Remembering Costessey Hall and estates long gone

Call it the Downton Abbey effect, but there has been a rush of books chronicling life up and below stairs. TREVOR HEATON looks at the latest, which explores lost country estates, including two local examples.

The wave of nostalgia for country houses created by the amazing success of Downton Abbey has led to a smaller – though significant – wave of book titles in its wake.

Life up and below stairs, memoirs, fiction, non-fiction – the list goes on. So John Martin Robinson's informative, trenchant and often poignant book Felling The Ancient Oaks: How England Lost Its Great Country Estates should find a ready market.

Perhaps we should be subtitling it 'Downturn' Abbey, for here are accounts of 20 of England's lost estates, most the victim of economic collapse or agricultural depression.

There are some real-life Bridesheads here, too, grand homes which were requisitioned during world wars and ended up as burned-out, pillaged shells.

Local interest is represented by two examples: Costessey Hall in Norfolk and Fornham St Genevieve, just south of the Norfolk-Suffolk border.

Costessey's belfry block in the golf course which now takes up the parkland is the only significant survivor of what was once an incredible confection of building styles.

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The seat of the Jerninghams from 1555 to 1935, Costessey Hall was a standard H-shaped Tudor brick house until revived fortunes for the family led to a flood of building work in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

And what building work. Extension upon extension, architectural flourish upon architectural flourish, pastiche upon pastiche, until the original Tudor house was dwarfed by its extravagant extensions.

The photographs show them as eye-catching as a louche uncle standing at the back of a wedding photograph.

Costessey's end represented the bringing-together of a number of themes repeated again and again in the destruction of country houses: over-ambitious expansion, a collapse in agricultural rents after 1870, dynastic mishaps (the barontecy died out in 1937) and then requisitioning by the armed forces (almost always a precursor of a mix of accidental and deliberate destruction).

'Despite its antiquity,' Robinson concludes, 'Costessey has something of the aura of a theatre set, which rose and fell in a night, leaving hardly a wrack behind.'

At Fornham St Genevieve, near Bury St Edmunds, the estate was requisitioned in the Second World War, and the returning landowner, Captain MacRae, soon decided that the place was a liability.

The estate was sold off in 1950, with the hall itself lasting only until 1957. And here is another example of a theme which runs through the book: if only. If only its out-of-place extensions had been demolished, the original house could have been restored to its original size and made viable once again. If only the landowner could have seen that the post-war slump would not last for ever. If only. 'The owner could not foresee the future in 1950,' he concedes.

And that, of course, is why so many of these estates failed. Those on the edge of towns were tempting targets for housing estate developers, those in the way of road schemes or industrial expansion were bisected, squeezed or reduced to an unviable rump which it was easier for landed families to sell off. Robinson writes vividly, and poignantly, about all of these fates.

Of course, a cynic (or an historian looking from a ground-up perspective) might mention that many handsome country estates were only created in the first place by dispossessing the peasantry for the sake of improved vistas or profitable sheep farming (or both) and that the origins of some of the grand houses were based on Henry VIII's ransacking of the monasteries.

That is not to deny that many of the fine buildings destroyed here were rank examples of short-sighted expediency, and their destruction a tragedy.

The undeniable fact is that the English landscape never stays static for very long, however much we may sometimes wish it were otherwise. Areas protected by the likes of the National Trust or English Heritage aside, our countryside is a vast palimpsest of history, layer upon layer built by invasion, landowners, farmers, villagers, the rise and fall of industries, boom and bust, buildings raised – and razed.

Our vanished country estates, poignant though they may be, are but one more page in that never-ending saga.

? Felling The Ancient Oaks: How England Lost Its Great Country Estates is published by Aurum, priced �30.