Nicola here. One thing that always interests me about the castles and old houses I visit is the different stages in their life; the way in which their purpose changes over the years and so they change shape and the usage of the rooms varies and the gardens are altered and each generation develops the property and leaves their mark on their home. It struck me recently as we planned some renovations to our cottage that the process we go through is not so different from that of grand builders of stately homes, only on a much smaller scale! (The picture is Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight – more on that later.)
Ashdown House, for example, was used as a hunting lodge for several hundred years and so was not lived in permanently. It therefore remained architecturally unaltered all that time because there was no change in its purpose and so no need to spend money on alterations. However the moment the Victorian Cravens decided to take up residence there on a full time basis, they changed it completely. The house was too small to be an aristocratic family home so they extended it, just as people build extensions now. They added two wings, with a ballroom, a smoking room and a billiards room, and most importantly, one suspects, they built servants’ quarters to house the thirty eight people who waited on them! The gardens were also considered too plain so they remodelled them as well with a fashionable Italianate parterre garden that was all the rage in the mid-nineteenth century.
Meanwhile across the fields from the main house, the Iron Age hill fort of Alfred’s Castle had gone through a similar process some thousand years earlier. When the Romans came to Britain they built a villa in the centre of the old Iron Age fort. Over the two hundred years of its occupation the villa changed size and shape and the purpose of its rooms changed. At some point the owners installed some fancy new window glass and painted the walls an attractive terracotta red. I imagine that they must have been pleased with their home improvements!
A few weeks ago I went to the Isle of Wight, a gorgeous little island off the south coast of England. There’s something exciting about being on an island even if it’s only an hour’s ferry crossing from the mainland, and the Isle of Wight is a lovely place to visit. There are fabulous beaches and wonderful cliffs and hills for walking and best of all – from my point of view – a rich history from pre-Roman to the present. I got my English Civil War fix at Carisbrooke Castle, where King Charles I was imprisoned. I even saw the window he had tried to squeeze through when he attempted to escape. Sadly his twenty course dinners and the narrowness of the bars thwarted the attempt.
As an aside, I first heard mention of Charles’ imprisonment at Carisbrooke through reading Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes, which I adored. The story of Charles’ imprisonment and subsequent execution and the involvement of Mary, the housekeeper’s niece, with great affairs of state, enthralled me. The book was very firmly on the side of the King and the noble cavaliers who tried to help him escape. It was pretty cool to visit the castle where these events, fact and fictional had taken place.
Amongst the handsome cavaliers in Mary of Carisbrooke was Sir Edward Worsley of Gatcombe. The Worsley family originated in the North of England and rose to prominence during the Tudor period through attracting royal favour. By the period of the English Civil War the family, like so many, were split in their loyalties. Sir Edward was a noted Royalist whilst the senior branch of the family, who lived nearby at Appuldurcombe House, supported the parliament.
Appuldurcombe was the ultimate in Georgian home improvements. At the end of the 17th century there was a Tudor manor house on the site, which Sir Robert Worsley considered to be “gothic”, irregular, uncivilised and inconvenient. He wrote: “I have left not one stone of it standing” (which seems a shame as it looks rather characterful.) The difficulty, as those of us know who have lived through house renovation, was that he had to leave enough of it standing to live in whilst he built his new mansion. Not just that, but home improvement can be an expensive business. The rebuilding of Appuldurcombe took years and years because Sir Robert could not afford to do it all at once. Lady Worsley wrote to her father: “I wish he (Sir Robert) would let them go on fast with the building that we might see an end of it.” She was tired of living in a building site!
Unfortunately, only a couple of years after the new build was started, a great storm blew up and destroyed a great deal of the house. Sir Robert had to start all over again. It took him three years to get the roof on and ten years after the building was started, Sir Robert stopped, realising that he could not pay for the work nor settle the debts he had already incurred. His beautiful house with its panelled bedrooms and splendid carvings was left “in a very unfinished state.” The work had cost a grand total of £3532, 15 shillings and ten pence, about the equivalent of £235 000/$420 000 in modern currency.
Sir Robert’s sons predeceased him and his heir, a cousin, showed no interest in continuing the work on the house. It was not until 1768 that Sir Richard Worsley inherited and decided to re-build the re-building. Sir Richard was keen on all things fashionable and by this time the “new” house was already out of date. He renovated it to suit the fashions of the mid 18th century, with landscaping by Capability Brown and furniture by Thomas Chippendale.
Finally the house was complete, but in the Regency period it was remodelled yet again in keeping with the latest style. Only one hundred years later it was largely destroyed by a Second World War bomb, which left the house the ruin you see today. It has been partially restored but it is derelict behind the facade. The hall, pictured right, shows how grand it must once have been.
This rather puts my own house renovations in the shade but it did make me think how keen people often are to “improve” on the work of previous generations. Where I live people love all the old cottages that date back in some cases to the 15th century but they don’t want to live under 15th century conditions. So they have an old house with a modern interior.
So now it’s over to you. Are you keen on home improvements or do you hate DIY? Are you happy with your home environment or are there things you would like to change? After all, people have been doing this for centuries!