Chris Upton on the trials and tribulations suffered by a hidden gem of the Midlands.
It’s relatively rare to find stately homes in the shadow of cities; proximity to the metropolis was not what the owners craved.
And if a land-hungry city happened to grow up nearby, the chances are that the land-owner would long since have cashed in on his estate, sold off and moved to somewhere more secluded.
Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, then, is relatively rare. Equidistant from Birmingham and Kidderminster, and cocooned in its 300 acres of parkland, the house lives and breathes a rural air.
Proximity to the city brings both benefits and pitfalls. On the positive side, there is a constant stream of visitors and wedding parties who are the salvation of great houses and hotels. On the other hand, there is the bored youth, who might wander the grounds and take exception to a monument. This was the case with the famous Temple of Theseus at Hagley, designed by James “Athenian” Stuart in the late-1750s, and vandalised soon after repairs 20 years ago.
Hagley Hall is primarily the creation of George, Ist Lord Lyttleton (1709-73), secretary to the Prince of Wales and (briefly) Chancellor of the Exchequer. George recruited Sanderson Millar of Warwickshire to build one of the last Palladian houses in England.
At first sight, Hagley looks remarkably like Croome Court, also in Worcestershire, and, like Croome, the house and park were designed to compliment each other. It was and is a house in a landscape. The grounds look magnificent from the house, and the house from the park. Or it will, once the scaffolding comes down.
The current incumbent is the 12th Viscount, who inherited Hagley after the death of his brother three years ago. His name is Chris, which doesn’t sound right for a Viscount, but I imagine Hagley will get used to it.
When I drove up to Hagley Hall two weeks ago, they had the builders in. Indeed, that was the main reason for my visit. The first phase of a major restoration is underway. courtesy of a £210,000 grant from English Heritage. The owners will need to find about the same sum to complete this first phase of repairs.
It is the decorative balustrades which are causing most concern. The pinkish Bromsgrove stone has not taken kindly to weathering and erosion and earlier repairs are disintegrating, if anything, more quickly than the originals. Luckily, the architects have sourced a hard-wearing alternative from Cheshire.
Once that is complete – April 2010 – there will be another phase and probably another. The next worry is water ingress, the result of a flat roof. Lord Cobham recalls ice-skating on that roof as a child, but now can see its disadvantages. Staining from damp and rain has discoloured paint and paper. Perhaps being a lord and owning a Palladian villa is not all it’s cracked up to be.
So, one’s roof leaks rain water and one’s bank account leaks cash. Is there a good side to all this ? Sitting in the library with Lord Cobham and his brother-in-law, I could get just a hint of the positives. Here Alexander Pope casually reclines with a book above the fireplace, and busts of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden look down from the bookcases, along with a host of the first Lord Lyttleton’s ancestors. Oh, how I wanted to plunge into those bookcases.
The white or entrance hall takes some beating, with its fine fireplace by James Lovell and magnificent plasterwork by the master of stucco, Francisco Vassalli, who signed his handiwork..
Lord Lyttleton returned from his obligatory grand tour with a taste for all things Italian. He had copies made of statues from the Pitti Palace for the niches and commissioned Vassalli to copy in plaster an Italian painting of Pan and Diana for the wall. If only there was the bright Italian sun to shine down on this, instead of rain trying to get at it from above. The whole house cost Lord Lyttleton some £35,000. Unfortunately, costs have risen since the 1750s.
George Molyneux, Historic Buildings Inspector for English Heritage, calls Hagley Hall and park one of the hidden gems of the West Midlands. It’s curious that a house this big, set in a park this broad, could ever be considered “hidden” and yet it is. But with restoration work underway Hagley is beginning to show its fair face once more.