The Almost Lost House 

Today I’m going to discuss a story described by the Telegraph as ‘[A]n architectural and cultural tragedy that has no parallel in this country since the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.’ It’s a shocking story of reckless destruction of history and heritage. What’s almost equally shocking is the indifference it aroused. 

During my tour of the UK, as detailed here, I stopped off to visit the National Trust site of Calke Abbey. When it comes to Calke Abbey there are a few key details to understand. Firstly, it’s not an abbey. Secondly, it’s not pronounced anything like the work ‘cake’ (it’s more like cork). Thirdly, and most fascinatingly, is the dramatic story it helps to tell. 

Calke Abbey is a Baroque, Grade I listed country house in Derbyshire. When the National Trust took it over, in 1985, it was a dilapidated ruin. Repairs were initially begun in earnest, before the idea was mooted to leave it largely in its state of disrepair. The intention was to use the house to explore the story described by the Telegraph above. That quote appeared in a 2002 article which went on to say ‘Superb collections of art were broken up, some of the most delightful gardens and landscapes ever created abandoned, and much of this country’s finest buildings razed to the ground.’ The story in question is the dramatic destruction of Britain’s cultural heritage that occurred during the 20th century.  

There are over 370,000 listed buildings in Britain today. This includes all buildings erected before 1700 and most of those constructed before 1840. Such buildings cannot be demolished or altered without permission from the planning authority, but it wasn’t always that way. 

Prior to the 19th century the upper class paid little or no taxes. This allowed them to accumulate vast lands. They then employed the country’s leading architects to build staggeringly beautiful homes in the latest architectural styles upon their immense estates. High returns on land meant that extensive estates provided substantial incomes. These high incomes covered the wages of the large staff required to run such great country houses, using the plentiful supply of cheap local labour. Meanwhile, the residents were also able to use their wealth to acquire great art collections with which to decorate their homes.  

Often these great country houses were the centre of local communities. The ‘big house’ was the source of much employment while also providing patronage for local schools, churches and hospitals. The great estates were also tied to political power, allowing the aristocracy to use their lands to exert power and influence. But nothing lasts forever. Societal changes combined with unforeseeable events sowed the seeds of the devastating destruction that followed. 

Changes in taxes, particularly inheritance and death taxes, resulted in the upkeep of such extravagant residences becoming untenable. With the aristocracy often marrying only within their own class many individuals acquired multiple properties, compounding the maintenance problems. Also, as society became more democratised the power wielded by individual landowners waned, diminishing their influence and rendering the expensive upkeeps less attractive.  

The two great wars resulted in many former staff being killed. Those that survived were often reluctant to return to domestic service when better paid work could be found elsewhere. Many of the houses had been acquisitioned for the war effort. When returned they were often severely damaged, sometimes even in ruinous states. The high profits that were once gleaned from tenancy agreements had faded. Instead it became far more attractive to sell the vast lands to the developers who were under great pressure to build new houses after the massive destruction of Britain’s housing stock during WWII. As such, the expertly landscaped grounds and gardens were often paved to make way for new estates and villages.  

The result of these various pressures was breath-taking in scale. Houses began being torn down at an astonishing pace. The peak occurred around 1955 when a country house was being destroyed roughly every five days. Often these homes represented the pinnacle of British architecture. And within their expertly designed walls could be found some of the country’s most important art collections. These art collections, including important pieces of furniture, were broken up and auctioned off while the architectural masterpieces were reduced to rubble. What’s almost equally shocking is how little people cared. 

With ordinary people still suffering rationing the idea of protecting these ostentatious buildings was far from people’s minds. There was no legislation to stop such destruction and most people viewed the houses as the owner’s to do with as they pleased. The extent of this sentiment can hardly be better illustrated than when Tong Castle was demolished in 1954. It wasn’t viewed as a great loss to Britain’s cultural heritage. It was viewed as entertainment. Large crowds gathered to watch the spectacle as 136lb of plastic explosives and 75lb of amatol destroyed the 18th century gothic country house. It sat within a park landscaped by the legendary Capability Brown – ‘England’s greatest gardener’. The M54 motorway now runs over the grounds.  

It’s thought that around one in six of Britain’s great country houses were destroyed during the 20th century. In England this amounts to around a staggering 1,200 properties, although the total may be as high as 1,700. In Scotland the amount is thought to have been proportionally even higher.  

The scale of the destruction did eventually arouse concerns. By the 1960s historians and other interested parties began to warn of the pillaging of the country’s heritage. Once the gradual attitudinal shift was fortified by protective legislation, the effect was dramatic. The last year in which demolitions were in double figures was 1968.  

A 1974 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, called Destruction of the Country House, detailed what had taken place. This helped further swing public opinion in support of the growing legislation. Despite this undeniable progress, one of the country’s finest art collections was still dismantled in 1975 when the government refused to step in and save it. As such, many of Britain’s greatest artworks departed for foreign shores.  

By the early eighties opinion had swayed to such an extent that a well-supported campaign spent two years fighting to save the semi-derelict Calke Abbey. The successful campaign resulted in the National Trust taking ownership, saving it from destruction. As its very existence is predicated on the dramatic change in public opinion, it’s deeply fitting that the National Trust chose to present it as they do. The building is maintained to protect against further decay, but it’s presented in a semi derelict state. 

It was a fascinating place to visit. It was eerie to wander down corridors of peeling paint, crumbling concrete and rotting woodwork. The building’s former majesty has undeniably been surrendered to the ravages of time. Eventually there were only two people living there, along with thirty servants. It’s so large that whole sections of the house had been closed off for many years. Incredibly, some rooms had remained locked and sealed for 125 years. I couldn’t quite get my head around this. How could you spend your whole life living in a house without ever fully exploring it? How could you spend all those years there without thinking “I wonder what’s behind that door?” Well, as a result of this lack of curiosity parts of the house have been preserved exactly how they were during the Victorian era. This serves as a perfect example of how special the house is, and what a relief it has been spared, while simultaneously arousing forlorn contemplations about what other great treasures have been lost. Understandably, many authors who’ve written about the subject have referred to them as ‘the lost houses.’ 


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One response to “The Almost Lost House 

  • Suzanne

    Incredible story. It brings to mind a TV program shown here in the US a year or so ago when Downton was all the rage. It included newsreel footage of a country house being demolished to avoid ruinous death duties and impossible maintenance costs. Much as I admire Britain’s huge inventory of and respect for their long and often gorgeous heritage, I’m rather conflicted over the disappearance of the houses of the ultra-rich. It’s a very good thing that many of these buildings have been rescued from demolition but if all the lost houses had been kept, I wonder how crowded the rest of the country would be as the population increased, lifestyles changed and the culture was transformed with technology. Perhaps having more of these estates still in existence would thin out the tourists more but I also think the open spaces created by the destruction (motorways included) had its own benefit, however unforeseen.


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