Assessing the sheer diversity of nominations for this award has been a pleasure from first to last. Nothing could confirm in more striking fashion the importance of these buildings—both architecturally and historically. The care with which so many incumbents, owners and admirers prepared their applications is also heartening testi mony to the affection in which the English parsonage is still held. With well over 100 outstanding nominations received, it has been surprisingly difficult to narrow down the field to just 12 finalists.

The real challenge of this process—which was undertaken by a small team from Country Life and Savills, the sponsors of the competition—is to try and judge the relative merits of buildings that vary so enormously in character and setting. This is not, after all, simply a competition about architectural merit. The particular appeal of parsonages lies in their combination of architecture and location; set among fine gardens or in a prominent location on a village green beside the church. In the right circumstances, even relatively modest buildings can look remarkable.

A case in point is the vicarage at Dedham, Essex, which narrowly missed selection. This small medieval house is set in the very heart of the town, beneath the tower of the church it serves. Such is its appeal that Constable recorded it in several views. And how is Dedham to be set against the splendours of another near-finalist, the grand Georgian rectory at Castle Hedingham in the same county, a prominent feature of a village that also boasts a medieval parish church and castle of the first importance? It is a mark of the strength of the competition that neither building was chosen.

 

‘The particular appeal of parsonages lies in their combination of architecture and location.’

The history of parsonages has been an equally important consideration. Among the nominations that also just fell short of the final selection were two fine rectories with connections to Thomas Hardy. He is reputed to have designed The Old Rectory at Hawkchurch, Devon, when it was rebuilt in 1856, and to have met his first wife at the front door of St Juliot, Boscastle, in 1870. His architectural notebook contains a sketch of the ground floor of the house.

Several nominated parsonages were designed by celebrated architects. The Old Rectory at Rampisham, Dorset (currently undergoing restoration), was designed by Pugin and preserves many original internal fittings, down to the front-door key, which still works. Other buildings are fine examples of a particular style of design, such as the Arts-and-Crafts Rectory of St Peter’s church in Ealing, Greater London, built in 1910. At Betchworth, Surrey, the Old Rectory retains various Victorian features, including William Morris wallpaper.

Most of the buildings in the list of nominations remain family homes. There were, however, one or two remarkable exceptions to this. The old rectory at Bishop’s Cleeve, Gloucestershire (now Cleeve Hall), was sold by the Church in 1972. It was bought and restored as offices by Bovis Homes in 1998. Their work revealed a fine 13th- century medieval roof and the buried skeleton of a horse. The house also preserves a series of early-19th-century views of the Slad Valley, near Stroud, Gloucestershire, painted on the walls, reputedly to remind a rector’s wife of her former home.

Another former rectory with an unusual history is Pendragon House in Cornwall (also presently being restored). It was the site of a small and non-profit-making farm during the Depression, and, at its height in the 1930s, employed 54 people, a project that attracted the attention of Country Life and Pathe News. Pendragon House has had many celebrated visitors, including John Betjeman. During one stay, he remarked on the austerity of the interior, and by the time of his next visit, each baluster of the main staircase had been painted a different colour.

Summing up the judging, Crispin Holborow, director of Savills country-house department, commented: ‘We have been delighted by the response to the competition. The 12 finalists are an exceptionally varied group, chosen from a very strong field. The task of selecting a winner will not be easy.’

A panel of three judges will visit the finalists in the four regions of England: North, South, East and West. Each panel will comprise one member of COUNTRY LIFE; another from Savills; and an independent judge: architect Ptolemy Dean (West); Rev Dr Michael Higgins, a trustee of Save Our Parsonages (North); the author Lucinda Lambton (South); and James Miller, a trustee of The Rectory Society (East). The regional winners will be announced in Town and Country over the summer. All the judges will meet to decide the outright winner, which will be featured on September 17.

THE FINALISTS

NORTH

The Old Rectory, Market Deeping, Lincolnshire
Now divided into two, the Old Rectory is a substantial medieval building that retains many early features, including a door with 12th-century ironwork and a fine angel ceiling. The majority of the building is early 14th century, with additions made in the 1830s by Thomas Pilkington. Incumbents have reputedly been driven from the house twice: once by vagrants during the 16th century, when the rector was forced to live in the church tower, and again during the Civil War

Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire
Shandy Hall was the home of Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, from 1760 to 1768. The house is medieval in origin, and stands at the end of the main village street opposite the church. It is thought that Sterne was responsible for adding a Georgian front. Today, the building is unusualin being both a museum and a home

The Rectory, Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire
The Rectory was originally built in 1700 as a grammar school endowed by Robert Boyle (the physi-cist behind Boyle’s Law), 7th son of the 1st Earl of Cork. Today, it is the rectory for the parish church of Bolton Abbey. Church and rectory are separated by the ruins of the cloister and other priory buildings. The area has attracted poets and artists among its countless visitors, including Turner, and Wordsworth’s poem The White Doe of Rylstone was inspired by the priory and its surroundings

SOUTH

The Old House, Milford on Sea, Hampshire
Since the 12th century, the advowson for the vicarage at Milford on Sea has passed through the hands of Christchurch Priory, the Bishop of Winchester, the Crown, and Queen’s College Oxford. The external symmetry of the parson’s house conceals a complex and organic development. At its centre lies the original single-storey medieval hall, with later additions dating to 1699, 1766 and the 19th century. Beyond the main building, which stands in the village of Milford on Sea, lie the original coach house, dairy, and other outhouses, set around a courtyard

The Old Rectory, Farnborough, Berkshire
This house, which has wonderful views over the Berkshire Downs, was built in 1749 to replace an earlier rectory. Its bell cupola was added 90 years later, and the interior has most recently been adapted with the insertion of a domed drawing room in the 1950s. From 1945 to 1951, The Old Rectory was the home of John Betjeman, who claimed that the top floor of the house was the highest inhabited place in the county. The gardens have been developed by the present owners. Just beyond lies the church, ‘still the epicentre of village life’, which boasts John Piper’s last window, installed in memory of Betjeman

The Old Rectory, Compton Martin, Somerset
This house was largely built in 1841 to a design by London architect Edward J. Andrews.
The unusual detailing is Tudor in inspiration, and the building is tall in proportion to its ground plan. Its interior, which includes a fine staircase, is quite as striking

The Old Rectory, Church Langton, Leicestershire
This magnificent building and its surrounds were the creation of a remarkable father and son. William Hanbury, incumbent of the parish from 1753 to 1778 (and the first person to stage a recital of Handel’s Messiah in an English country church), had grand plans for the parish. He established extensive nurseries at Church Langton for propagating seeds acquired from friends abroad. Several specimens of exotic trees that he planted still ornament the garden today. His son, who was also called William, used his father’s fortune to build the present rectory in 1785

EAST

The Old Rectory, North Creake, Norfolk
This striking house at North Creake stands in a woodland garden, just above the church. It was built in 1845 for the Rev Thomas Keppel, the rich son of William Keppel, 4th Earl of Albermarle. It was the first notable commission for the architect Samuel Teulon, also the designer of Shadwell Park and Tortworth Court, who was only 33 when he worked here

The Old Rectory, Cossington, Leicestershire
This moated rectory is an assemblage of medieval, Victorian and Edwardian building. Its oldest interior is 16th century, and still has a painted floral scheme on the ceiling. The house is set within a wildlife haven with its own conservation lake, and the owners are enthusiastic eco-farmers. They manage the land in a traditional way, keeping Gloucester Old Spot pigs, sheep and cattle, and growing their own food in the walled garden

WEST

Whichford House, Whichford, Warwickshire
In the early 1700s, Rev John Ingram began to enlarge his rectory. Halfway through the work, he unexpectedly inherited his family estate and left the house unfinished, so the Classical front was only completed in 2004. The house stands opposite its church in gardens that have been restored by the present owners to the designs of George and Joy Rainbird, who rescued it from ruin in the 1950s

The Old Rectory, Quenington, Gloucestershire
The Knights Hospitallers founded a preceptory here in about 1193, and the house was possibly part of the precinct. Later additions to it have included 17th- and 18th-century façades and a circular library in the form of a Cotswold dovecote, installed in the garden in 2007. The garden opens for charity, as well as a bi-annual contemporary sculpture show, ‘Fresh Air’

The Old Rectory, Tatenhill, Staffordshire
The Old Rectory was built for William Binckes, Dean of Lichfield, in 1710. Then, it was in a forest, and may have been used as a hunting lodge. A century later, it became the parish rectory. The 18th-century interiors are well preserved, and have been augmented by furnishings from Branston Hall, demolished in the 1960s