More country houses could use the discreet charm of neglect
Imagine a country house built by a furniture magnate at the end of the last century on an estate of 12,000 acres. Neglected after the First World War, degraded by the military in the second, it passed through the hands of several feckless owners who sold off most of its land. Finally, in the 1970s, the house and 200 acres were bought by a famous film producer. From then on a different set of values pertained.
To those accustomed to seeing country houses only on the genteel terms dictated by English Heritage or the National Trust, it comes as a shock to visit one that has apparently sailed through the era of conservation with the insouciance of an abandoned factory in the Midlands.
True, this house has electric gates, but its main entrance has been closed off for 20 years. Overgrown trees encroach on the portico, while around them the once-elaborate grounds have been reduced to dead-straight vistas of machine-maintainable lawn and hedge. Inside the walled kitchen garden, untended plants have burst through the roofs of long-abandoned greenhouses. Nearby, only rusting screw props hold up the roof of a dairy.
As for the house itself, part exfoliating stucco and part crumbling brick, it is in a state of careless disrepair rarely seen these days. Inside, its grandest rooms are a chaos of desks, files, furniture and props of all kinds. Outside, a stout enclosure made of chain-link fencing angles up to meet the walls above the level of the ground-floor windows. This caging makes the house look like a police post in Northern Ireland, but it is only there to separate cats from dogs, several of both being in evidence.
To simply use a country house like this, like an old boot instead of an object of worship, seems somehow sacrilegious. Yet it reflects a more authentically historical attitude than does the posturing of more typical owners of 'Treasure Houses', as they are so grandly misnamed. Why, if these houses are so full of treasure, do their owners constantly solicit cash to decorate the library or rebuild the West Wing? And why can't the whole structure be adapted and neglected, like the film producer's house, while its owner pursues goals more life-enhancing than converting a Marie-Antoinette estate into a roadside attraction?
Of course, there are still some privately owned exceptions. Houses where one feels one can, so to speak, engage the heritage entrepreneurs over open sights by questioning the anti-ec pamphlets they put on display, or dumbfounding their guide by asking why so-called 'original William Kent windows' cannot be opened; or why what is claimed to be a scale model of an ancestor's East Indiaman should be fitted out with more guns than hms Victory.
Beyond the institutional and privately owned country house open to the public, there are other fates. There are houses taken over by big corporations as 'training centres' or 'rest homes' for executives shattered by the exhausting demands of regular employment. There are Great Houses converted into 104 apartments where, as the estate agent's advertisement coyly puts it, for anything from £150,000 to half a million 'you can make an entrance' (even if it is only through what used to be the door to the stables). There are even country houses that have been reduced to the status of the radiator badge on a car by being almost swamped in low-rise office or laboratory buildings, dedicated to the sale of mobile phones or the discovery of the last secrets of the genome.
All these fates are more or less disagreeable compared to the realest and rarest thing, the careless look of a country house that has been treated as an instrument, not a monument.