Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire, is remarkable because the entire house and garden were built and furnished within a short period, 1861-70, and have hardly been changed since. It was designed by an Italian architect, the Chevalier Casentini, who appears never to have visited the site.
The money to build it came from the proceeds of the Thellusson will of 1797, which distributed the bulk of a £700,000 fortune in trust to the surviving descendants after three generations (or, in the absence of such survivors, to pay off the National Debt). The protracted litigation that arose among Thellusson’s descendants is recognisably portrayed in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-3).
When the last descendant of the original builder gave Brodsworth Hall to English Heritage in 1990, the decision was taken to restore the house as found, in “arrested decline”, rather than return its decoration and contents to their appearance when new. This is not a “house that time forgot”, like Erddig or Calke Abbey or Mr Straw’s House at Worksop; it retains evidence of each of its occupiers from the date of building to the late twentieth century, and chronicles the increasing difficulty of maintaining a home on the scale that was common among prosperous landed families before the First World War.
Walking through the front door, crossing the hall and glancing up the impressively grand staircase gives a very powerful feeling of stepping into the 1970s on some errand to meet Mrs Grant-Dalton. The light, the colours, the patina of the furniture and walls look exactly as if the place has been untouched for decades.
On the route through the principal rooms it’s easy – apart from the apparently new carpets – to imagine oneself into almost any decade since the house was built.
But further into the tour, upstairs, bleak bedrooms with folded bed-linen on bare mattresses, presumably unoccupied since early last century, are interspersed with spruced-up facilities for visitors, complete with interactive computers belting out canned historic voices.
And there are several rooms simply displaying found objects, like a lugubrious version of a trip to Ikea.
Here English Heritage is playing to the crowd, as perhaps it must in economically straitened times, where visitor footfall is the name of the game.
That said, Brodsworth is worth exploring: the long-neglected gardens are well on their way to recovery, and the café deserves more than one visit per visit.
Details of opening arrangements at Brodsworth Hall are at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/brodsworth-hall-and-gardens.
The 56-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 tour Country Houses of South Yorkshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing. It includes chapters on Aston Hall, Brodsworth Hall, Cannon Hall, Cusworth Hall, Hickleton Hall, Renishaw Hall, Wentworth Castle, Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.