In 2005 I studied cultural heritage management at Lampeter University and a field trip included a brief visit to Attingham Park. Sadly the house was closed, so we concentrated on the beautifully landscaped park, designed by Humphry Repton. I was therefore delighted that on this visit I was shown around part of the interior of the house by the curator, Sarah Kay, just as important conservation works are about to commence at Attingham.
Carriage drives to important country houses were designed to give only tantalising glimpses of the house until the final corner was rounded; and I could still recall that ‘wow’ factor. For my second visit, on a rather bleak Monday in January, Repton’s clever driveway did the trick again and there was the mansion, revealed in all its glory.
I found Attingham buzzing. The Stable Café and shop were open, and people and dogs were everywhere, enjoying walks around the estate and deer park. These facilities are now available all year round. As a National Trust member I have long nurtured a few grievances: why are the open seasons so short? (after all, viewing a historic property is a perfect way to pass a wet winter’s day). Why are so many doors locked or marked ‘Private’, given one likes to rootle and nose around? And why are whole swathes of a property shut off when conservation work is underway, when actually viewing the work would be fascinating? Well, someone at the Trust must have read my thoughts because the opening times are increasing each year, more parts of properties are being opened up to visitors, and a whole new philosophy exists where conservation is concerned, especially at Attingham.
Like most country houses, Attingham evolved over a period of time. It started life in 1701 as Tern Hall. From 1783-5 the 1st Lord Berwick commissioned architect George Steuart to build a vast Palladian style mansion, which was in effect bolted onto the front of Tern Hall.
From 1805-7 John Nash was commissioned by the 2nd Lord Berwick to re-model Attingham, including incorporating a grand Picture Gallery to display his art collection. Nash removed and re-sited the existing main staircase and built a vast interior space which had no windows – thus no natural light. Nash’s solution to admit daylight via a glass roof was, as the Trust puts it -‘flashy but flawed’. It was an iconic piece of architectural design which unfortunately leaked almost from the outset, damaging paintings, furniture and inlaid wood floors. The Picture Gallery’s high ceiling is supported on a curved cast iron metal frame, containing small square panes of acid-etched glass. The glass frames, cornice mouldings and column capitals were all gilded, shimmering spectacularly when lit by the vast chandelier. Now dulled by time, these elements will be carefully cleaned over the next two years to shimmer once more.
The rainwater from Nash’s roof was routed down inside the Gallery’s walls in concealed lead pipes; ingenious but risky, and apparently sounding like a waterfall during heavy rainfall. In an effort to deal with the on-going leaks, the National Trust had a secondary glass roof constructed in 1974, but it only covered part of Nash’s roof and was never an adequate or elegant solution. A major project is now poised to begin, to install a state-of-the-art glass roof over the entire Nash structure – Attingham Re-discovered Goes Through the Roof!
Nash also had to replace the demolished staircase with a new Grand Staircase, leading off the Picture Gallery. But he had insufficient room at his disposal as Tern Hall still adjoined the house. His clever solution was additional flights concealed behind doors leading off the main staircase. These are really worth a visit – during a ten year project the Trust has investigated and removed layers of gloss paint to uncover a rare decorative scheme on hand-made paper. Again, Nash had no natural light available from windows, so his very elegant staircase design is lit by a stunning glazed dome, surrounded by intriguing fish-scales and a gilded cornice, sadly all faded now, but due to be cleaned or re-gilded as part of the conservation project.
So, will most of the house be off-limits to visitors for the next three years? Not at all. The whole conservation area is going to be open to visitors as part of the Attingham Re-discovered project. You can linger and watch conservators at work, or you can join the Attingham Re-discovered Tour, designed to give an in-depth understanding for visitors possessed of curious minds and keen to hear about (or join in) the conservation debate. Regular visitors will be able to watch the project from start to finish.
The grounds, café and shop are open everyday all year, the Rediscovered tours are held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout February and March from 11-2, please call 01743 708170 to pre-book. The mansion re-opens 7 days a week from 2nd March. You can also follow the restoration on You Tube – youtube.com/user/AttinghamPark.
– Jean de Rusett
Attingham Park, Atcham, Shrewsbury SY4 4TP
Tel: 01743 708162 www.nationaltrust.org.uk/attingham-park