English Country House reborn

THE story of England’s country houses in the decades after the Second World War was often an unhappy one. Many had been commandeered by the War Office, and suffered the general depredations of troops preparing for battle and less than mindful of the centuries-old grandeur of their surroundings. Others became schools as children were evacuated when their city schools were bombed.

Changing attitudes, falling incomes, the difficulties of getting staff – nobody in the new post-war Britain wanted to be a “servant” – and the costs of renovation and upkeep of once-great houses and estates forced many owners to sell up. Some became hotels, some became (or remained) schools, some were carved up into flats. Many were demolished.

The following decades and the efforts of bodies such as the National Trust, English Heritage and conservation groups concerned for specific historic periods saved and restored some of the most important.

But there are few stories to compare with that of St Giles House, a fairytale with heroes and villains, in which “Sleeping Beauty” – the Restoration house – is eventually given a happy ending.

The ancestral home of the Earls of Shaftesbury, at Wimborne St Giles in East Dorset, is once again one of England’s great country houses. But it is also a family home – and the restoration, recounted in a magnificent new book, is very much the triumph of the youthful 12th Earl, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, and his wife Dinah. Nick had never expected to inherit the estate. He was a younger son.

In The Rebirth of an English Country House: St Giles House, co-written with historian Tim Knox, Lord Shaftesbury sets out briefly the tragic background to his inheritance – the murder of his father, the 10th Earl,  and the sudden death of his older brother, Anthony, the 11th Earl – and then describes the enormous challenge that he and his wife took on, to save the dilapidated mansion from oblivion, restore it and create a home for themselves and their (now three) children.

It is a remarkable story, not only for anyone who has visited St Giles House in the last few years, and met Lord and Lady Shaftesbury, but to everyone interested in the history of architecture and the skills, courage, tenacity and vision needed to save a great building.

In her introduction, Jenny Chesher, inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas at Historic England, talks about Nick’s personal philosophy about the restoration: “This has evolved to take a more minimal approach which does not seek to restore, or reproduce, every original historic element. Rather than presenting the interior of the house in an immaculate state, it retains elements of faded grandeur and the memory of its former decline – nowhere more successfully than in the dining room, where walls remain partially unplastered to convey a sense of its former condition and reveal evidence of earlier features. This allows visitors to appreciate the journey that the house has travelled in the last 50 years, and is in many ways more illuminating than presenting the house in a fully restored state.”

The evocative photographs by Justin Barton also tell the story of what Nick Ashley-Cooper calls “the most rewarding time of our lives.”

The Rebirth of an English Country House may look like a beautiful coffee table book, but it is so much more. It is a fascinating read, a beautiful record of an astonishing and important architectural project and an inspirational story of the rebirth of a house from seemingly irreversible decline to become a warm, welcoming and unique family home. FC

Pictured: Archive photographs of St Giles House in Victorian times, in its dilapidated state, and restored, and the cover of the book.