I love decay. Houses and gardens are not necessarily meant to last forever – whatever their creators might think – and every so often decisions have to be made about whether to preserve, restore, recreate or perhaps just to allow to slide gently into oblivion. Sometimes of course the reason for ruin is sudden and unexpected. Fire has probably caused as much damage to our heritage as greed or neglect. A gutted house can evoke many emotions and reactions – and raises many questions. Sometimes as at Castle Howard or Uppark, what is at stake is so important historically or architecturally that it is difficult not to begin rebuilding immediately.
Elsewhere the destruction is too complete, and the money, need or concern is lacking. That’s not always a disaster: Witley Court in Worcestershire is now an elegant and evocative ruin. But in what one might call ‘lesser’ houses the choice is not so obvious.
One such house is Copped Hall, a mid-Georgian house, in Essex. The Palladian mansion was built between 1752 and 1758 for John Conyers as a replacement for an earlier Elizabethan house. It was later ‘improved’ by James Wyatt and Capability Brown probably helped redesign the gardens. Bought in 1867 by a railway magnate he and his family extended the house several times and in 1887 commissioned Charles Eamer Kempe, better known as a designer of stained glass, to build a great conservatory, and make an extensive new garden to the west of the mansion, with temples, grand flights of steps, a parterre, gates, fountains and statuary.
In its heyday the gardens required no less than 31 gardeners to look after them. Sadly in 1917 there was a massive fire which burned out the main 18thc block, and although the gardens continued to be maintained the house was never rebuilt. The estate was sold off in 1952, and whatever remained of value remained inside the ruin and the gardens was removed and sold.
The original entry gates and railings are thought to have ended up in America – the gates themselves and the gateposts have already turned up in Washington – but there is no trace of the obelisks or railings. If you fancy yourself as an amateur sleuth, then a reward of $1,000 is on offer for anyone who can track down them down.
The splendid conservatory or Wintergarden was dynamited as late 1960. As a final blow the M25 was driven through a corner of the grounds, although luckily not so close as to be over-intrusive. Nevertheless total demolition, probably followed by housing development seemed the likely outcome.
Yet that was not to be. From 1986-1995 a campaign was successfully fought by a committee comprised of representatives of local conservation societies against repeated large-scale aggressive development proposals for the mansion and parkland. The first success came in 1992 when the parkland was bought by the Conservators of Epping Forest (part of the Corporation of London). Three years later, in 1995, the vandalised and overgrown mansion, outbuildings and gardens were acquired by the Copped Hall Trust, and in 1999 they were also able to acquire the 4 acre kitchen garden.
The task facing them must have been daunting, to put it mildly. But with the aid of a large Friends group the Trust has made enormous progress towards it aim of careful restoration of the buildings and gardens and putting them to educational, cultural and community use.
Essential structural repairs and work to the roof and flooring have been followed by restoration of the stables and racquets court and one of the glasshouses in the now once again very productive kitchen garden. Much of the garden has been cleared of invasive vegetation, replacement trees have been planted and the lawns re-seeded.
There are regular opportunities to visit the gardens or take a guided walk around the mansion and gardens and see progress for yourself. And of course, when you’ve finished almost as good, you can enjoy some tea and homemade cake and contemplate the hard work that the Trust and its volunteers have put in. It might even convince you to sign up to give Copped Hall a hand yourself!
Further information about Copped Hall can be found at