The rebirth of Grade I-listed Barlaston Hall as a family home in the 1990s, after decades of institutional use and, later, desperate neglect, has gone down in the annals of the country-house movement as a landmark case in the history of preservation.
In 1968, COUNTRY LIFE’s Dr Andor Gomme wrote (below) that the house, which was then owned by Wedgwood and stands just a few miles south of the Potteries, was ‘not in good shape’. Like many country houses at the time, its future was bleak.
By 1981, according to Marcus Binney, former COUNTRY LIFE Editor and president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the state of this Palladian beauty of ‘doll’s house perfection’ had considerably worsened. ‘The interiors were open to the sky, its ceilings and floors had crashed to the ground and one flight of the Chinese Chippendale staircase dangled from the wall.’ One of the reasons for its sad demise was geological: Barlaston stood on one of the richest coal seams in Europe and was also on a fault, which meant that subsidence was a serious problem.
Wedgwood tried twice to have the house demolished, leading to two public enquiries. After the situation was brought to the attention of SAVE, the conservation group battled through heated exchanges and, eventually, it was invited to buy the house for £1, on the condition that, if it hadn’t succeeded in restoring it within five years, Wedgwood would have it back. As the tide of fortunes for the house turned, various conservation bodies stepped in to help make it structurally safe and it was launched onto the market as little more than a restored shell in the early 1990s.
It was at this critical moment that Barlaston was spotted by James and Carol Hall. ‘I was sent a proof of a brochure and saw this large and beautiful house, standing against a backdrop of clear-blue sky, that had a curious price tag of just £300,000,’ explains Mrs Hall. The couple, with their two young daughters, had been looking to move from their house in Wandsworth to Derbyshire. ‘I immediately called James, who was working in Manchester, and told him to go and see it. He went to have a look one evening, when the night watchman showed him round. It was all open floorboards and torches. He later called me and told me that I was barking mad, but the seed was sown. It had a roof, it had windows and we could just about afford it.’
The purchase was completed in the summer of 1992 and the Halls carved out a flat to live in, on the lower-ground floor, while the works began. ‘Luckily, because it’s Grade I listed, we had a clear indication that we’d get some support from English Heritage,’ adds Mrs Hall. Six years later, the restoration was complete.
The layout today hasn’t changed. The lower-ground-floor flat remains a perfect nanny/granny space. On the ground floor, the main living rooms radiate off the staircase hall and are of Classical proportions (the dining room can seat 26). Upstairs, there are four bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and five further bedrooms with a bathroom. And yet, it’s a very manageable space. As Marcus Binney wrote in 1998, when he revisited the finished works: ‘The architect (thought to be Sir Robert Taylor) built a villa rather than a mansion.’
This feeling is echoed by the Halls. ‘What strikes people who come here is that it’s very much a family house-rather than being a series of big formal rooms that don’t get used, it’s actually lived in,’ explains Mrs Hall. ‘But yes, it’s also a great house for parties. We’ve celebrated weddings and birthdays here.’ After 22 years, the Halls have decided to launch Barlaston Hall in next week’s COUNTRY LIFE, with a view to taking on another project in the Highlands. ‘It’s time for someone else to enjoy the house,’ says Mrs Hall.
George Dennis, who is handling the sale for Knight Frank and quotes a guide price of £2.3 million, is adamant that there won’t be ‘many prettier houses coming to the market this year’. Standing in 4-and-a-half acres of gardens, some of which have been designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, ‘the house looks out over parkland, as it neighbours the Wedgwood estate-a very pretty outlook,’ explains Mr Dennis. He sees Barlaston’s future owners as being ‘anyone who needs to travel a lot. The M6 motorway, the train station at Stafford and Manchester Airport are ball within easy distance’.
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