John, 1st Baron Tollemache (1805-1890) was not a figure to argue with. Robust, traditional, solid character, full of vigour and strength, he lived life according to his own principles and died at the age of 85 from the effects of driving his trap through wintry weather.
He commissioned Anthony Salvin, one of the most versatile of Victorian architects, to build Peckforton Castle on his 26,000-acre Cheshire estate in the form of a fully equipped Edwardian castle (Edward I, that is,) complete with drawbridge and battlements, on top of a steep hill looking across to the genuinely medieval ruin of Beeston Castle on the adjacent hill.
If any Victorian architect could design a full-size thirteenth-century castle to be habitable by large-as-life nineteenth-century occupants, Salvin could. Tough, gloomy, irredeemably masculine, the brand-new house had every modern convenience of its day, though some of them were in unlikely places. All the spaces a Victorian aristocrat would expect in his house were provided, such as a billiard room, a library and a drawing room. The main staircase is pentagonal. The floor of the octagonal dining room sits on the central pillar of the annular wine cellar below. There is also a long gallery, which is technically neither a medieval nor a Victorian feature.
Why did Lord Tollemache insist that his residence should be defensible against a thirteenth-century army? Its dates are significant – 1845-50. It seems that the baron, characteristically generous to his own tenants, feared an invasion of the Cheshire plain from the starving workers of the Lancashire cotton towns. An Edwardian castle, quite as sturdy as Caernarfon or Conwy, could protect not only his family and his household, but also his tenants and, if necessary, their livestock.
The threat was virtually over by the time the place was finished. But that didn’t make it any less real at the time it was started.
It seems unlikely that anyone other Lord Tollemache himself could have lived in the Castle with enthusiasm. Descriptions of the house in the twentieth century suggest a plaintive attempt to soften and warm the interiors. The Tollemache family never returned after the Second World War, and the entire contents were auctioned in 1953.
For years the place struggled to find a use: it was invaluable as a film set; at one point it was a venue for live-action role-playing games. Since the early 1990s it has operated as a hotel. It’s a particularly spectacular place to get married.
The Peckforton Castle website is at http://www.peckfortoncastle.co.uk. Beeston Castle is in the care of English Heritage [http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park]. It’s a particularly steep climb to the top of the motte. There is a charge for car parking.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.