To walk through the front door of Astley Hall on the edge of Chorley in Lancashire is to enter a completely unexpected architectural fantasy. For behind the regimented grids of windows, there lurks one of the most overwhelming displays of plasterwork ever created. Here, the visitor is not merely presented with larger-than-life displays of foliage, fruit and flowers, but also a wild carnage of cherubs cavorting around the hall and its adjacent drawing room. The effect is of an unsupervised children’s party that is just about to descend into playful murder.

Yet for all its splendour, Astley Hall is very poorly understood. Indeed, this joyful display of plasterwork is almost the only element of the house about which any consensus of opinion exists, as, in the cornice above the hall fireplace are the arms of one Richard Brooke and his wife, the heiress Margaret Charnock, who were married at Leyland on February 6, 1666. To them, probably within a decade of this match, can these extraordinary ceilings be confidently ascribed. On the wider history of the building, there is little certainty and still less agreement.

The most detailed account of Astley Hall was published by Christopher Hussey over the course of July 1922 in three Country Life articles. These were preceded in February 25, 1922, by a piece on the outstanding furnishings of the house. This unusually full coverage coincided with the gift of the house by the then owner, Reginald A. Tatton, to the town corporation of Chorley. The council still owns the house and its treatment of it over the past 90 years is laudable.

Perhaps its only disadvantage has been that Astley like a number of other major council-owned country houses across the country (Country Life, August 21, 2013) remains relatively unknown. Were it in the hands of a private owner or a national body, Astley would, undoubtedly, be a celebrity building.

Hussey’s account of the house drew on the work of the Victoria County History of Lancashire, Vol. 6 (1911) and highlighted the scarcity of documentation relating to the house. In broad outline, he proposed the incremental development of the present building on its Q-shaped plan. The projecting range, he suggested, was a medieval house of uncertain date that became a service wing attached to a later, timber-framed courtyard house.

By the late 16th century, this courtyard incorporated a hall range to the south flanked by a kitchen to the west and a series of with-drawing chambers to the east. Work to the courtyard was vaguely dated by a displaced stone bearing the legend ‘anno domini 1578’ and a beam above a door to the kitchen inscribed ‘1600’. The entire development of the house was attributed to the Charnock family, owners of the manor from at least the 13th century.

Hussey’s proposed medieval house is probably a wishful invention and the carved date ‘1600’ looks suspiciously like the product of antiquarian enthusiasm (although it is attested as early as 1828). Nevertheless, the outline of his proposed chronology remains perfectly plausible with the limited evidence available. But so too does an alternative analysis: that that the bones of the present house were entirely established in the late 16th century, more of which possibility in a moment.

Whatever the exact process of its development, however, it is beyond question that this Q-shaped building underwent one further massive change. Over the course of the 17th century, there was built across its southern hall range an eye-catching frontage that rose a full storey higher than its neighbours. This was constructed of brick with stone facings, although a later overlay of render in the early 19th century has turned the whole to a slightly depressing grey.

It is punctuated by two projecting towers and crowned by a balustrade, but its most striking feature is a breathtaking grid of nearly 200 individual windows. For all its appearance of regularity, this grid is, in fact, far from being so.

The façade conceals an awkwardly contrived three-storey interior. At ground-floor level, there is the two-storey hall entered directly from the front door (delightfully framed between Ionic columns surmounted by lions). To either end of this are much lower withdrawing chambers with plaster ceilings that are of strikingly different character. That of the drawing room is decorated in the idiom of the hall, but the Morning Room plaster ceiling is executed in much lower relief.

The other important rooms in the front are the gallery and a bedroom on its top floor. Both contain furnishings of the greatest interest, respectively a 231⁄2ft long shuffleboard table that has warped with time to the undulating contours of the floor and a four-poster of gargantuan proportions and outstanding quality, reputedly used by Oliver Cromwell in 1648 after the battle of Preston.

Dating this remarkable frontage is a difficult task. Hussey, anchoring his chronology in the hall plasterwork, suggested that it was built in the 1660s. But such a late date is impossible to accept on stylistic grounds, as several modern authorities acknowledge. Its design sits far more comfortably besides such local buildings erected in about 1600 as Gawthorpe, the gatehouse at Lostock and most tantalising of all Haigh Hall demolished in the 1820s. Images of the latter survive in paintings and also, reputedly, in a paper model of 1823. But if the façade was built in about 1600, then who created it and how does it relate to the earlier courtyard house? Tentative answers to these questions may be suggested by the history of the Charnocks.

In the Middle Ages, the Charnock family was associated with two Lancashire manors, that of Astley and the other, from which they took their name, at Charnock Richard. By the early 17th century, however, it’s clear that the second of these had diminished in importance. An inventory of his goods taken in 1615, for example, describes Robert Charnock as being ‘of Astley’. It also lists the contents of three properties including Astley, but makes no reference to Charnock Richard. Evidently, by this date, there existed no house there.

In 1616, Robert was succeeded by his son, Thomas. A few years previously, and certainly by 1608, Thomas had married Bridget Molyneux, an heiress. Her income substantially augmented the family fortunes and raised Thomas’s profile well above that of his father. He became a Justice of the Peace and was returned as an MP through the interest of a relative in 1624. But his good fortune proved shortlived. Thomas invested heavily in one of his wife’s coalmines and dangerously over-extended himself. By degrees, between 1622 and 1636, he was forced to sell off all the family property in Lancashire, aside from his two patrimonial manors, for a total of £8,040. Nevertheless, his debts continued to grow and, by 1642, he owed £1,400. Then came the Civil War, in which Thomas backed the king.

Thomas’s death in 1648 probably saved the family from oblivion and his son, Robert, compounded with Parliament for a fine of £280. The small sum is presumably a reflection of his inherited debts and poverty; the annual family income stood at about £300 by this date. Robert died in 1653, but it was probably not until the marriage of his sole surviving daughter to Richard Brooke, a younger son of a Sheriff of Cheshire and an MP, that the fortunes of the family began to recover.

These events possibly help explain the development of the house. If the elder Robert was the first of the family to make the move to Astley, then he perhaps established the bones of the courtyard house, extending it in 1578 and again in 1600 (assuming these dates can be trusted). If so, two surviving bedchambers with fine plaster ceilings and fireplace over-mantles were perhaps created by him. Certainly, they would accord well with a date in the first decades of the 17th century.

That said, these rooms could also have been the work of his son, Thomas, in the first flush of his inheritance after 1616 and before the financial troubles of the late 1620s. In support of this is the existence of a displaced panel of wood carved with the quartered arms of Charnock and Molyneux that survives in the projecting service range of the house. Might this have come from a timber-frame range that he repaired or erected?

Whatever the case, Thomas’s prosperity between 1616 and about 1625 is the only plausible context for the erection of the main front. To push the evidence to the extreme, it might be speculated that the process of internal decoration was interrupted by his misfortunes. If so, that might explain why the hall and drawing room required such lavish ceilings after 1665. It may also be why, rather than completely redecorate the former room as might be expected if its ornament was considered old-
fashioned the restoration plasterwork coexists in the hall with a fireplace and panelling of earlier date (see box). Finally, it might explain why there are two styles of decorative plasterwork on the ground floor (the plainer Morning Room designs perhaps being completed in the 1620s).

The Charnock heiress, Margaret, outlived two husbands and eventually died in 1744. A painting of the building as she must have known it towards the end of her long life still survives (Fig 7). It shows the house with a forecourt defined by corner towers and an extensive formal garden ornamented with urns. These features had gone by the early 19th century, but at least one fragment of an urn still survives in the house.

Margaret was succeeded by her son and two childless grandsons. That they did some work to the property is suggested by the existence of a rainwater head with the date 1762. Yet the next major transformation of the house is probably connected to Margaret’s granddaughter, Susannah, and her first husband, Thomas Towneley Parker of Cuerden, to whom the property descended.

Susannah was widowed in 1794 and her son, Robert, commissioned the architect Lewis Will-
iam Wyatt to enlarge his seat at Cuerden. John Martin Robinson has suggested that Wyatt was employed in the 1820s to remodel Astley and create a series of fine interiors in a Jacobean idiom on the east side of the courtyard.

The self-conscious awareness of the history of the house that this unusual choice reflects is one reason why it is so hard to be certain of the date of some elements of the fabric.

Susannah died at a great age in 1853 after, according to her obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine, living continuously at Astley from 1835. Further changes followed this long ownership, with renovation to the service wing in 1875, but the council has also played an important role in maintaining the building. After being gifted the property in 1922, it has undertaken two major cycles of repair, the first in 1922–34 and the other after 1945.

Another 10-year conservation programme is being planned. Most recently, in 2009, the stable opened as a cafe and another nearby building has been refurbished as an exhibition space. The house is now actively used for events and weddings. Visit soon while Astley remains one of Lancashire’s finest, best-kept secrets.

For more details, visit http://chorley.gov.uk/Pages/AtoZ/Astley-Hall.aspx or tele-phone 01257 515151

This article was first published in Country Life Magazine on August 27 2014