Timothy Booth shares his passion for Cheshire architecture

PUBLISHED: 11:12 02 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:13 02 September 2013

Bramall Hall, in Bramall, is a popular visitor attraction due to its pleasing appearance and attractive gardens

Bramall Hall, in Bramall, is a popular visitor attraction due to its pleasing appearance and attractive gardens

Archant

When it comes to architecture, Cheshire possesses an almost perfect sequence of the highest order, representing each movement through five centuries of taste and sensibility, says Timothy Booth. He explains his claim.

Crewe Hall hotel is a magnificent example of early 17th century and style and Victorian magnificenceCrewe Hall hotel is a magnificent example of early 17th century and style and Victorian magnificence

If you ask anyone outside this county about the characteristics of Cheshire’s country-house architecture, their answer will likely be ‘half-timbered’ or ‘black and white’.

From beyond the borders, perhaps Little Moreton Hall is all that people can call to mind. To be sure, Cheshire possesses no Elizabethan extravaganza like Longleat, no Baroque palace like Castle Howard, no Gothic fantasy like Carlton Towers. What Cheshire possesses is something entirely different; an almost perfect architectural sequence of the highest order, representing each movement through five centuries of taste and sensibility, yet always restrained, even detached; reflective of unobtrusive wealth and quiet confidence. From Elizabethan to Edwardian, these houses stand across the county in parkland that is still, in the main, unspoiled.

Little Moreton Hall is the classic Cheshire black and white timbered building, and one of the finest examples of its type.Little Moreton Hall is the classic Cheshire black and white timbered building, and one of the finest examples of its type.

Cheshire has, like most counties, its fragments of domestic medieval houses. At Alvanley Hall, for example, are the bases of two huge columns in the cellar, and at Thurstaston Hall can still be seen blocked medieval doorways. What these houses were in the Middle Ages will never be known, though presumably the earlier structures were centred on the Great Hall typical of that period. Willot Hall near Prestbury still contains its original hall, now built into a newer (though still very old) house, as does Chorley Hall near Alderley Edge. The only large survival of Medieval domestic building left visible is the gatehouse of Saighton Grange, from about 1490, defensible, decorated with a beautiful and highly unusual oriel window to the left side of the block and broad mullioned windows on the top floor.

All across the low-lying Cheshire Plain can still be seen the square-sided moats, generally thought to be Medieval, that must once have surrounded a manor house and which are now merely shallow, rushy depressions in a field. Almost all those manors that once stood within these moats have disappeared utterly, and those moated houses that yet remain are usually of later date. For the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 led to a degree of political stability in the new Tudor England; then, under Henry VIII, the monasteries were suppressed and their wealthy lands handed to the emerging Protestant elite. This new squirarchy set out to build for comfort and ostentation, rather than for defence. The old Great Halls were still needed, but now the wealthy added Long Galleries as reception rooms, elaborate patterned ‘strapwork’ decoration, and well-lit parlours with broad windows. And as the reign of Henry VIII became the reign of Mary, then Elizabeth, so the first, stylistically coherent period of architecture began in Cheshire.

The black and white that is seen as ‘Elizabethan’ is widespread in Cheshire. The great architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, considered the eccentric, top-heavy Little Moreton Hall, along with Bramall Hall, Stockport, and Speke Hall and Rufford Old Hall in Lancashire, to be ‘the four best timber-framed mansions of England’. Little Moreton Hall is the most famous, but all show the same decorative ideas and, as with most Elizabethan houses, the windows seem to fill half the wall space. Churches Mansion, Nantwich, of 1577 was further embellished by carved corbels representing Richard and Margaret Churche, animals, the Devil and a salamander – as protection against fire. The house did indeed survive the fire of 1583 that destroyed the town, and later survived a proposal to dismantle it and move it to the USA. By curious coincidence it is now owned by an American, Sandy Summers, who later discovered herself to be a descendant of the Churche family.

The true characteristic of Elizabethan architecture, though, is not half-timbering, but windows, windows everywhere. The panes are small – the technology of glassmaking was young – but when set in leaded lights and hung as side-opening casements, an entirely new form of architectural extravagance emerged. And other typical features of this period are the increasing use of brick in preference to timber (Adlington Hall is an early example), of lofty chimneys and ornamental towers. Brereton Hall is one of the best examples in the North of England, with its slender-towered central Gatehouse. The delicate masonry at each angle of the towers, with brick infill, is characteristically Tudor and can be seen at the greatest English house of that time, Hampton Court.

The plan of Elizabethan, and then of the Jacobean houses of the early seventeenth century, developed a formalized style, based on an E-shaped layout (it is sometimes suggested that the E was originally in honour of the Queen) with the entrance front having two gables, sometimes shallow, as at timbered Moss Hall, Audlem, and sometimes deep, as at brick-built Willaston Hall, while in the centre, the main door stood in the middle stroke of the E shape.

Grander by far is Crewe Hall, a combination of early 17th century work and monumental Victorian, where the South front forms a very shallow ‘E’ and the tall regular windows almost cover the façade, and, like the entrance fronts of Lyme Park and Brereton Hall, there is an elaborately decorated centrepiece.

Thus, in just over a century, a clear domestic architecture had replaced the crude moated manors, where the wind blew through shutters into dark, smoky halls. Crewe Hall is not much more than a century beyond the Medieval era, but a world away in technique. With the country now peaceful, the wealthy were beginning their first essays in the yet newer Classical style. Cheshire has its share of these, and next month we shall follow its development in some of the most beautiful houses to be found in the world.

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