Saturday, 8 September 2018

Saving the Nation's Heritage

The UK is celebrating its annual Heritage Open Days this weekend. This is an occasion where historic sites who normally charge an entrance fee, or are in private ownership and not open to the public, open their doors free to all visitors.

Unfortunately, there are many sites that have long been demolished. An example of this is my own Nottinghamshire, Clumber House. This was the main country residence of the Dukes of Newcastle. Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, son of the 5th Duke, lived there for a time.

The 1930s in the UK saw a change in the fortunes of the landed gentry and aristocracy. Many men from these families had been killed in World War I and left estates with no-one to inherit them. Various death duties and inheritance taxes rose astronomically and people who inherited a stately home couldn’t afford to keep them. That’s what happened to Clumber. The Duke of Newcastle couldn’t afford to keep the house so he had it demolished in 1938. Fortunately, the chapel, stables, stately entrance gates and the longest lime tree avenue in Europe survive, as do the extensive grounds, and they form the present Clumber Park. My family spent many happy days out at Clumber Park when I was young, and my sister worked in the garden nursery for a few years. We are also fortunate in having lots of photographs of both the inside and outside of Clumber House, so it’s possible to create a scale model, as you see in the video below.

Many more stately homes were demolished in the early 20th century. Thankfully a lot have survived and most are in public ownership, either with the National Trust or English heritage, or belong to charitable trusts. Many people have had pivotal roles in the preservation of these buildings, and of many, more ordinary buildings. Here are two men from the lgbt community who are celebrated as saviours of our nation’s heritage.

First of all there is James Lees-Milne (1908-1997). He was an architectural historian who has been described by Hugh Montgomery Massingberd, a renowned historian and genealogist, as the man who “almost single-handedly saved what we now take for granted as the national heritage”.

James was himself a member of the landed gentry, the son of a self-made cotton baron who bought Wickfordham Manor in Worcestershire which James inherited in 1949. After graduating from Oxford with a history degree (and a string of gay lovers, including the young John Gielgud), James went to work as political campaigner for his relative Sir Oswald Mosley. During that time James met another lover, Harold Nicolson of Sissinghurst. It was Harold who was instrumental in getting James a job at the National Trust.

The National Trust was formed in 1895. Its main focus was on preserving open spaces and parkland. In 1936 they formed the Country Houses Committee which aimed to preserve buildings as well, and James Lees-Milne was appointed at is first secretary. With his family, social and sexual connections he got to visit many private stately homes. From the moment he took up his post James embarked on a mission to save as many building from demolition as possible. He was too late to save Clumber House. He hoped to persuade owners to donate their houses to the National Trust when they inherited them, free of any death duties.

There were successes and losses. He was unable to persuade the Marquess of Bath to donate Longleat House to the Trust, but years later the Marquess’s son opened the house to the public in 1949.

One of James’s successes was Cliveden House, which is now a National Trust hotel. Also, like a lot of other stately homes around the country, whether owned by the National Trust or not, Cliveden has been used as the setting for films and television dramas. My favourite use of Cliveden is in “Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head”.

But heritage is more than stately homes. Even as James Lees-Milne has been credited with saving hundreds of stately homes from the bulldozer there are other people who were looking at urban and ordinary buildings. One of these men died just a few weeks ago and he has been credited with helping to save the urban landscape of Georgian London.

Colin Amery (1944-2018) was also an architectural historian. He held many appointments, including being an advisor to the Prince of Wales and Director of the World Monuments Fund in Britain. Colin’s career began with the Town and Country Planning Association, from which he progressed to being an editor of the “Architectural Review” and a prolific writer of ooks on architecture.

Activism was also one of Colin Amery’s fortes. During the 1960s and 1970s towns and cities across the UK were demolishing large areas of “old” buildings to make way for redevelopment and new concrete block buildings. Colin was appalled at the loss of many perfectly good pre-modern buildings. In London’s East End Colin joined other leading architectural historians in campaigning against redevelopment of the historic Spitalfields area.

Colin co-founded the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust. In 1977 he joined a sit-in at two 18th-century weavers’ houses and saved them from demolition. In 1981 he joined another sit-in at a Flemish-style building in Spital Square. Other buildings were saved and Spitalfields is now seen having one of the most significant collection of Georgian houses in Greater London, saving the architectural past of the weaving industry for future generations.

Colin was also keen to renovate buildings for himself, which was the reason he appeared in a television series called “Location, Location, Location” in September 2012. The premise of the programme is to take a couple who wish to move house and take them round three other houses selected by the programme’s presenters. The couple then had to chose one to buy, or not, if they don’t like any of them.

Colin Amery and his partner Robin Balance had lived apart for a few years and decided to buy a new house together which they could live in and renovate. Colin and Robin didn’t feel any of the houses the programme’s presenters selected in Cuckfield, Surrey, were what they were looking for. Fortunately, they found another house themselves and moved in. They married in 2014.

Many more people have helped to maintain the UK’s heritage. Whether historians, landowners, members of the public donating to charity, or the Heritage Lottery Fund, there is so much around us that people regard as worthy of keeping. Sites important to the lgbt community are no exception. They have joined thousands of other sites to which the governments in the UK and USA have given special protected status. The Stonewall Inn in New York received protected status a few years ago, and so are a couple of historic gay pubs in London.

Even though the Heritage Open Days are free to the public let’s hope that a new generation, or even an older one, can see hidden parts of our heritage that are worth saving and which remind us all that the past is the only way we have got to the present.

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