it was sold by the administrators to a retired London architect, Clifford Newbold, who at the age of 85 is setting out on a scheme to incorporate a seventy-bedroom hotel and a spa while opening the main house as a museum, in anticipation of up to 150,000 visitors.  In this scheme John Carr's stable block, built to house a hundred horses, will become a business park.

This development represents a very welcome change of direction, after years when the house and its immediate surroundings were strictly off limits to locals and visitors.  Now, with the backing of English Heritage and Rotherham Borough Council, Mr Newbould's scheme is the first piece of optimistic news about the house since the Fitzwilliams packed up their possessions at the start of the Second World War.

The Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse will form the finale of the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 21, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Wardour Castle

When I was reconnoitring a 'Country Houses of Wiltshire' tour some years ago, I was particularly kindly treated by Nigel Tuersley, who was then coming to the end of his magnificent renovation of James Paine's Wardour Castle, near Tisbury.

Nigel has a distinctive career-trajectory – ecologist turned property-developer – with a particular love of Georgian architecture.  He took over this 75-room Georgian house, that had previously been used by Cranbourne Chase School and was built in 1770-1776 for the 8th Lord Arundell, and converted it into ten apartments, the biggest of which, in the rustic and piano nobile floors of the central block, he occupied with his wife and two children.

To resolve the dilemma of decorating and furnishing the vast rooms with their 24-foot ceilings designed by the most understated of Georgian architects, Nigel Tuersley commissioned the minimalist architect John Pawson to design his apartment.

When Nigel gave me free rein to photograph the place I had to use ambient light, simply because I couldn't find the light switches.  When subsequently he allowed me to take not one but two groups of Nottingham University adult-education students to visit, he challenged us to find them.  They were concealed in the architraves of the doorcases.

Pawson's intention, throughout the house, is to retain the smooth lines of Paine's classical minimalism.  Bathrooms are grand rooms within grand rooms, and the kitchen contains everything you'd expect to find, though not necessarily where you'd look for it.

As Nigel Tuersley remarked to Victoria O'Brien ['No-frills Georgian', The Sunday Times, February 22nd 2004], at the time the house was commissioned and designed "it was considered show your wealth in any sort of obvious way".  It's easy to make cheap jokes about minimalism but Nigel, whose development company is called Classical Order, says, "Minimalism is not a fashion or passing phase.  It's as enduring a design aesthetic as classicism, and (at Wardour Castle) the two work seamlessly together."

Nigel Tuersley has now moved out of Wardour Castle, and it belongs to Jasper Conran, who comes from a noted design dynasty.  The house, which Nikolaus Pevsner described as "the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire", attracts a succession of careful owners.

Wardour Castle is private, and is not open to the public.

Wardour Castle is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom's lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 3, 2011

Category:The Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

North Lees Hall

A recent article described one of the properties of the Landmark Trust [see Living in a pineapple] which provides life-enhancing opportunities to stay, on a self-catering basis, in unusual historic buildings in the British Isles and further afield.

Another organisation that provides similar holiday lets in Britain is the Vivat Trust [], who run North Lees Hall, near Hathersage in Derbyshire.

This is a highly significant building, built for the Jessop family of Broom Hall [see The genius of the knife, fork and spoon] who belonged to the sphere of influence of George, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, custodian of the captive Mary, Queen of Scots and long-suffering husband of Bess of Hardwick.

Many of the Earl's associates built "high houses", with tall turrets, gridiron mullioned windows and skied chambers and galleries.  The plasterwork at North Lees Hall includes the arms of the Rodes family of Barlborough Hall;  other families with Shrewsbury links and comparable houses included the Sandfords of Thorpe Salvin Hall and the Hewitts of Shireoaks Hall.

Because North Lees Hall was more or less continuously let from the mid-seventeenth century until after the Second World War it was hardly altered, but at times neglected.  Sometime before 1792 the tenancy came to one Thomas Eyre, whose descendants stayed here until 1882. Their occupation had an interesting effect:  a whole procession of scholarly visitors assumed a quite spurious connection with the ancient and prolific Catholic family of Eyre.  The resulting legends are extremely attractive.

A more famous connection came from the 1845 visit of Charlotte Brontë, who is often assumed to have based Thornfield Hall at least partly on North Lees in writing the novel she entitled Jane Eyre – "...three stories high, of proportions not vast, though considerable...battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery."  She may have taken her heroine's family name from the occupants, and named the nearby fictional village Morton after the actual landlord of the George Inn, Hathersage.

After the Second World War the house was neglected, and at one stage was used for storing grain.  It was converted it into holiday accommodation by Lt-Col Hugh Beach.  It was purchased by the Peak Park Planning Board in 1971, and in 1987 it was leased to the Vivat Trust, who restored and reopened it as self-catering holiday apartments in 1989.  A further restoration took place in 2002.

Satisfied customers report at  Other sites associated with Jane Eyre are described and illustrated at

Posted by: mike on Mar 31, 2011

Category:Country HousesCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Tower of Elphinstone

Tower of Elphinstone (1982)

Before the Murray Earls of Dunmore built Dunmore Park House [see Could have done more], the place was called Elphinstone, after the family that had lived there in the sixteenth century, and the residence was a substantial 57-foot-high tower, alternatively known as the Tower of Elphinstone or Elphinstone Tower.

A curious structure with enormously thick walls, and major rooms on the first, second and third floors, it seems to have been unoccupied after the 3rd Earl of Dunmore bought the Elphinstone property in 1754, until in 1836 the barrel-vaulted ground-floor room was converted into a mausoleum.

In 1840 the two-storey service wing was cleared away to give space for St Andrew's Church, a modest Gothic building with a bell-turret.

By the time I visited the place in 1982 the Tower had collapsed, and St Andrew's Church had been completely demolished, leaving free-standing wall monuments surrounded by thin air.

Since then, the Tower has been neglected and vandalised, and the Falkirk Local History Society's website [] indicates that it may not survive for many more winters.

The corpses that had been interred in the vault have apparently been removed, but not – so it seems – the coffins, which were left to tempt passing vandals.  The 2009 state of the place, and also the ruins of Dunmore Park House, are illustrated at

It's not a pretty sight.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Mar 29, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Dunmore Park House

Dunmore Park House, interior (1982)

When I stayed at the Dunmore Pineapple in 1982 [see Living in a pineapple], we walked across the park to the ruins of Dunmore Park House, which was built for George Murray, 5th Earl of Dunmore (1762-1836), son of the builder of the Pineapple, by William Wilkins (1778-1839).

Wilkins is best known for his work in the Greek Revival style such as the National Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge and the Yorkshire Museum in York.  He could turn his hand to other styles, however, and had built Dalmeny Castle in what was called 'Tudor Revival' for the 4th Earl in 1817.

It follows that Dunmore Park House, built for the same family in the same style as Dalmeny, is an architectural significant building.  The Murrays left Dunmore in 1911, but the house remained a home until 1961.

When we explored it in 1982 it was already derelict, having been abandoned after a short spell as a girls' school in 1964.  Since then, it has become entirely a ruin, and remains the subject of seemingly intractable planning debate, which figures on the Scottish Buildings at Risk register  (See also

The house is illustrated at, a series of images shot in 2007.

Edmund Burke's sonorous remark that "The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing" is customarily applied to more grave and significant matters than planning policy, but the fact remains that while private owners and public bodies prevaricate, a worthwhile and once habitable building disintegrates.

Posted by: mike on Feb 21, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Lyveden New Bield

The last of Sir Thomas Tresham's three buildings is in some ways the most intriguing.  Whereas the Triangular Lodge [see The conceit of the man] is a complete entity, Lyveden New Bield is incomplete, presumably abandoned on Sir Thomas' death in 1605.  It has sat on its hilltop in the wide Northamptonshire countryside for over four hundred years now, and only recently has it begun to make sense fully, thanks to a smart National Trust researcher and the German air-force.

The architecture is actually quite easy to read.  It was clearly intended as a small residence, capable of supporting a small number of guests for meals and probably overnight.  There is, for instance, a kitchen with a bread-oven.  But the building seems never to have been roofed or floored.

The façades have the same combination of classical proportions and Elizabethan mullion-and-transom windows as the Rothwell Market House [see Three who bear witness].  Lyveden New Bield, however, is much more obviously cruciform in plan, and it bristles with religious symbolism that quietly asserts Sir Thomas' Catholic faith.

The cruciform plan, for instance, consists of five squares.  Sir Gyles Isham explained, in the National Trust guide-book, that the end of each wing has seven faces each five feet wide, because in Christian numerology five is the number of salvation and seven is associated with the Godhead.  The Biblical and liturgical inscriptions around the entablature each have eighty-one (9×9) letters, adjusted so that the names 'Jesus' and 'Maria' appear symmetrically on the wall alongside the end bay.  The frieze between the two principal floors carries carvings of the symbols of the Passion, Judas' money bag, the scourge, the pillar, the crown of thorns and the sceptre of reeds, together with the two Christograms, 'IHS' and 'XP' representing the name of Christ.

If you were a pious Jacobean Protestant, you might accept that the theme of the decoration is the Passion of Our Lord.  If you were a knowing Catholic, you'd realise that it also celebrates the sufferings of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows.  Catholicism in that dangerous age was a sort of Freemasonry, communicating to its adherents through secret signs and signals.  In the year that Sir Thomas died, a group of Catholics including his son, Francis, attempted an audacious act of terrorism that we still commemorate on November 5th.

So what was it for?  The answer has recently become clearer.  From the main house down in the valley, Lyveden Old Bield, of which very little now remains, guests were invited to walk up through Sir Thomas' new fruit garden, climb to the top of a spiral mount that was restored in the 1990s, where their ultimate destination, the New Bield, was suddenly revealed in the distance.  Once there they could enjoy the view with refreshments in comfort.  Sir Thomas might have kept "secret house" there when the Old Bield was being cleaned.  I'd be very surprised if he didn't also intend to celebrate Mass:  no Protestant spy could get within a quarter of a mile of the place without being seen.

We owe a clearer understanding of this layout to a the crew of a German spy-plane who photographed the site in 1944.  Chris Gallagher, National Trust gardens and parks curator, found the images in the US National Archive in Baltimore, and realised that they showed that a previously unsuspected labyrinth formed part of Sir Thomas' formal garden.  [See and]

As a result the site has been regraded to Grade I by English Heritage.  It will be exciting to watch its restoration over the next few years.

The Old Beild, more commonly known as Lyveden Manor, was acquired by the National Trust in 2012 so that, in due course, the two properties will be reunited and both open to the public:

Posted by: mike on Feb 19, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Rushton Triangular Lodge

Sir Thomas Tresham had a lot of time to kill while in prison for his Catholic faith.  Like many of his generation he was fascinated by what they called "conceits", intriguing visual or verbal puzzles which concealed meanings, whether for frivolous reasons or for deeply serious purposes.

His Triangular Lodge in the park of Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, is an astonishing puzzle.  Its practical purpose was as a base for the warrener who looked after the rabbits which provided fresh meat.  Lodges also served as a destination for outings from the main house, and occasionally for "secret house", when the owner retreated from the main residence while it was spring-cleaned.  It could just as easily serve as an unobtrusive location for the illegal celebration of the Catholic Mass.

That would explain not only its triangular shape, but also the complex inscriptions which cover its walls.

Its plan is an equilateral triangle, each side 33 feet long;  each face has three pinnacled gables;  there are three storeys, each of which has three windows on each of the three walls.  The inscription round the frieze contains 33 letters on each side.  Inside on each floor, the triangular plan is divided by cross-partitions into hexagonal rooms, which of course create further equilateral triangles.

The inscription above the door translates two ways:  Tres testimonium dant can be "There are three who bear record in heaven" [John ch 5, v 7] or "I, Thomas Tresham, bear witness".  The three inscriptions on each gable are verses from the books of Isaiah, Romans and Habakkuk.  The innermost room has the acronym "SSSDDS" [Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth].  The numerical inscriptions, many of which are divisible by three, relate to Biblical dates of the Creation and the Flood, and the ages at death of Jesus and his mother, subtracted by the AD date 1593.

The blogger Scriblerus [] suspects obsessive-compulsive disorder;  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, that austere German scholar, took a more serious view:  " a testament of faith this building must be viewed with respect".

Scriblerus comments, "I've never known a building so ostentatiously incognito."

It is a curious building to look at.  Buy the guide-book and seek out the puzzles.  There's nothing like it anywhere.

The Triangular Lodge is in the care of English Heritage:  see  Be aware that there are no facilities, though there are a number of pubs and garden centres nearby.  Rushton Hall Hotel is luxurious:  afternoon tea starts at £24.00.

Posted by: mike on Feb 17, 2011

Category:Country Houses

Rothwell Market House

Sir Thomas Tresham II (1545-1605) occupied a place at the very top of Elizabethan society.  At the age of fifteen he inherited a huge estate from his grandfather, Sir Thomas Tresham I.  He knew the most powerful courtiers in the kingdom – William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, and Sir Christopher Hatton, the Lord Chancellor, both of whom had seats within a few miles of Tresham's estate at Rushton, Northamptonshire.  Lady Tresham was a daughter of the Catholic Sir Robert Throckmorton, who withdrew from public life as soon as Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  One of their sons was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and died (of natural causes) in the Tower of London.

Brought up a Protestant, Tresham appears to have undergone a conversion to Catholicism in 1580.  Despite his wealth and status, his uncompromising allegiance to the Catholic faith for the latter part of his life drained his fortune and often restricted his freedom.  When he had his freedom, he spent freely.  His lasting legacy consists of three buildings he created, with much ingenuity.

The earliest of these, though it wasn't roofed until the nineteenth century, is the Market House, Rothwell, begun in or shortly after 1578.  Apparently entirely secular, it is cruciform in shape, ostensibly built as a covered market and meeting room to celebrate and carry the heraldic emblems of himself and his neighbours.  Its classical proportions are remarkably correct for a building of its period.  The design of the Market House is credited to William Grumbold, but it seems extremely likely that the decorations were tightly specified by Sir Thomas.

Its Latin inscription records that it was built "to the perpetual honour of my friends" and "as a tribute to [my] sweet fatherland and County of Northampton, but chiefly to this town [my] near neighbour".

It's unclear whether building-work was never completed or whether it had at some point been partly dismantled:  Sir Thomas was described as "more forward in beginning than finishing his fabricks".

Finally completed by the Victorian architect John Alfred Gotch, it continues to serve the community, as Sir Thomas wished, as the council chamber for Rothwell Town Council:

Posted by: mike on Feb 2, 2011

Category:Country HousesBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Llangollen Plas Newydd

Among the less likely celebrities to attend the ceremonial opening of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in November 1805 were the Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and her companion Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1832), of Plas Newydd, legends within their own lifetimes as the 'Ladies of Llangollen'.

This famous and eccentric pair of friends were both of Irish ancestry but from contrasting backgrounds:  Lady Eleanor's family had lost the title Marquess of Ormonde because of their Catholic faith;  Sarah Ponsonby's family were members of the Protestant Ascendancy.

Neither woman had a particularly happy youth.  When Lady Eleanor reached the age of 39 without showing any inclination to marry, her mother tried to pack her away in a French convent.  It seems likely that Sarah Ponsonby was propositioned by a married relative, Sir William Fownes.

Despite a sixteen-year gap in their respective ages, the two formed an intense friendship and resolved to elope.  Though at first they were brought back to their respective families, the ructions were such that they were eventually allowed to leave together, with an uncertain income of £300, and after touring Wales and the Marches for nearly two years they settled in Llangollen where they rented a cottage that they renamed Plas Newydd ('New Hall').

Tended by a housekeeper, Mary Caryll, they took up a life of intended seclusion which was interrupted at regular intervals by such illuminati as the poet Anna Seward, Harriet Bowdler, editor of the expurgated Shakespeare, the great potter Josiah Wedgwood, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an Opium-Eater, and Sir Arthur Wellesley who in later life became the Duke of Wellington.

Not all visitors were made welcome – the ladies were not beyond hiding from unwanted guests – but they were partial to gifts of antique carved oak, and Plas Newydd to this day is encrusted with weird woodwork.

Even in those pre-Freudian times tongues wagged periodically, and the General Evening Post of July 24th 1790 carried an article entitled 'Extraordinary Female Affection' loaded with the innuendo of a modern red-top.  Harriet Bowdler, writing after their deaths in 1836, probably defined the relationship as it was lived:

True friendship is a divine and spiritual relation of minds, a union of souls, a marriage of hearts, a harmony of designs and affections, which being entered into by mutual consent, groweth up into the purest kindness and most endearing love, maintaining itself by the openest freedom, the warmest sympathy, and the closest secrecy.

Elizabeth Mavor wrote a delightful account of the Ladies' lives, The Ladies of Llangollen:  a study in romantic friendship (Penguin 1973), which is out of print, but is now available as a Kindle download:

Plas Newydd is a short walk out of Llangollen town centre:  it is administered by Denbighshire County Council [].

Posted by: mike on Nov 21, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Lamport Hall

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire [] is a beautiful house with lots of stories of the Isham family, who lived there and repeatedly extended it over four hundred years.  Sir Gyles Isham, the twelfth baronet, restored it from wartime neglect and safeguarded its future with a preservation trust:  oddly, he seems to have left the house short of beds, so that the rooms on the upper floor are variously furnished.

One of these rooms is dominated by a particular painting that is mentioned in the guidebook only as "'Roman Charity' from the school of Rubens".  In the group I joined there was a gentleman specialising in egregious questions who asked what was going on in this unusual scene.

Our guide remarked that she only ever explained the painting if asked.  The grey-bearded man in the painting was in prison – which explained why he was shackled and stark naked.  The lady in the painting was his daughter, and was carrying a baby.  The baby, the guide pointed out, indicated how it was that the daughter was in a position to give her imprisoned father "sustenance".

I checked out afterwards that this is the legend of Myco (the father) and Pero (the daughter), which is recorded by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, writing at the time of Christ.  I found this at a site  What would we do without Google?

So if you visit Lamport Hall, you don't need to ask about the painting.

Posted by: mike on Nov 19, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Kelmarsh Hall

It's not uncommon for people to fall in love with a house, but it's exceptional to marry its owner.

Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994), the daughter of a Virginian railroad owner, had first married the grandson of the founder of Marshall Field, the Chicago department-store, and secondly his cousin, Ronald Tree, who bought Nancy's grandfather's home, her birthplace, Mirador, which she improved.

The Trees moved to England in 1927 and rented first Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, and then took a ten-year repairing lease of the nearby Kelmarsh Hall, originally designed by James Gibbs (c1727-32), and owned by Claude 'Jubie' Lancaster.  Nancy modernised and redecorated the place, expressing her exceptional talent for sumptuous, under-stated design.  In the six years that the Trees lived at Kelmarsh she transformed the house and its garden.

In 1933, the year that Ronald Tree became Conservative MP for Market Harborough, the couple moved to Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, also by Gibbs, where Nancy collaborated with Lady Sybil Colefax to turn a cold, neglected Palladian house into an idyllic home that epitomised upper-class comfort and hospitality.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, contributing to Nancy Lancaster's Daily Telegraph obituary [August 20th 1994], describes the influential effect of knowing Ditchley in Nancy's time:

Her genius (and that is no exaggeration) was her eye for colour, scale, objects and the dressing-up of them; the stuffs the curtains were made of, their shapes and trimmings, the china, tablecloths, knives and forks.

Even the bathrooms were little works of art.  Warm, panelled, carpeted, there were shelves of Chelsea china cauliflowers, cabbages, tulips and rabbits of exquisite quality...

The tea tables had no cloths but were painted brilliant Chinese red.  Anyone could have done that, but no-one else did.

Towards the end of the Second World War Ronald began an affair, and the Trees divorced in 1947.  A year later Nancy married her own lover, the owner of Kelmarsh Hall, 'Jubie' Lancaster, and moved back to what she described as her favourite home.

In 1950 she bought out Sybil Colefax's business, Colefax & Fowler, and began a tempestuous professional partnership with the decorator John Fowler.  This association produced some of the most influential decorative schemes of the mid-twentieth century – Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, Mereworth Castle, Kent (then owned by Nancy's son, Michael Tree) and Wilton House, near Salisbury.  Their trademark cool eclecticism, innovative, subtle use of colour and preoccupation with comfort have become known as the "English Country House Style" – an appropriate generalisation for the work of a British designer and an American home-maker.

John Fowler's theatrical instructions to owners, National Trust grandees and artisans alike, are well known, yet Nancy could hold her own.  On one occasion she told a decorator, "Paint it the colour of elephant's breath."  She specified such colours as caca du dauphin and vomitesse de la reine.  It's remarkable what one can get away with in French.

Even though their pioneering investigations into historical decoration, scraping surfaces with a threepenny bit, have now been superseded by more sophisticated research techniques, their creative tension between historicism and creativity, and masculinity and femininity, define a turning point in British decorative art.

However much she loved Kelmarsh, her third marriage lasted only until 1953:  on her divorce she moved to Haseley Court, Oxfordshire.  After a fire in 1971 she sold the Court and moved into the adjacent Coach House for the rest of her long life.

Jubie Lancaster's sister Cicley set up the Kelmarsh Trust [] to maintain the house and its estate after her death in 1996.

Posted by: mike on Nov 17, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Deene Park

Deene Park, Northamptonshire [] has belonged to the Brudenell family since 1514:  its current owner, Mr Edmund Brudenell, is directly descended from the purchaser, Sir Robert Brudenell, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the reign of Henry VIII.

Across the generations, the Brudenells have held the titles Duke of Montagu, Marquess of Ailesbury, Earl of Cardigan.  Of all the illustrious ancestors, one who stands out in national history is James, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), the man who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (1854).  His modern reputation was compromised by Cecil Woodham-Smith's account The Reason Why (1953) and Trevor Howard's portrayal of him in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

In fact, the Battle of Balaclava was simply an incident in a life lived hard and fast.

As Lord Brudenell he was shunted into the pocket borough of Marlborough at the age of 21.  As a result of his most determined political stand, abstaining over the Catholic Emancipation Act, he was removed from this seat.  He purchased the parliamentary seat of Fowey, Cornwall, only to see it abolished two years later under the 1832 Reform Act.  He then spent the equivalent of £1½ million on being elected, legitimately by the standards of the day, to the new constituency of Northamptonshire North.  Five years later he had to move to the House of Lords on inheriting his father's title.

His emotional life was similarly turbulent.  He seduced the wife of a childhood friend, Elizabeth Tollemache Johnstone, whose husband roundly declared her "the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom" and divorced her.  She married Lord Brudenell in 1826, but by the time she became countess eleven years later they had separated.  There were no children.

In the months before Elizabeth died in 1858, Lord Cardigan formed a liaison with Adeline de Horsey, 28 years his junior.  Two months after Elizabeth's death, they took off to Gibraltar in Cardigan's yacht, married, and travelled on to receive a papal blessing in Rome.  Queen Victoria and British society never forgave them.

They enjoyed ten years of happy marriage, punctuated with what a family history describes as "trivial infidelities", and she lived on as the epitome of the term "merry widow" until 1915.

Cardigan's portrayal in The Charge of the Light Brigade, at most impressionistic and certainly not entirely accurate, hardly begins to capture the drama of his life.  There's another film to be made out of the life of this least boring of Victorians.

Deene Park contains numerous portraits and mementos of the 7th Earl and his countess Adeline, who between them lived there for 78 years.

Posted by: mike on Oct 1, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Fulbeck Manor

One of the delights of the 2010 Country Houses of Lincolnshire tour was visiting Fulbeck Manor, where Julian Fane shows some four centuries of family portraits.

There is always something special about being invited to a country house that is still a home, and being shown round by the owner rather than a bought-in guide.  Fulbeck Manor is exceptional because Mr Fane describes and shows his direct ancestors back to the sixteenth century.

One participant's evaluation comment said, "To have a direct descendant of all the famous people portrayed explain their history, family connections, national importance, was both illuminating and a privilege, especially from someone with such a fund of stories."

Alongside the direct line of Fanes there are of course cousins.  I particularly enjoy the story behind a pair of paintings by Harry Hall of the horses 'Agility' and 'Apology' which celebrate the embarrassing racing successes of Rev John William King (1793-1875).

Despite his use of a nom de course, Mr Launde, Agility's twenty wins and £6,000 prize-money, followed by Apology winning the fillies' Triple Crown (the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger) in 1874 as well as the Home Bred Sweepstakes at Newmarket, the Coronation Stakes at Ascot and the Ascot Gold Cup provoked the Bishop of Lincoln to demand that as a clergyman he choose between the Church and the Turf.

In reply, Rev King sent the bishop a card on which he wrote the one word, 'Apology'.

Fulbeck Manor is open to groups of up to twenty-five people by written appointment only:  details can be found at,32,38,1006&town=

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 28, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Harlaxton Manor library

The interwar rescuer of Gregory Gregory's vast Harlaxton Manor was as formidable and eccentric as the building – the English daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman who invented Shavex, the first brushless shaving cream, Mrs Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966), the widow of a Belgian artist.

A succession of Gregory's descendants had inherited this unforgiving pile and, with varying degrees of success, tried to live in it.  When Thomas Sherwin Pearson Gregory died in 1935 his son put it on the market with 500 acres "or as required":  80 bedrooms are mentioned, though there was only one bathroom.  Jackson Stops & Staff's plaintive advertisement in The Times – "To save from demolition...noble ancestral seat...probably the supreme example of domestic architecture of its period" – ignored the possibility that Salvin and Burn's architecture was so substantial that demolition would be uneconomic.

Mrs Van der Elst paid £78,000 for the building and its surrounding land, renamed it "Grantham Castle", vigorously modernised the plumbing and installed electricity on a suitably grand scale, and was invariably to be found at the great country-house sales of the time – Clumber, Rufford and so on – picking up furnishings, fixtures and fittings at bargain prices.  She made the estate an animal sanctuary, extending her protection even to the domestic mice in the Manor.

A glimpse of the house in Mrs Van der Elst's day exists as a 1939 Pathé newsreel clip:

She was famed for her vehement campaigns against capital punishment, regularly turning up in her Rolls Royce outside prisons at the time of an execution.  She also made a practice of holding séances to contact her dead husband, and kept his ashes in an urn in the library, a dark, low room dominated by antique barley-sugar wooden columns.

Having shared the building with the RAF First Airborne Division during the Second World War, Mrs Van der Elst ran out of money and sold the house in 1948 for only £60,000.  When the house contents were auctioned Mr Van der Elst's ashes were accidentally knocked down to an unsuspecting bidder and had to be discreetly retrieved.

The manor passed successively to the Society of Jesus, the University of Stanford, California, and then the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their English campus.

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom's lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the recent tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 20, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Wentworth Woodhouse east front

Motto of the Marquesses of Rockingham – Mea gloria fides (Faith is my glory) – on the east front of Wentworth Woodhouse

Primogeniture is a risky business.

Andrew, 11th Duke of Devonshire (1920-2004) wasn't expected to inherit until his older brother Billy was shot by a sniper in France in September 1944.  For the rest of his life, Andrew Devonshire was haunted by a feeling of stepping into his brother's shoes:  "I'm Duke of Devonshire owing to a marksman killing my brother, so I'm here by proxy and I remind myself every morning when I wake up and again when I go to bed, that I am one of the luckiest men alive. And it does make me uneasy. I mean, it's not right!" [Lynn Barber, 'The Original Thin White Duke', The Observer, October 22nd 2002].

Indeed, at the time that William, Marquess of Hartington died, it was possible that his wife of four months might have conceived – but it turned out she hadn't.  Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington was the daughter of the former US Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy:  two of her brothers were Jack, the future US President, and his brother Bobby.

Her marriage did not go down well, particularly with her mother, Rose, because the Kennedys were staunch Boston Catholics whereas the Dukes of Devonshire were firmly Protestant.  Indeed, the only Kennedy to attend the wedding was Kathleen's oldest brother, Joe Jnr, who was himself killed in action over Suffolk in August 1944.

The extraordinary grief of losing a brother and a husband within a matter of weeks would crush many people:  Kathleen Hartington wrote to a friend, " holds no fears for someone who has faced love, marriage and death before the age of 25".

She made a life for herself in post-war London, and fell in love with the unhappily married Peter Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, 8th Earl Fitzwilliam.  Not only were the Fitzwilliams intransigently Protestant, but the necessity for a divorce was anathema to Rose Kennedy.  In the hope of persuading Joseph Kennedy Snr to accept their relationship the couple flew to the South of France in a private plane which encountered a thunderstorm and crashed into a mountain in the Ardèche region of France in 1948, killing all on board.  Kathleen, Marchioness of Hartington is buried at Edensor, in the grounds of Chatsworth House:  her grave carries the epitaph "Joy she gave;  joy she has found".

The Fitzwilliam title, the family seat at Wentworth Woodhouse, South Yorkshire, and the extensive estates passed to Eric, 9th Earl, an alcoholic bachelor.  The next heir was not only distant but in doubt – one of two brothers, great-grandsons of the 5th Earl – of whom the elder, Toby, had a son and grandson, but whose legitimacy was uncertain, while Tom, the younger, had no male heir.  A court-case settled in favour of Tom, who duly succeeded as 10th Earl and died in 1979, taking the title with him.

So the Devonshire dynasty continues through the line of Billy Hartington's younger brother and Chatsworth thrives;  the Fitzwilliam estates remain in the ownership of the 10th Earl's descendants and the estate village of Wentworth is maintained by the Fitzwilliam Wentworth Amenity Trust, but the vast house, comparable in scale with Chatsworth or Blenheim, was sold off in 1989, and was until recently inaccessible to the public, though the East Front has always been visible from the bridleway that runs through the park.

The twentieth-century history of the Fitzwilliams is told in Catherine Bailey, Black Diamonds:  the rise and fall of an English dynasty (Viking 2007), a remarkable achievement by a first-time author, not least because of the notorious secrecy of the family.  Tom, 10th Earl, ordered the destruction of those family documents that hadn't been weeded by his predecessors:  the sixteen tons of papers took three weeks to burn.

Read the book.  It's compelling.

Illustrations of Wentworth Woodhouse and the surrounding monuments can be found at  Detailed information is available at

The Connoisseurs Tour of Wentworth Woodhouse will form the finale of the tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire (June 5th-9th 2014), based at Wortley Hall near Sheffield.  For details please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 17, 2010

Category:The Derbyshire Derwent ValleyCountry Houses

Chatsworth south front

Motto of the Dukes of Devonshire – Cavendo Tutus (Safety with caution) – on the south front of Chatsworth House

There was a time when Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire could claim to be non-literary.  When her friend Evelyn Waugh sent her a copy of his biography of the Catholic theologian Ronald Knox, he inscribed it "For Darling Debo, with love from Evelyn.  You will not find a word in this to offend your Protestant sympathies", and she noticed that every page was blank – "the perfect present," as she described it, "for a non-reader".

Her two masterly descriptions of her home, The House:  a portrait of Chatsworth (Macmillan 1982) and The Estate:  a view from Chatsworth (Macmillan 1990), showed her to be a charming, lucid and informative writer, with an unerring facility for the apt anecdote.

Since that time she has written extensively and has now published an autobiography, Wait for me!  Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (John Murray 2010), which is characterised by the candour that contemporary memoirs allow, discussing her miscarriages and her husband's alcoholism, with the comment, "Sixty years ago none of this would have been discussed:  it would have been swept under the the pretence that it was not happening".

(Andrew Devonshire, shortly before his death, wrote his own memoir, Accidents of Fortune [Michael Russell 2004], honest and modest, as befits a man who declared he won his Military Cross "for being cheerful".)

In everything the Duchess writes, and in the interviews she gives, there is a characteristic astute common-sense, tipped with asperity – wondering, in a Sunday Times interview with Rosie Millard [September 7th 2008], if the media reporters who hounded her nephew Max Mosley had dull private lives, and vastly preferring Attlee to Blair among Labour prime ministers.

The survival of Chatsworth as a great house and a functioning landed estate is entirely attributable to the courage of Andrew, 11th Duke and to the business acumen of his duchess, Deborah.  When Edward, 10th Duke, died in 1950 four months too soon to escape death duties, it would have been an easy option for his son to sell up, pay the 80% duty and live the life of a prosperous publisher.

Instead, Andrew Devonshire took the view that he and his wife were "life custodians of what has been at Chatsworth for centuries":  he sold outlying land, handed over Hardwick Hall to the National Trust and gave items from the Chatsworth collection worth four-fifths of the duty owed.  The debt on the actual death duty was settled by 1967;  paying off the accrued interest took until 1974.  Then, with a further sale of a single Poussin and a collection of 69 Old Master drawings, he set up a £21 million trust to maintain Chatsworth.  Visitor entry pays about one-third of the running costs;  the rest is met by the Chatsworth House Trust.

His Grace was always the first to give credit for the way his Duchess turned the estate into an extremely effective cash generator.  She took great pride in the fact that "there are no merry-go-rounds";  her personal interest has always been in making the house and the estate popular and good value:  "I love shopkeeping better than anything."

It's Her Grace's flair that created the Chatsworth Farm Shop [], the Cavendish Hotel and Restaurant in Baslow [] and the Devonshire Arms Hotel, Bolton Abbey [].

When the 11th Duke died in 2004 the title and the Devonshire estate passed to his son, Peregrine, and his duchess Amanda.  They are now making their own mark on the house and the estate:  details of the Chatsworth Masterplan can be found at

Posted by: mike on Aug 9, 2010

Category:Country Houses

Nottingham Castle

When is a castle not a castle?  For many visitors, Nottingham Castle comes as a surprise, because it doesn't have battlements or a drawbridge.  It did, of course, at one time, but the medieval fortress that guarded the crossing of the River Trent that is now a famous cricket ground disappeared after the English Civil War.

Nottingham was the place where King Charles I first raised his standard, signalling his military opposition to the forces of Parliament and triggering the conflict that led to his execution.  The old castle was "slighted", that is, rendered indefensible, by order of Parliament in 1651, and its ruins and the park around it were bought after the Restoration by William Cavendish, a prominent Royalist and the first Duke of Newcastle.

He swept away the remains of the old castle and – well into his eighties – began a completely new, extremely modern classical palace that was completed, three years after his death, in 1679.  It cost £14,000.  (Curiously, the 8th Earl of Rutland, a Roundhead, had built a similarly splendid baroque palace in place of his slighted castle, beginning in 1654.  All that remains of this is a model, now displayed in the nineteenth-century replacement Belvoir Castle [].)

The seventeenth-century Nottingham Castle was little used in the decades that followed, and was virtually empty when in 1832 it was set alight by Reform Bill rioters.  Its then owner, the 4th Duke of Newcastle, was anything but popular:  in an election in 1830 he had evicted tenants who wouldn't vote as he wished, saying, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I please with my own?"

Eventually, in 1876, Nottingham Corporation bought the Castle from the 6th Duke and commissioned the local architect Thomas Chambers Hine to rebuild the interior as the first municipal museum of art in England.

Now it is the Castle Museum [], centrepiece of a cultural quarter that also includes a fascinating series of caves, including Mortimer's Hole, and, at the foot of the cliff on which the Castle stands, the Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard.

It may not look like a castle, but you can spend an entire day in and under it without getting bored.

Posted by: mike on Jul 26, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Harlaxton Manor

Harlaxton Manor is an exciting place to visit, yet most travellers only glimpse it as an astonishing vista to the south of the A607 Grantham-Melton Mowbray road.

Harlaxton is an exceptionally exciting building, designed between 1831 and 1837 by Anthony Salvin and William Burn for the eccentric bachelor Gregory Gregory (1786-1854), whose name is commemorated in Nottingham's Gregory Boulevard, developed on one of his six landed estates.

Gregory Gregory's intention in building such a huge house seems to have been first, to house his extensive art collection, and second to spite his heir, a distant cousin.  The result is a fascinating mixture of dramatic baroque interiors such as the Great Hall and Cedar Staircase and Victorian ingenuity – hidden doors so that the servants literally appeared out of the woodwork and an indoor railway viaduct to deliver coal by gravity to each floor.

In the spirit of the baroque theme, illusions abound.  The Cedar Staircase is nowhere near as high as it looks, and materials are not what they seem – wood turns out to be plaster, and what looks like solid plaster actually moves.  Room stewards will be available on Open House Day to explain the history of this strange building.

I've taken numerous groups to Harlaxton over the past twenty-three years, including one group of jaded teachers on a Friday-night near-the-end-of-term mystery tour.  As the coach trundled across the park in the summer evening, it seemed as if every window of the Manor glowed.  One lady (not a historian) thought she was at Disneyland.

Harlaxton Manor is well cared for by the University of Evansville, Indiana, who use it as their British campus.  The college website is at

Harlaxton Manor features in Mike Higginbottom's lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jul 16, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire:  theatre 2

My Isle of Man host-with-the-most John has provided further details of the Wurlitzer organ at Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, which, as I mentioned in the previous blog [Security-minded millionaire], was bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris in 1937 for Sir Julien Cahn's private theatre attached to his house.

The organ came, not from the Madeleine Theatre (1924), which still exists in the Rue de Surene [], but from another Madeleine Theatre, designed entirely as a cinema by Marcel Oudin in 1918, at 14 Boulevard de la Madeleine which is now an opticians.  The Wurlitzer – one of only two French Wurlitzers – was installed by the then owners, Loew Inc, in 1926.  According to Ken Roe's contribution to the cinema subsequently became the Gaumont Madeleine and showed films until at least the mid-1970s.

The website indicates this Wurlitzer was repossessed at some point after installation.  This modest instrument was an ideal purchase for Sir Julien's 352-seat theatre – "une salle élégante", as the French account has it.

The knobs and bells and whistles of the Wurlitzer have a more elegant tone when described in French:  les clochettes de traîneau [sleigh bells], les sabots de cheval [horses' hooves], les vagues [waves], les oiseaux [birdsong], la corne d'auto [car hooter], le gong d'incendie [fire-alarm], le sifflet de bateau à vapeur [steamboat whistle], la sirène [siren], le tam-tam [gong], et la sonnerie de porte [doorbell].

Among his many talents, John is a church organist and confessed, many years ago, to an ambition to play a Wurlitzer like the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.  My influence in Blackpool runs nowhere near that far, but I managed to give him the opportunity to play the Stanford Hall Wurlitzer.

Sometime in the late 1980s I ran a WEA day-visit to country houses in south Nottinghamshire, and smuggled John into the orchestra pit of the Stanford Hall Theatre – then part of the Co-operative College – with an arrangement that when at the end of my tour I brought the group into the back of the auditorium and said, "And this is the private theatre..." John would press the lift-button on the console and rise from the pit playing 'I do like to be beside the seaside'.

Which would have worked perfectly if John had realised how far up the lift goes, or I'd been aware that he suffers from vertigo.  It's quite difficult to keep a grip when you're playing with both hands and both feet.  I suppose buttock-clenching is the only resort and I've never liked to ask.

Certainly John's performance had a certain bravura quality, and we've both dined out on the story ever since.

Posted by: mike on Jul 14, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesCountry Houses

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire:  theatre

Sir Julien Cahn (1882-1944), the millionaire owner of the Nottingham Furnishing Company, lived from 1928 until his death at Stanford Hall, near Loughborough, which he transformed to suit his distinctive lifestyle – part English country house, part Hollywood.

He employed Queen Mary's decorator, White, Allom Ltd, to install pastiche historical interiors and modern Art Deco schemes including at least four bathrooms (Sir Julien's in black and white, Lady Cahn's in blue and white, a guest bathroom in tortoiseshell and another – which survives – in salmon pink marble).  He built an indoor badminton court with trellis-work, trompe l'oeil privet and a birdcage in the corner.

Apart from hunting and philanthropy Sir Julien had two major hobbies, cricket and magic, in neither of which – according to contemporary accounts – he particularly excelled, but both of which he took extremely seriously.

To provide a venue for charity performances, Sir Julien commissioned a sumptuous 352-seat private theatre with a Wurlitzer organ bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris.  Above the auditorium Sir Julien provided a wing of bedrooms for the visiting cricket stars who took part in the Sir Julien Cahn Cricket XI.

Below the auditorium is the most extraordinary feature of all – a capacious gas-proof air-raid shelter easily capable of accommodating the entire household, with decontamination facilities and an escape-tunnel extending thirty-six feet beyond the building line in case the entire building collapsed above.

The Cahns left their mark in the grounds too.  There was an open-air swimming-pool, which eventually cost £60,000, nearly as much as the theatre, and for his fifty-fifth birthday Lady Cahn bought her husband some sea-lions (their names were Charlie, Aqua, Freda and Ivy) and a suitable pool was duly constructed.

After Sir Julien's death in 1944 Stanford Hall became the Co-operative College until 2001.

Posted by: mike on Jul 13, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Peckforton Castle

John, 1st Baron Tollemache (1805-1890) was not a figure to argue with.  Robust, traditional, solid character, full of vigour and strength, he lived life according to his own principles and died at the age of 85 from the effects of driving his trap through wintry weather.

He commissioned Anthony Salvin, one of the most versatile of Victorian architects, to build Peckforton Castle on his 26,000-acre Cheshire estate in the form of a fully equipped Edwardian castle (Edward I, that is,) complete with drawbridge and battlements, on top of a steep hill looking across to the genuinely medieval ruin of Beeston Castle on the adjacent hill.

If any Victorian architect could design a full-size thirteenth-century castle to be habitable by large-as-life nineteenth-century occupants, Salvin could.  Tough, gloomy, irredeemably masculine, the brand-new house had every modern convenience of its day, though some of them were in unlikely places.  All the spaces a Victorian aristocrat would expect in his house were provided, such as a billiard room, a library and a drawing room.  The main staircase is pentagonal.  The floor of the octagonal dining room sits on the central pillar of the annular wine cellar below.  There is also a long gallery, which is technically neither a medieval nor a Victorian feature.

Why did Lord Tollemache insist that his residence should be defensible against a thirteenth-century army?  Its dates are significant – 1845-50.  It seems that the baron, characteristically generous to his own tenants, feared an invasion of the Cheshire plain from the starving workers of the Lancashire cotton towns.  An Edwardian castle, quite as sturdy as Caernarfon or Conwy, could protect not only his family and his household, but also his tenants and, if necessary, their livestock.

The threat was virtually over by the time the place was finished.  But that didn't make it any less real at the time it was started.

It seems unlikely that anyone other Lord Tollemache himself could have lived in the Castle with enthusiasm.  Descriptions of the house in the twentieth century suggest a plaintive attempt to soften and warm the interiors.  The Tollemache family never returned after the Second World War, and the entire contents were auctioned in 1953.

For years the place struggled to find a use:  it was invaluable as a film set;  at one point it was a venue for live-action role-playing games.  Since the early 1990s it has operated as a hotel.  It's a particularly spectacular place to get married.

The Peckforton Castle website is at  Beeston Castle is in the care of English Heritage [].  It's a particularly steep climb to the top of the motte.  There is a charge for car parking.

Posted by: mike on Jun 13, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Welbeck Abbey underground ballroom

Welbeck Abbey, underground ballroom (1986)

The eccentricities of the "burrowing" fifth Duke of Portland seem endless, and by no means all of the stories are true.  He was distinctive among his contemporaries for providing the very latest conveniences for his guests, even though he rarely entertained, and notoriously kept out of his guests' way.  One of his most grandiose improvements to Welbeck Abbey was the vast ballroom 154 feet by 64 feet, entirely sunk below ground and top-lit by bull's-eye domes, well-lit, centrally heated and not at all damp.  On arrival for a ball at Welbeck, guests were conveyed down to the ballroom, still in their carriages, by hydraulic lift to a gently-graded inclined tunnel leading them to the dance-floor.  However, the fifth Duke never gave a ball, and the gas-lit splendour only came into its own when the sixth Duke, a distant cousin who never met his predecessor, inherited in 1870.

Nina Slingsby-Smith's memoir of her father, George: Memoirs of a Gentleman's Gentleman (Cape 1984 – out of print but available second-hand on Amazon), wonderfully captures the atmosphere of life above and below stairs at Welbeck in the sixth Duke's time.  It includes a memorable story of an incident at dinner, when a luckless footman's humanitarian dilemma nearly lost him his job, until King Edward VII saw the funny side:  the tale is far too good to spoil – seek it out on page 70 onwards.

Welbeck Abbey is not open to the general public.

Welbeck Abbey is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom's lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 11, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Welbeck Abbey basement railway

Welbeck Abbey, basement railway

The two railways at Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall are by no means the only examples of large country houses using rail transport to shift fuel, food, luggage and laundry around the capacious service wings.  Belton House [], on the other side of Grantham from Harlaxton and Stoke Rochford (and not included in my 2010 tour), has a hand-propelled railway, installed in the 1930s, connecting the kitchen in the courtyard with the basement of the main house.

Haddon Hall [], near Bakewell in Derbyshire, was made habitable from 1912 onwards by the then Marquis of Granby, later the 9th Duke of Rutland.  Bringing the fully-fitted seventeenth-century kitchen into any kind of modern use was impractical, so a new kitchen was constructed in outbuildings a couple of hundred yards away.  This is now the tearoom for visitors to Haddon:  one end of the cable-operated railway can be seen inside the tearoom entrance;  the other is customarily hidden behind a dresser opposite the entrance to the medieval kitchen which forms part of the house tour.  The tunnel itself is blocked as a fire-precaution, but interested visitors are invited to ask a room-steward to show the remains of the railway within the medieval kitchen.

Most celebrated of all, but least seen, is the 5th Duke of Portland's rail system in the cellars of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire.  The "burrowing" Duke went to enormous lengths to live his later life out of sight of his servants, visitors and the world at large.  The railway, with hand-propelled carts, one of which was heated and served as a grand Victorian predecessor of the 1950s hostess trolley, operated in combination with the technologically up-to-the-minute hydraulic lifts, to streamline domestic freight in the Abbey, and to enable His Grace to order food fast.  When in residence he had a standing order for chicken to be roasting twenty-four hours a day, and to avoid speaking to his servants he customarily sent his orders – "I shall only want rice pudding at one" – by means of twin letterboxes on the door of his suite in the west wing.

Welbeck Abbey is not open to the general public.

Welbeck Abbey and Harlaxton Manor feature in Mike Higginbottom's lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jun 9, 2010

Category:Victorian architectureCountry Houses

Stoke Rochford Hall coal tunnel

Stoke Rochford Hall, coal tunnel

When I first got interested in local history, at the age of sixteen, I and my mates had an obsession with what we believed to be secret tunnels, often attached to Georgian houses in mid-Derbyshire where we lived, only to discover in our maturity that they were in fact land-drains.  Now I've found a tunnel under a country house that really has been a secret and is really a tunnel.

I'm particularly glad that Country Houses of Lincolnshire (August 6th-9th 2010) is based in the magnificent surroundings of Harlaxton Manor (Anthony Salvin & William Burn, 1830-7), and whenever I've taken groups to Harlaxton I've always tried to include Stoke Rochford Hall (William Burn, 1841-5), a fascinating scaled-down version of Harlaxton for an owner who wanted a splendid but manageable Jacobethan house with what were later called all modern conveniences.

Stoke Rochford is even more interesting since the disastrous 2005 fire because English Heritage insisted that almost all of the destroyed Victorian craftsmanship should be meticulously replaced, and the owners, the National Union of Teachers, now have a conference-centre full of brand-new "Victorian" craftsmanship.

When I went to reconnoitre for the 2010 tour Suzi, my guide, casually mentioned a "coal tunnel", and showed me a virtually intact brick tunnel, complete with iron railway-rails and turntables, to convey coal into the house.

The staff at Harlaxton, now the American campus of the University of Evansville, Indiana, are very proud of their railway-viaduct, with wooden rails, that brought coal and other goods into the attics of the house, and had no idea that the neighbours at Stoke Rochford had in their cellar a similar facility which, it has to be said, is more modest in size but perhaps better preserved.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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