Castles for Cows…

Detail from “Portraits of two extraordinary oxen, the property of the Earl of Powis,” by James Ward,  1814, Yale Center for British Art,  and just look at where the oxen are living!

The recent post on chickens and their houses provoked a lot interest and laughs and since many of the sites which had eccentric or extravagant buildings for poultry also had them for other domestic or farmyard beasts  I thought I’d follow it up with looking at some of the more unusual ways of housing cows.  You might have thought it was all pretty basic stuff but even the greatest architects turned their hand to the subject, especially in the late 18thc when asked to design model farms as part of an estate.

A rustic cowshed at Woolbeding, Nr Midhurst, by George Stanley Repton, 1800, RIBA Library

And if you couldn’t afford Robert Adam, John Soane, Jeffrey Wyattville or even Humphry Repton’s son, George,  to design a château for your cattle then  there were plenty of pattern books available with suitable designs  if you wanted to build your own.

And why all this fuss?  After all we’re only talking about cows.  We’re used nowadays to intensive breeding programmes to develop particular blood lines and qualities, but this had started in the 18thc as part of the Agricultural Revolution. It became almost an obsession to many landowners with several beasts becoming famous, touring the country and  having their portraits painted. And the top quality desired then was size.

The Newbus Ox, Thomas Weaver, 1812, Yale Centre for British Art

The population of Britain rose dramatically during the 18thc from around an estimated  5 million in 1700 to  nearly 8 million by the time of the first official census in 1801 [Wrigley and Schofield, The Population History of England 1981]. The Agricultural Revolution that took place ensured that food production kept up with rising demand.  The  model farm was one way both of demonstrating an understanding of the latest agricultural techniques and innovations but also of the owners acceptance of the Arcadian principle of dulce et utile – that the useful could also be beautiful.  Aesthetics on the model farm was as important as efficiency, and new farm buildings had to be elegant or eye-catching as well as practical.  Their real use was often disguised to fit into  the ideal of  an estate being a single ordered and cultivated set-piece landscape.  And my goodness did some owners go to great lengths to disguise the workings of their farms!

William Kent’s Cow Castle photo by Nat Chard,


One of the greatest gardens in England is Rousham in Oxfordshire, where first Charles Bridgeman and then William Kent transformed the landscape into an almost perfect design. But while we’re used to seeing images of the vale of Venus, or the rill running through the woods, its not somewhere we probably associate with cows. Nor is William Kent usually associated with designing cow sheds. But he did at Rousham.  It is a sturdy castellated building which  stands at the edge of a  field, well away it must be admitted from the part of the grounds usually visited, although the direction is marked by a pair of urns.

Built in the late 1730s it is a significant and very early example of a ferme ornee and these days still serves as a shelter for a herd of rare cattle.  On one side the arched alcove in its tower contains a seat from which to take in the view across the fields outside the garden wall.  It’s listed by Historic England as Grade 2*.

from Lucinda Lambton, Beastly Buildings

The Cottrell-Dormer family who own Rousham must always have had a soft spot for cows because in 1873 they acquired a pair of shorthorn cattle, and one of which became well known for chasing the locals. Named Faustina Gwynne her portrait apparently hangs in the house and when she died a memorial was erected in her memory.  So I thought she must be famous but no – a search of the internet revealed only that, according to the Dominion Short-Horn Breeders Assocation Handbook for 1888 her descendants – rejoicing in such names as Flossy, Fanny, Flora – ended up as valued breeding stock in Canada.  But her horns remain at Rousham!

Castle Barn at Badminton, still in agricultural use. © Alan Terrill 2007

Far far grander than  Kent’s castellated cattle shelter is the cowshed built by Thomas Wright, the mathematician, astronomer turned architect and garden designer for the Dukes of Beaufort at Badminton.  Wright worked at Badminton for 36 years designing a whole collection  of fancifully castellated and rustic buildings including Castle Barn.   This was built around 1748 in a solid and rather austere battlemented Gothic style and forms what Lucinda Lambton calls  “a thundering citadel”.  The cows lived in the central section and the two outer towers were dovecotes with brick nesting boxes inside. Given its scale it’s not surprising  that the complex can be seen from  a mile away across the fields!  For more information see Eileen Harris’s article in Country LIfe, 9 September 1971]

Fort Putnam, nr Penrith ©Simon Ledingham 2004

An equally militaristic home for cows was built for the 11th Duke of Norfolk on his  Greystoke Castle estate in Cumberland.  The Duke was a prominent Whig and a supporter of the “rebels” in the American War of Independence. To annoy his neighbour, the earl of Lonsdale, a prominent Tory the Duke built 3 folly farmhouses with names associated with the American cause. There was Bunker Hill, Jefferson and Fort Putnam named for  a renowned American army officer.

Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk (‘A natural crop – alias- a Norfolk dumpling’), by James Gillray 1791, NPG

The Duke, who was a larger – and smellier- than life eccentric probably acted as his own architect in best aristocratic tradition.  Although “possessed of much activity” he was described by a contemporary as  “cast in the coarsest mould”, “destitute of grace or dignity” and easily “mistaken for a grazier or butcher.” Frequently drunk “his servants were accustomed to prevail themselves of his fits of intoxication for the purpose of washing him…nor did he change his linen more frequently than he washed himself.” [Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel Wraxall] So maybe he felt a lot of sympathy with his cattle. He certainly provided them with a grand home.

The screen wall at Fort Putnam from Lucinda Lambton Beastly Buildings

At Fort Putnam the cows were protected by massive battlemented sandstone walls that surrounded a courtyard, with an additional screen wall topped with balls or coronets. The various farm buildings are all inside, leaning against up against the walls and sadly the architecture  isn’t as anywhere near as impressive as the walls themselves – but then maybe the cows, like the Duke, weren’t that fussy. The dairy is now available for holiday lets. [See Barbara Jones, Follies & Grottoes, 1974, pp.303-4; Country Life, 30 June 1983, pp.1796-1800] 


Further north still in the late 1770s the 10th Earl of Cassilis commissioned Robert Adam to plan a model Home Farm for the  Culzean Castle estate. It was part of his scheme to transform a rather gloomy Scottish castle into a grand and fashionable ‘modern’ residence, but also to show the earl’s wish to ‘improve’ the agriculture on his land and make his estate pay its way.   His farm manager contributed to  Present State of Husbandry in Scotland by Andrew Wight in 1778 saying: “My chief design at present is only to put the land into a proper condition for a more perfect system of husbandry; but several things are wanting before that can be completely carried on.  I have not a proper farm-yard, nor a house or shed for feeding cattle, or for the conveniency of raising near so much dung as might be made” but he was optimnistic as  “Lord Cassillis has an extensive and very commodious plan of offices, which he intends to build soon…”

The plan was Adam’s largest single body of work, and a clifftop grouping that with the outstanding ornamental landscape of its estate, is, according to Scottish Heritage  “the epitome of the Picturesque movement in Scotland”.

Adam’s plan for Home Far, redrawn by Philip Judge and taken from Susanna Martin’s The English Model Farm, 2002.

Adam’s farm design is  highly original. Again built in   local sandstones of various colours and in mock baronial style the whole complex resembles an angular ‘cartwheel’.  There is a central courtyard formed by low buildings with open arched bays, linked at the corners by impressive entrance arches which only lack portcullises to make them mini-castle gatehouses.

Outside the courtyard there are four much larger buildings standing  at right angles to the walls.  Unsurprisingly the  exterior with its turrets and stepped gables  are more striking than the functional  interior.  Its architecture may have complemented the castle outside but it was  highly functional and ‘modern’ at the same time.


This may not have been the full extent of Adam’s plans as there are a series of drawings showing  the whole complex  surrounded by  a further  octagonal fenced enclosure, although  there is no evidence that this was ever built.

In the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland since 1945 the Home Farm was completely restored between 1971-and 1973, winning the European Architectural Heritage Award. It now forms the centrepiece of the Culzean Country Park.

If you want to know more there  is a detailed history of the gardens at Culzean which includes an account of the Home Farm,  by Debbie Jackson, written for her M.Litt at St Andrew’s University in 2000.

Soane’s designs for a cowhouse at Burn Hall, 1783

But Adam was by no means the only great architect to design cowsheds. Some of his drawings for Culzean’s farm were acquired by John Soane, and in fact one of Soane’s own first published designs was for a dairy [but I’m saving that for a separate post].

He drew plans and designs for house and farm, including a cowhouse at Burn Hall in County Durham. The house was never constructed because the owner bought Piercefield in Monmouthshire instead BUT  the cow house was built  and apparently still exists although I cannot find a photo of it.   The design is related to the earlier farmyard that Soane designed, while working in Henry Holland’s office, for  Cadland in Hampshire.

detail from Soane’s designs for the Cadland farm, 1777. Sir John Soane Museum

At Port Eliot in Cornwall Soane carried out extensive alterations to the estate for the second Lord Elliott in 1804 which included building a simple cowshed.  But he had developed his style since the earlier examples, and of course nothing Soane turned his hand to was simply that simple.

Soane’s cow shed in better days

It might look basic  but in reality it was quite sophisticated technically. What looks like a frieze at the top of the wall is actually a ventilation system, with vents that open and close by  pulling a knob to slide a panel across. Unfortunately the building is in very poor state now, despite being Grade 2* listed, and has been put on the Historic England Heritage at risk register.

When Soane got the Port Eliot job he put Humphry Repton’s nose out of joint. Repton and his son John Adey Repton had drawn up a grand Gothic architectural scheme  in one of his familiar Red Books.  Unfortunately it was probably too expensive for Lord Eliot and he turned to Soane to provide an alternative scheme which was accepted.  Repton later wrote “my beautiful plan for Port Eliot…my design for bringing together the house and the Abbey did not suit the fancy of my fanciful friend [Soane] (who knows but little about Gothic) so the plan was totally changed.”  Or just maybe Eliot chose Soane over Repton because Humphry didn’t include a Gothic cowshed?

A series of grand facades “to place before disagreeable objects.” from Timothy Lightoler, The gentleman and farmer’s architect, 1762

But lesser mortals could always turn to pattern books for ideas. Of course the interior plans  of these buildings were fairly similar and the differences merely came because they’d been given fancy facades, as in Timothy Lightoler’s designs above, which were to disguise the buildings, including a cow shed, below.


These included every architectural style but mock castles, classical temples and the rustic seem to be most popular. John Plaw was another great exponent of this conceit and I’ll return to him and his work in a future post, but I’ll leave you with a couple of his baronial cowsheds to show what palatial lodgings Georgian cattle could have had if they were lucky!












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