The Progression of a Country House

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I have recently completed the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) scholarship, which is a prestigious programme giving practitioners specialising in historic buildings a deeper and broader understanding of historic buildings, materials and conservation philosophy. 


The first six months of the scholarship is known as the ‘Lethaby scholarship’ and this section is aimed at gaining a better understanding of vernacular buildings, materials and craftsmanship. We visited over 150 different sites/workshops and met hundreds of people, all with vast amounts of knowledge and experience. 


However, what this article is focused on is the last three months of the scholarship, known as the ‘Plunket’, which is dedicated to the study of country houses. During this part of the scholarship we had week-long stays at a number of country houses to investigate a topic of our choosing. My chosen topic was ‘The progression of the country house’. This short piece is aimed at summarising what I learnt about the progression of country houses from the nine country houses I visited and further reading I have done. It also incorporates thoughts from other places which I have visited and people I have met during the scholarship. 


I would firstly like to thank all of the owners/families and staff at the country houses where I stayed, who made my visits so enjoyable, interesting and varied. These include but are not limited to:

• Broughton Castle, 13th Century: Martin Fiennes and his parents Lord and Lady Saye and Sele

• Stanway House, 16th Century: Lord Wemyss

• Ardkinglas, 20th Century: Mr David and Mrs Angela Sumsion

• Haddon Hall, 12th Century: Lord and Lady Manners and Ruth Headon

• Owlpen, 13th Century: Sir Nicholas and Lady Karin Mander and their son Hugo Mander

• Holme Pierrepont Hall, 16th Century: Mr Robert and Mrs Charlotte Brackenbury

• Wenlock Abbey, 11th Century: Mrs Gabrielle de Wet, Ms Jane Cowburn and Vivien Bellamy

• Provender House, 13th Century: Princess Olga Romanoff and her Daughter Alexandra Mathew

• Dunvegan Castle, 13th Century: Hugh MacLeod and Cecilia Dura, Castle custodian

fig. 01. Provender House, Exterior View

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fig. 02. Dunvegan Castle, External View

Each of the houses I visited are still family homes and for me, some of the most interesting parts of the houses are where the families now live and seeing how this is possible. It has only really been since the Second World War that servants were no longer a common sight in these country houses. Therefore, in terms of the history of many of these houses, this is a relatively recent development since less than a century ago. Although the design, materials and way in which these houses are run has been constantly evolving, prior to the wars (WWI and WWII) these changes were slow and subtle. However, it appears that with the loss of servants, rapid development in technology, estate taxation and changes to the way in which we live, where the country houses have survived, they have had to change dramatically over a short period of time. 


While staying at the country houses, I studied their existing layout and reviewed the changes which had been made, trying to understand the order of the changes and the reasons behind these changes. The earliest date of each of the houses varied, however there were many common elements which could be read across the ages, and generally the overall progression and changes to the house were similar, even though geographically they varied. 


Whilst staying at the country houses, I also enjoyed talking to the families who live in these places. There is often a perception of the ‘type’ of person who lives in a country house, however after visiting a variety of places, it must be noted that the sorts of people who live in these country houses vary greatly and no stereotype can be applied. Houses are diversifying in order to survive and the way in which they diversify depends upon many factors, including: the family, the house location and the estate assets.

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fig. 03. Holme Pierrepont Hall, Courtyard View

Below I have summarised changes to key spaces which were seen throughout the country houses. The article then reviews diversification in these houses and how this is affecting the changes which occur to each of these places.



fig. 04. Stanway House, Great Hall

At most of the houses (Ardkinglas as an exception due to its much later date) a great hall was originally at the centre of the house and in almost all houses (other than Holme Pierrepont Hall and Provender House) the original great halls were readable within the fabric of the building and were the key parts of the buildings which still survived.

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fig. 05. Wenlock Abbey, Great Hall

In medieval times the great hall was the heart of the house, it was where the whole family including the servants would gather to eat, drink and socialise. There was a lot of ceremony which went with eating. In medieval times status was not so important, it was more important who was part of your household and the term family referred to everyone in your household, now the term family usually refers to close relations. 


The design of the great hall was simple, a large room, with two distinct ends. The high end where the highest status sat, often on a dais, and a low end, which connected through to the back of house areas. At the low end of the great hall there were usually three door ways, the central entrance connected to the kitchen, then the other doors led into the pantry and buttery.


Broughton Castle (fig.06. Broughton Castle, Great Hall) and Haddon Hall (fig.07. Haddon Hall, Great Hall) still have clear examples of the three entrances at the lower end of the great hall.

Later, screens were added in front of these entrances, creating a cross passage. Sometime after this, minstrels galleries were built over the cross passage and screen to allow musicians to play and entertain the audience.

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The entrance screen and minstrel gallery are clearly visible at Haddon Hall. Evidence of a historical screen can be seen at Owlpen manor (fig.08. Owlpen Manor, Great Hall) and a Georgian reinterpretation of the screen can be seen at Stanway House. At Stanway House there would have been a minstrels gallery over this cross passage, however the space is now incorporated into other rooms above and no longer has a connection to the hall.

The great hall was at its prime in the 14th century. However, from the mid-14th century onwards the rich began to eat in other rooms, such as the chamber, as the great hall was so large. The servants still ate in the great hall and it was still used for banquets and larger meals. 


The ceremony which went with the meal continued, although on a reduced scale when eating in the chamber, however this slowly diminished and by the early 17th century the ceremony which went with meals was almost non-existent. 


In the late 16th century households began to shrink with the rise of law and the crowns power, rather than the local gentry having power and holding court. Previously servants and members of the household would have come from families which had a status in their own right, meaning that they were within the protection of the overall household. However, when the change of power became more central, there was no need for this close alliance and so servants began to come from lower status families who required work and shelter rather than power and friendship. 


As time developed, the amount of privacy between the family and servants grew, likely due to the change in status of servants. By the end of the 17th century the servants had their own servants’ hall and no longer dined with the family. At the same time the houses began to introduce back stairs and the intention was to not see the servants. 


At this point the original purpose of the hall had all but faded other than for events and gatherings. However, the great hall remained in many houses, likely for both the convenience of having a large space for events, a symbol of power and status of the house and also for the nostalgia of the past. 


It is believed that at Holme Pierrepont Hall the great hall was removed and in the 18th century a number of state rooms were built in its place with further bedroom accommodation. 


In the majority of houses which we visited and in other houses we have visited throughout the scholarship the great hall is now used for events, both family and public, and as a key destination on the group tours.


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fig. 09. Owlpen Manor, Chamber

The great chamber was usually located at the high end of the hall at first floor level, it was historically often known as the solar. This room was initially a bedroom and living space for the highest status members and would have had a bed, likely either sat on a dais or four poster in design, with curtains. Privacy was not common in medieval times. The great chamber would have also been used to entertain guests, however it was semi-private compared to the great hall. Then from 14th century onwards, great halls got smaller and chambers got larger and more elaborate (fig.10. Holme Pierrepont Hall, Chamber), showing the wealth and power of the family.

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fig.10. Holme Pierrepont Hall, Chamber

As more dining and entertaining happened in the great chamber, other rooms began to be attached to this, including; garderobes (early versions of toilets), closets and withdrawing chambers (fig. 11.Haddon Hall, Earls Apartments).


fig. 11. Haddon Hall, Earls Apartments

The closets were more private spaces off the chambers and provided a private space for study, storing precious items and prayer. Withdrawing chambers were also built off the main chamber, these allowed private meals to be taken or provided a space where servants could sleep. These withdrawing rooms later turned into drawing rooms, spaces to retire to after dinner. Therefore, initially, drawing rooms were off the bedchambers. However, from 17th century onwards you find drawing rooms unattached to chambers and instead often attached or paired with dining rooms- state rooms such as dining rooms did not exist until the 17th century. Towards the end of the 17th century, when backstairs were introduced and privacy was sought, the backstairs not only acted as a method of getting the servants to and from the chamber to attend and serve the family in private but 

were also used by members of the family to allow private meetings in closets and chambers.

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Examples of chambers still existed in many of the country houses which we visited, however often these had alterations, especially to the connecting rooms such as the garderobes, closets and withdrawing rooms (fig. 12. Provender House, Crown post room). Modern bathrooms were often located as ensuite in one of the connecting rooms (fig. 13. Ardkinglas, Ensuite).

fig. 12. Provender House, Crown post room

fig. 13. Ardkinglas, Ensuite


fig. 14. Ardkinglas, Bedroom


The kitchen has been a staple room associated with country houses since the beginning, and still today the kitchen is an essential in any home. Historically it was the cooks and servants who used the kitchen but today the kitchen is usually the heart of the house and the family cook for



fig. 15. Haddon Hall, Kitchen

The kitchen is probably the room where technology and the way in which we live has had the biggest impact on how we use the room. Haddon Hall (fig. 15. Haddon Hall, Kitchen) has an intact example of a medieval kitchen, which clearly explains the layout of a historic kitchen and the scale of the space needed to provide food for the family, all of the servants and some of the local families. However, this kitchen is not without change, it is now connected to the great hall and has rooms above, while originally it would have been a separate building with a double height space. Before the 14th century kitchens were built separate to the main house and were connected by a walkway, to reduce the risk of fire. In medieval times the kitchens were often double height and vaulted with a louvre over, as is believed to have been the case at Haddon Hall. 


From the 18th century onwards the fashion to have direct access to the gardens from the family’s space meant that many of the servants’ quarters got pushed underground or moved into a wing. This can be seen at Stanway House, where an addition wing was built for the servant spaces. 


In the majority of houses we visited, the modern kitchen (other than Owlpen Manor) was no longer in its historic location and had been moved into another, usually more central room in the house, or if the house is only partially used, a more central room in this area. Kitchens in today’s age require much less space, as we have technology such as ovens and fridges which greatly reduce the space required. In addition, we buy-in many more items than historically would have been possible, such as meat, cheese and bread.


In Broughton Castle (fig. 16. Broughton Castle, Kitchen) the kitchen had been moved to the vault under the chapel, this would have traditionally been on the high end of the hall, however the family mainly live in the high end, and only really use the hall and other areas of the house for events and public tours. In addition, this space is a suitable size and allows easy access to what is now the dining room (previously the parlour). The kitchen was installed here in the 1970s and the honest insertion of this kitchen adds interest to the character of the castle and summarises in one snapshot how historic houses are evolving and progressing. 


At Holme Pierrepont Hall the kitchen has been moved into what was previously a Georgian Bedroom. The space is an open plan kitchen and dining room, as is often seen in many family houses today but historically would never have been considered.


Even in Ardkinglas (fig. 17. Ardkinglas, Kitchen), which was built in 1907 the kitchen has been moved from the servant quarters into the upper rooms where the family live. The dressing room from one of the main bedrooms has been converted into the kitchen and the bedroom now used as the living space. In the Edwardian period, houses often had large numbers of bedrooms however this is no longer required.

The kitchen spaces are now either retained for filming and tours, such is the case in Haddon Hall and Ardkinglas, or they are often used as ancillary storage spaces. At Dunvegan Castle the kitchen has been sub-divided and is partially used as a plant room. At Holme Pierrepont Hall the kitchens are now used as a boot room/lobby space.


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Fig. 18. Provender House, Dining room

Parlours were not mentioned until late medieval times, they were often located on the ground floor behind the great hall Dias, often below the great chamber. This was the case at Owlpen Manor, Broughton Castle and Haddon Hall. At both Broughton Castle and Haddon Hall, the parlour is believed to be later than the Great Hall itself. 


These were designed as rooms where people could talk, however they do not seem to have lasted long and as the 18th century grew into larger parties and events, the parlour seems to have been replaced by a series of state rooms; the dining room, salon (fig. 19. Ardkinglas, Salon), library and drawing room



Fig. 20. Haddon Hall, External view of the long gallery

The long gallery started off as an outdoor covered walkway, allowing you to get from one area to another. These then developed into places to exercise out of the elements and began to be enclosed. From the 16th century onwards, doctors began to promote exercise and stress its importance, which likely had a contribution to the increase in popularity of long galleries. Although there are examples of long galleries from the 15th century, generally long galleries are seen from the 16th century onwards.

There were initially no portraits in these spaces, however as the portrait collecting began in the 16th century, a space for these was needed and the long gallery served as the perfect backdrop.


At Haddon Hall the long gallery dates from the 16th century and has panelling covering the walls, and bays overlooking the gardens and landscape beyond; this is a prime example of a long gallery and likely built for purpose, its proportions are very large. The long gallery at Broughton Castle is likely an insertion of a first floor above the great hall and was built in the 16th century, it is not as grand in its proportions today as when built, as part of its floor area is now additional bedrooms, but it does have bay windows which overlook the gardens, with the walls lined with portraits of the families ancestors.

The long gallery is not a room which we have in today’s modern house and the fashion of having long galleries lasted for a very short period, with not many examples seen after the end of the 17th century.


Historically, houses would not have had libraries. If the owner of the house did have any books, these would be kept in his closet, along with other prized possessions. From the 16th century, some of these closets became what we would describe as private libraries, and those who were educated

would not have been without such a space. From the 17th century people began to collect more books and having a ‘library’ within a country house became a status symbol. Then from the early 18th century rooms specially designed for books- libraries- were added into country houses. 


The library at Broughton Castle dates from the 18th century and is located above where the kitchens would have been on the low end of the hall. The library is designed as a whole, not just to house books but also as an experience, a place to sit and admire or read the books. The design of the library at Provender house is similar and appears 18th century in its design also.

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fig.21. Dunvegan Castle, Library

At Dunvegan Castle (fig.21. Dunvegan Castle, Library) the library is 19th century, the large great hall was subdivided in order to provide both a library and dining room. The great hall was designed for dining and hosting, so the re-use of this space as a dining room is not controversial. However, using this space to provide a library, shows the importance placed on this type of room and the status which went with it.


fig.22. Ardkinglas, Library

The library at Ardkinglas (fig.22. Ardkinglas, Library) is joined with the billiard room, the library historically was seen as a masculine room and therefore combining this with the billiard room made perfect sense.

There was no designed library at Owlpen Manor, however in the modern age we live in we all have books, especially houses which have a rich ancestral history. Therefore, the attic space at Owlpen Manor, which was previously without a use is now a store, with the walls lined with books. Libraries are not historical spaces, libraries are living and constantly expanding.

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fig. 23. Wenlock Abbey, Library

Wenlock Abbey (fig. 23. Wenlock Abbey, Library) has recently had a new library designed and instated. Wenlock Abbey is not an ancestral home, however having a library in a home is still seen as an essential room, housing the books we associate with knowledge.


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fig. 24. Dunvegan Castle, Boiler room

The country house and estate has been a staple in the English countryside for a very long time. Initially the King would allow land to be held by families in return for military service, if required. Each estate owner would pledge allegiance to the King, and depending on the size of the land holding, would provide a number of men to the King in case of war. However, from 1215, rather than providing military service to the King for your land, the holding of land was based on payments at key events.

In around 1530-1630 the country saw the reformation, this was political and changed many of society’s views on religion yet also affected the land around the country. Henry VIII redistributed one quarter of the land in the country from religious ownership to private.

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fig. 25. Wenlock Abbey and Priory Ruins

From the 17th century onwards, we see the rise of entrepreneurial activities such as urban development, mining and industrial enterprise. These activities carried on into the 18th century and the rise of the country house as a symbol of status began to expand, with families often having London homes or multiple country houses. In addition, in the late 17th century the way in which we farmed developed with huge improvements to both crops and livestock and the introduction of regional farming specialities. With finances coming from other areas and houses seen more as places of relaxation and breaks, the landscape park was born and the 18th century saw the picturesque begin (fig. 26. Stanway House, Cascade and landscape).


fig. 26. Stanway House, Cascade and landscape

In addition to this, with more money and better connections to Europe, many heirs began to go on The Grand Tour- a trip around Europe undertaken by young men at around 21years old. These trips often led to the acquirement of many objects, antiquities and ideas. These heirs then needed places to store the objects they had bought back and wanted to implement some of the design ideas which they had seen on their European travels, so the 18th century saw the rise of large extensions being applied to country houses.

The 17th century saw a change in the country house and the way in which families lived here, especially with the separation between the family and servants. This continued and by the 18th century any new build country house was designed to have an ‘upstairs’ for the family and ‘downstairs’ for the staff.

Between the 1870’s and 1890’s the country saw the agricultural depression, caused by cheap import rates for cereals from America in a time when the UK saw poor harvests. This agricultural depression had a huge impact on the country house and estate which often relied heavily on agriculture as the main source of funding for the estate. Country house owners found themselves much worse off financially and this saw the start in the downturn of the country house and estate.

This was further worsened by the introduction of inheritance tax in 1894, however this did not have a huge impact immediately, as inheritance tax requires the death of the head of the family. However, WWI saw the death of many male heads of family which resulted in large inheritance costs and families making the decision to sell/ leave the country houses and estates. Between 1914-1924, the country saw the largest change in land ownership since the reformation.

Many of the houses which survived reviewed the way in which they were managed and run, in order to reduce the amount of inheritance tax and become as tax efficient as possible. Inheritance tax had increased year upon year and if the estate was worth over  2million, inheritance tax was at

75% in 1946. The 1930’s saw the emergence of country estates as limited companies, in a bid to reduce inheritance tax.

With inheritance tax unaffordable to many, in 1937 the government introduced the National Trust Act which allowed houses to be gifted to the National Trust tax free. The National Trust gained a large number of houses from this period through to 1949. The National Trust still have a large

collection of buildings, and this is one way in which some country houses have survived.

However, some country houses and estates are still in private ownership, and in order to survive and be maintained they must have an income. Traditionally this would have been by rental cottages and farm tenancies, which is still the case in some country houses such as Stanway House and

Broughton Castle. But many country houses had lost their estates when paying inheritance tax, so many families must find other ways to make the houses pay.

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fig. 27. Holme Pierrepont, exterior view

Houses such as Holme Pierrepont Hall (fig. 27. Holme Pierrepont, exterior view) and Owlpen Manor have diversified into the Wedding and events market, proving a picturesque venue for such events. However, in order for this to be successful, the family must set this up and run this as their business, it is hard work and requires a member of the family to focus full time on this and at some country houses this is not possible, so other options are required.

Filming provides a certain amount of income at some country houses such as Haddon Hall, Broughton Castle and Ardkinglas, however this is not a reliable source of income and so most country houses rely on opening the country houses to the public also.

Opening to the public is beneficial to country houses, not because they gain the income of visitors, but as it means that they are eligible for some grant funding and in some cases can gain conditional exemption from paying inheritance tax.

This conditional exemption means that most houses now open to the public, and this has changed the way in which many families live in them, often it means there are museum like spaces within the house. This is especially the case at Haddon Hall where the kitchen, great hall and other areas remain almost as they were in the medieval period.


fig. 28. Broughton Castle, modern stair location

In other houses, such as Broughton Castle this has meant that the family now live almost exclusively in a smaller part of the castle, with only the larger function rooms being used for family gatherings and events. This has created a catalyst for change and in the case of Broughton Castle,

for this to work an additional staircase was required. This rearrangement has been achieved successfully at Broughton Castle (fig. 28. Broughton Castle, modern stair location) with the introduction of a modern concrete spiral staircase in what was previously the priest’s bedroom.

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fig. 29. Provender House, AirBNB

The boundaries of these country houses are being broken down and in the cases of Provender House (fig. 29. Provender House, AirBNB) and Ardkinglas, parts of the houses have been converted into holiday homes, allowing additional income and opening the house up to more people. At Owlpen Manor they have converted a number of cottages on the grounds into holiday cottages.

The ways in which these country houses can diversify seems vast and I'm sure we will see different iterations of these diversifications in years to come.

This article aims to briefly touch on the progression of the country house and I have used examples based on what I have seen during my SPAB Scholarship. I am however sure that the more one explores these country houses and lives in them, the more one learns of their history and adaption to present day. If county houses are to continue to survive, they must adapt and continue to change and diversify and I’m sure this will lead to an ever more characterful and exciting visitor experience.

I must also note that the houses which I visited are homes which are still in private ownership and continuing to be used as family homes, however there are a number of other solutions and uses which change and adapt a country house and should not be ignored. Examples include Wilderhope, which is now a YHA and Calverley Old Hall, a Landmark trust property.

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fig. 30. Broughton Castle, External painting

No images are used in the production of this article due to copyright and privacy issues, however my own sketches are used to illustrate key details and moments. If you would like to learn more about any of the country houses, most of them are open to the public and have guide books which are available to buy.

This article is my own interpretation of each house and the history of country houses based on the knowledge I gained in the short time I was at these houses and what I have read, it is only intended as a summary and should not be seen as a reliable record



Life in the English Country House by Mark Givourd

The English Country Estate by John Martin Robinson

The story of the Country House by Clive Aslet

Discovering Stately Homes by Amores and Christopher Scott

Guide Books for; Broughton Castle, Stanway House, Haddon Hall, Owlpen, Wenlock Abbey and Dunvegan Castle