Growing up I was taken round possibly every Stately Home or castle that the National Trust or English Heritage has to offer. I am still familiar with many and after all this time there are features in nearly all that make them memorable.
So news that Clandon Park in Surrey has burned down this week was distressing. My great-grandparents worked and met there.
My first thought was whether we would have another Uppark…
Uppark was a National Trust Stately Home nearing completion of a restoration project. Packed full of original fixtures and fittings it comprised of a house, basements with kitchens and servant quarters, dairy, stables and the creepiest mosaic game-hanging room (not helped by the national refridgeration) I’ve ever seen set in ornamental grounds and wider pasture. Then one afternoon a blowtorch started a fire…
On Uppark’s side was the timing. On a Wednesday afternoon on 30th August the house was filled with families and spritely older people who took a keen interest in stately homes. After “Please don’t touch that” the cry went up, “Ladies and gentlemen, a fire has been discovered, could you please leave by the nearest exit, taking whatever you can carry…” Items were lined up on the summer-dried lawn. It didn’t matter if something disappeared – everything was already lost…
Cavities in the walling meant that although the majority of the house was not involved to start with the fire could not be extinguised. Instead it had to be allowed to burn, knowing that the whole house would be lost. There is aerial footage of the house becoming enveloped over three days…
Which meant there was time to go round taking colour photgraphs of every room and to remove the rest of the fixtures and fittings. Decisions were made about what could be saved, and quickly, with the fire service cutting paintings from their frames, while smashing mirrors to save the frames. The last stage was to walk round with chisels, slicing off the paint, the plaster, the wallpapers, bringing down the balistrades, tearing up the carpet, so that there was a sample to match the photographs in the hope that the house would live on in the records…
Afterwards there was a decision to be made and several elements were on Uppark’s side.
1. There was a houseful of artefacts sat in a warehouse in Swindon that couldn’t be stored indefinitely and were not being publically appreciated where they were.
2. Only the central house had been lost. Everything in the grounds was still standing.
3. There was a complete record of every aspect of the house.
4. Collapse had been central within the rooms, with walls semi-preserved and items crushed instead of burned.
5. Rebuilding may be cheaper than the write-off insurance settlement.
The decision was made to rebuild.
The next question was the era to rebuild to: even with photographs from the 19th century there isn’t proof of how the house looked and everything from a later era would be out of place. Everything fades in time but there was no absolute proof of the original colour for every item: even if the walls were bright, the original artefacts now weren’t.
The decision was made to restore to 2pm 30th August 1989, the last certain moment.
Six years later Uppark opened its doors again to the public, with a couple of minor additions. There is now a display showing the aerial footage and the restoration, including the reinvention of lost gilding and wood turning that was only realised as section of frames and balistrades had survived. But also quietly secreted away are new alarms, detectors and sprinklers, in addition to the restored cuts and rips where sections had been removed, the reminder should anyone need one.
Clandon’s website says that their evacuation plan had been followed, that firemen had cut out pictures and that artefacts had been saved. I hope that the balance goes in favour like Uppark and not the ghostly Witley Court.