The industrialists who made their fortunes in the coalmines, steel mills and potteries of Staffordshire built some splendid country houses in glorious landscapes surprisingly little known outside the county. Between 1807 and 1810, William Sneyd, scion of one of Staffordshire’s oldest landed families, whose wealth derived from coal, iron and the manufacture of bricks and tiles, commissioned James Trubshaw Jr to build the classic Georgian Ashcombe Park, which stands on a dramatic hillside site near Cheddleton in the Staffordshire Moorlands, four miles south of Leek and seven miles south of the Peak District National Park.
This new house replaced Botham Hall, an Elizabethan mansion owned by the Debank family, which was absorbed into the Sneyd family’s portfolio of estates on William’s marriage to the heiress, Jane Debank, in the late 1700s. Ashcombe Park was conceived as the centrepiece of a self-sufficient estate, complete with stables, a coach house, a farmhouse, a dairy, cheese rooms, pigsties, barns, an extensive walled garden and an ice house surrounded by a deer park. The property was sold by the Sneyds in 1936, and has only changed hands twice since then.
The current owners, whose parents bought Grade II-listed Ashcombe Park (pictured) in 1960, are now selling the house, which needs modernising, with its gardens, grounds and 130 acres of parkland, through Knight Frank (020-7629 8171), at a guide price of £2.475 million for the whole.
A mid-19th-century history of the Sneyd family, who owned lands in Staffordshire from at least 1310, marvels at ‘the beauty of the home view, diversified with wood and water [and] well contrasted with the rugged background formed by the moors of Cheshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. To the north the sharp peak of Axe Edge, and the rocky outline of the Roaches are striking objects in the landscape; to the southward are the Weaver Hills, overlooking the valley of the Dove’. Unfamiliar names, perhaps, but a reminder that there are still some hidden corners of the English countryside well worth discovering.
The same can be said of Ashcombe Park itself, which, apart from being re-roofed in 2005, has remained virtually unchanged since the Sneyds’ day, although the estate itself was divided in about 1913. Entered through a Tuscan portecochère reputedly moved from Belmont Hall, another Sneyd house, its focal point is a grand, geometrical cantilever staircase of Derbyshire marble, surmounted by a cupola that floods the interior with light. Its main reception rooms-drawing room, dining room and morning room are large and lofty, with typically Georgian tall sash windows, impressive fireplaces, intricate cornicing and plasterwork and deep skirting boards. Off the hall, the dining room leads through to the orangery, added by the Sneyds in the 1850s. In the glory days, the walls were hung with a priceless collection of Sneyd family portraits painted by artists such as Lely, Phillips and Reynolds.
Nowadays, the decor is less opulent, but the glory could easily be reinstated, and the historic upstairs arrangement of 10 bedrooms with three shared bathrooms probably needs some tweaking to suit modern tastes. In all, this unspoilt Georgian gem has some 15,000sq ft of impressive living space, including five/six reception rooms, a large kitchen and various utilities, along with the aforementioned bedrooms and bath-rooms. It’s hard to disagree with selling agent Peter Edwards, who suggests that the sale of Ashcombe Park, with its gardens and parkland, farmhouse and stable yard, cottages and outbuildings, represents a renovation opportunity surely ‘too good to miss’.
South Staffordshire is another special place that, despite its proximity to the urban sprawl of the West Midlands conurb-ation and being subject to constant pressure for development, has retained a strong rural character. Its unspoilt villages are a source of local pride, many of them designated conservation areas for 40 years or more. In fact, the district was among the first in the country to do so, and there are now 19 conservation areas covering 16 of its villages and the entire length of the three canals that traverse it.
One of those villages is the ancient settlement of Blymhill, six miles from Shifnal and close to the border with Shropshire. Once part of the 1,000-acre Weston Park estate with its Capability Brown landscape, gifted to the nation by the 7th Earl of Bradford in 1986, Blymhill is a peaceful place, centred on its Grade I-listed, 12th-century church of St Mary (rebuilt by G. E. Street in 1856), and Georgian The Old Rectory, which was built in 1770.
Set in 25 acres of exquisite gardens and grounds, the immaculate property is currently for sale through the Telford office of Savills (01952 239517) at a guide price of £2.5m. And although The Old Rectory’s 5,275sq ft of accommodation-which includes five reception rooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, five bedrooms and four bathrooms-has been reduced since Victorian times, following the removal of a wing added by Street, the house is perfectly formed and elegantly decorated throughout, with tall windows and high ceilings creating light-filled rooms with spectacular views over the formal gardens to the park and woodland beyond.
Proving that today’s West Midlands industrialist is every bit as dynamic as his 18th-century counterpart, Telford-based telecoms-systems developer Paul Maxfield is selling 8,945sq ft The Old Rectory at Church Eaton, seven miles from Stafford and four miles from the Shropshire border, because he wants to buy a bigger house. Mr Maxfield and his wife, Ali, have spent the past four years renovating the Grade II-listed, Queen Anne house, with its Victorian extension added in 1850, to which the previous owners had added a complete new wing while modernising the property throughout.
Knight Frank (0121-362 7878) and Savills (01952 239500) quote a guide price of £3m for The Old Rectory, which stands in the centre of its 23 acres of gardens, parkland and pasture on the edge of the village, overlooking open countryside to the south and east and the village of Church Eaton to the north and west. The house divides naturally into the older, more traditional part, which incorporates the formal main reception rooms, and the modern wing, which caters for a more relaxed style of family living. In all, The Old Rectory has five reception rooms, a kitchen/living/family dining room, master and guest suites, six further bedrooms, four further bathrooms and a state-of-the-art cinema room that ‘brings a taste of Hollywood to this charming rural part of Staffordshire’, the agents say.
Being very much a man of the future, Mr Maxfield’s approach to decoration is unashamedly modernistic. Throughout the house, he and his wife have gone for strong, vibrant, contemporary colours rather than the period pastels more usually found in a country house of this vintage. And given its owner’s technological expertise, it’s no surprise to find that, unlike many of its contemporaries, this is also a house where everything works.