Tilting at Windmills With the upgrading of his historic house to Grade I-listing, William Cash hopes he has finally defeated the menace of the windfarms threatening Shropshire
Tilting at Windmills
With the upgrading of his historic house to Grade I-listing, William Cash hopes he has finally defeated the menace of the windfarms threatening Shropshire
There was rather a scary photograph of me standing beside Upton Cressett in The Sunday Telegraph recently. I don’t normally look so angry or belligerent, but ever since the National Heritage List was first published online about a year ago, giving the impression that Upton Cressett Hall and Gatehouse was a ruin and unoccupied as a home, I have been furious about the level of misinformation on the list, which I wasn’t even aware of until the government put the listings system online.
For the past year I have been working closely with English Heritage — the government’s heritage protection body — to correct the record.
With fewer than 50 surviving 15th- or 16th-century gatehouses in the entire country — and fewer still with the main houses still attached — it would seem obvious that Upton Cressett’s ‘spectacular’ (Country Life) turreted Elizabethan gatehouse, which was described by Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Houses as an ‘Elizabethan gem’, should be given the correct level of statutory protection that its exceptional architecture deserves.
Secondly, the previous 1951 listing was woefully inaccurate in many regards, in particular the dating of the Great Hall and the architecture of the main medieval house. As Sir Nikolaus Pevsner said in his postwar Buildings of England entry for Upton Cressett, the house deserves more ‘serious study’ — and that is exactly what English Heritage has been doing over the past eight months.
The Church of St Michael has stood beside the Hall since the 12th century. It is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) and is open every day of the year with free entry. When the regional director of the CCT came to visit the church recently, she could not believe that St Michael’s was only Grade II. Well, not any more.
THE TRIGGER FOR my mission to get English Heritage to reassess the entire hamlet of Upton Cressett was a planning ‘scoping report’ by a wind-power developer called Sharenergy, in conjunction with a local farmer, who had chosen (based on a desktop survey and never having bothered to visit us) the ancient hamlet of Upton Cressett as a potential site for an industrial wind farm which would ruin the entire historic setting.
Following a year of correspondence and field site inspections and meetings at Upton Cressett with senior members of English Heritage’s designations team, I was delighted to be informed in November that Upton Cressett Hall and Gatehouse — which won last year’s Hudson’s Heritage Award for Best Hidden Gem heritage destination in the UK — has now been awarded Grade I status.
The 12th-century Norman church of St Michael, adjacent to Upton Cressett Hall, has also been upgraded to Grade I status, which now makes the historic setting around the intimately connected group of buildings at the settlement of Upton Cressett one of the most important and heavily protected heritage sites in the Midlands.
We now have three Grade I-listed buildings and three Scheduled Ancient Monuments at the settlement of Upton Cressett, within a radius of less than a mile. I hope this new statutory designation sends out a clear government-endorsed message that Upton Cressett is one of Shropshire’s special heritage assets and deserves full protection so the asset can be enjoyed by both tourists visiting Shropshire and the local community.
THERE ARE APPROXIMATELY 500,000 buildings on the National Heritage List, of which 2.5 per cent are listed Grade I; of these, some 45 per cent are churches, meaning only a tiny number of listed buildings are Grade I houses. Upton Cressett is very much lived in as a family home, and we enjoy opening to the public so that others can also enjoy the extraordinarily rich history of the place.
Grade I is defined as having ‘exceptional architectural merit’. English Heritage states that achieving Grade I status on the National Heritage list is to be regarded with exceptional importance in the planning process: ‘Designation allows us to protect and celebrate England’s historic buildings, monuments, parks, gardens, battlefields and wreck sites, by highlighting their special interest in a national context. It identifies an asset or site as having significance within the historic environment before any planning stage that may decide its future.’
Backed up by a community of over 300 local supporters from our Stop Bridgnorth Wind Farm campaign group, of which I am co-chairman with Dr Chris Douglas of Grade I Morville Hall, and supported by local MP Philip Dunne, I sincerely hope that this heightened protection will be the end of the saga which has bitterly divided the Shropshire Hills community around Morville and Bridgnorth, and that soon the community of Upton Cressett and Criddon — where the proposed wind farm was to be located, right in the middle of the old historic Upton Park — can return to harmony.
IN ITS OFFICIAL designation notification letter to me, English Heritage acknowledged that the previous 1951 listing was in need of updating as it erroneously gave the impression that the Hall and Gatehouse were unoccupied and ‘dilapidated’. There were also errors about the importance of the architecture of the Hall and Gatehouse, now been rectified by tests which date the Great Hall roof structures to between 1420 and 1440.
It is a statutory and legal requirement that English Heritage must be consulted with regards to any planning application relating to the historic setting of a Grade II* building or listed historic park. But English Heritage was not consulted because the developers simply chose to ignore the existence of Upton Cressett Hall, Gatehouse and Norman church.
THERE IS ALSO an interesting royal footnote to the saving of Upton Cressett and its Norman church — whether it be from industrial developers, local farmers unappreciative of the rich history and heritage surrounding their land, thieves stealing the exceptional panelling and woodcarvings in the Sixties or just the building suffering from weather and sheer neglect.
When the beautiful Norman church of St Michael was given only a Grade II listing in 1951, the church was an overgrown wreck with many features hidden from view.
The listings officer was also not aware of the fine 12th-century medieval frescoes in the church, the exceptional quality of the Norman chancel arch or the Norman font, which was reportedly was transported to Gordonstoun school in the Sixties when HRH Prince Charles was there, apparently because the Duke of Edinburgh wanted the young prince to be surrounded by beautiful objects reflecting England’s ancient history.
At the time, the Church of St Michael was derelict and anybody could have stolen the Cressett brass or the Norman font, so it was just as well that the Redundant Churches Fund — as it was then called — decided to move the font and brass and other objects such as the stained glass to other locations for (temporary) safekeeping.
It is not known who suggested the Upton Cressett font from St Michael’s as a suitable object to be moved to Gordonstoun, but it is very likely to have been Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, the journalist, scholar and church conservationist who set up, in the Fifties, the Friends of Friendless Churches with himself as chairman.
This organisation was the result of a falling-out between Bulmer-Thomas and the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, which he had been closely involved in setting up and gaining initial government funding to save the worrying number of historic churches that were being demolished. Bulmer-Thomas’s new body saved at least seventeen churches from further ruin or the wrecking ball.
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