Tim Booth on Gothic architecture in Cheshire

Cholmondeley Castle

Cholmondeley Castle - Credit: not Archant

A tour of Cheshire’s historic country houses

Peckforton Castle

Peckforton Castle - Credit: Archant

Classical architecture had arrived on the fashionable scene more or less fully developed in its vocabulary. So it is an entire contrast when we contemplate the slow development of Gothic architecture, a style that began in the 1750s with a modest villa and reached its zenith in the 1880s in the masterful Eaton Hall, built for the first Duke of Westminster; a giant of a house, of towering, carefully-grouped masses; as different to the house which started it all off as it seems possible to be. For it was Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister, dilettante, writer, man of taste, who created his ‘little plaything villa in the Gothick style’ at Twickenham on the Thames, and from this house, that he called Strawberry Hill, was sown the seed of so much of the architecture we take for granted today.

Oakmere Hall

Oakmere Hall - Credit: Archant

Between 1749 and 1788, Walpole played at being an architect. The villa that he initially created was not large, but with ornate Ogee windows, pinnacles and battlements and towers, it grew into the first house in England of the new style. But as with Classical architecture, it was not a new style at all - rather, it looked back to the Middle Ages, reflecting Walpole’s liking for the mysterious, the gloomy, the dark ways of the imagination.

By 1800, amid the Napoleonic Wars, Gothic began to be adopted in country house architecture. The Marquess of Cholmondeley, whose family was connected to Walpole’s, designed and built the first such house in Cheshire at Cholmondeley Castle in 1801, towered and battlemented, as did Cole in 1830 at nearby Bolesworth Castle. Essentially, these began as rectangular houses beneath the decoration; but at Combermere Abbey, a 16th century house built in the ruins of the old Cistercian abbey was, in 1820, altered to form a Gothic house, rather than a new house being built and dressed in Gothic clothes. Often with these early, naive ventures into the Medieval, this meant the addition of the usual pinnacles, battlements, and several varieties of pointed windows. But the irregularity of the original house, itself taking its form from the irregular Abbey, when the Gothic elements were added, all combine to create the best example of early Gothic work in the county.

Combermere’s asymmetry makes it seem a rambling and ancient building; it was described by Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, a sad perpetual wanderer, as “One of the most romantic places in Europe”.

The rectangular Georgian windows gave way to pointed windows; and partly because pointed windows do not easily work with sashes, and partly because stone-mullioned windows were seen as more “medieval”, side-hung casements reappeared after an absence of two centuries.

But these early houses were merely the forerunners, the explorers in a new style; soon, a wave of building began that was informed by two strands of thought. First, architects and patrons had begun to study the nature of true Gothic architecture – by which they meant the architecture of the Middle Age - as could be seen in many churches, in ruined monasteries, and a few colleges and castles. Secondly, the Georgian age was over, and the flamboyant, hard-drinking, hard-riding days were giving way to the sober reign of the young Victoria.

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As the British Empire grew and became, of itself, an article of faith, so Gothic Revival architecture, with its Christian associations, began to be perceived as the expression both of British history and high British moral purpose – to the extent that the Gothic exteriors of the Houses of Parliament were designed by the leading exponent of this view, Augustus Pugin.

By the mid-nineteenth century John Douglas had emerged as Cheshire’s Gothic Revival architect, and yet he is, on a national scale, little known. One of his early works was Oakmere Hall of 1867, near his birthplace Sandiway. Here at Oakmere are all the towers and turrets beloved of the Victorians, with differently-grouped church-like windows, a tall porte-cochere entrance and spiky pointed roofs.

There is often a French feel to Douglas’s Gothic work, for example The Paddocks on the Eaton Hall estate of the Duke of Westminster, built for the Duke’s agent. As with Classical architecture, numerous strands of Gothic emerged from about 1840 onwards, with some architects like Salvin seeking ‘authenticity’ (his Peckforton Castle of 1850 being so authentic that it can be mistaken for a genuine castle), while others, notably Alfred Waterhouse, went their own way in developing a manner that was based on Gothic ideas but was entirely their own. It was Waterhouse who, in 1870, was preferred to Douglas in the fourth rebuilding of Eaton Hall. Though this series is generally about surviving houses, Eaton Hall is the exception, because its importance cannot be overlooked.

Eaton Hall was a Behemoth of a house, typical of Waterhouse: pointed, steep-roofed, hard-outlined, stone-staircased. It was similar to Manchester Town Hall, designed by him at the same period. In its day there can have been no more imposing house - with the possible exception of Castle Howard – in the North. Pevsner considered it ‘the most ambitious instance of Gothic Revival in the country’. It is a long step from the tentative, early Gothic of Cholmondeley Castle. For centuries, mansions had been built to reflect wealth and social position, and Eaton placed the Duke of Westminster at the very apex of Victorian society, in a house that was one of the last and greatest of the buildings of the Gothic Revival. But it lasted less than a hundred years. No doubt the present Duke could afford its upkeep, but, although as a statement it was wonderful, the truth was that as a house, it was uninhabitable. The dining room alone measured 32 metres long. In 1962 it was, except for Chapel and stables, swept away and replaced with a modern house.