Living History

The pangs suffered during a project will end up as nothing more damaging than good dinner party stories.

There are trials and tribulations when caring for an historic home, but the rewards are Grade One listed, says Clive Aslet.

 

“I’ve bought a bit of history,” said my friend, having recently acquired a country house. “I am rather proud of that.” It was a listed building – and this was important to him, an official recognition of the house being of architectural or historic importance. During my travels around the country I’ve visited thousands of ancient buildings, and know from experience that people who own historic properties are generally proud of them. There’s even a certain pecking order when such folk meet. “Is yours Grade I? I’m afraid we’re only Grade II*.” Bless.

Our house in Ramsgate is nothing but a humble Grade II, and lucky to be that. Ramsgate was listed en masse at some point – I suspect in the 1980s, after the collapse of the seaside holiday industry. Our terrace ought to have been a mere conservation area. But such was the threat of destruction, fortunately not carried out, that the listers were generous with their designations. Well, I’m not sorry. I can now hold up my head at meetings of the Historic Houses Association and other august bodies: yes, I too reside in a listed house. English Heritage has given it the imprimatur of being “nationally important and of special interest”.

There are very nearly 375,000 listed buildings in England, about 30,000 in Wales and some 48,000 in Scotland. Some prehistoric monuments have been protected since an Act of 1882. The catalyst to extend protection more widely came in 1911, from a country house. Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, the brick gatehouse that is the only surviving part of the castle built by Lord Cromwell, Treasurer to Henry VI in the fifteenth century, was about to be dismantled: its owners proposed shipping it to America, to be re-erected as a piece of instant history on the other side of the Atlantic. This was prevented by the Marquess of Curzon, former Viceroy of India, who bought it. The outcry persuaded Parliament to pass the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913. The legislators principally had in mind buildings that were not inhabited. Listing as we know it got underway in 1947, its reach being greatly enlarged in the 1980s.

 

Kemerton, Tewkesbury

 

“People who own historic properties are generally proud of them. There’s even a certain pecking order when such folk meet. ‘Is yours Grade I? I’m afraid we’re only Grade II*’”

 

All sorts of buildings are listed – swimming pools, lighthouses, telephone boxes, dovecots, power stations, bridges, military installations. Any structure more than 30 years old can qualify, providing it is of sufficient importance. As English Heritage puts it: “All buildings built before 1700 which survive in anything like their original condition are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840.”

Over 90 per cent of listed structures are, like our house, Grade II. We wouldn’t be able to alter the character of the place without permission. Since we’ve never wanted to, we’ve been able to rub along with the restriction pretty well.

Neighbours who need to replace their roofs, often renewed in the twentieth century in cheap tiles, fear that they might be compelled to revert to the original Welsh slate, which is a cost they would really rather forego. The roofs of these Regency-style (technically early Victorian) bow-fronted properties are not generally visible from the street, being hidden behind parapets.The principle has not yet been put to the test.

 

“My advice to owners wanting to alter a listed building would be: proceed with tact”

 

That may be just as well. In one of the squares of Ramsgate, a person of my acquaintance applied to build a small extension at the back of his house. For this, sash windows had to be specially made. He thought, in the interests of insulation – a government priority – he might as well have them double-glazed while he was about it. The council’s conservation officer rejected the idea – even though nobody would ever see them but the occupants of the house. Should he have appealed against the decision? He would have been entitled to do so, and would probably have won. He didn’t think the delay to his project was worth it.

Examples of that kind are commonplace – but not universal. Depending on how they’ve been treated, owners tend to have extreme views on the regulations – or more particularly, how they are applied. Take the owner of a palatial country house in East Anglia whom I visited earlier this year. While his work has for the most part entailed a meticulous restoration of the original interiors, he has also adapted the Grade I property to modern family life. But he has never crossed swords with the planners. This would astound the owners of some other listed buildings, who, wanting to adapt their homes, often at great expense, have found themselves thwarted at every turn.

“If I’d known it would have been this difficult and taken this long,” says one depressed householder after another, “I’d never have bought the place.”

 

Idlicote, Shipston-on-Stour

 

“Whether the owner prefers an addition in a contemporary style or one that is in keeping with the original architecture, what matters is the quality of the resulting architecture”

 

But don’t be deterred. Admittedly, building works of any kind can be stressful, the families who complain most about conservation officers when the project is underway may well laugh at the tribulations a couple of years after moving in. Like giving birth, the trauma is quickly forgotten. The pangs suffered during a project may end up, in hindsight, as nothing more damaging than good dinner party stories.

These days, very few people want to live in exactly the same spaces as their forebears. Formality, as the Georgians knew it, doesn’t work for every day. In the twenty-first century, owners expect family rooms, which combine the needs of cooking with those of dining, watching television and doing homework. This may be expanded into a suite, if computer rooms, parental offices and cinemas are added. Thank heavens, many large country houses have service wings in which these new requirements can be fitted – although service wings don’t always have the best view.

My advice to owners wanting to alter a listed building would be: proceed with tact. Take the official into your confidence at the start of the project. Seek his opinion. It is surprising how often they get rubbed up the wrong way through insensitive handling, perhaps on the part of an architect. Try a charm offensive: the time invested at the beginning of a project could yield dividends – and avoid months of impotent rage – later on.

 

“Three cheers for the owners who love the country houses in their care, and relish the responsibility that they represent”

 

There are lessons, though, that conservation officers could learn too. Not all of them are experienced. They should have the humility to accept that the person who pays the bills for a building project – particularly if he employs a good architect – may actually be right. Some judgments can never be absolute; it is a matter of taste whether the owner prefers an addition in a contemporary style or one that is in keeping with the original architecture. What matters is the quality of the resulting architecture.

But to conservationists, the good news is that listing has worked. Forty years ago, the landmark Destruction of the Country House exhibition opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum, cataloguing the terrible toll that the twentieth century had taken on the country house. Hundreds had been demolished since the Second World War. Scores were still under threat. Three cheers for listing, which has been a factor in banishing those demons. Three cheers, too, for the owners who love the country houses in their care, and relish the responsibility that they represent. The pride that they and their family take in their home can play a key role in a fulfilled life.

 

Clive Aslet is Editor-at-Large of Country Life. He has just published his first novel The Birdcage, set in Salonika during the First World War.

 

This article comes from the latest edition of Barometer. View the digital version.

 

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