Upstairs, downstairs, demolished – the changing fate of the English country house

Amid the tumult of the 1970s, it appeared the traditional country house had gone into irreversible decline - but it was too early to write it off.

Castle Howard, Yorkshire, home of the Earl of Carlisle, c1880. Castle Howard was built between 1699 and 1712 to designs by John Vanbrugh. A print from A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, edited by Reverend FO Morris, Volume I, William Mackenzie, London, c1880.
Castle Howard, Yorkshire, home of the Earl of Carlisle, c1880. Castle Howard was built between 1699 and 1712 to designs by John Vanbrugh. A print from A Series of Picturesque Views of Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, edited by Reverend FO Morris, Volume I, William Mackenzie, London, c1880. Wood-engraved plates after paintings by Benjamin Fawcett and Alexander Francis Lydon. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Rats are supposed to leave a sinking ship; in 1977, I joined one. Although the country house was, people thought, holed beneath the waterline, I became an architectural writer for the magazine Country Life, which was dedicated to that very subject. Since its foundation in 1897, Country Life had celebrated the architecture, collections, gardens, horses, dogs, families, traditions and arcana of country houses. Each issue contained a long, scholarly article on one of these great buildings, describing its evolution, usually over centuries, and the characters who had built it. The 1970s was a calamitous era for country houses. The extent of the catastrophe that had overtaken them was made painfully clear by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Destruction of the Country House; this revealed that more than 1,000 country houses had been demolished in the course of the 20th century. Visitors were greeted by the voice of the erudite tones of Sir John Summerson, curator of the Sir John Soane Museum, intoning the roll call of losses. Later, the V and A’s Director, Sir Roy Strong, would remember: ‘Many was the time I stood in that exhibition watching the tears stream down the visitors’ faces as they battled to come to terms with all that had gone.’

Admittedly I had a temperamental affinity for lost causes and would certainly have galloped into battle with Prince Rupert of the Rhine if I had been living at the time of the English Civil War, irrespective of the ultimate Roundhead victory. (Although in reality I wouldn’t have been a cavalier on horseback but an unglamorous pikeman, possibly consigned to the forward position called a Forlorn Hope.) But I don’t think my decision to join Country Life, at which I remained, in one capacity or another, for nearly 40 years, was the result of an economic death wish. The fact was I had been to university during the mid 1970s. What if Britain was up the spout, the Sick Man of Europe? We were 18. There were more important things in our lives. We hadn’t known any different. Later, country house doors opened for me and I loved the many layers of culture I found inside. But the state of the country house symbolised Britain’s failure to hold its head up in the world. Owners were struggling to keep the roof on and the taxman at bay.

There is a divide in political life between those who remember the 1970s and those who don’t. To most people who were alive during that dreary decade, it felt like a horrible dream – the sort in which you can see a disaster unfolding but are powerless to influence events. Britain was a democracy, not a totalitarian state, but personal ambition seemed to be frustrated almost as often as it was in the Soviet Union. I was lucky in moving to London; as a journalist, I could claim that the telephone was an essential tool of my trade. As a result, it took only a fortnight to get one installed, whereas friends who could not play this card had to wait months. The trains which I took frequently often broke down. Every news bulletin contained details of a new strike. Secondary action meant that a strike by one union could be backed up by others: should the management of British Leyland have contrived to get a car off the production line, after the Amalgamated Engineering Workers had downed tools, ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, could refuse to transport it. It was an anarchic, grey decade.

Cambridge, where I read first English, in a faculty riven by ideological conflict, and then, more comfortingly, History of Art, reflected the times. Student politics had sunk to a low ebb but protest remained the default position. The heroic age of Left-wing agitation, whose ultimate expression had been, in 1970, a riot outside the Garden House Hotel, on the basis that a Greek-themed evening might have given succour to the Junta of colonels that formed the Greek government, might have passed but students remained exercised by the University’s failure to provide creche facilities for the small number of students with babies – a cause pursued by the Nursery Action Group, with the appropriate acronym of NAG.

When Prince Philip visited as Chancellor of the University, their chants were drowned out by the pealing of the bells of Great St Mary’s. My college, Peterhouse, rebelled against the Zeitgeist – not that the Peterhouse fellows who influenced me believed in Zeitgeists, or any other aspect of Hegelian determinism; au contraire. The history don Maurice Cowling was regarded as the eminence grise behind Thatcherism, as it became; the art historian David Watkin set his face against the tyranny of the Modern Movement. The philosopher Roger Scruton, who passed through as a junior fellow, later described how the few conservatives in academe would catch each other’s eyes across the room like the homosexuals in Proust. The student body made a stand by founding dining societies and wearing white tie.

In one respect, Peterhouse was lucky. In that age of power cuts and rationing of electricity usage, the lights never went out. On the other side of Trumpington Street stood the polychromatic glory of the old Addenbrookes Hospital, yet to move to the new site, with the rabbits’ ear chimneys that are visible from train (now described as ‘iconic’ by the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Actually, you couldn’t see the colours of the 1860s façade until the building was reimagined as the Judge Business School, when the brickwork was cleaned of grime and more vibrancy added by the Post-Modernist architect John Outram.) We were on the same circuit – a matter of some disappointment to those of us who had invested heavily in candles, in the expectation of using them for Georgian soirées. That was during the Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath’s unhappy Three-Day Week, when the working population was compelled to go part time, with none of the billions in compensation recently provided for lockdown. The National Union of Mineworkers was at the bottom of it. Soon, Heath was fighting one of the numerous elections of the period on the slogan: Who governs Britain? He lost. Whoever governed Britain, it wasn’t him.

Misery for all, but a disproportionate dose for country houses – those big, unwieldy, ancient, labour-intensive, remote and, many thought, anachronistic dwellings, stuffed with treasures, a steady stream of which was reaching the salerooms. Today, Covid-19 is an accelerator of change. In the 1970s, it was OPEC – Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries – which, resentful of Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, imposed an oil embargo. The price of oil rose by 300%. Inflation skyrocketed. For country house owners the consequences were dire. Since 6,000 miles of railway line had been axed during the 1960s by Dr Beeching, the efficiency wonk who chaired British Railways, many stately piles could only be reached by car. On arrival, they might quite literally be below zero, since oil was the fuel of choice for heating them. I once visited a country house the morning after the heavy cast iron radiators and pipes, an epic legacy of Victorian plumbing, had exploded like artillery shells because the water inside them had frozen. With Britain in decline, the future of the great domestic creations that had housed the titans of industry and empire of previous ages looked bleak. The writing was on the wall, spelt out in stains from leaking roofs and the fungal spores of dry rot.

Problems had been gathering for three-quarters of a century. Film makers like Joseph Losey, director of The Go-Between, nostalgically evoked the Edwardian decade as a time of Indian summers and white dresses, but unease was already being felt by some country house owners. They were having difficulty in finding servants. This may seem strange, when one considers that, in terms of absolute numbers, Peak Servant was reached in the 1901 census, when about 1.7 million women worked in domestic service; as a proportion of the growing population, this enormous figure was evidence of decline. Ten years later, it had fallen to about 1.35m. The servant question or even crisis, as it was beginning to be called, caused not only a practical problem but an ethical reaction. As a character in Mrs Humphry Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe of 1905 put it, ‘people are beginning to be ashamed of enormous houses and troops of servants.’

Another harbinger of doom came in 1909, with Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. It called for taxes on the sale of land, higher death duties and a supertax on incomes above £3,000. The measures were bitterly opposed by the House of Lords, as the bastion of the landed interest; but the upper house was defeated and its powers reduced. To the Duke of Bedford, this was tantamount to socialism and in 1911 he announced that he would sell his estate in Devon. This became the first of an avalanche of sales across the country which gathered pace after the War when it is said that a quarter of England changed hands: a transfer of ownership comparable to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

During the First World War, seventeen per cent of British officers were killed, compared to twelve per cent of ordinary soldiers. All those young subalterns leading their men from the front made a conspicuous target in their jodhpurs and top boots, with pistols rather than rifles in their hand; Eton’s war memorial bears a thousand names. They were often sons of country houses. Taxation increased again, incomes stagnated. Agriculture, depressed since the 1870s, briefly revived while Britain was blockaded, but after 1918 it fell back again, and the prestige of owning land hardly compensated for the responsibilities. By the time P.G.Wodehouse published Thank You, Jeeves in 1934, the plight of the 5th Baron Chuffnell of Chuffnell Regis – Bertie Wooster’s friend Chuffy – was to be pitied. ‘He’s dashed hard up, poor bloke, like most fellows who own land, and only lives at Chuffnell Hall because he’s stuck with it and can’t afford to live anywhere else… But who wants to buy a house that size in these times?’ The ‘times’ were those of the Slump, as Britain called the Great Depression.  When Noel Coward wrote The Stately Homes of England in 1938, sung by Lords Elderley, Borrowmere, Sickert and Camp in the musical Operette, the picture was of a bankrupt class, bereft of ideas and relevance.

The Second World War seemed to deliver the coup de grâce to a culture and way of life – think of Brideshead Revisited. Country houses that had been requisitioned to become schools, hospitals or military bases were not usually handed back in the condition in which their owners had left them, not least because no repairs had been undertaken for six years. Horror stories abound of mahogany furniture smashed to make kindling or taps being deliberately left on when the troops left, bringing down plaster ceilings (that happened at Egginton Hall in Derbyshire; the family had to demolish the house and move into the stables.) Under the reforming Attlee government of 1945, it was difficult to see that the country house had a continuing purpose. Woburn and Longleat reinvented themselves as visitor attractions for the mass holiday market but that option was not open to all; nor did it sit comfortably with the long-held image of the country house as an Arcadia that provided refuse from the tumult of life outside its bounds. It was becoming nothing but a worry. And so the demolitions, which had begun earlier in the century, gathered pace. When in 1982 Yale University Press published my first book, on country house architecture of the period 1890-1939, I called it The Last Country Houses. I couldn’t imagine houses on the scale of, say, Tylney Hall in Hampshire, built in 1898 for the ‘Randlord’ Sir Lionel Phillips, banished from South Africa for his part in the Jamestown Raid, ever being needed again; it had six rooms for visiting valets.

But wait. Time has shown that my pessimism was misplaced. After an initial grinding of gears, Mrs Thatcher’s premiership put Britain’s Austin Metro into reverse; revving noisily and threatening to boil over, it climbed out of the Slough of Despond onto the sunlit uplands. The recovery was mirrored by the country house. In 1979, after the Winter of Discontent, when rubbish went uncollected and the dead unburied, the most desirable property in Britain, as displayed in the advertising pages of Country Life, was a convenient modern house, close to a golf course and not too far from London. Large stately homes in remote counties were branded with the dread words: Suitable for institutional use. A decade later saw a transformation: now advertisements offered landed estates with sporting rights, beyond the Home Counties – and the more architecturally show-stopping the house was, the better.

In 1985, The Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition, a spectacular celebration of the collections still found in privately owned country houses, opened in Washington DC and the ‘country house look’ swept the world. Admittedly Tylney Hall remains a hotel but other country houses that used to be schools were taken back into family use and many new ones erected.

The love affair with the country house has continued into the 21st century, albeit in different clothes – Minimalism around 2000, wildflower meadows and rewilding now. Not even the financial crisis of 2007-08 dented the determination of some clients to build or restore. The Covid-19 crisis has made the countryside seem more desirable than ever. Who knows what the future will hold? Some change in taste, perhaps, which cannot as yet be foreseen. So it’s worth reflecting on the 70s, when all hope seemed to be lost.  The Destruction of the Country House exhibition was right to highlight the toll of loss. But let’s pause and remember, as we weren’t inclined to do then, that Britain’s country houses had suffered previous buffets. Nearly all the immense houses of the Lancastrian nobility disappeared after it lost the Wars of the Roses. Another wave of destruction accompanied the English Civil War, with the slighting of castles and wrecking of gentlemen’s seats. Then there’s the usual wastage caused by extravagance or a dud heir. The 1st Duke of Chandos’s princely Canons Park, in Essex, lasted a mere twenty-three years after its completion before the 2nd Duke broke it up. Numerous Tudor country houses were replaced in the Georgian period because their facades no longer fitted. Scholars might mourn the country houses that have gone, but their replacements might have been better. Life moves on.

And perhaps the shell represented by the house is, in the end, secondary to the life that inhabits it. The orthodoxy of the 1970s was not just that the country house had no role but that the tradition it represented was backward-looking, uncreative, evil. Today, other attacks are being made on cultural life; statues are metaphorically or literally pushed off their pedestals, with the fervour of the iconoclasts of Tudor and Cromwellian years. The 1970s should give hope to the defenders of the old faith. Like a phoenix, the country house has succeeded, against all predictions, in rising from its own ashes. Tradition, the indomitability of the human spirit and the sheer bloody-minded stubbornness of some owners, who refused to give up, have won through.


Clive Aslet