Things have been busier than usual in recent weeks for the McAlpine family of Lower Carden Hall, near Malpas, Cheshire. Not only has Fiona McAlpine, a talented artist and textile designer, been putting the finishing touches to a collection of 50 oil paintings for her exhibition at Mallett’s Ely House gallery in Dover Street, W1, in three weeks’ time (April 24-27), but she and her husband, Euan, have been overseeing the launch onto the market, in this week’s Country Life, of their striking Grade I-listed country home, for which Strutt & Parker (01244 354800) quote a guide price of £1.8 million for the main house with five acres of gardens and grounds, and £200,000 for an additional 16 acres of grazing land.
For the past 30 years, Mrs McAlpine has found inspiration in the picturesque landscape that surrounds this remarkable house on the Cheshire/North Wales border, in the flowers of her garden, and in ‘the general chaos of her kitchen table’, whose cheerful clutter typifies the family’s engagingly unpretentious attitude to life. She will, no doubt, miss it all, especially her beloved garden, but she and her husband are set to move to the McAlpine family’s spectacular shooting estate across the border at Llanarmon, Flintshire, where there is also work to be done and little time for looking back.
Lower Carden Hall started out as a humble timber-framed farmhouse (or even an aisle barn) on the Carden estate owned by the Leche family, who moved to Cheshire from Chatsworth when the first John Leche received a grant of land from Edward III in 1346. His son, also John, was later appointed surgeon, or ‘leech’, to the King, which further improved the family’s standing at Court and their substantial land holdings in the North-West.
According to its English Heritage listing, the oldest part of the house-the 15th-century north wing-was enlarged and re-fronted in the early 17th century; the south cross-wing dates from the mid 16th century. In 1899, the then Sir John Leech added a Victorian, two-storey, red-brick extension to the rear and renovated parts of the main building as a home for his two sisters. He apparently saw no need for an architect, and personally directed the construction from his chair on the front lawn.
Of particular architectural interest are the late-medieval crown-post trusses (of a form and quality unknown elsewhere in Cheshire) to be found in the upstairs bedrooms of the north wing, and the panelling in the main entrance hall, which was taken from Tilston church. On the other hand, the early-Elizabethan oak-framed structure of the cross-wing has remained admirably unaltered.
The main hall on the Carden estate was destroyed by fire in 1912, after which the Leche family moved to nearby Stretton Hall, and the estate’s fortunes gradually declined. In 1958, Mr McAlpine’s parents bought Lower Carden Hall with five acres of gardens and grounds from Sir John Hurleston Leche, who died shortly after; his son sold the rest of the Carden estate-now a golf and country club-in 1985.
On their arrival at Lower Carden Hall in 1958, Bobby McAlpine, one of England’s finest shots and a connoisseur of racing Thoroughbreds, and his first wife, Jane, a noted horsewoman, set about renovating and refurbishing the house, coach house, stabling and gardens, eventually acquiring a further 16 acres of grazing land, which are now being offered as a separate lot.
Despite its somewhat hap-hazard evolution over more than 400 years, the main house is pleasantly centralised around the panelled central corridor that links the front hall with the drawing room at the rear. In all, it has four reception rooms, a study, a kitchen/breakfast room, seven bedrooms and four bathrooms-with the potential to create more bathrooms, if needed.
Additional buildings include an office annexe, a two-bedroom coach house and extensive stabling. Even more appealing, perhaps, is the hall’s gloriously private setting overlooking the Welsh hills-a delightful mix of sweeping lawns, hidden vistas and secret gardens, interspersed with towering woodland that’s a mass of snowdrops and bluebells in the early spring.
Over in East Anglia, the rolling Suffolk countryside around the rural village of Hitcham, between the ancient towns of Lavenham and Stowmarket, is the pastoral setting for elegant, Grade II-listed Hitcham House, the impeccably renovated former village rectory that was once the home of Charles Darwin’s friend and mentor, the botanist, geologist and Cambridge professor, the Rev John Stevens Henslow.
It was Henslow who arranged for Darwin to accompany his friend Capt Robert FitzRoy on a trip to South America aboard HMS Beagle-the first leg of what turned out to be an almost five-year circumnavigation of the globe. During that time, Henslow catalogued and distributed Darwin’s massive collection of scientific samples, thereby securing his protégé’s scientific credentials long before his return to England in 1836.
A year later, Henslow secured the Crown-held rectorship of Hitcham, where he lived until his death in 1861. The rectory, now Hitcham House, was built in about 1790, and rebuilt in 1814 by the architect James Spiller, a friend of Sir John Soane, whose influence is evident in its bow-fronted façade and fine staircase. Henslow and Darwin remained close friends, and Darwin is said to have drafted On the Origin of Species (1859) while staying at the rectory.
The present owners of Hitcham House, which stands on an elevated site overlooking its 41 acres of formal gardens, extensive lawns, lake, paddocks and woodland, have taken enormous pains to modernise the former rectory without compromising its Georgian character. Currently for sale through Knight Frank (020-7861 1069) at a guide price of ‘excess £4m’, Hitcham House is ‘that rarest of East Anglian birds, a country house that needs absolutely nothing doing to it,’ says selling agent George Bramley.
* Follow Country Life property on Twitter
The substantial, 9,250sq ft, main house has four reception rooms, a superb kitchen/family room, eight bedrooms, two dressing rooms and six bathrooms. Ancillary accommodation includes a two-bedroom cottage, a converted two-bedroom barn and a pavilion designed to service the discreetly located swimming pool, tennis court and croquet lawn.