18th century property given new lease of life

PUBLISHED: 16:04 22 May 2015 | UPDATED: 13:19 06 October 2015

Architect Richard Parr at Brownshill Court

Architect Richard Parr at Brownshill Court

© Thousand Word Media

Brownshill Court near Painswick was a sleeping beauty destined to become a forgotten pile of stones in a hidden meadow until a wealthy patron of architecture stepped in, as Katie Jarvis discovered

Brownshill CourtBrownshill Court

The man of the house has just poured himself a fine malt whisky, which he dilutes with a stream of soda, carelessly placing the syphon on the stone mantel of the ballroom fireplace. His wife, who simply can’t bear the smell of spirits, sits her china cup of Earl Grey carefully next to it.

And then they’re gone. Vanished. Falling from history like gilt from the ballroom mirror, which lay glittering on the floor when the architect and his client gingerly made their way under wobbling porticoes and falling masonry to view a property newly for sale.

An 18th century property, breath-taking in its Georgian proportions, brought into being by local stonemasons, tilers, lead-workers and carpenters, skilled with a knowledge passed down through countless generations. Later, its simple outline was further worked on, gentrified by Cotswold architect Anthony Keck – a great admirer of Robert Adam – with other impressive home-work to his name: Highgrove in Tetbury; the Lammas in Minchinhampton.

A property in the midst of the most iconic rolling countryside, sitting pertly on the west-facing Painswick Valley, Brownshill Court in Wick Street was built as a summer retreat by the Palling family, who had shelled out a grand total of £860 by the time it was completed on April 5, 1760. Rich on the back of sheep, they were sending cloth to London – for export the world over – at a time when their struggling Painswick countrymen were said to be ‘too poor to live and too healthy to die’.

Estate agents were suggesting £2 million for this sleeping beauty, abandoned to its fate in meadows teeming with life gone wild. The bill for restoring it would be far higher – but, even so, the bidding war was on.

Richard Parr was the architect taking round the discerning client who was no stranger to restoration. A modest man, keen to keep his identity private, he’d already restored an 18th century timber-framed plantation house in the Deep South, and a convent in Sintra, Portugal. He also had an abiding interest in Transylvania’s Saxon villages, where wolves howl through the cold nights, delicately balanced with an ecosystem of native birds, insects and plants. In other words, the man looking round Brownshill Court was a true, old-fashioned patron of architecture.

Reader, he bought it.

“Everyone loves a sleeping beauty, don’t they,” comments Richard Parr, whose job it was to extol the virtues of this building, listed for its architectural integrity (panelled doors, window-shutters, and a showing-off oak staircase that parades through the house like a society beauty in the palest of silk gowns). It was also his job, of course, to point out the pitfalls of a house that had mouldered as poorly-converted flats for 40-odd years. On English Heritage’s at-risk register, it was, quite simply, in danger of collapse.

Brownshill Court, near PainswickBrownshill Court, near Painswick

“I walked round with my client, listened to him, and gave him a lot of advice.”

Err… Was ‘Don’t do it!’ part of that advice?

“Well, if you wanted x-thousand square feet of simple space, you wouldn’t go and buy a Grade II* listed 18th century Cotswold stone house,” Richard points out, reasonably, sweeping his hand over the plans for another house he’s currently designing, glistening bright and new on the slopes of Cleeve Hill.

But, no: this man understood the beauty of a house where a soda syphon and a cup still sat on a fireplace; where the shovel used by a Victorian boy to empty the gulleys was still propped up in the attic.

“At least it was obvious that the roof was shot,” Richard says, pragmatically. “As we went round, we could see the buckets all the way down the stairs. I only had to look round the perimeter of the roof space to know half the timbers were rotten, and at the stonework to know that water had got in behind and blown it; and, and, and...

“But people buy a building like that because it’s a joy. They enjoy the process and the result - and the result is they get the most spectacular 18th century building.”

Despite the eyes-wide-open approach, there have still been hairy moments in this massive restoration. Richard and team realised, fairly early on, that the roof was so very fragile, it would fall like flakes with the first load of snow. Intense scaffolding and a long conversation with ecologists followed: bats had moved in when people moved out. “But had we not managed to get a temporary roof on, the bats would have lost their habitat anyway,” Richard’s senior architect on the project, Paul Wallace, points out. “It’s an interesting battle for debate. Sometimes ‘fights’ take so long that all sides lose out.”

Like Richard, Paul also fell for the house. “So many things grabbed me emotionally about the building,” he says. “The whole of the top floor had never been wired for electricity. You never normally get to see spaces like that. There was an incredible calm about it – no electric light-switches or sockets or wiring. These were the old servants’ quarters, lit by gas lamps.”

Who knows to which ancient date the house – and the Brownshill estate – stretches back. Excavations in the 19th century uncovered Roman skeletons, pointing to an early villa on this discerning site. Fields round about hint at the wide furrow of medieval farming. The court itself has been through the hands of few families, but it’s been added to and altered over the centuries. Richard, Paul and their client have kept true to its heart, sourcing oolitic limestone from France that was as close to the white Painswick-quarried original as could be. “So much of the stone was peeling off – the original jerry-builders cut it the wrong way!” Richard tuts with barely-concealed exasperation. The porticoes had to be dismantled and rebuilt; the partially-eroded friezes restored; rotten rafters spliced; the hand-beaten lead of the roof reworked.

“And I learned some curious things in the process,” Richard admits. “For example, we wondered why there was linen on the back of bedroom doors, until we realised it was an early form of insulation – acoustic privacy between rooms.”

The owner – who intends it as a main residence – has already moved into the south wing; the plan is that the whole house will be finished by the end of the year. “And I think in the end, it will look better than it would when first finished,” Richard says. “It was built by a family - industrialists - who put all their money into an estate and farming: they moved from creating money into spending it. From that moment, the taxi meter was ticking and their wealth dwindled. Consequently, that building never reached its pinnacle of opulence. Some bits looked unfinished; the detailing wasn’t there.”

So it was always waiting for its moment. Waiting, for centuries, for the landscaping to be finished; for the orangery, which is shortly to be added.

It’s a good partnership: a traditionalist with the means to rescue it; an architect with a passion for all things vernacular. For Richard is a true Cotswold devotee: a trustee of Woodchester Mansion, with his own practice based in the mansion’s original home farm, an early example of an agricultural Arts and Crafts ideal. “I even used to farm it myself, though I now have someone in who runs it,” he laughs, exhausted at the memory. “At one time, I’d have clients coming down the drive and I’d be calving a cow in the field. I’d have to change from farmer to architect in a flash.”

Yes, a good partnership. Together, they’re making the house work for 21st century living – the ballroom now a drawing room; anterooms now bathrooms.

An important Cotswold house, with light and life, when once it was destined to become a lonely pile of stones in a lost meadow.

“The minute I walked into that house, I got good karma,” Richard says, with satisfaction. “A big old house, cold from disuse, with a lovely warm feeling.”

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For more on Brownshill Court and Richard Parr’s work, visit www.richardparr.com

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