Country house survivor

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire

After decades of talk of “the destruction of the English country house” it’s refreshing to find more and more houses that were given over to institutional use have been restored as homes in the past twenty years.

One such is Duncombe Park House, North Yorkshire, (1713) designed by the gentleman-architect William Wakefield, possibly with assistance from Sir John Vanburgh, who was at the time coming to the end of his work at Castle Howard.

It’s a house that has survived a succession of crises.

All but the shell of Duncombe Park was destroyed by fire on a snowy night, January 11th 1879.  The parish magazine describes how the maids woke to the sounds of crackling and extremely hot carpets.  The water-supply to the house had been turned off to prevent frozen pipes, so the main block burnt to a shell although all of the family, guests and servants and – after desperate efforts – many of the contents were saved.

Work on rebuilding the main house stopped when the heir, Viscount Helmsley, died unexpectedly in 1881, leaving a two-year-old son to inherit from his grandfather, the 1st Earl of Feversham.

When rebuilding resumed in 1891, the architect William Young based his plans on the original design and some surviving fabric, but with an additional bay projecting the east front further into the garden.  He also made the original round-headed windows square, and reduced the interior size of the entrance hall, converting the design of its plaster ceiling from an oblong to a forty-foot square.

In 1894 a further fire destroyed furniture, tapestries and £6,000-worth of jewellery that had escaped the 1879 fire.  The damage was quickly restored, with the addition of a chapel by Temple Moore, in 1895.

When the second earl, grandson of the first, was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, a year after inheriting the title, his son took the title at the age of ten, inheriting an estate encumbered with two sets of death duties in rapid succession.

Duncombe Park House was let to the Woodard Foundation and opened as Queen Mary’s Girls’ School in 1926.  The third earl throughout his life lived at Nawton Tower elsewhere on the estate.

At his death in 1963 the earldom died out but the older barony passed to his fourth cousin, the 6th Lord Feversham, at the age of eighteen.  It now belongs to his son, the 7th Lord.

The school’s lease did not cover repairs, and Lord Feversham was not prepared to allow modern buildings to be added, so when a break-lease fell due in 1986 Lord and Lady Feversham chose to reclaim the house, and the school removed to Baldersby Park near Thirsk – another fine early-eighteenth century house, though much altered, by Colen Campbell.

The restoration of Duncombe Park was carried out by Martin Stancliffe to such a standard that it’s difficult to visualise that the place was for sixty years a thriving, though apparently well-disciplined boarding school.

It’s a shame that it’s no longer possible for the general public to tour the house at Duncombe Park, though the gardens remain open:

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Country Houses of North-East Yorkshire tour, with text, photographs, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  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.

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