10 of Britain’s most amazing landmark buildings
Since its foundation in 1965, the Landmark Trust has rescued nearly 200 endangered historic buildings in Britain, restoring them to their former glory and making them available for holiday rental as a way to preserve the structures for the future...
Here, writing for History Extra, the authors of Landmark: A History of Britain in 50 Buildings, a book celebrating some of the sites rescued by the Trust nominate their top 10 landmark buildings…
The Landmark Trust has, over the past 50 years, become a leading force in the protection of Britain’s heritage. The building preservation charity specialises in rescuing smaller historic buildings often given up as lost. Once restored, the buildings pay for their own upkeep by being let for amazing holidays in unique spaces and places.
The Landmark Trust’s buildings cover seven centuries of Britain’s history and every kind of human activity, whether scenes of high drama or everyday routine. Each year, the charity completes two or three new restoration projects. Its portfolio has now grown to nearly 200 buildings across England, Scotland, and Wales, including some of Britain’s most iconic structures: an eccentric 18th-century summer house in Scotland built in the shape of a pineapple; a quatrefoil tower in Suffolk built to keep out Napoleon; and a royal water tower at Sandringham. Here are some of our favourites…
Bath Tower, Gwynedd – part of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ in Wales
Bath Tower is one of eight defensive towers in the mighty town walls of Caernarfon, a fortified town overlooking the Menai Straits in northwest Wales. The great warrior king, Edward I (1239–1307) planned Caernarfon Castle (and the other nearby castles in what is today a World Heritage Site) in his search for a definitive solution to centuries of warring Welsh princes. The Plantagenets’ Norman systems of government and land tenure were clashing with the different traditions of the Celtic princedoms.
Matters came to a head in the 1260s, when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd (aka Gruffydd) shouldered his brothers aside and declared himself Prince of Wales. In December 1282, the English achieved decisive victory when they successfully lured Gruffydd into a trap and killed him at the battle of Orewin Bridge. The 10 stone castles built by Edward around the principality in the years that followed represent the pinnacle of English castle building – the will of a determined monarch mobilised national resources as the needs of defence found expression in architecture.
Caernarfon Castle was built from 1283, supervised by Master James of St George, a renowned mason and military engineer who had learnt his craft in the Savoy. Today we can only marvel at the dogged persistence of the medieval workmen who levelled platforms in the rock, and built dizzying heights with only wooden scaffolding and pulleys.
Cawood Castle, North Yorkshire – the site of Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall
Cawood Castle was once the palace of the archbishops of York, in a village 10 miles south of the city. The palace’s heyday was the 14th and 15th centuries, when prelates were at their most powerful – cardinals of Rome as well as archbishops of England. One such was John Kempe, made archbishop in 1426 and later cardinal. He celebrated by building the fine gatehouse that is today maintained by the Landmark Trust (the gatehouse is all that survives of Cawood Castle). It even sports a cardinal’s hat in its stonework.
All was to change in the 1530s when Henry VIII broke with Rome, and the gatehouse would become the scene of Thomas Wolsey’s famous downfall. The son of an Ipswich butcher and grazier [a person who rears or fattens cattle or sheep for market], Wolsey had risen spectacularly to become the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king. But Wolsey did not control Rome, and his inability to procure papal consent for Henry’s divorce with Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, led to the king’s disfavour.
Wolsey was at dinner on 4 November 1530 at Cawood Castle when the Earl of Northumberland entered his chamber declaring: “My lord, I arrest you of high treason”. The next day, the cardinal feebly mounted his mule and rode south under escort for London. But he would never arrive – he died at Leicester Abbey 25 days later (on 29 November).
Tixall Gatehouse, Staffordshire – where Mary, Queen of Scots’ plans unravelled
The Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, reached its conclusion at Tixall Gatehouse in Staffordshire, an Elizabethan confection adorned with busty angels and beaming knights. Mary brought much of her bad luck on herself; in 1586 she was being imprisoned at nearby Chartley Castle while Elizabeth dithered over her fate, and Protestant parliament’s exasperation mounted.
Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, was always going to outsmart Mary. His spies knew all about the plot being hatched by the idealistic young Catholic gentleman Anthony Babington, and the priest John Ballard. They roped in a local brewer and paid him to turn in the messages Mary hid in his kegs. In July 1586, Mary made the fatal error of supporting her cousin’s death in writing. She was taken off for a couple of days’ hunting on the estate of loyal Protestant Sir Walter Aston at Tixall, and was lodged in the fine gatehouse, blissfully unaware that Walsingham’s men were searching her chambers at Chartley.
The trap was sprung, and Mary soon knew it. She wept as she left Tixall Gatehouse. “I have nothing for you,” she told the assembled local beggars. “I am a beggar as well as you, all is taken from me”.
Old Campden House, Gloucestershire – a site of Jacobean opulence and Civil War destruction
Old Campden House was a prodigy house of its generation, built by Sir Baptist Hicks. Hicks was a mercer, who rose to prodigious wealth as much by his money-lending to the court of James I as by his merchant activities. A new man, Hicks acquired a prime plot in the pretty Cotswold town of Chipping Campden. Here, in around 1612, he built a great house to rival Hatfield House in its day, flanked by two charming banqueting houses (today cared for by the Landmark Trust).
The mansion surveyed a formal parterre [a garden constructed on a level surface, consisting of planting beds] and water gardens, no doubt stocked with all the new plant species the Tradescants [famous 17th-century plants hunters and gardeners to King Charles I] had amassed in far-flung lands.
Fast-forward 30 years and the activities of moneylenders like Hicks were no longer enough to keep the Stuart royal finances on track – parliament’s resentment at the imposition of royal prerogative and Laudian religion [reform movement within the Church of England, promulgated by Archbishop William Laud, an opponent of Puritanism, who stressed the vital role of the clergy in the spiritual life of the Church] had boiled over into civil war. Ironically (for Hicks’ sons were, predictably, royalists) it was a departing royalist garrison under the notorious Colonel Bard that set fire to the house, to prevent it falling into parliamentarian hands.
Today, just a jagged stump of this once great house remains, the bones of the garden still visible beneath the Cotswold turf. Safe in the Landmark Trust’s care, the east and west banqueting houses are as entertaining today as they were 400 years ago.
Princelet Street, London – a history of Huguenots and the building of Georgian London
The Great Fire of London in September 1666 was both a disaster and an opportunity for London. The reconstruction of the city brought new modes of building, led by the earls who planned new developments on their estates to the north and west of the city. Building plots were standardised and, copying the Earl of Southampton’s development of Bloomsbury in the 1660s, leased out at low rents for periods of 40–60 years to speculative builders.
The same system was also applied east of the city walls in Spitalfields, traditional haven for French Huguenot refugees who brought with them their silk weaving and other skills. One such development, in 1719, was Princelet Street – one of a disparate group of small investors’ building projects, all built to the standard 24-ft frontage we see in so many of London’s Georgian middling terraces.
The inhabitants of Princelet Street through the years reflect the richness of this eclectic part of London: French silk weavers were followed by an engraver, a jeweller, and a fruit-seller. Its walls carry the echoes of its past, and of the diligent Huguenot settlers who hung cages with singing birds outside their windows.
Auchinleck House, Ayrshire – the Anglo-Scottish union
One of the fiercest and most famous recorded arguments about Scotland’s union with England happened in 1773 in the huge, west-facing library at Auchinleck House in Ayrshire.
Auchinleck House was a fine Palladian mansion built between 1755 and 1760 by Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck, an Edinburgh lawyer. His son was the diarist James Boswell, a dilettante of whom Auchinleck mostly disapproved. In 1773 Boswell brought north his other ‘father figure’ and literary celebrity, Dr Samuel Johnson, for a tour of his homeland. Desperate to show off his ancestral home, he wanted the two older men to get on well – but their views were radically opposed.
Auchinleck was a Presbyterian who believed in the power of parliament to appoint kings, and fawned on the Hanoverian monarchy, while Johnson (and Boswell) flirted with Jacobinism and the High Church. Nevertheless, all was going well in the library until Lord Auchinleck brought out his tray of commemorative medals.
It included one of Oliver Cromwell. “They became exceedingly warm and violent,” recorded Boswell, “yet, I durst not interfere.” Even he, the conscientious diarist, drew a veil over the angry words spoken, and we rely on Sir Walter Scott for Lord Auchinleck’s killer blow. “God, Doctor!” he snapped, in his broad Scots dialect, “[Cromwell] gart kings ken they had a lith in their neck!” (He taught kings they had a joint in their neck – divine right or no, they were but men like everyone else).
Martello Tower, Suffolk – defence against Napoleon
In 1793, revolutionary France declared war on Britain, ushering in more than 20 years of warfare as Britain struggled to contain the expansionist ambitions of the new republic. In 1804, the threat intensified when Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself emperor and showed himself bent on European domination. Britain lay in his sights: its southern coast presented an invitingly soft underbelly, and in his confidence, Napoleon even struck the medals he planned to issue from London following his invasion.
In 1794, French forces for days held a small, round tower at Mortella in Corsica against the British navy. Major-General David Dundas observed and learned from this, and proposed a chain of similar, round, squat towers along England’s south-east coast to fend off French invasion. For some unknown reason, the only exception to the circular model was the most northerly tower at Aldeburgh, rescued by the Landmark Trust in the 1970s. This late example, built from 1808–12, is not round, but a defiant quatrefoil. A large central living area is surrounded by two sleeping spaces that accommodate four people.
When built, the Martello Tower was surrounded by the village of Slaughden, which has long since been lost to the sea. Today, it stands grimly alone on Aldeburgh’s shingle beach.
Beckford’s Tower, Somerset – Regency brio
William Beckford (1760–1844) was a figure who flouted convention. Born to vast wealth from the sugar plantations, he developed discerning literary and architectural tastes at an early age, as well as a penchant for wild parties and unsuitable affairs. He wrote the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), and was paymaster for Wyatt’s ill-fated Fonthill Abbey – a Gothic leviathan that collapsed in a heap of stonework in 1827. Wealth did not necessarily bring contentment. “Some people drink to forget their unhappiness,” wrote Beckford. “I do not drink. I build.”
In 1822, now aged 62, Beckford left draughty Fonthill for Lansdown Crescent in Bath. A few years later (sometime between 1825 and 1827) he built a Tuscan tower on the hillside above, overlooking the city and topped by a gilded belvedere resembling the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens. He made it his private museum – richly decorated rooms housed his collection of art and exquisite objets de vertu. Every day Beckford would ride up from the crescent below, accompanied by his dogs and a faithful dwarf servant, to contemplate his treasures.
Appleton Water Tower, Norfolk – improving water sanitation
Waterborne typhoid was a scourge of the Victorian age in city and countryside alike, and was believed to have caused the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved spouse, Albert, in December 1861. Ten years later, in November 1871, Victoria’s eldest son and heir, Albert Edward, fell ill in Scarborough, and doctors diagnosed typhoid fever. His life hung in the balance for several weeks, the anxious queen travelling north for the vigil to Sandringham – her son’s private and unofficial residence. Unlike his father, ‘Bertie’ recovered, and he vowed to ensure the water supply at Sandringham was safe.
To do this he employed Robert Rawlinson, an engineer who had made his name devising ingenious sanitation solutions for British troops during the Crimean War, and James Mansergh, who was then overseeing the provision of water from Wales to Birmingham. Bore holes were dug and a chalk spring on a ridge above the village of Appleton on the fringe of the estate was identified. A new pumping station was built to freshen and purify the water, and Rawlinson designed a splendid brick water tower 18 metres high to provide the requisite pressure to carry the supply across the estate. Italianate design and a picturesque stair turret disguise this utilitarian function.
The keeper of the pumping station lived on the ground floors, while stairs also gave access to a handsome prospect room, suitable even for royal visitors.
Anderton House, Devon – at home in the Modernist age
The Landmark Trust is no less keen to preserve good recent architecture than that of past centuries. One high-calibre Modernist house found its way into the portfolio in the early 2000s – the Grade II* Anderton House, built by Peter Aldington and John Craig in 1972. This house boasts clean, horizontal lines, plate glass walls, open plan living spaces and a roof that seems to float above its eaves. By using a frame and a tent-like roof, Aldington and Craig turned a small living room into an apparently endless space.
Yet for all its modernist form, the almost barn-like structure of the Anderton House represents one of the simplest forms of human shelter: its architects explicitly acknowledge their debt to the ancient form of Devon longhouses. For all the shock of the new, the proven forms of the past still have something to tell us, and we jettison them at our peril.
Anna Keay and Caroline Stanford are the authors of Landmark: A History of Britain in 50 Buildings (Frances Lincoln, September 2015).