The idea behind the Landmark Trust was close to genius. Established in 1965, it allowed visitors to stay in often isolated historic buildings. The rental fees ensured the buildings’ survival and the project created an exoticism out of once derelict and usually unusable buildings. From one small Welsh cottage, the trust’s portfolio has grown to 195 buildings, across Britain as well as in France and Italy.
It was such a good idea that it inspired pop philosopher Alain de Botton to wonder if by offering architecturally challenging modern holiday homes, people could be encouraged to look at contemporary architecture with the same interest as they look at historic buildings. The resulting Living Architecture programme was launched in 2010 and its flashy, eccentric houses have stolen headlines ever since. Now the Landmark Trust has struck back with a quite wonderful hybrid, a contemporary dwelling of real subtlety and architectural intelligence woven into the ruined fabric of Astley Castle.
The building, near Nuneaton in the English Midlands, is a fortified manor house with a history reaching back a millennium. It was continuously inhabited from Saxon times and only became derelict after mysteriously catching fire in the 1970s.
The house was at one time home to (or at least associated with) three English queens: Elizabeth Woodville, who became wife to Edward IV; Elizabeth of York; and Lady Jane Grey, who reigned in name for just nine days before being beheaded in 1554. The past 500 years or so have been mostly downhill. The house passed from family to family, becoming in intervening years a garrison for the parliamentary forces in the English civil war and an inspiration for George Eliot’s Knebley Abbey in her Scenes of Clerical Life (the novelist’s father was the land agent to the estate).
Astley’s long, intricate past, embedded in British history and royal intrigue, makes it a palimpsest, a text in stone illustrating the progression from Saxon hall to manor house, to fortified dwelling, castellated moated castle, through country house, garrison, hotel and, finally, after the fire, ruin.
The Landmark Trust held an architectural competition to develop the ruins in some way as holiday accommodation. Witherford Watson Mann’s winning entry uses the pitted, coarse fabric of the house’s solid walls to create an extraordinary, textured series of interiors that revel in the sense of solidity and history and the inevitability of decay.
Everywhere there are intriguing inversions. The first space encountered is the huge hall, which has now been made a courtyard. A chunky fireplace stacked with logs and fire-dogs is in full working order, creating an external room capable of being, at least partly, heated. White-painted timber shutters and panels remain in place, unconsolidated, and will decay with time so that the process of entropy is made clearly visible. There is no sense here that ruination has been completely halted; rather it is being slowed down.
The bedrooms are placed in the downstairs rooms, with windows opening on to a small brick patio. Every room is framed by at least some remnants of the walls, which have been exposed to the elements for perhaps a generation, perhaps five centuries. There is an almost geological sense of time in the stones worn down to coarse boulders: it makes the walls in some rooms feel like sculptural artworks in themselves.
A sculptural and deceptively delicate timber and bronze stair has been inserted into the hall, its handrail gently sweeping the visitor up to the huge living room. This, the grandest of the new spaces in the house, is contained within walls documenting the layers of accretion and change that have defined and redefined the house for a thousand years.
Sections of stone arch are revealed behind rough stone walls; the old rooms outside the windows, with their perpendicular-style tracery and flattened arches, become a screen to frame the garden and the ponds beyond. All the new timber windows span from floor to ceiling, and each contains within it a kink to avoid the bland reflectiveness of the modern glass façade, divided instead by timber mullions that repeat the vertical divisions of the old tracery. A wood-burning stove lurks in the corner and there is no clash at all between the seasoned timber of the new ceiling and the warm, sandy colour of the stone walls. Even the complex brick corbelling above the new kitchen range chimes with the texture and tone of the old fabric.
The architects have done an extraordinary job. They learnt their trade well, collaborating on the long and difficult rebuilding of London’s Whitechapel Gallery (with Belgian architects Robbrecht and Daem) and their skill in knitting complex spaces and old and modern materials into a clear and elegant whole is exemplary. There is never any doubt about what is old and what is new.
An earlier plan for complete restoration of the building proved too costly, and it is a good thing too. This way we get a new layer that ensures the old building’s survival while acknowledging the effects of time, weather and wear.
The grounds are beautiful, with ponds and landscaped remains of the moat, and the ruin is as romantic as any painted by a 19th-century artist. A medieval abbey church, with painted walls, stands next door, while the ruins of Hinckley Castle and Hartshill Castle nearby attest to the decline in fortunes of the once-hugely prosperous power base of England’s Midlands.
The Landmark Trust and the architects have managed to reinvigorate their original idea and the introduction of this stream of thoughtful, careful and crafted modernism forms an important addition to the historic landscape, a new layer to be proud of. And how often do you get to stay in a ruin?
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Astley Castle sleeps eight and costs from £1,206 for a three-night weekend break, or from £1,610 per week. The Landmark Trust (www.landmarktrust.org.uk) is holding public open days at the property on July 15 and 16
Holidays in history: Modern comfort within ancient walls
Roch Castle, Pembrokeshire
Just inland from the three mile-long Newgale beach, Roch Castle was built by a Norman knight between 1195 and 1210, writes Tom Robbins. It was beseiged by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1644, damaged by fire and cannon, and later fell into ruin, but it reopens this weekend following a £6.4m renovation project.
The castle now has six bedrooms, all with walk-in showers, televisions, iPods, wi-fi and high-thread-count linens, not to mention 4ft-thick stone walls. A rooftop sitting room has floor-to-ceiling windows and views over the Welsh mountains and Irish Sea. While no staff live in the building, they visit every morning to prepare breakfast and make the beds, and a chef can be brought in to cater. Historic St Davids is close by. Sleeps 12, from £4,000 per week.
Shute Barton, Devon
The National Trust is best known for conserving stately homes and castles and opening them to the public but it also lets out almost 400 historic properties to holidaymakers. Some are private apartments or converted outbuildings within properties that are open to the public (in many cases, once visiting hours are over, residents have the grand surroundings to themselves). Others, such as Shute Barton near Axminster are stand-alone houses, forts, follies or watchtowers. Built in the mid15th century, Shute Barton is one of Devon’s most important medieval manor houses, with its former owners playing a role in the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Last year it was converted into a luxurious holiday home, with original features including a 15ft-high medieval window and 17th-century painted panelling in one bedroom. The kitchen has what is believed to be the largest fireplace in England, once used to roast two oxen together during a three-day party. Sleeps 10, from £1,260 per week.
The Irishman’s Tower, Lancashire
Rebuilt in 1565, Hoghton Tower is a fortified manor house between Preston and Blackburn, with a mile-long driveway and views of Lancashire and the Lake District. James I visited in 1617 and the story goes that the king was so pleased by the roast beef he was served that he knighted the joint “Sir Loin”, supposedly giving rise to the word “sirloin”. The Irishman’s Tower is one of the former garrisons that interrupt the ramparts surrounding the main house and was refurbished in 2010 to become a cosy retreat. Sleeps two, from £630 per week.
East Lodge, Hardwick Old Hall, Derbyshire
Hardwick was the ancestral home of Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – better known as “Bess of Hardwick” – one of the most prominent and best-connected women in Elizabethan England. In the late 16th century, she decided to abandon the mansion in favour of a new, grander hall she had built nearby, and by the 18th century the original “Old Hall” had become a ruin. East Lodge, a two-storey stone cottage built into the walls of the Old Hall, housed a laundry and later the custodian of the ruins but since 2010 has been rented out to holidaymakers following refurbishment by English Heritage. It has smart furnishings and a modern kitchen flooded with light from the leaded windows. Better still, while public visitors to the Old Hall must leave at 5pm, those staying in the cottage are entrusted with a five-inch long key which opens a heavy wooden door, through which they can access the ruins and walled gardens as night falls. Sleeps four, from £631 per week.