Thursday, July 28, 2005

After years of languishing on their ‘Buildings at Risk’ register, Brodsworth Hall, a few miles outside Doncaster in South Yorkshire, was handed over to English Heritage in 1990 when no other conservation group stepped forward to take on the mantle of its upkeep. The house and contents were in a perilous state of decay, with mining subsidence and water penetration playing a decisive role in its decline. Every area of the garden, meanwhile, had been left to go wild for many years which resulted in a complete jungle. The task of restoration was described justly described as ‘momentous’.

While bearing a suspicious resemblance to Barratt Home on a grand scale, Brodsworth Hall offers a compelling history of the Victorian country house. Built and furnished in one go between 1861 and 1863, it was designed to have and to represent everything that a wealthy middle class man should desire. The architect, a little known Londoner by the name of Philip Wilkinson, chose a restrained Italianate style rather than the more fashionable gothic or Elizabethan, complete with a columned porte coch? on the east front. Lacking any kind of diversity, such as a tower, means that Brodsworth’s regular form sits awkwardly in the Yorkshire countryside, and appears more suitable to a London town house than a country estate.

The gardens were designed in a similar vein to the house to befit the sort of property owned by a man of wealth but perhaps little passion in horticulture. It’s, bleakly put, a garden by numbers. To a garden historian, however, they are a delight and the recently completed restoration means that they are now truly representative of their 1860s heyday. Typical of the period, they comprise of a medley of areas of high formality, seasonal bedding and clipped shrubberies as well as climbing roses, garden buildings and even an eye-catcher – all on a domestic scale.

‘Brodsworth is a rare survival,’ explains John Watkins, head of gardens at English Heritage. ‘The estate gradually went to sleep post the Second World War. But the excitement of the gardens is that they are a snapshot of 1865-1870. There is no influence at all, for example, of Gertrude Jekyll.’

In restoring the garden, all the self-set trees and shrubs had to be removed and surviving garden specimens bought back under management. Then came the long process of identifying and remaking paths, flowerbeds, bridges and ornamental features. Much of the work to return the garden to how it looked in the late 19th century has been aided by a large selection of photographs which were taken by the family in the early 20th century. ‘The discovery of these has helped us from making mistakes with the planting,’ says Michael Constantine, custodian at Brodsworth.

Whereas the philosophy with the garden when English Heritage took over was obviously restore it to its Victorian glory, with the house itself it was ‘preserve as found’. Seeing as very little was done to the house from when it was first built and furnished to when the last of the family moved out, it offers a wonderful insight into Victorian living. After the Second World War, the then owners, the Grant-Daltons, adapted the house to make it easier to run on with much-reduced staff. Some of the rooms were closed up altogether.

It was during this period that my great-grandfather, Canon Fearnly Youens, was the vicar at Brodsworth and my father remembers visiting the house for drinks after church on Sundays. The state of the house and gardens was by then in steady decline, with the family choosing to inhabit increasingly smaller areas of the house, the carpets were threadbare and curtains hanging loose on their rails.

Once English Heritage took over, they set about removing the problems of damp and having a new roof put on. After the structure of the house was made secure, the tatty wallpaper (much of it original) was re-pasted, and fraying curtains were re-hung. The parts of the house that had been closed off were made accessible to visitors but other than that the house and its contents – complete with 1980s loo brushes – are exactly as they were left when Sylvia Grant-Dalton died in 1988.

Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, Brodsworth, Nr Doncaster, Yorkshire. www.english-heritage.org.uk/yorkshire. Tel 01302 722 598