The restoration of Hankelow Hall
- Credit: Fiona Bailey Photography
The restoration of Hankelow Hall, near Nantwich, has saved this beautiful building for future generations to admire and learn from
When Kirk Shenton first saw Hankelow Hall, in the late-1980’s, it was love at first sight. The distressed, crumbling, ancient manor house spoke to Kirk and demanded his attention – and Kirk was determined to respond.
“I just wanted to save it,” Kirk says, “it was completely tumbledown, barely a brick skeleton. The walls were largely sound, but the roof was collapsing and the floors were unsafe and full of holes – you could stand in the cellar and look up through all five storeys to the sky.”
The first records of Hankelow Hall date back to 1369, when Hugh de Hunkelow formed an estate, with a residence, parkland and agricultural land. The current house, at first glance, seems to bear no connection to the original property, but discoveries made by Kirk during renovation and rebuilding reveal that the brick structure was largely wrapped around the original medieval building, though there was a lot more to it back in its heyday, with remains of buildings spreading away from the main house suggesting a grand manor, with a kitchen kept at a distance, and the likely brewery, dairy, stables and storerooms you would expect in any medieval residence of note.
“The external brickwork is really interesting,”, Kirk says and rushes outside to show me. His enthusiasm is infectious and I soon find myself deep in discussion on the history of British brickwork, with the rich red Cheshire brick of this house the perfect example.
“The brickwork, when you look closely, shows that it was built pre-16th century, when bricks and ‘brickies’ were a bit haphazard,” I am informed. “A later owner of the house wanted to make it look smarter, so changed the windows and faked it to look more like the Flemish brickwork style popular in the 17th century.”
This is just one of the many, many things Kirk learned about his house during the renovation process, which took a lot longer and was a lot more painful than anybody could have predicted when he bought the property in February 1989.
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“We all sat around a table – me, the bank and the planning officer from Cheshire East, plus people from English Heritage – and agreed what needed to be done to bring the house back to life. For me to be able to buy it and revive it I needed to be able to build some housing on part of the estate and use that to fund the renovations. The bank people asked, very clearly, if this was all going to be possible and was given an unequivocal yes. I had to borrow a huge amount of money to make it happen, so it was vital to me that it was all going to go to plan, but then the planning officer simply refused to sign-off on the plans we submitted.”
The frustration that Kirk feels about the daily, ongoing fight for Hankelow Hall still resonates as he talks about that time. His mental health suffered, but he refused to give up. He and his family – wife Bev and children James and Vicki – moved into a caravan onsite and work commenced.
“When we started on the house we worked from the top down, putting on a roof then moving down through the building putting in the floors and walls, then the first fix and the second. The biggest job was getting it wind and watertight. We received a commendation from English Heritage for the work we did. It took us 20 years to get the main house fully habitable and every step was monitored by English Heritage. Not once did they question any aspect of what I was doing and I learned so much from them.”
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Kirk had been working on renovations of listed buildings since 1974, when as a builder he was brought in by local architects on renovating important buildings in the region.
“I was working with notable architects and was very fortunate to be taught by them how to respect and work with these beautiful old buildings, and if you’re really interested you can just soak it up like a sponge and people share so much of their knowledge with you. We worked then with lime mortar and later I introduced this on my own property developments too. Lime mortar is so much more environmentally-friendly than the more usual Portland cement. Lime takes a long time to dry and all the time is drawing carbon dioxide from the air. Cement does the opposite, releasing all sorts as it dries.”
Kirk has a strong focus on the environment, which feeds from his love of saving old buildings, one suspects. He has tree planting schemes on all his developments and has filled the parkland at Hankelow Hall with new trees too, from an avenue of pin oaks from the gates to a double row of sequoia giganteum leading from the front of the Hall to a columned summerhouse directly opposite, a stretch they have named Ladies Walk. His belief in the importance of green space extends to an open-gate policy to locals, who are at liberty to enter the grounds and walk their dogs as they choose – and all due respect is shown by all. He has dredged the original lake and it’s now a haven for wildlife. (I learn that to be classed as a lake, it needs to be over two acres in size, before that it’s a pool and before that a pond. Seriously, spending a couple of hours with the lovely, energy-packed, Kirk is a delight for anybody with any interest in history. “We now have all three species of British woodpeckers living here, as well as all the garden birds,” he tells me. There’s also a collection of sleepy ducks, gathered on the lawn by the lake, and a large white goose, who greets me as I park and honks softly as I walk past him to the house.
My tour of the house is fascinating. Kirk points out an original Tudor staircase, boarded over at some point and rediscovered during restoration. Each room has been restored using materials found all across the country, from wood panelling to fireplaces and with the help of artisans and craftsmen and most lately his own son, James, who has been absolutely key to bringing the Hall to its current, beautiful, form.
Of course, it’s one thing to rebuild a property, but then you have to furnish it.
“There are over 40 rooms here,” Bev tells me, “of all sizes, so furnishing and décor has been very much a family affair. We bought lots of books and would visit National Trust houses and take photos of rooms we liked. We used the photos to choose the paint colours for the rooms, which need to be appropriate for the period, of course. A lot were very deep and dark, but we preferred the pastel shades and have used these in the main rooms. All of the furniture came from auctions, we would scour scrapyards and reclamation yards. We would just constantly go to auctions and buy what we loved, from bed frames to sofas to artwork.”
The result is wonderful. Rooms are warm and welcoming and grand without grandeur. It’s impossible to believe that this house hasn’t been lived in and loved without a break since the days of Elizabeth I. The pictures Kirk shows me of the tragic state of Hankelow Hall before he rescued it are shocking and the warmth and beauty of the house today are testament to the passion of one man and the support of his family.
“It’s all been done for the love of the building,” Bev says. “We saw the beautiful Cheshire brick and thought what a lovely place to raise our children and, at the same time, save somewhere important.”
If not for Kirk, Bev and now James, Hankelow Hall would by now have crumbled to nothing, so praise must go to this extraordinary family and their extraordinary passion. It’s beautiful, and they are right to be proud.