SELLING THE BIRTHRIGHT

Three wonderful English country houses with Empson connections have recently come onto the market, here are some highlights of the newspaper articles.

Eydon Hall

The connection with the Empson family here is that the hall adjoins St Nicholas Church in Eydon, Northamptonshire which was the living of the redoubtable Arthur John Empson 1/6/1818 - 28/6/1876. Together with the wealthy occupant of Eydon Hall - Cecil Annesley, Arthur set about a comprehensive renewal of the church building. As a result many of the memorials and stained glass windows therein are references to his family. Clearly he was wealthy in his own right as he constructed his own rectory on succeeding to the living which cost no less than £1,680 in 1856. As he and his wife Anna Delicia, daughter of the famous Dr Walter Farquhar Hook of Leeds, went on to have 11 children, clearly it was a wise investment.

The church 'improvements' did not meet with universal approval however - a pulpit with its sounding board dated 1658 for example, was removed and the local historical society referred to the "hideous roof ... and the new window in the north wall of the north aisle." which "to cure one evil" (the dark church) "made a worse".The church guide book quotes a contemporary complaint that "the west face of the tower is much disfigured by a large and brilliant new clock face, which is not visible from any part of the village, and therefore uselessly obtrusive"! Needless to say it was perfectly visible from the Hall!

The collaboration between the two men of the church was - Arthur naming one of his sons (later to become the Rector of Roath in Cardiff) Cecil Annesley in honour of his friend. On his death in post at the tragically young age of 58 he left a thriving parish and an enlarged church.

(More about this family - the tragic death of their son Clement, can be read about in Empsonian Logic Nos. 3 & 5.)

Extracted from:

“The £11m Acid Test”

The Sunday Telegraph May 16th 2004

Had history been less kind the, the beautiful ironstone which forms the Palladian facades of Eydon Hall might have been exploited for its ferrous matter, and the house's 600-acre park might have been turned into an industrial wasteland in the fashion of Corby, the former iron making town at the other end of Northamptonshire. Fortunately, the industrial revolution passed the house by and it still stands in much the same landscape as it did in 1788, when it was built by architect James Lewis for the Reverend Francis Annesley, an absent vicar who should have been attending his flock in Somerset.

Few houses are as capable of generating such excitement among estate agents as Eydon Hall. Unlike so many country houses, it never grew wings and did not undergo successive waves of ghastly alterations: additions, such as a bookcase designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the architect who remodeled the Bank of England, have been modest. Eydon Hall was never too large to serve as a family home. In 1927, a time when many country homes were beginning to go downhill, it was saved by American money in the shape of Lord Brand. He passed it on to his daughter. Lady Ford, who nurtured the house through the years of post-war austerity, and preserved it as it is today - an estate agent's dream of the perfect property, impressive yet manageable enough for family life, and within commuting distance of London. That said, the last time Eydon Hall was put on the market - for £1-5 million in 1982 - the joint agents, Lane Fox and Knight Frank & Rutley, found it heavy going. Income tax rates of 98 per cent were still a recent memory and, as the present owner remembers, there were not many private individuals who| could contemplate buying a nine-bedroom Grade I Palladian mansion.

She and her late husband Gerald, who wanted a country property from which to run his racehorse-breeding business, were among the few who were interested, and even they were hardly over-enthusiastic on the first occasion they were rung up about the house. "My husband said that if we don't at least go and have a look the agents will get fed up with us, and think we're wasting their time," says Anna. "We came, had a look and went away thinking the house was much too grand for us. It wasn't until a year later that the agent rang back to ask if we were sure we weren't interested. My husband came back and had the soil tested, which proved to be ideal for horses. And so we bought Eydon Hall.

"It was a working farm as far as we were concerned: at one point there were 50 horses here. The fact that it had a very nice house attached was less important. The only other buyers interested in the property were a nursing home, and they couldn't get planning permission for the necessary fire escapes because of its listed status." She and her husband, says Anna, "lived in the house a little more modestly than it was designed for". But, although the dining-room looks unused and one of the Light switches is covered with sticking plaster, the Leighs Found enough money to remodel the stables, with the help of architect Quinlan Terry, along neo-classical lines. They also had iron balustrades replaced on the northern facade.

Gerald died two years ago and now Anna has decided to sell. "It is too big a place for one little old lady with a three-legged cat," she says. “In any case, my husband made the decision for me. He was sick for a long time and had time to plan. He said selling up would be the right thing to do. I will go and live in my London home and decide what to do next."

Extracted from:

"What the Butler Sold: A huntswoman was put on the scent of Eydon Hall by the valet".

The Times 7th May 2004

When I first saw Eydon Hall in Northamptonshire more than 30 years ago, I thought it the most desirable house I had ever seen. Visiting it again, it is still perfection, with glorious views over gently rolling country without a pylon, mast or ugly farm building in sight.

So it struck Nancy Lancaster when she was out riding with the Pytchley Hunt in 1927. She was looking for a house for her aunt, Phyllis — younger sister of the famous Nancy, Viscountess Astor, who became Britain's first woman MP. The hounds had lost the scent so Nancy Lancaster rode up to the house to ask if she could make a telephone call. She learnt from the butler that it was for sale and promptly rang her aunt to tell her that it was just like Bremo, the most perfect Palladian house in Virginia.

Phyllis's husband, the economist Lord Brand, was equally enchanted, and within months they were living there. Eydon was built in the early 1790s by the Rev Francis Annesley, a typical 18th-century parson squire who established himself in good hunting and shooting country miles away from his "living" in Somerset. His architect was James Lewis, the author of two volumes of designs for villas and town houses, Original Designs in Architecture. Villas, wrote Lewis, were exposed to view from every angle and at Eydon he gave each front a distinctive treatment. The entrance front looks like a Robert Adam townhouse, the west side has a graceful bow rising its full height, while the garden front has a portico like a pre-Civil War mansion in America's South with tall, widely spaced columns and balustraded top.

A special beauty of the house is that it is built entirely of the ironstone quarried on the estate — a warm brown with a touch of orange. The walls are formed of perfectly cut blocks similar to those of a Roman temple. The gates to the house stand at the top of one of the most perfect high streets in an English village. They open into a wonderful pastoral scene, with the ancient church looking out over a low stone wall into the park and a walled garden beyond.

The garden front looks out across a large spread of lawn continued by a vast sweep of pasture beyond the ha-ha. To the left, low walls enclose a sunken garden overlooked by a grand orangery perfect for summer parties. Across the lawn the house is sheltered by the stateliest of cedars. Hidden in the pleasure ground beyond is a grand oval bosquet formed of perfectly level, tall, clipped beech hedges looking like an open-air theatre at Versailles.

Inside, Eydon has four levels of well-lit rooms laid out rather like a London house, allowing you to live in any way you want. The "basement" is almost a full ground floor with windows looking out into the gardens. Here the late Gerald Leigh made an entrance opening into the office from which he ran his thoroughbred empire, while Mrs. Leigh has made an attractive dining room in the vaults of the old kitchen. The rooms on the main floor have ceilings nearly 20ft high and tall sash windows filling the house with light and fresh air. The principal rooms open off a central, top-lit stair with elegant cantilevered flights. Unusually these are of oak, not stone, with each tread cut away beneath in a graceful S-curve to lighten the effect.

The best room is the dining room, prettily painted by Lord Brand's daughter, Virginia. She inherited the house on his death and lived here in great elegance with her husband, Sir Edward Ford, Assistant Private Secretary to George VI and the Queen. Lewis also ingeniously provided intimate small rooms in the French manner. The front comer rooms look out in two directions and are perfect places in which to doze on a sofa in front of a blazing fire. The bow room is a perfect oval with pretty curving windows, and the drawing room has a bookcase by the architect Sir Herbert Baker.

Eydon has an unusually spacious and elegant back stair with sweeping handrail rising the full height of the house. The Leighs have taken out the lift that filled the stairwell, thus exposing a winch at the top used to haul up buckets to fill a slate-lined water tank that provided running water to at least the main bedroom and presumably a water closet, luxuries that many country houses were not to have for a century.

Much of the 600-acre estate is laid out with large paddocks with rounded sides, to avoid foals becoming trapped in the comers, and wide rides for exercising horses. The Regency stable block has been ingeniously adapted by Quinlan Terry to provide larger stalls for thoroughbreds. It has a curving Tuscan colonnade and new roof that replaces Baker's awkward parapet. Terry has also designed a handsome stud manager's house, Annesley House, as well as a house in the High Street, both in early 17th-century style with mullion windows and both in local stone.

For at least 80 years, maybe much longer, the chatelaines of Eydon have been ravishing beauties, caring for its bella figura as effortlessly as their own. Long may this continue..

D Knight Frank 020-7629 8171; Bidwells 01223 559352. Offers in excess of £11 million


Easton Neston

The Empson connection here is in a way, more tenuous. The land upon which this house was built was originally the principal residence of Sir Richard Empson, Chancellor and Chief Tax Collector to Henry VII. Presumably he once has a house there as he was certainly once given permission by the King to 'empark' the land - which is to fence it off. At the height of his power Sir Richard owned vast tracts of the county - in fact he was known to some as 'the King of Northamptonshire'. His estates stretched from Northampton all the way south to what is now Luton in Bedfordhire. His london residence was just off The Strand in London where his gardens and orchards stretched down to the Thames.

When Henry VIII ascended the throne Sir Richard, along with his colleague Robert Dudley, was arrested, attainted (which is to say all his lands and possessions were seized and forfeit to the King) and thrown into the Tower while some means by which to find them guilty was identified. While today most people accept that the eventual charge of attempted Treason was trumped up, most accept that Sir Richard's manner and working practices were such that they left him vulnerable.

After his execution in 1509 - he was beheaded, his son Thomas having successfully pleaded with the King for that punishment to be substituted for being hung, drawn and quartered - all his possessions were sequestrated. Henry VIII actually lived in Sir Richard's London home for a time - his own 'Nonsuch Palace' having burnt down. Eventually of course his eyes settled on an even grander place owned by Cardinal Wolsley at Hampton Court and Sir Richard's home became the site of a hospital.
Thomas was later able to clear the attainder and obtain his father's property back. However it is believed that he was by then so burdened by debt and fines to the King that he was unable to retain it and Easton Neston was sold - apparently for £1,000.

Interestingly two of Sir Richard's sisters married into the Spencer family - Elizabeth married William Spencer and Anne married John Spencer, so when Thomas sold the property to the Fermor family - another branch of the Spencers - it could be said that the property remained in the family.

Sadly, little more is known of Thomas after this time and so we do not know what the connection with present day Empson families Sir Richard might have. We just have to glory in the past and what might have been . . .

Extracted from:

Reluctant Hesketh to sell £50m family seat: Maintaining one of Britain’s finest estates is too much of a burden writes Alistair Osborne.

Daily Telegraph. May 17th 2004

FOR sale: stately home with en suite racecourse. Would suit Russian oligarch, oil sheikh or serial lottery winner. Price: £50 million.
It is being marketed as a once-in-a-generation buying opportunity. But this time the estate agent's hype looks justified.
Easton Neston, one of Britain's finest country estates, is being put up for sale by Lord Hesketh, the Conservative Party treasurer who was John Major's chief whip in the House of Lords.
Alexander Hesketh, 53, the third Baron Hesketh, has appointed Knight Frank to sell the estate, which has been home to the Fermor Hesketh family for almost 470 years.
As the sale of a private residence, it will be one of the most expensive in British history.
Yesterday Lord Hesketh said he had reluctantly decided to sell rather than see his family's wealth eroded by the cost of looking after Easton Neston.
"It's the simple fact that if you look at a property like this, it's a bit like owning a very beautiful yacht. The costs of managing it are very significant," he said.
Set in more than 3,300 acres of Northamptonshire countryside, the Grade I listed Easton Neston House is the only country house designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was a protégé of Sir Christopher Wren and also worked on Kensington Palace, Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. It is often claimed to be his masterpiece. The estate, which employs 20 staff, includes Towcester Racecourse, the jump-racing track famous for its stiff uphill finish, and a pheasant and partridge shoot. There are also five lodges, three farms and the entire village of Hulcote.

The estate became the principal home of Richard Fermor in 1535, whose descendant, Sir William Fermor, commissioned the house in 1685 It passed into the Hesketh family in 1867 on the death of the fifth Earl of Pomfret, descended from the Fermor line. He was a bachelor and, while the title became extinct, the property passed to the earl’s sister, the wife of Sir Thomas Hesketh, Lord Hesketh’s great-great-grandfather.

What you would get:

Easton Neston House
Grade I listed house with reception hall; staircase hall; 4 state reception rooms; 3 state bedrooms; 8 bedroom suites. Lower ground floor with billiard room, domestic offices, wine cellars and store rooms. North wing (former offices damaged by fire); 2 staff flats; further offices; library; real tennis court. Grade 2 listed gardens, with tennis court and pool.
Pomfret Lodge
Pomfret Lodge with 3 reception rooms and 6 bedrooms.
Pomfret Lodge cottage. Plus four other lodges.
Hulcote Village
3 large houses, 17 cottages and Old School House, set around a green.
The Farms
1,273 acres of arable land, farmed on a contract farming arrangement. Farmhouse. 547 acres let under grazing licenses. Two farms of 453 acres and 161 acres, let on Agricultural Holdings Act tenancies.
Woodland and Sporting
467 acres of woodland, forming pheasant and partridge shoot.
Towcester Racecourse
Private racecourse comprising grandstand and new stables with 103 loose boxes.
Total estate: 3,319 acres.

(More articles are to be added here)


 

Croome Court

The connections with the Empson family are quite straightforward although the family had only a brief relationship with this particular house, for various reasons however, this corner of Worcestershire, the Croome Court estate and the Empson family will for ever be bound up together.

In the 1881 census two Empson family groups were recorded as living in this corner of Worcestershire.

The Hall, Ripple

John William Empson, Widow, 64 years, Justice of the Peace for Worcs & East Riding of Yorkshire. Born Melton Mowbray. (He was blind).

He had three unmarried daughters living at home none of whom followed an occupation: Margaret S. 34; Maria L. 33, both born in London & Ellen G. 32, born at Ripple.

There were live-in servants: a Butler, a Cook, a Kitchen maid and a Housemaid.

Earls Croome Court, Earls Croome.

John Henry Empson, 36, Justice of the Peace, born London Mayfair & Mary Thearsa Burdett his wife, 34 born at Earls Croome and a daughter, Maria Alice Empson, 12, daughter born in Petergate, York.

In addition Mary Coventry his Mother-in-Law was at home she was 81 and had been born in Goshen Jamaica (presumably a plantation owned by the Coventrys). With her was Anne Maria Barker, 36 a Lady's Companion born in Worcestershire.

There were also six live-in servants; a Cook, a Kitchen maid, a Head Housemaid, an Under Housemaid, a Coachman and a Footman.

Of the first family John Empson held the living at Ripple - an exquisite little church full of Empson memorabilia located just off the modern M50 motorway as it joins the M5 motorway. He did not officiate as minister himself but employed a series of Curates do do this. He lived in the Hall - a large house adjoining the churchyard whilst the Curate lived in an equally large, beautiful Georgian Mansion on the other side of the church, apparently taking in lodgers and school children to make ends meet!

The second family is headed by John William's only son, John Henry. He had married Mary Thearsa Burdett the (4th I think) daughter of the Earl of Coventry. This is then the connection with Croome Court. They lived not in the house that is for sale today (the Earl lived there!) but a large house on the estate which is still to be seen but now is believed to serve as a country club. It is believed that this was his second marriage. Maria being the daughter of his first wife. John Henry died relatively young and Mary Theresa went on to marry again having been a widow when she married John this was a third marriage. Much work remains to be done on researching this family branch - I don't know for example where Mary fits into the Coventry family tree and the National Trust book on the subject does not help much.

Today the house is for sale as explained in the following article. The estate (which extend for miles either side of the motorway) is in the 'care' of the National Trust - the countryside Mafia dedicated to worship of the landlord class and to prevent people enjoying themselves. A trip to Ripple and Croome Court is well worth the journey. There is much to see in the church, recently beautifully restored (it was subsiding badly). There are Empson memorials and Empson memorial windows. John William and his three daughters are buried in the churchyard, their grave referring to Yokefleet Hall which probably explains why it was apparently empty at the 1881 census.

The National Misery Trust are now engaged on a massive programme to restore the landscaped grounds of Croome Court (one of Capability Brown's most famous works) and this is well worth a visit. A tip however. If you drive past the entrance to the National Trust's (The countryside's mother-in-law) car park a little further along the road until you see the church on the ridge. Park your car here and walk up the footpath to the church. Below you you will see the whole of the estate spread out before you and well, if you walk off across it and back out the same way you don't have to pay the National Misery Trust anything for the privilege of walking on 'your' birthright. The church is in the care of the redundant churches fund (a friendly institution which seems to like people). With luck it will be open - worth a look - wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons and fascinating monuments to the Coventry's. The church was moved lock stock and barrel by the Coventry's to this spot because it and the village it served spoilt the view from their home. (They just knocked down the village). The tower was designed as a platform from which to view the estate but, sadly this is not open.

If you are keen to visit this place - give me a ring (0121-745-5397) and I'll give you some better directions and more pictures.

From Fungus to Fun House: Once a school, then a Hare Krishna retreat, Croome is now a 17-bedroom family home. Marcus Binney reports.

 

The Times 28th May 2004

 

TEN YEARS ago no one would have believed that Croome Court could, ever be a private house again. It had stood empty for 15 years. Before that Hare Krishnas had camped in its great state rooms, picking out the fruit and flowers on one of the 18th-century ceilings in tutti frutti colours for their marriage ceremonies.

The great collections of the Earls of Coventry had departed from the house soon after the Second World War. The sumptuous tapestry room was sold, complete with all its plasterwork, to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Croome became a school. Yet its beauty survived almost unblemished. The golden Bath stone has remained crisp, yet mellowed to perfection. The rich plasterwork inside, much of it by Robert Adam, remained —and the Met even thoughtfully left a replica of the ceiling they had taken. Then the National Trust stepped in to save the 670-acre Capability Brown park, helped by a £4.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

But the magnificent Grade I listed house, also attributed to Brown, remained empty. The irony was that the National Trust could have had it for £1. Now Croome Court and 33 acres of grounds are for sale at £3.5 million. Better still, every room is freshly painted, from the basements to the attics. The roof is not just watertight but has been reloaded and re-slated, using many of the original handsome blue-green Westmoreland slates.

The man behind it all is Laurence Bilton, an entrepreneur who with his brother, Anton, has made a specialty of rescuing decaying old buildings. He says cheerily: "We had to do a vast amount of cleaning, washing, de-fungusing. In the hall, awful carpets had been glued to the stone floor but we were able to turn the stone over and wax it. The main staircase was worst, water pouring in, three inches deep on the floor, mushrooms everywhere. Now we live in the whole house," he says. "We have 17 bedrooms. Before we drew up the particulars, I had always imagined that I had 24,000 square feet"

The measurements, however, showed that he has 36,500 square feet — an increase equivalent to six, good-sized, four-bedroom houses. There are two staff flats in the basement (which is really a lower ground floor) and a further flat — and a gym — in the attic

So which are his favourite rooms? "First, the salon in the centre of the garden front overlooking the park. We sit and have drinks on the portico. Then the family room, where we hang out in summer and winter.

"The fire picks out the gold on the ceiling. The long gallery at the end of the house is one gigantic playroom with sun in it all day long where we spend a lot of time with the kids."

Upstairs, the main bedroom and dressing room occupy an area the size of a large dock-land apartment with stunning views of the park. On this floor are a further ten bedrooms, including four turret rooms at the comers — all made possible by an impressive row of four strapping boilers in the vaulted cellars. "That's a million BTU [British thermal units] capacity, what's needed to heat a 50-room house," he says.

"I've got the main running expenses, heating, electricity and insurance down to £20,000 a year. I employ two people to look after the grounds, though you could do it on a contract. Overall running costs are now similar to those of a large manor house."

But with the National Trust all around, isn't it like living in a goldfish bowl?

"It makes you think twice," Laurence Bilton says. "But the Trust has dredged the lake, greatly improving the views, and now they're embarking on a major tree-planting programme.

"Our front lawn is nine acres — 300 yards to the boundary. When people come to look at the church on the hill they're dots on the horizon."

On the south side the ha-ha has been rebuilt "The way I look at it is that the landscape around is secure in perpetuity. None of it can ever be built on," he says.

Croome has long been famous for its classical temples and follies, but one of the most beautiful, the domed rotunda, remains with the house on the nearby hill surrounded by noble cedars. From here there is a breathtaking panorama across the fertile Worcestershire plain, a perfect place for picnics or drinks in the evening.

One reason why Croome Court stayed empty for so long was the extent of decaying stables and outbuildings. After converting and selling a first group, including the coach house, Bilton sold the stables to another developer, who has created another ten houses. So far six have been sold, but these have a separate access from the main house and hardly impinge on it. Earlier plans for a large suburban-looking development in the seven-acre walled garden have been fought off.

The one part still unresolved is the so-called red wing immediately next to tile house, which is built of red Worcestershire brick rather than of golden stone. There is planning permission to convert it into six houses, but recently Laurence Bilton has been exploring with English Heritage the possibility of transforming it into a leisure complex for the main house.

So why is he selling? "We always planned to give it five years. Now we're going to the South of France, where my family lives. We've bought a house in the hills which we're going to restore." And who will buy Croome?      

"It needs a big personality, someone with lots of money who will take it all a stage further, someone who’s burning for space to display furniture and pictures.”

 

Andrew Grant: 01905 24477