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. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

To The Manor Born?

The Old Manor, Dorsington 1870s

A common name for an old house in England is The Manor House. I have researched several properties with this name, but often the title was not a true description of the building’s historic status or function. Many weren’t and have never been the residence of the lord of the manor. But this fact is not detrimental to the house or its history. Often these Manor Houses had an equally interesting albeit alternative life and place in the story of the area.

The Old Manor in Dorsington, in Warwickshire was originally built in the 16th century. Research revealed that this timber-framed and liasic stone construction had in fact been the farmhouse to the estate’s principal farm, The Manor Farm.  Interestingly, there wasn’t a manor house at all in the village; certainly from the 16th century onwards. There is a moated area (with a later house built on it) and early reference to a manor house “site” ;but historically, the lords of the manor of Dorsington were absent and simply leased the various farms and small holdings on the estate. 
The Old Manor Dorsington in the 1920s
The Old Manor, Dorsington © Ellen Leslie 2012

In the late 18th century with improvements and expansion in agriculture, a new principal residence for the farm’s tenant farmers was constructed just down the road and the old thatched farmhouse was usefully converted into 5 dwellings for the increasing numbers of farm workers. With a new house for Manor Farm, a new name was needed for the old house … The Old Manor Farm was an obvious choice and The Old Manor was how it evolved up to the present day.

Manor House in Ware may not have been the home of the Lord of the Manor either, but in this case its own history goes back to the 12th century, when it was part of the Priory at Ware and probably contained the monks' dormitories. It has been suggested that the existing building sits on the footprint of those original sleeping quarters. 

Manor House, Ware ©Ellen Leslie

Manor House in 1671 ©Trinity College Cambridge
For this building, the title of Manor House came relatively late. Certainly since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, this house was the main residence for tenant farmers, leasing the property and surrounding agricultural land from the estate owners, who were Trinity College, Cambridge.  It had many names over the centuries, but mainly The Rectory Farm or The Old Parsonage

These titles are also misleading, as the house was not attached to the local church or vicar, but the house’s ecclesiastical roots may have been to blame for these monikers and because it sits opposite the parish church. Today though the title Manor House suits it well, as it is certainly one of the largest, oldest and most impressive buildings in the town.

But not all manor houses are large or imposing. The Old Manor House in Cholesbury, in Buckinghamshire looks like a typical cosy village cottage, rather than the primary building of a large estate.  One thing is for certain, it is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the village. Over the centuries the residence of the Lords of the Manor has changed; but this house was never their home. So why is it called The Old Manor House? Unlike my previous two examples, this house wasn’t even the estate's farm house. 

The Old Manor, Cholesbury ©Ellen Leslie
The Old Manor House in 1753
What I did find was this was the house where the business of the estate was managed from. Court Barons and payment of rents and the hearing and resolution of local disputes would be held here. I also found that this house had once been double the size, losing half its structure at some time in the 19th century. So originally a greater building but only losing its role in the administration of the estate in the late 19th century when its freehold was sold.

So a property's name cannot give you a guaranteed indication of its past. Names change over time, with origins mixed up or forgotten. But whatever the name of a building, its past entitles it to be of equal historic interest whatever the real story.