Imagine a nightmare. You are old and infirm, and stuck in a decrepit Tudor manor house that is masquerading as a nursing home. The roof leaks. The top floor is abandoned, except by pigeons and the chickens that scratch around up there with the rats. The cellars are hideous, used to keep dogs, and never cleaned. A man comes to inspect the roof. He won’t access the roof from inside the house because of the stench. He prefers to ascend the tall rickety ladder fixed to the wall. In the arctic winter of 1963 the electricity is cut off. Your fellow residents freeze to death.
When Helen Roberts moved to Wotton-under-Edge in 1982 she was pleased to discover a National Trust property just at the top of the hill, but was disappointed to find Newark Park closed and somewhat worse for wear. She managed to gain access to a large archive of correspondence about the house, dating from 1943 when the National Trust was offered it. The story that Helen discovered was the subject of the January Zoom meeting of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.
It was not until 1949, after the house had suffered a decade of neglect caused by the war, that the National Trust took over the estate. Their primary interest was the surrounding landscape. They thought at the time that the house was of little value, and tried unsuccessfully to lease it as a venue for walking holidays. Due to the lack of funds a full repairing lease was necessary, whereby the unlucky tenant would be responsible for repair and upkeep. After many more months of lying empty a couple agreed to take on the lease, and to turn the house into a nursing home.
So began the sordid nightmare of failed tenancies, unpaid rents, neglected repairs, piles of complaints from neighbours as one tenant after another failed to run the nursing home. It was condemned by the County Council but they failed to close it. The last tenant finally threw in the towel in 1968. A National Trust architect inspected the house and reported that it was likely to fall down within 2 years. It was suggested that the remains of the roof should be removed and the house be left to decay into a romantic ruin.
As befits a romantic ruin, a knight in shining armour galloped up one day in 1971 in the shape of American architect Robert Parsons. He fell in love not with an incarcerated damsel, but with the house itself. He signed the lease and spent the rest of his life, and a large proportion of his wealth, restoring the house and estate to their former Tudor and Georgian glories. So when you visit in early spring to stroll down through the slumbering woods and marvel at the annual renaissance of snowdrops and daffodils, look up at that full-square Tudor silhouette proudly surveying its beautiful garden below and the spectacular view of the Severn Valley beyond, and consider how close it came to disappearing forever, and yet now looks well set for another 470 years.
Many thanks to Helen for the fascinating talk, a truly ‘Horrible History’, albeit with a happy ending.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.