Bridesheads? Baloney

John Gummer would see more grand country houses. But the genre is wrong for our times, The stately home has become the preserve of those who need to flaunt wealth. By Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Evelyn Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited as a loving obituary to the British country house. By the end of the Second World War, these romantic and costly piles seemed doomed. The families that owned them could not afford to, and the spectre of a socialist state threatened to turn them into municipal offices or else demolish them once and for all.

Waugh could not have been more wrong. There may well be, according to Save Britain's Heritage, something like 150 important country houses still in a parlous state, but by and large our great country houses have been patched up by old families or wishful-thinking enthusiasts, or refurbished by charities, notably the National Trust. Many have been bought by foreigners.

More remarkably, no fewer than 400 large country houses, mostly in pseudo- historic garb and decidedly dodgy in strictly architectural terms, have been built since Brideshead Revisited was published. Far from being under threat, the English country house, or at least out fantasy "heritage" notion of the English country house, is alive and well.

Last week John Gummer, Environment Secretary, announced an easing of rural planning restrictions, so that those who have made new fortunes from the flogging off of state enterprise, or from the National Lottery, or superstores or leisure centres, can build their own stately piles and thus become country squires. It is a curiously irrelevant measure: surely we have enough country houses to go round without encouraging more?

Those with a spare pounds 2m - the least you need to spend to build a substantial house in traditional materials - would do well to consider buying an existing house and rebuilding it sensitively, or else commissioning a brand new building, but on a modest scale.

Life has changed since Brideshead. The stately homes of England no longer stand to prove that the upper classes still have the upper hand. Most of those that have survived are exquisite toys, usually open to the public and with little connection to the land or ways of life surrounding them. There are exceptions, such as Holkham Hall in Norfolk, the magnificent Palladian house designed in the early 18th century by William Kent and Matthew Brettingham for the Earls of Leicester. It is one of the few stately homes in private hands, and it remains very much the hub of a highly productive and apparently idyllic agricultural estate.

Who, however, really wants a stately at the end of the 20th century? Nick Howard, a television producer, who by rights should have inherited Castle Howard (the magnificent baroque house in North Yorkshire, designed by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, which masqueraded as Brideshead in the cloyingly nostalgic television series based on Waugh's novel), passed the opportunity to his younger brother. Quite simply, he could not see the point of spending his life shoring up a house that would take all his money and energy. Nick is one of many creative people who, while respecting the past and all its achievements, do not want to get bogged down by it.

No, new statelies are the reserve of those - pornographers, Middle Eastern magnates, Thatcher clones - who feel an overarching need to demonstrate the size of their wallets. Contemporary middle-class culture, however, encourages most of the rest of us to live a simpler and less ostentatious life. Minimalism is increasingly fashionable, while many people wish to devote less time and money to property and more to enjoying life. For many successful and civilised people, the dream home is one split between a small house or flat in town and a modest but dreamy place in the heart of the country or beside the sea.

It is significant that, although they lead an enviable way of life, those like Sir Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and Sting - the barons of pop - have chosen to buy houses with no architectural pretensions, yet well- rooted in stunning landscapes. You will not find Paul'n'Linda's East Sussex home in the relevant volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England.

Today, there is no obvious virtue in building a house with lots of bedrooms (unless you plan to go into the cloning business), based on a traditional plan, when the way of life that goes with such a home is neither particularly desirable nor even sustainable. The poet WB Yeats was well ahead of his time when he dreamt of arising and going and building a small cabin of clay and wattle on the Lake Isle of Innisfree. In a world that, for many of us, is hectic and pressured, the last thing we need and want (if we are honest) is some vast and elaborate pile that takes all our spare time to run.

In any case, large houses are difficult and expensive to light and heat (and thus ecologically dubious), while maintenance costs are inevitably high. It also seems odd to give up yet more of what remains of our countryside to large new houses when virgin land has been all but raped out of existence by relentless development. Mr Gummer should encourage those with money to consider living elegantly, but frugally, and to use their riches to invest in buildings that house activities in which we can all share: rural art galleries and nursery schools, bus shelters (boring, but comforting for those without cars), post offices, village shops and halls for meetings, sports and entertainment. Or, they could use the money they would waste on brash new homes by buying up land and then protecting it, sowing it with meadow grass and wild flowers, planting trees and hedgerows.

Since the death of Lutyens, our architects have not had it in them to design truly successful country houses. None of those built since the Second World War can match the quality of those that went before. The talents of Julian Bicknell, Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam (not that one) and John Simpson have a long way to go before they challenge those of the great country house architects they profess to admire: Soane, Wren, Taylor, Archer, Hawksmoor.

Far too many modern country houses are little more than speculator's neo-Georgian villas magnified to hotel proportions. Others are horrid conceits, like the recently completed Cavendish Lodge on the edge of Georgian Bath, which is a block of 20 "luxury" flats shoehorned into a would-be Palladian mansion. It was designed by William Bertram, the architect who worked on alterations to the Prince of Wales's house at Highgrove, Gloucestershire.

In fact, most of the best "country houses" of recent years have been built on a modest scale. Even Britain's richest man, Hans Rausing (of Tetrapak billions) chose a Modern architect (John Outram) and nothing more ambitious than a single-storey house (a curious one, admittedly) when he bought a deer park in Sussex in the Eighties. The estate is grand, the views stunning, the house innovative, but small relative to Rausing's bank balance.

The best of all have been modern houses that enhance or fit into rugged, elemental landscapes, such as the architect John Winter's single-storey corrugated steel cabin on the north Norfolk coast, a house of great simplicity by the architects Caruso St John in Kent, and the Baggy House, on the Devon coast, by Anthony Hudson.

Such houses need cost no more than pounds 100,000 and certainly no more than pounds 250,000. The idea of spending, say, pounds 2m on a large house that will never match the scale and ambition of those built up to 1939 seems, at best, inane.

Conservative governments over the past 17 years have done their level best to encourage us to build trash over what remains of the British countryside. To add a virulent rash of second-rate houses for late flowering country squires, many of whom could go bankrupt, could only add insult to injury. Far better to nurture what we have and to build gently, quietly, honestly and welln