Category Archives: Country Houses of Nottinghamshire

Home of clocks

Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Upton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Upton Hall, near Newark in Nottinghamshire, has been the home of the British Horological Institute’s museum collection of timepieces of all shapes and sizes since the early 1970s, but it has only recently opened to the public:

It’s a fascinating place, currently open only on Fridays and for occasional special events, though the adjacent Clock House Café & Tea Room in the grounds is open seven days a week and well worth a visit:

Upton was an ecclesiastical estate, attached to Southwell Minster, in the Middle Ages, and there was a hall in the village from the 1580s at least.

The Hall itself is an attractively quirky building, redesigned by the architect William John Donthorn (1799-1859) for the banker Thomas Wright (1773-1845).  The garden front, with its tetrastyle portico, is more impressive than the austere entrance, and the splendid central staircase hall is top-lit by a leaded dome.

A later owner, the Newark brewer John Warwick, extended the house, adding the west wing containing a ballroom, a billiard room and a suite of six bedrooms with dressing rooms, after he bought it in 1895.

It was purchased in 1936 by Sir Albert Ball, the son of a trading plumber who had risen to wealth as an estate agent and land dealer and became Lord Mayor of Nottingham.  He sold it on to the Catholic order of the Fathers of the Holy Ghost for use as a novitiate house for trainee priests.

A post-war vicar, Rev Frank West, describes how, when he took over, one of the churchwardens declared, “over the road is The Holy Ghost, but you won’t get much help from that.”  (In fact, Frank West found, social relations were entirely amicable:  each group of adherents supported the other’s annual fête.)

Frank West arrived in the village just in time to be isolated by the vicious winter of 1947.  By chance he discovered a cache of seventeenth-century parish papers, and his researches, carried out while confined to his new vicarage by the weather, produced one of the best-written village histories in the language:  Rude Forefathers:  Upton-by-Southwell, 1600-1660 (1949;  Cromwell Press 1989).

George Lillywhite, A Tickle to Leg:  the history of Upton-by-Southwell and its cricketers, 1855-1901 (Morley’s 1996) follows in the same tradition, turning the quest for sporting archives into a portrait of a village community.

Upton’s most famous son appears to be Professor James Tennant (1808-1881), the mineralogist who was responsible for the cutting of the Koh-i-nor diamond.

Most people drive through Upton village on the A612 in not much more than a minute without any idea of its quiet history.

It’s a pity to miss the Clock House Café and the Hall full of clocks, and I hope that increased footfall will encourage the BHI to open their Museum more often.

Theatre for heroes

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire:  theatre wing

Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire: theatre wing

The Stanford Hall estate on the Nottinghamshire-Leicestershire border has been in limbo ever since the Co-operative College moved out in 2001.  Two developers have successively raised schemes to finance the restoration of the hall and its grounds by constructing houses and apartments in the park, and both have come to nothing.

Its long history is both complex and sensitive – owned by two successive gentry families, a Burton brewer, the eccentric furniture millionaire Sir Julien Cahn and latterly the College.  In particular, Sir Julien’s external additions – various sporting facilities and a fully-equipped private theatre – have been greatly valued by the local community during the years that the College ran the place.

In 2011 the 6th Duke of Westminster bought the Stanford Hall estate as a future base for the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, which supports members of the armed services and civilians as they recover from traumatic injuries.

This work currently takes place at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Epsom, Surrey, but this facility is no longer capable of expansion, though the need continues to grow:  casualties now survive injuries which would have been beyond recovery even ten years ago.

Stanford Hall is considered ideal for this new purpose because of its Midlands location, its tranquil environment and the space for magnificent new facilities which need not overpower the historic landscape.

Members of the local community have expressed concern about the future of the Stanford Hall Theatre, which Sir Julien built in 1937 as a venue for his private conjuring shows.

There’s a potential conflict between the desire of local groups for access to the theatre such as they enjoyed in the days of the Co-operative College and the needs of the Defence and Rehabilitation Centre, which will make active use of the theatre and requires higher levels of security than were ever needed by the College.

The proposed physical alterations to the Theatre, primarily to provide level access for wheelchairs, seem relatively benign:  a wrap-around block will provide much better access to the auditorium, and Sir Julien’s top-floor bedroom suite for his private cricket team will be stripped out to reduce loading on the outer walls.  I can find no mention in the planning application of the bomb shelter beneath the auditorium rake.

The plans don’t appear to stretch to a full restoration of the theatre facilities and the Wurlitzer organ, and this has exercised a consortium of local amateur-dramatic societies:

Let’s hope that the heroes and the thespians can live amicably together.

Elizabethan skyscraper: Wollaton Hall

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire

Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire

I once took a friend who was reading for a town-planning degree to see Wollaton Hall, on the outskirts of Nottingham.

I told him it wouldn’t get planning permission now.

The crazy silhouette, high on the hill above the old village, was designed for Sir Francis Willoughby and “built with rare art” by Robert Smythson, the first man in England ever to call himself an architect.

It’s an Elizabethan progidy-house, defying logic and gravity to hoist an enormous prospect-room high above the great hall of a house that in addition had two long galleries.

The Prospect Room is amazing, both from outside and within its empty, extravagant space.  It lacks a fireplace and has only the narrowest of staircases for access.  It can never have been intended for any purpose other than looking down on the surrounding countryside.

Later generations of Willoughbys never seemed to know what to do with it:  at one point it was used as a servants’ dormitory, called – after the custom – “Bedlam”, but the noise disturbed the whole house below.

It seems likely that Sir Francis, part way through the building-period, took it into his head to urge Smythson to build higher.

The ‘Chinese lattice’ joists supporting the Great Hall ceiling would have been adequate to support a lead roof, but have proved too weak to carry the weight of the tower above:  even in the late seventeenth century external buttresses were added at clerestory level to stabilise the structure.

Wollaton Hall is a fascinating, improbable place that has astonished visitors from the day it was built.

Indeed, it’s a wonder it’s still standing.

Wollaton Hall is open to the public, together with the Nottingham Industrial Museum in the adjacent stables:


Castle that’s not a castle

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

When is a castle not a castle?  For many visitors, Nottingham Castle comes as a surprise, because it doesn’t have battlements or a drawbridge.  It did, of course, at one time, but the medieval fortress that guarded the crossing of the River Trent that is now a famous cricket ground disappeared after the English Civil War.

Nottingham was the place where King Charles I first raised his standard, signalling his military opposition to the forces of Parliament and triggering the conflict that led to his execution.  The old castle was “slighted”, that is, rendered indefensible, by order of Parliament in 1651, and its ruins and the park around it were bought after the Restoration by William Cavendish, a prominent Royalist and the first Duke of Newcastle.

He swept away the remains of the old castle and – well into his eighties – began a completely new, extremely modern classical palace that was completed, three years after his death, in 1679.  It cost £14,000.  (Curiously, the 8th Earl of Rutland, a Roundhead, had built a similarly splendid baroque palace in place of his slighted castle, beginning in 1654.  All that remains of this is a model, now displayed in the nineteenth-century replacement Belvoir Castle [].)

The seventeenth-century Nottingham Castle was little used in the decades that followed, and was virtually empty when in 1832 it was set alight by Reform Bill rioters.  Its then owner, the 4th Duke of Newcastle, was anything but popular:  in an election in 1830 he had evicted tenants who wouldn’t vote as he wished, saying, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I please with my own?”

Eventually, in 1876, Nottingham Corporation bought the Castle from the 6th Duke and commissioned the local architect Thomas Chambers Hine to rebuild the interior as the first municipal museum of art in England.

Now it is the Castle Museum [], centrepiece of a cultural quarter that also includes a fascinating series of caves, including Mortimer’s Hole, and, at the foot of the cliff on which the Castle stands, the Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard.

It may not look like a castle, but you can spend an entire day in and under it without getting bored.


Madeleine moment

Theatre, Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire

Theatre, Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire

My Isle of Man host-with-the-most John has provided further details of the Wurlitzer organ at Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire, which, as I mentioned in the previous blog, was bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris in 1937 for Sir Julien Cahn’s private theatre attached to his house.

The organ came, not from the Madeleine Theatre (1924), which still exists in the Rue de Surene [], but from another Madeleine Theatre, which is now an opticians, designed entirely as a cinema by Marcel Oudin in 1918, at 14 Boulevard de la Madeleine .  The Wurlitzer – one of only two French Wurlitzers – was installed by the then owners, Loew Inc, in 1926.  According to Ken Roe’s contribution to the cinema subsequently became the Gaumont Madeleine and showed films until at least the mid-1970s.

The website indicates this Wurlitzer was repossessed at some point after installation.  This modest instrument was an ideal purchase for Sir Julien’s 352-seat theatre – “une salle élégante“, as the French account has it.

The knobs and bells and whistles of the Wurlitzer have a more elegant tone when described in French:  les clochettes de traîneau [sleigh bells], les sabots de cheval [horses’ hooves], les vagues [waves], les oiseaux [birdsong], la corne d’auto [car hooter], le gong d’incendie [fire-alarm], le sifflet de bateau à vapeur [steamboat whistle], la sirène [siren], le tam-tam [gong], et la sonnerie de porte [doorbell].

Among his many talents, John is a church organist and confessed, many years ago, to an ambition to play a Wurlitzer like the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.  My influence in Blackpool runs nowhere near that far, but I managed to give him the opportunity to play the Stanford Hall Wurlitzer.

Sometime in the late 1980s I ran a WEA day-visit to country houses in south Nottinghamshire, and smuggled John into the orchestra pit of the Stanford Hall Theatre – then part of the Co-operative College – with an arrangement that when at the end of my tour I brought the group into the back of the auditorium and said, “And this is the private theatre…” John would press the lift-button on the console and rise from the pit playing ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’.

Which would have worked perfectly if John had realised how far up the lift goes, or I’d been aware that he suffers from vertigo.  It’s quite difficult to keep a grip when you’re playing with both hands and both feet.  I suppose buttock-clenching is the only resort and I’ve never liked to ask.

Certainly John’s performance had a certain bravura quality, and we’ve both dined out on the story ever since.


Security-minded millionaire

Theatre, Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire

Theatre, Stanford Hall, Nottinghamshire

Sir Julien Cahn (1882-1944), the millionaire owner of the Nottingham Furnishing Company, lived from 1928 until his death at Stanford Hall, near Loughborough, which he transformed to suit his distinctive lifestyle – part English country house, part Hollywood.

He employed Queen Mary’s decorator, White, Allom Ltd, to install pastiche historical interiors and modern Art Deco schemes including at least four bathrooms (Sir Julien’s in black and white, Lady Cahn’s in blue and white, a guest bathroom in tortoiseshell and another – which survives – in salmon pink marble).  He built an indoor badminton court with trellis-work, trompe l’oeil privet and a birdcage in the corner.

Apart from hunting and philanthropy Sir Julien had two major hobbies, cricket and magic, in neither of which – according to contemporary accounts – he particularly excelled, but both of which he took extremely seriously.

To provide a venue for charity performances, Sir Julien commissioned a sumptuous 352-seat private theatre with a Wurlitzer organ bought second-hand from the Madeleine Theatre in Paris.  Above the auditorium Sir Julien provided a wing of bedrooms for the visiting cricket stars who took part in the Sir Julien Cahn Cricket XI.

Below the auditorium is the most extraordinary feature of all – a capacious gas-proof air-raid shelter easily capable of accommodating the entire household, with decontamination facilities and an escape-tunnel extending thirty-six feet beyond the building line in case the entire building collapsed above.

The Cahns left their mark in the grounds too.  There was an open-air swimming-pool, which eventually cost £60,000, nearly as much as the theatre, and for his fifty-fifth birthday Lady Cahn bought her husband some sea-lions (their names were Charlie, Aqua, Freda and Ivy) and a suitable pool was duly constructed.

After Sir Julien’s death in 1944 Stanford Hall became the Co-operative College until 2001.


Having a ball at Welbeck Abbey

Welbeck Abbey:  underground ballroom (1986)

Welbeck Abbey: underground ballroom (1986)

The eccentricities of the “burrowing” fifth Duke of Portland seem endless, and by no means all of the stories are true.  He was distinctive among his contemporaries for providing the very latest conveniences for his guests, even though he rarely entertained, and notoriously kept out of his guests’ way.  One of his most grandiose improvements to Welbeck Abbey was the vast ballroom 154 feet by 64 feet, entirely sunk below ground and top-lit by bull’s-eye domes, well-lit, centrally heated and not at all damp.  On arrival for a ball at Welbeck, guests were conveyed down to the ballroom, still in their carriages, by hydraulic lift to a gently-graded inclined tunnel leading them to the dance-floor.  However, the fifth Duke never gave a ball, and the gas-lit splendour only came into its own when the sixth Duke, a distant cousin who never met his predecessor, inherited in 1870.

The most recent, authoritative and succinct account of the fifth Duke’s life and works is Derek Adlam, Tunnel Vision:  the enigmatic 5th Duke of Portland (Harley Gallery 2013), which contains the full text of Elizabeth Butler’s Account of her life as a laundry maid at Welbeck, 1869-1879 (1931).

Nina Slingsby-Smith’s memoir of her father, George: Memoirs of a Gentleman’s Gentleman (Cape 1984 – out of print but available second-hand on Amazon), wonderfully captures the atmosphere of life above and below stairs at Welbeck in the sixth Duke’s time.  It includes a memorable story of an incident at dinner, when a luckless footman’s humanitarian dilemma nearly lost him his job, until King Edward VII saw the funny side:  the tale is far too good to spoil – seek it out on page 70 onwards.

Guided tours of the State Rooms (but not the underground rooms) are bookable in advance:

Welbeck Abbey is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.


More country-house railways

Welbeck Abbey:  basement railway

Welbeck Abbey: basement railway

The two railways at Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall are by no means the only examples of large country houses using rail transport to shift fuel, food, luggage and laundry around the capacious service wings.  Belton House [], on the other side of Grantham from Harlaxton and Stoke Rochford have hand-propelled railways, installed in the 1930s, connecting the kitchen in the courtyard with the basement of the main house.

Haddon Hall [], near Bakewell in Derbyshire, was made habitable from 1912 onwards by the then Marquis of Granby, later the 9th Duke of Rutland.  Bringing the fully-fitted seventeenth-century kitchen into any kind of modern use was impractical, so a new kitchen was constructed in outbuildings a couple of hundred yards away.  This is now the tearoom for visitors to Haddon:  one end of the cable-operated railway can be seen inside the tearoom entrance;  the other is customarily hidden behind a dresser opposite the entrance to the medieval kitchen which forms part of the house tour.  The tunnel itself is blocked as a fire-precaution, but interested visitors are invited to ask a room-steward to show the remains of the railway within the medieval kitchen.

Most celebrated of all, but least seen, is the 5th Duke of Portland’s rail system in the cellars of Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire.  The “burrowing” Duke went to enormous lengths to live his later life out of sight of his servants, visitors and the world at large.    The railway, with hand-propelled carts, operated in combination with the technologically up-to-the-minute hydraulic lifts to streamline domestic freight in the Abbey.

A heated cart, like a grand Victorian predecessor of a 1950s hostess trolley, enabled His Grace to order food fast.  To avoid speaking to his servants he customarily sent his orders – “I shall only want rice pudding at one” – by means of twin letterboxes on the door of his suite in the west wing.   When in residence he had a standing order for chicken to be roasting twenty-four hours a day.  This fast food could be delivered to his apartment without fuss by the grace of contemporary modern technology.

Welbeck Abbey and Harlaxton Manor feature in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture English Country Houses – not quite what they seem.  For further details, please click here.

The 40-page, A4 handbook for the 2010 tour Country Houses of Lincolnshire, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  It contains chapters on Boothby Pagnell Manor House, Ellys Manor House, Belton House, Grimsthorpe Castle, Fulbeck Hall, Fulbeck Manor, Leadenham House, Harlaxton Manor and Stoke Rochford Hall.  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.