Some readers of this blog may have been to the Latitude music festival, which is held every summer in the park of Henham Hall, near Southwold, just back from the Suffolk coast. I haven’t been to the festival myself, but I gather it’s one for connoisseurs – rather like the landscape in which it happens. Today it looks like a fairly standard 18th century landscaped country park, but in fact its history is far more interesting – and ancient – as this Sunday’s programme (Channel 4, January 20th, 5.25 pm) makes clear. It was a splendid and very enjoyable shoot (see Time Team Series 20. My Third Episode), and this was largely down to our genial and very welcoming host Hektor Rous – a member of the family that bought the estate, in 1545. I think most of the younger women on the shoot lost their hearts to him. Anyhow, I can’t discuss what we found, other than say there was lots of it – and most of it made sense. But here I want to consider some broader themes raised by the film.
Now I’ve long been fascinated by the destruction of so many great British country houses in the 20th century. I can sort of understand why medieval halls were torn down in the 18th century – they would have been seen as hopelessly old-fashioned by the new children of the Enlightenment. And when all is said and done it’s a toss-up whether I’d prefer a new Georgian or Queen Anne house to a medieval hall. On the whole I’d probably opt for the former – at which point all my medievalist friends will hiss ‘Bloody Philistine!’ into their gins-and-tonics. But the destruction that took place in the second half of the 20th century was extraordinary – largely because it was destruction for its own sake: in almost every instance nothing was built to replace what had been destroyed. The great W.G. Hoskins fulminated about it in the final chapter of his famous book, The Making of the English Landscape. But much of the seemingly wanton destruction was also motivated by some deeply felt social score-settling, for which I have much sympathy. The fact is, that before the last war, the English aristocracy and upper classes were unbelievably snobbish and elitist, and this made many people who hadn’t enjoyed their many advantages, very angry indeed. And to be quite frank, coming from a public school background myself, it has taken me the best part of a lifetime to realise just how profound their resentment must have been. Incidentally, for the benefit of non-British readers, the English so-called ‘public’ schools are anything but that: they’re incredibly expensive and highly elitist. Annoyingly, they’re also, generally speaking, very good as schools; usually far better than anything the state can provide.
So I do not think it’s good enough merely to sweep all this justifiable rage under the carpet with the patronising excuse that the people concerned had ‘chips on their shoulders’. Yes, they did – but they also had justification for their feelings of resentment, which comes across very well, I always think, in the wartime chapters of Brideshead Revisited (the book, not the TV films, which didn’t handle the underlying themes very well). As an archaeologist I tend to get annoyed, sometimes bloody furious, when I see wanton destruction of ancient buildings and other features in the landscape. Usually this rage is justified, because the people who are doing, or did, the demolition are motivated by the need to make money for themselves and their share-holders (see, for example, what I have to say about the wonderful ancient town of Kings Lynn, in The Making of the British Landscape). But sometimes one has to look a bit deeper below the surface. And of course it doesn’t help when the new building is actually rather better, or more original, than the one it replaced. For example, which would you rather: the old or the new St. Paul’s Cathedral? You could argue, of course, that what distinguishes Wren’s St. Paul’s from the cheap-and-nasty concrete buildings that replaced much of medieval Kings Lynn was the motive behind their construction. If so, then much of the post-war demolition of so many of Britain’s great country houses was understandable, if not always forgivable. In The Making of the British Landscape (Chapter 14), I tend to be more forgiving than censorious – and I’m fully aware that many people don’t share this view. But I still stand by it.
A recent book, which approaches the topic from the opposing, what I might term the ‘angry’ standpoint (and is none the worse for that), has used old photographs to illustrate the extent of the losses we suffered in post- and inter-war years. It is John Martin Robinson’s, Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates (Aurum Press, London, 2011). I suppose the sub-title (with the words ‘Some of’ notably absent) states the author’s position, and although I found the tone of constant anger at times rather grating, it did give the book fire and energy that are so often lacking in lavish publications of this sort. I suspect it might melt many suburban coffee tables. Martin draws attention to the large number of buildings and estates that were torn down or sold-up in the inter-war years, when many families who had made their fortunes in Victorian and Edwardian times failed to adapt to the new, harsher economic realities that followed the Great War. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but if you want to visit one of the houses that was partially demolished then, try a visit to Witley Court next summer. The people at English Heritage are doing a superb job on the gardens.
We tend to forget just how good many Edwardian country houses and gardens could be, and for Christmas I bought Maisie a copy of Clive Aslet’s The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History (Frances Lincoln Publishers). It’s a superb book and it went down very well as a present. In fact I want to read it myself, when she’s finished. The illustrations are to die for, and the text is lively and informative. It’s far more than a coffee table book – and make one realise that e-books will never be able to completely replace the real thing. Now I wonder if I’ve just floated a hostage to fortune…
Meanwhile, back at Henham Hall Park, we were treated to no less than two separate episodes of demolition, both of which we had to investigate. And both of which had left standing traces in the modern landscape. The medieval hall survived quite well below ground and there was a single standing wall which surrounded the kitchen garden behind the house. Then the later house, built in the 1790s and demolished in 1953, has also bequeathed us a single standing wall, and the rest seem to have survived, below the turf. Even in damp seasons, like 2012, the course of its demolished walls can be seen as parch-marks in the grass.
Places like Henham always have a few surprises up their tree-lined sleeves, and this time it was an ancient cork oak. The last one I’d seen had been as a teenager, when I spent a sweltering springtime near Seville. Sadly the future of those wonderful, and wildlife friendly, Spanish plantations is now in doubt, as corks have mostly been replaced by plastic stoppers and screw-tops – both horribly reliable and convenient. But one at least survives at Henham. Visit it, if you can, when you go to Latitude this year (July 18-21, 2013).