Book review: How England lost its Great Country Estates

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Felling The Ancient Oaks:
How England Lost Its Great
Country Estates
John Martin Robinson (Aurum, £30, *£25)

There is something ineffably sad about a beautiful thing destroyed-be it a church, street, landscape or view. Some people, no doubt, cheered and danced when they saw fine country houses being pulled down in the 1950s, considering it a triumph of reason and democracy over the pretensions and luxury of past elites. But from the perspective of 2012, this would seem a mean and pinched reaction. We are surrounded on every side by evidence of the popularity of country estates now run by the National Trust, and hundreds more by private owners, where landscape, fine architecture
and art and a sense of history are all shared with a wide public. The demolitions of great 18th-century mansions such as Nuthall Temple, an English version of the Villa Rocca Pisani, seem today a gross folly.

John Martin Robinson’s latest book is an eloquent study of some 20 ‘lost’ estates, the mansions, parkland and wider landholdings of which were broken up, mostly between the 1920s and the 1950s. They include such famous names as Deepdene in Surrey, Witley Court in Worcestershire and Panshanger in Hertfordshire. Dr Robinson is a distinguished architectural historian, a Country Life contributor since the 1970s and chairman of the Georgian Group. There can be few people better placed to tell this story.

His introductory essay should be read by anyone interested in the history of landowning in England-or in the architecture and landscapes it produced. He traces with great clarity the impact of Norman feudalism, the evolution of primo-geniture and the upheavals of the 17th century. He also explores the great centuries of agricultural and landscape improvement and patronage, with their tree planting, model farms and estate villages and churches, and takes the story right up into modern times.

The lost estates are visited through the evocative medium of old black-and-white photographs, which show them at their zenith before death duties, wartime requisition or personal folly took their toll. In most cases, the mansions at the heart of these estates were demolished and sold for materials. But at Hinton St George in Somerset, the house survived into the era of listing and was thus protected from demolition and converted into different dwellings.

Some estates were broken up when their owners were unable to cope with the rapid advance of death duties in the mid 20th century, but Dr Robinson points to Lathom House in Lancashire as a loss brought about by personal extravagance. It was sold by the ‘theatrically obsessed chum of Noël Coward’, the young 3rd Earl of Lathom, in 1925, to pay personal debts.

When reading this book, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of gratitude for the planning system that has protected historic houses and their landscapes since the 1970s, and for the contributions of English Heri-tage. Above all, we must be grateful to so many private owners who balance the pressures of commercial activity with the preservation of the historic English landscape.

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