Saturday, 6 August 2016

Phoenix Houses From The Ashes

Last year I was commissioned to research two particularly special country houses for two different clients. Both of them were located in Norfolk, both were constructed in the 18th century, both were in rural locations and were the main houses for large farming estates. But the key similarity between the two was they were both devastated by fire, just 4 months apart. The cause was also very similar. Both began as chimney fires.

Hickling Hall

Oulton Hall

The first house, Hickling Hall, was built in the early 1700s; a red brick Carolean house, with three front bays, that was the principal house for a farm estate extending over hundreds of acres. The Hall sits on the outskirts of the ancient village of Hickling on the Norfolk Broads. The land is flat, as you might imagine in that part of the world, and the land seems to stretch endlessly all around you.

On the evening of Boxing Day 2014 the owner, who’s lived there for over 50 years, decided to light a fire in the dining room, which was a rare occurrence. What hadn’t been considered was that while the fireplace and chimney were dormant, jackdaws had built a large nest of tinder dry twigs in the chimney. As a result it didn’t take long for the fire to take hold. To add to the difficulties, the sheer remoteness of the house meant fire engines were not nearby. By the time the fire fighters arrived the flames was very well advanced.

Thankfully no one was hurt but by the morning it was clear that the main part of the house, the oldest part, the most precious part, was gutted. In the new year, it was decided to rebuild, as close to the original as possible. The architects called upon to carry this out needed as much information as possible to ensure a faithful reconstruction.

I received the call to research Hickling Hall. They needed to know what had been built on the land before, who owned it, who lived in it and hopefully as much as possible about its construction. I also needed to find as many images, maps and plans of the property to fully explain its evolution over three centuries. Knowing who had lived there over that time was important too, as it helped to understand its significance and place the house in its historical context.

Hickling Hall Boxing Day Night 2014 (BBC)
Hickling Hall 27th December 2014 (ITV) 
My research went back to the mid-16th century when the estate of Hickling was handed over to secular owners by King Henry VIII, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, having been monastic lands up until then. There was a hall on the site of the current house in the latter part of the 16th century and then in the early 1700s was completely rebuilt. As well as being the home of wealthy tenant farmers, the house provided accommodation for when the Earl stayed for the annual Court Baron in Hickling, collecting rents and settling local disputes. But mostly it has been the principal farm house for an extensive farm, covering hundreds of surrounding acres. It is still a modern working farm, hence the need to rebuild as quickly as possible and allow Hickling to continue for centuries in the future.

The other house I was commissioned to research was Oulton Hall, further to the west of Hickling, about 10 miles north of Norwich. This house was built in the mid-18th century and has been the home to just 3 families since then. The house sits in a valley, surrounded by rolling green fields and woodland. Although part of a farming estate, it was always ostensibly a house for the gentry, rather than tenant farmers, and for a long time the home of a well-to-do clergyman, once Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk.

Early 19th Century Drawing of Oulton Hall
Oulton Hall on Fire 2015 (Brian Williams)
Oulton Hall - April 1st 2015 (Mark Bullimore - EDP)

Oulton Hall caught fire on the night of March 31st 2015. The owner had gone to bed, leaving a fire dying down in the hearth. But due to the old, dry nature of the bricks and mortar in the stack it caught fire. Soon the flames spread. However, such was the direction of the fire, moving up into the roof, it was some time before the owner realised there was something wrong. When he did, he managed to get out quickly and the fire brigade was called. Yet again, the relative remoteness of the property enabled the fire to spread unhindered and, like Hickling, by the morning the historic property was a shell. The house has not only been the home for the present owner since he was born, but his family has owned it since the 1870s. It was quickly decided to rebuild and recreate the elegance of the original house.

My brief for Oulton Hall was the same as for Hickling Hall. To find out as much as possible about both the social and the structural development of the house, to inform the architects to reconstruct the building. In this case, plans from the owner’s great grandfather, when he bought and remodelled the house,came to light as well as beautifully detailed maps to show the changes in the building's footprint.  All these aided the rebuilding process.

There is some debate among building conservation professionals whether historic houses gutted by fire should be rebuilt and more to the point, replicated. However, the faithful recreation of Uppark House in West Sussex seems to have set a precedence. I think that the justification for rebuilding these two houses as was, can be found not only in the innate beauty of their architectural styles but also in the intangible heritage value held in the local knowledge of these houses, their sense of place which survives in the memory of their long-established owners, their families as well as the local community.

The nature of my work means I tend to come in on a project at the beginning and rarely get to see the final result. However, these two houses are special cases and I will be in close touch with the architects to see the houses rise, phoenix-like, from their ashes.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A Decade to Remember. Ten Years as a Buildings Historian

January 2016 marks a big milestone for me. 10 years ago this month I was commissioned to research my first historic building. At the time I was still studying for the Post Graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings at the Architectural Association. Research techniques learned on the course seemed to play to my strengths and so a fellow student recommended me to try out with the firm of conservation architects she worked for.

The house I researched was an 1820s London townhouse by James Burton (father of Decimus). This was an assignment that would now take me just a few days but as a research rookie took over a month to complete; I was learning on the job! Luckily, that assignment wasn’t urgent … which is a rarity in this business. I wasn't going to be paid for this 'try out' but they were so pleased with the results that I was. Since then, I have carried on working on a freelance basis for that firm as well as working with other architects, property professionals and private home owners.

In these last 10 years I have researched over 250 historic buildings all over the country from mansions to terraced houses. I have uncovered the social and structural history of Georgian town houses and Victorian vicarages,  17th century farmhouses, 18th century manor houses, railway stations and viaducts, fire stations, cinemas and theatres, an art deco synagogue, 15th century Wealden hall houses, 18th century orangeries and even war memorials.

What I love about this work is you never stop learning. British history and particularly its architecture is so vast and rich. With the advance in technology access to sources has doubled; which means double the work but also double the results!

It’s been an amazing decade and here’s to the next 10 years!

Some of the houses I have researched since 2006

Sunday, 19 April 2015

What's in a Name?

Apethorpe 'Palace' © English Heritage

In the continuing effort to conserve and hold on to our built past, it is sometimes worth stopping and asking ourselves what should be preserved? As I have said in previous blogs, our historic buildings can't remain in aspic. Sometimes we need to be pragmatic and accept new buildings, new vistas, and even new towns! Somehow, some way, we carefully move forward holding onto the past but attending to the present.

However, there is an aspect of our heritage that does not need to change to keep up with modern times. It is something that doesn’t get in the way of the present. It doesn’t cost anything to maintain and most significantly links us directly to our past and our heritage.

I am talking about place names. The origin of these can stretch back centuries even millennia. Today modern England is full of ancient names for cities, towns, villages, streets and alley ways. These names root us in our history, whether that is Roman, Saxon, Norman or later. Sometimes names have changed in the last 1000 years, but this has been through social evolution, common usage over the long slow passage of time.

With this in mind, I am surprised that English Heritage, our national champion in protecting our built past has allowed one of our most historically important buildings to have a cosmetic change of name. 

Apethorpe Hall has been renamed Apethorpe Palace. No reason for this change appears to have been given. It has just been presented as a fait accompli in the listing description. There is only one other non-royal residence in England with the title “Palace” and that is Blenheim Palace. The difference is that that early 18th century house was always called a Palace. That is its original historical legacy.

The East Courtyard © Ellen Leslie
South Range © Ellen Leslie
View from the East Courtyard © Ellen Leslie
Apethorpe Hall is a beautiful Grade I manor house with origins that go back to the 15th century. In my opinion one of the most impressive houses England can boast about, and England has many. Its long history is full of highs and lows, from being the residence of the future Elizabeth I, the weekend retreat for King James I, later becoming an approved school in the 1970s and finally being rescued by government compulsory purchase. It was however, never called Apethorpe Palace, even during its days as a royal residence. 

The new owner is Frenchman Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten. Apparently he is very sympathetic to the house’s history and says “Our vision for Apethorpe is to help this house regain the place in British history that it deserves." I think that is heartening, even laudable. But by changing the name, in a stroke you deny its past. If the name Apethorpe Hall was good enough for King James, it should be good enough for Baron von Pfetten and certainly English Heritage.