While Worcestershire’s castles are nearly non-existent, at present, it has a wonderful wealth of mansions that cover a lot of ground in architectural styles, many with leisure and pleasure gardens. If you feel any disappointment in what is left of the medieval period you’ll certainly revel in this county’s Jacobean to Victorian period homes. There are a few offerings from the Middle Ages such as Greyfriars at Worcester, the Great Hall at Little Malvern Court and the Commandery outside Worcester, of course. Some halls have medieval beginnings such as Harvington Hall, Madresfield Court and Birtsmorton but all are delightful to the eye- inside and out.
Except near the Malverns, you’ll find this to be predominantly low-lying countryside with celebrated orchards and dotted with dairy herds. The architecture runs in all directions with the burned out but still magnificent Witley Court, the seat of the Earls of Dudley, to Chateau Impney near Droitwich; a lovely Loire-style fantasy built by John Corbett as a tribute to his beautiful French wife- much the same as John Bowes did for Josephine Benoite during the same year when he built Bowes Museum near Barnard Castle in Durham. ( See my May 31, 2006 entry.)
A beloved, elegantly Palladian home of the 11th Viscount Cobham is set in 350 acres of landscaped park, at Stourbridge, only 25 minutes drive from the action in Birmingham. Hagley Hall is seated at Worcestershire’s border with the West Midlands county encroaching and contains some of the finest examples of Italian interior plasterwork ( executed by Francesco Vassalli !) and the rich rococo decoration inside is a stunning achievement for all the 18th century amateurs who set their hands to the design. It was built for the secretary to Frederick, Prince of Wales, 1st Lord Lyttleton, George, being completed in 1760 to vie with the likes of Strawberry Hill’s style of Gothic, although Hagley is most definitely classical Palladian, the quadrilateral configuration is crowned at the corners with three-story pavilions, topped by pyramid roofing giving a medieval look to the exterior.
The interior is a tribute to the Grand Tour showing off multitudinous collections from the time, effusive with Lyttleton portraits and classic statues along with a bust of Alexander Pope over the library mantelpiece (along with other great writers, English and European.) All the informal family rooms are off to the left of the entrance hall with an adjacent boudoir. One piece of art in the library was a commissioned Dutch painting entitled The Misers which depicts the 2nd Lord Lyttleton wagering Hagley in a card game, perhaps. The staterooms and gallery show off the masterpieces of Vassalli in the most extravagant rococo style. Make sure to view the Crimson Drawing Room which houses a Mortlake tapestry.
Lord George was a poet and man of letters and had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for a short period of time. His contribution to the estate is everywhere because he began to landscape the grounds surrounding Hagley Hall before the decease of his father in 1751 in a popular style of the time, which was picturesque and from 1756 to 1760 made changes to the exterior of the house which survive even though a destructive fire took away much of the original on Christmas Eve of 1925. It had lead roofs which were, of course, melted by the fire and the result was damage to the interior after boiling lead poured down on interior and furnishings alike. The 9th Viscount, even though devastated by the damage, restored the house together with his wife completely- with the exception of servant quarters which once existed on the top floor.
The landscaping which exists at the mansion at present was created by Lord Camelford, mid-18th century, along with Thomas Pitt of Encombe, Henry Keene, James “Athenian” Stuart and Sanderson Miller including the follies. The picturesque parkland is exquisite and the house is available through the year on an exclusive basis for conferences, product launches, presentations, lunches, dinner, country sporting days, team building activities, themed evenings, murder mysteries, concerts, filming and wedding receptions. Hagley’s high standards of catering are legendary.
Convenient to the NEC, ICC and M5, M6, M40 and M42 T-01562 882408
A Roman road once led through Droitwich, which is north of Worcester and a spa sprang up there because of the deposits of salt, a result of being a center of salt production from those times. Four and one half miles east, Hanbury Hall, a William and Mary House set in 400 acres of parkland and gardens is owned and run by the National Trust. It was home to the Vernon family for three centuries, having been built by the chancery lawyer Thomas Vernon in the early part of the 18th century. It was constructed on land which was purchased by Edward Vernon in 1630 and centuries later his grandson Thomas added to the estates which eventually amassed to 8,000 acres many years later in the 20th century!
Some portions of Hanbury Hall may still make use of the original Spernall Hall from the 17th century in Edward’s day. The rear wall of Hanbury is distinctly different in style from the rest of the mansion. It is known to have been completed by 1706 but the year emblazoned above the entrance door on the Churrigueresque plaque is misleading since it states the year of 1701. This may merely be an embellishment put to unusual use. Building accounts do not exist to support or refute the year. Thomas Vernon and his wife Mary came into possession of the original mansion in 1692 after the death of his bachelor uncle John Vernon. They inherited a house with a large undivided central hall and a main staircase leading off from it. The north and south ranges were populated with small rooms throughout, especially the corner pavilions.
A grand change came to Hanbury when heiress Emma Vernon married Henry Cecil in 1776. They set about the business of remodeling the house by expanding and building larger rooms, throughout. This enlarged the north east pavilion and the south faade had all the windows repositioned in alignment with the first floor windows. If you find the exterior a splendid architectural example you’ll enjoy the interior more so and then some. As a museum it contains the Watney collection of fine porcelain and Dutch flower paintings as a permanent exhibit. The staircase is now magnificent and the ceiling frescoes you will see were painted by Sir James Thornhill. The gardens were restored in the 18th century along with an orangery and an ice house. The Vernon family died out by 1962 after which the National Trust took possession.
T- 01527 821214
A mile northeast of Droitwich, Chateau Impney Hotel is a wonderful vision of French baroque Louis XIII architecture right in the middle of England ! It was built in 1875 by John Corbett who was known as the Salt King, as a present to his wife, Hannah Eliza ne’e O’Meara, a beautiful French/Irish governess who he met on a visit to Paris. After they married he presented a plan to the Parisian architect, Auguste Tronquois, to design a palace based on chateaus the couple had visited in the Loire Valley together. He was the son of a wealthy barge business owner from Staffordshire who, at the age of 28, bought the saltworks at Stoke Prior (near Droitwich Spa) which had fallen into disrepair from neglect. These salt mines were brought back from ruin with his engineering skill and turned the ruins into an a profitable business which produced 160,000 tons of salt a year and became extremely wealthy in the process.
The designs for Impney were drawn up in 1869 and the building began by 1873 under the direction of Richard Phene’ Spiers as executive architect. The landscape of the 155 acre estate was completely transformed into parkland with lakes, waterfalls and exotic gardens with over 3,000 different types of trees. The survival of the array which were planted remain as a part of the current landscape. It is now used as a grand hotel which specializes in conferences, banquets and exhibitions and is independently owned and operated by Ralph Edwards who restored and redeveloped it as a hotel in 1945.
www.chateau-impney.com T-01905 77 44 11
Harvington Hall, now owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham, is seated three miles southeast of Kidderminster. This marvelous medieval and Elizabethan manor house was built on an island moat by Humphrey Pakington circa 1580 but the moat existed from mid 13th century. Portions of the manor retain its medieval beginnings along with the additions built in the 16th century. Many of the rooms still have their original Elizabethan wall paintings and the finest series of priest holes in the country several of which were built by Nicholas Owen. He suffered tremendously for his art and charity because he was later arrested at Hindlip, near Worcester, in 1606 and tortured to death at the Tower of London. Humphrey Pakington fared better because he held a post in the household of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere along with being a type of old world jack-of-all-trades in his day.
His daughter Mary inherited the house and then was passed down to the Throckmortons of Coughton upon her death in 1696. They pulled down two sides of the original courtyard and made minor alterations in existing parts of the house. By mid 18th century they also replaced an old domestic chapel with a larger one gardenside which was also restored more recently in 1986-87 eventually becoming the village school.
At some point in the 19th century the mansion was stripped of furniture and wood paneling and was left as a derelict shell. The archiodiocese came to the rescue in 1923 by purchasing, restoring the house and then opened it to the public. A full program of year round events includes yearly music festivals in July, pilgrimages in September plus outdoor plays, craft fairs, and living history weekends in which teaching Tudor and Stuart history is a part of the national curriculum.
Six miles away from Bewdley, Witley Court at Great Witley has seen better days but is still grand in its skeletal condition. English Heritage acquired the huge property in the 20th century but only a hundred years ago it was one of England’s great country mansions where many extravagant parties were held and was a country seat to the Earls of Dudley. This stately home, now famous for its gigantic fountain, Perseus and Andromeda, ran into neglect for decades upon decades after a fire burned down one wing of the house in 1937. It was abandoned and then looted and vandalized for a span of years before being rescued by English Heritage. Restoration on the West Wing has made several new rooms accessible to the public.
Originally an early Jacobean manor house, John Nash was contracted to convert it to an Italianate palace in the 19th century resulting in a magnificent country seat which has never been matched. He was commissioned to do the work by William Humble Ward in 1846, who later became the first Earl of Dudley. The landscaping was the work of William Andrews Nesfield whose work is still present but greatly reduced.
Nesfield commenced his part in 1854, creating the South Parterre with its great Perseus and Andromeda fountain. The plan was elegantly designed planting with parterres of clipped evergreens and shrubs leading the way to woodland walks throughout the grounds. The central avenue leads to the fountains finishing at the South Parterre and the East Parterre garden is graced with the Flora fountain, designed in the Parterre de Broderie-style – an effect which resembles embroidery, with box-edged shapes designed around colored gravel and flowers. Last summer the project entered its final stages, with new bedding displays and special garden tours giving visitors the opportunity to view the restoration in progress. An authentic topiary was added most recently.
From a distance Witley Court still appears to be intact and even when you tour around the mansion and porticoes you will be impressed with what you see. A visit to Witley Church, built by James Gibbs, will bring you up to date with a photo montage of the story of Witley Court before and after the fire. Its 18th century baroque interior will delight you as well.
Tel: 01299 896636
Three miles west of Worcester, Edward Elgar’s Birthplace at Lower Broadheath on Crown East Lane is a pretty cottage which dates from the 17th century referred to as a ‘two up, two down’ by the people of the area referring to the distance between floors of what the average American calls a bungalow. Even though only his first few years of life were spent here, he insisted that this house would be the shrine left in his honor as a museum and a holding tank of his memorabilia which is extensive. His daughter, Carice, made sure the plans were carried through to the letter and, as a result, it is a marvelous tribute to his near eight decades of life which was rich and full.
There are plenty of information panels, exhibits and photographs at the visitors center and the cottage itself was remodeled to give a true sense of his life with the artifacts, furniture and instruments he used in life. Many of his family’s mementoes and collections are housed there making one feel as if they could reach out and touch the people who owned these treasures in life. Elgar lived a life of routine but he also had many interests and diversions and this house is a tribute to the real man.
In addition to the main attractions there is a gift shop which sells books about his life and about Worcestershire, in general. A small coach house and stable still exist on the property where Elgar’s father kept a pony and trap.The travel room in the cottage will be especially interesting to worldwide travelers and music enthusiasts alike. It’s open everyday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and best to call ahead for details.
T- 01905 333224
Giclee Print of Edward Elgar home by William Hole
Three miles south of Great Malvern, Little Malvern Court is a testament to recusant splendor with church, court and old priory, which sits in the middle, surrounded by ten acres of absolutely lush gardens replete with old fashioned roses, shrubs and lakes. The main residence is private, a Victorian addition built by Hansom. The Berington family, descendants of the Russels, have been in residence for nearly five centuries and their living quarters are not usually open to visitors but the 15th century former Benedictine monastery great hall is available and is part of the old priory, which dates back to the 12th century.
It features a 14th century five-bay double-collared oak-framed roof which is finished with two tiers of cusped windbraces. You’ll want to pay particular attention to the medieval floor tiles, 12th century misericords and a Flemish carved altarpiece. On the other end of the hall, a painting features Thomas Wentworth, who was the 1st Earl of Stafford, on his way to the scaffold in 1641! Much was rebuilt from 1480-1482 but a medieval chancel and crossing tower remain. A modern west porch remains on the site of the east bay of the nave. The transepts and two choir chapels are in a ruinous state.
The library of Malvern is also open to visitors which has, in addition to the religious vestments, period art and embroidery. Of further interest is nearby St Wulstan’s church, where Edward Elgar and his wife Alice are buried and the noted singer Jenny Lind lived at Wynd’s Point in her last years! After a tour, teas can be made available to parties by prior arrangement.
At Stoke Heath, two miles south of Bromsgrove, Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings are historical structures restored and owned by the Council of Management covering about fifteen acres of Worcestershire countryside. Among those buildings are Bromsgrove Merchant House and a Yardley prefab which will give you a glimpse of the more modern vernacular of Worcestershire. Post-war prefabrication was a government program which was a failure but provides a fascinating glimpse into the products used at the time including linoleum, Daz and utility furniture of the 1940s. The Merchants House on Station Street at Bromsgrove might be of more interest as a first save by the Council of Management in 1967. It is a wonderful example of a late 15th century town building and hall house owned by the Lylleys in the 1550s. Its plan is typical with screens passage, great hall and cross-wing of a parlor with a jettied solar above a frame of pegged oak and wattle-and-daub panels.
Tel: 01527 831886 Contact: Dr. Simon Penn
A short distance southwest from Worcester and two miles northeast of Great Malvern, Madresfield Court is seated in grand sprawling splendor in the Malvern Hills burgeoning into Herefordshire just outside the village of Madresfield. It is best known as the ancestral home of the Lygon family and remains in their family today with Lady Rosalind Morrison, niece of the late 8th Earl Beauchamp, William Lygon. This magnificent treasure trove of architecture flouts several eras and in prime example. You’ll find its exterior decidedly Tudor in appearance with gables and two moats. Inside, the Arts and Crafts movement presides with each and every room unique unto each and different architects made this an absolute success. One has to enjoy variety, of course.
Its beginnings were 12th century, represented by the Great Hall which remains as the core of the home, belonging to the de Braci family. The Lygon family took possession in the 15th century adding to the house and created 80 acres of beautiful gardens much later. The house was then rebuilt in 1593 and much of the 15th century medieval structure was removed. No further changes occurred until the 19th century when it was finished in its Elizabethan façade. No less than one hundred and thirty six rooms fill its vast space in the Art and Crafts school by several different architects who are referred to as the Birmingham Group. The chapel was the work of Philip Charles Hardwick and the various rooms include the work of Henry Payne, William Bidlake and Charles March Gere. It also contains voluminous and fascinating collections of furniture, paintings, porcelain and objets d’art.
During his era, Evelyn Waugh was a frequent guest of the family at Madresfield and it has been strongly suggested that he based his story in Brideshead Revisited to Madresfield and the Lygon family to the Flyte family on which the story was centered. There is quite a bit of basis in fact to this because documents have been recently discovered and are on file purporting, during World War II, that Madresfield and Worcestershire, in general, were planned as a refuge for the Royal family and a place of evacuation for the government during any Nazi invasion of their seat in London or Windsor. In a two-stage process, a yellow move would involve the transfer of superfluous staff from Whitehall, followed by a black move involving the Prime Minster, Cabinet and Royal household. A constellation of large country houses had been selected and stocked with non-perishables. Spetchley Court was chosen as quarters for Winston Churchill while ministers were to be housed at Hindlip Hall and Bevere House with Malvern College to be used for Cabinet meetings. Even today the BBC reserves an emergency broadcast center in Evesham. That’s top secret, though.
(photos and history of Madresfield’s rock garden designed by M.J. Pulham)
T-01684 579947 (The Estate Office) visits by appointment only April – July
Broadway Tower Country Park is a great place for a day outing and is very touristy as well. The curiosity of Broadway Tower, itself, is that of a castle folly commissioned to be built by the 6th Earl of Coventry, very late in the 18th century, as a signaling point to his seat at Croome Court which is 18 miles to the north. The hill it was built on, a Cotswold ridge, looks out over the entire countyand the Gloucestershire Cotswolds affording stunning views from quite far off including the Avon and Severn Valleys. Those thirty-five acres of parkland include animal enclosures and picnic/BBQ facilities completed with an adventure playground for the entire family!
Inside the tower they have exhibitions on the famous owners and occupants of this marvel of architecture making it an educational foray into the regional history. Its designer, James Wyatt, even occupied it himself for a time when he was busy with working in the area at Springhill and Croome Park. It was subsequently sold to a local landowner by the name of Sir Thomas Phillipps who, being an antiquarian collector of books, was inspired to start a printing press at the tower so he could publish his own work and it became a pilgrimage for bibliophiles and architects, among the latter being William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.
As a piece of architecture the style is visually Norman from a distance but this hexagonal configuration with circular turrets at three angles is a very streamlined study in brevity, appearing to be part of a ruin. Nevertheless, it has a battered base which was originally purposed as extra fortification during medieval times, a measure to frustrate undermining. Here it is only an architectural embellishment. The tower is four storied with the second floor as the principal space with Georgian windows which lead to balconies and neo-Norman balustrades in stone. It had been in continuous use as a residence until 1972 the last tenants being farmers in the immediate area who actually still cooked with bottled gas and lit the rooms with oil lamps !
More photos and history info http://www.jssgallery.org/Essay/Broadway/Broadway.htm
Eight miles south of Worcester, at Croome Court Park near Severn Stoke,you will find Capability Brown’s first complete landscape enshrouded in mists, often. The remainder of the buildings and structures which populate and grace the property are by Robert Adam and James Wyatt who were brought together with Lancelot Brown to create the parkland and manor estate in complete harmony. At present, the National Trust is going through the process of finishing a complete restoration of both the ancestral home and the 670 acres of parkland. This was a project started in 2001 after a substantial grant was put up from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Royal & Sun Alliance’s financial contribution. This should bring it back into the original harmonious vision it was mid 18th century when George, the 6th Earl of Coventry, commissioned these prodigious architects to undertake the onerous task. The home was a rare commission taken up by Sir Lancelot Brown but shows what his capabilities were !
The mansion is the central focus of the park which is decorated by the ‘eyecatchers’ which were several folly castles and towers. An unfortunate move by unthinking planners placed the M5 motorway right through the middle of the park which has done some damage to the layout and actually bisects the property. Damage to the River that was created for the park has created an imbalance from motorway runoff- salts, oil and litter but with proper alterations can be saved in time. Meanwhile, many of the original features still exist which include the Gate House, the Rotunda, the Panorama Tower on Knight’s Hill which was designed by both Wyatt and Adam. Pirton Castle and Dunstall Castle are both follies undergoing repair and restoration with Dunstall needing the most work. There is a park seat referred to as the Owl’s Nest built in the 18th century by Robert Adam which is situated high and can be used as a lookout over the parkland.
The Temple Greenhouse was designed by Adam and was completed in 1763. It had large sash windows along the façade and with removal only shows grooves where they opened and closed. This temple housed the Earl’s collection of exotic plants and flowers and was heated in the winter by a fire in a brick brothy at the back and heat was channeled underneath the floor through strategic gaps. A medieval church was razed to make way for St Mary Magdalene Church in 1763 which was built by Capability Brown and the interior designed by Adam and remains a Grade 1 listed building. The additions which fill out the area are a grotto with various features around the lake along with the punch bowl gates on a design by Wyatt and one of the islands on the lake has a temple pavilion built circa 1777. Pershore Lodge and Island Temple are also Grade 1 listed features of the park.
A fortified double-moated manor that sits six miles southwest of Upton-upon-Severn, Birtsmorton Court was saved by an Edwardian architecture enthusiast, Francis Bradley-Birt ( the husband of Lady Norah Beatrice Henriette Spencer-Churchill) in 1911 and rebuilt at a time before historic building regulations were put in force. Much like Madresfield, it is a courtyard configuration with a medieval gatehouse and Tudor Great Hall. The addition of a medieval east wing was erected by Francis in the 1920s with the help of A. Hill Parker and Son after the original wing burned down in the 18th century. The exterior was restored by Frederick S. Waller from 1871-72 in a more picturesque style. Also, like Madresfield, it provided the setting for William Samuel Symonds’ historical novel, Malvern Chase.
Mentioned in the Domesday book, the present structure which is partly half-timbered was built in the 13th century. Some portions of the foundation which were laid in 1241 still exist while the remainder was rebuilt in the 15th century under the direction of John Nanfan in 1424-25. The Nanfans, a Cornish family, built the great hall with massive wall-posts embedded in plasterwork. It was later remodeled, along with the rest of the house, during the Elizabethan period with a new ceiling and fireplace sporting Nanfan heraldry which remains to this day. The parlor has an Elizabethan carving of a lion’s head frieze with a painted overmantel and, upstairs, 16th century wall paintings have been exposed.
It is owned today by the Dawes family who keep this 15th century revival mansion going with catering to all types of events depending on need and they pride themselves on their customer service. As a result they have planted an all-white garden with an addition of a modern Art Nouveau gate which leads into the surrounding lea. The house, grounds and gardens are surrounded by 130 acres of parkland and 230 acres overall which makes quite a few activities possible for large events including falconry, laser shooting, archery and cross-bow and casinos among the scheduled events. The banqueting hall is a converted barn that rises to two storeys, with timbered walls and a marvelous plastered ceiling. They have operated it as an events venue for over forty years.
T- 01684 833888 www.birtsmortoncourt.com
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is outa here….
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of Worcestershire:
“Any corner of that county (however fair or squalid) is in an indefinable way ‘home’ to me, as no other part of the world is.”