In 2008, Markenfield Hall was the first recipient of the Sotheby’s/Historic Houses Association Restoration Award. This annual award recognises the finest restoration of a historic house in Britain in a way which respects and is in sympathy with the age and quality of the building. The Award was made for the transformation of the Great Hall, which lies at the heart of the house, from derelict medieval grain store to family library and drawing room – a restoration which took four years. In fact this was the latest stage in the restoration of Markenfield, a Grade I-listed house, which commenced in 1980 and will continue perhaps until about 2030, as finance and other factors dictate.
Markenfield is described as “this wonderfully little-altered building, the most complete surviving example of a medium-sized 14th century country house in England” (John Martin Robinson: The Architecture of Northern England). Built in 1310, it is completely moated, lying deep in unspoiled countryside. A Turnpike Act of 1777 moved the medieval main road from right next to the house to over a mile away, leaving Markenfield gloriously peaceful and, for many centuries, largely forgotten.
The house was confiscated for High Treason in 1569 and from then until 1980, was inhabited by a series of tenant farmers. The occupiers had no interest in filling in the moat, pulling down and replacing outworn wings or cutting the rooms up into smaller ones. Had the original family stayed, these things would doubtless have happened, as they did in many other English mediaeval houses.
It was, however, a neglected jumble within. In 1960 the tenant farmer and his family moved out of the main block in the NE corner into a ‘modernised’ East Wing, still within the moat. Twenty years later, restoration could begin in earnest.
Generations of tenant farmers had boxed in or rough-plastered over architectural features, wallpapered ancient walls and generally tried to hide the unique historic nature of Markenfield. Wiring was disintegrating and highly dangerous. All this had to be stripped back to the interior stone walls before sympathetic restoration could begin. The architect, the late John Miller, found the impressive survival of what remained of the medieval stone vaulting and from this, he worked out the original plan. The vaulting had run throughout the ground floor until ripped out in 1570.
Stage One, the restoration of the main block, took two years before it was habitable; Stage Two, the transformation and revitalising of the Great Hall, chapel, undercroft beneath and some of the adjacent smaller rooms to the west of the main block, was carried out from 2003 to 2007. Restoration of the gatehouse from a pigeon-infested, leaking wilderness into our administrator’s office was completed in 2010.
When working with planning officers, English Heritage (EH), local government conservation officers, SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) and the like, we try always to take them on board from the very start; regard them as helpful friends, not nuisances; and draw them into the project so that they feel a sense of being part of it, not merely acting as policemen.
A splendid example of how this can help was when we held a meeting in the empty Great Hall before applying for listed building consent for its restoration. We were asking a great deal: that EH would agree to the insertion of a modern, 14-foot-wide replica ‘medieval’ fireplace where one had been until it was dismantled in 1570. The original had been moved down a floor into a 14th-century wall in the undercroft, where it had remained for over 400 years.
The argument went this way and that for two hours; EH were understandably nervous about the principle involved. But the day was won by a passionate speech from the local government conservation officer, saying that he had been consulted at every stage, and that what was now proposed was part of “bringing the house alive again!” It was his feeling of personal involvement that was the trigger. We were given consent and we now have the fireplace; and the most pleasing thing people remark is that it looks as though it has always been there.
The chapel is now in regular use again, with well-attended fortnightly services, alternately Catholic (it is a Catholic chapel) and Book of Common Prayer Anglican.
Stage Three will concern the setting of Markenfield. The medieval deer park consisted of 128 acres immediately round the house, surrounded by a 14th-century stone park pale – itself scheduled – some of which has collapsed, but parts of which has survived in its original form. We plan to bury all overhead cables within this area, to persuade the tenant farmer to have nothing but grass and grazing animals in it (much is currently arable), to remove all old farm junk and generally create a setting worthy of the house. This may well be completed by 2030. It will then have taken two or three generations to restore Markenfield to something of the status and dignity for which it was built.
We owe more than we can say to the exceptionally helpful Historic Houses Association, who have been on hand throughout, a source of technical advice and suggestion beyond compare. Its website makes clear what wealth of knowledge and experience the Association makes available to our national built heritage.
The most pleasing remark, regularly entered in the visitors’ book when we are open to the public, is to the effect: “This is a loved and lived-in house, not a museum”. As John Goodall remarked in a recent edition of Country Life: