Erddig is an opulent country house nestled in the rolling countryside just outside of Wrexham in Wales. The 17th century stately home has the honour of being one of Britain’s best according to readers of Radio Times and regularly wins accolades like “The UK’s favourite historic house”. The site is run by the National Trust whose glossy and lavishly illustrated website for the attraction bigs up its ‘impressive walled garden’ and invite you for tea and cake in Erddig’s endless manically manicured parkland.
Visiting in 1954, John Harris found a different Erddig.
That romantic and prohibited house, the untouchable among the great country houses, denied to the traveler; what was known of its condition was terrifying, and to the uninitiated it was abandoned, shuttered, and slowly shrinking due to mining subsidence.
As we approached down the lane we were confronted by neo-classical gate piers and an iron gate, slightly ajar. It might just as well have been closed, for the drive beyond was an impenetrable mess of brambles.
The gravel approach was thickly grassed over […] and the windows were dark with dirt, only the many broken panes standing out in the afternoon light.
The National Trust’s literature makes much of the fact that visiting the restored house is like walking into frozen time, offering the visitor to experience life as noble or servant in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. At Erddig, history is neatly packaged for leisurely consumption and a pleasant afternoon—but it’s an exclusionary narrative as Harris’s account tells us, washing away a vital part of its historic life.
What happened following 1945 was a continuum of two earlier crises that affected both the country house as a physical entity, and its way of life. The first serious threat to this world of landed interest was the great agricultural depression from the 1870s onwards.
The second crisis followed the Armistice in 1918. During that war death duties were imposed and the families of those who had died for their country felt their effect most keenly: it was not uncommon for the head of the family, his elder son, and even that son’s brother, all to have died on some foreign field. Despairing trustees simply could not cope with the multiple death duties—and so the houses came down.
With WWII looming other country houses were requisitioned by the government for repurposing as hospitals, schools and command centres. Their geographic remoteness to urban centres largely immunised them to bombing, making them attractive to war planners mobilising every resource possible for the war effort. Gardens became assault courses and Nissen huts scattered the hitherto unspoiled landscapes of the Southern English countryside.
These three factors—the two crises and wartime requisitioning—coalesced in the years after the war to leave hundreds of country houses derelict for John Harris to discover in his odyssey through the countryside as a young man.
In my nomadic travels I discovered a situation that had no parallel elsewhere in Europe: a country of deserted country houses, many in extremis, most in a surreal limbo awaiting their fate. They suffered from vandalism, smelt of decay and dry rot, exuded a sense of hopelessness. The implements of execution were not the sword or the rope, but the sledgehammer, pick-axe and ball-and-chain, and frequently explosives.
What follows is several years of rural exploration where the obstacle to access is more likely to be a five-mile walk than palisade fencing or roving security guards. Hall ventures through the countryside visiting country house after country house finding dilapidated architectural skeletons of once grandiose residences encrusted with dust and strangled by vegetation. Most of the houses by the time he finds them in the 1950s are in extremis, although many are in the throes of rigour mortis.
The intense wonder Harris felt exploring these houses isn’t really conveyed as well as it could have been because of the overwhelming application of the architectural lexicon he acquired later in life. Instead of concentrating on the visceral matrix of place, space and history he felt climbing through broken windows into derelict 18th century manors the site visit reports describe features and provide compartmentalised inventories of the contents of each house (usually art or fine furniture).
That’s a minor point and only marginally detracts from No Voice from the Hall’s importance as a historical account of an important period in the history of country houses in the United Kingdom. Harris’s book muddies the crystal-clear narrative offered at restored heritage sites and opens up the doors to question what gets chosen to preserve and who choses it? It’s also useful for thinking about the most valuable way of experiencing the past. For my money Harris learned more about the history of Erddig and its inhabitants wandering around while it was derelict in 1954 than anyone who’s visited the restored site.