Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Magic and Mystery of the Alton Towers stately home...

The aesthetic vision and ambition of vast landed estates, marked by the fatal influence of material gain and greed, worldly avarice and human vanity, spiritual concerns and pettier sentimental interests, rights of succession and duties of separation are all laid out in the grandiose ruins of Alton Towers. Although the Alton estate is above all known for its state-of-the art theme park, the grounds and country house which act as its backdrop come into their own during a visit to the site, as well they should...
We visited Alton Towers in the summer, purely to meet a roller-coaster addict's need for an extreme fix. (not mine). In spite of a vague notion of Alton Towers as a grand country pile perhaps worth seeing, the main attraction of the place seemed to be the attraction park itself, with its deadly rides and ghostly legends. This was certainly the case for the children, and on that level Alton Towers certainly delivered! It really was a great experience to be fully recommended and I am not at all surprised that it is one the most popular UK theme parks! The very names of the breath-taking rides set the tone; Nemesis, Oblivion, Air,  and the creepy Hex... as does the promotional music of the park, Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. However, for me at least, the actual park was even more atmospheric, and left a lasting impression especially as I was (and still am) on a Gothic streak... How I would have loved to take photos of the grounds and ruins at dusk, or swathed in mysterious, menacing mist! Well, that opportunity certainly didn't arise, but I really did want to understand how such a grandiose edifice could have been reduced to its present state in such a relatively short space of time, without the intervention of fire, natural catastrophe or war... In spite of explanations to the causes of the house's dilapidated state, the visit left me increasingly mystified as to how such a demise could have been allowed to happen.

In fact Alton Towers was not some magnificently over-blown Gothic showpiece simply dating back to the 19th century, the Staffordshire trophy home of a Victorian eccentric. Indeed, its history goes back far further in time, and it was the honorable seat to not one, but a whole succession of Earls of Shrewsbury. 

The Oriental Gardens that were so controversial in the mid 1800s due to their aesthetic daring were set on a former Iron Age battle site called the Slain Hollow. Later refortified with a castle following the Norman Conquest, by the 12th century the site had been passed onto the knight Bertram de Verdun in recognition of his services in the Crusades. Through subsequent marriages, the estate made its way into the Talbot family. The first Earl of Shrewsbury fought for Henry V and Sir John Talbot become the second created Earl of Shrewsbury in 1442. 

From the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th, the former castle was used as a hunting lodge, and while its structure was modified accordingly, it still bore the original tower features, visible even today. Called Alerton, an old form of the name Alton, the lodge served as the Talbot family residence over the summer months, while the main home remained Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire. From 1811 the status and form of the estate changed considerably. Perhaps through a desire to match or outshine the Gothic Revival stately home of Fonthill Abbey, built by James Wyatt in 1795, the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury wished to bring about extensive changes to Alton Abbey, as it was now referred to, even if the lodge had no specific religious history or function in itself. This new title endowed the stately home with great sobriety, and perhaps enabled the Talbots to demonstrate their importance as one of the leading Catholic families in the region since as such they were not allowed to take an active role in public life. 

Under the 15th Earl, Charles Talbot, Alton Abbey took on a Romantic appearance, based on a largely asymmetrical design giving rise to organic, sometimes eccentric detail that reflected the aesthetic whims of its patron. The interior structure emphasized the succession of rooms, leading onto each other as architects redeveloped and elaborated the initial lodge building. An entrance and banquet hall were created to welcome and duly impress visitors, as were drawing and dining rooms, gallery, chapel, conservatory and library... Through such an extensive programme, it was hardly surprising that Alton Abbey ended up double the size of the relatively modest hunting lodge it had been. Having attained his objective concerning the house, Charles Talbot moved his family permanently to Alton Abbey in 1814, and then set about transforming the Alton grounds themselves. Even without the ambitious landscaping that was subsequently undertaken, Alton Abbey would have been a most impressive Gothic country house in its own right, but the work on the gardens set the Alton estate in an unparalleled position in the region. 

The grounds incorporated a collection of gardens and themes - often to the frustration of the artists consulted for its conception. The 15th Earl would ask for advice, only to then reject it in order to follow his own particular vision. This vision was certainly ambitious and far-seeing, for Charles Talbot set out a programme that could only reach full realisation after his death. Under his command, the unassuming Alton farmland set in a dry valley would become one of Britain's largest stately home gardens, centred around exotic water features and extensive parkland of impressive trees and shrubbery. The lakes and water courses were dug by hand to hold water that had been diverted from a spring several kilometres away, whilst thousands of trees were planted to create the carefully crafted landscape we see today. An integral part of the whole scheme was the use of garden buildings and constructions to compliment the theme of each garden.

 The Gothic Prospect tower, Gothic Flag Tower, Pagoda Fountain, Greek Choragic Monument, mini Matterhorn, tribute to Stonehenge and the conservatories all set a particular tone and offered visitors unique views and a totally new experience. 

However, not all the reactions to the work were positive. While the magic of the harp music flowing down across the valley gardens from the specifically-built Swiss Cottage was easily appreciated, other features were less so. 

The extensive use of cast iron in the construction of many of these was not received with enthusiasm, especially in a landscape as yet lacking the folliage and trees that would later 'clothe' it. The harmony of the whole was thought by many to be spoilt by the introduction of these ostentatious follies. This seems ironic today since these same elements give the gardens their majestic stance while the house itself has fallen into disrepair. A bust of the 15th Earl of Shrewsbury looks over the grounds, from the pillared Choragic structure bearing the inscription "He made the dessert smile"... 

After Charles' death in 1827, the title was handed down to a nephew, John Talbot, the subsequent 16th Earl of Shrewsbury. It was he who not only terminated the work his uncle had undertaken, but also pursued extensive ideas based on his own ideals and interests. Indeed, following the destruction of the family residence of Heythrop by fire in 1831, Alton Abbey became the principal home. It was at this stage that the Earl changed the name of his new official residence to the one we know today; Alton Towers. Furnishing the new family home with all that could be salvaged from Heythrop, the Earl commenced extension work so that Alton Towers could accommodate the requirements of family life, and meet aesthetic and social needs. Most of the early stages of this work were carried out by the architect Thomas Fradgeley, who had been working on the house since 1820. The work assumed another dimension with the arrival of A.W.N. Pugin in 1837, the architect later associated with the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster. 

As the head of a family, the 16th Earl had to ensure that the home offered wife and children a comfortable existence worthy of their social position and aspirations. Initially extra rooms were added on to existing ones, and then additional floors were built, along with practical extensions such as cellars and vaults to facilitate the running of the house. Many rooms were converted for other uses, leading to the construction of ever-more impressive spaces within the house. In 1829 the former Armoury with its imposing tower, was transformed to become the main entrance of the house, with steps leading up to the grand door flanked by heraldic Talbot dogs. The vaulted Octagon, constructed in 1824, became a central point from which a series of rooms ran, radiating out like its central column feature. The alignment of such rooms created an enfilade effect that emphasized the grandeur of the whole. Indeed, the Octagon was attached to the Armoury by a large picture gallery. In this way visitors would be exposed to the grandeurs of the house, with its impressive collection of art and arms on their arrival, while the long Conservatory would lead to the state apartments. The original entrance was to be turned into the magnificent Banqueting Hall, its floor level raised and its ceiling lavishly decorated in gilt and painted wood. From the centre of this ceiling hung an imposing brass chandelier, now to be seen in the Houses of Parliament, leaving only its vast chain at Alton today.

 The family emblems and heraldry were represented in the carved fireplaces, and these were again mirrored in the beautiful Oriel stained glass window that looks onto the grounds from the Northern façade. Sweeping views of the Alton grounds were also offered visitors from the Plate Glass Drawing Room which had been created on the transformation of the first Chapel. Elsewhere a new library, state apartments , music rooms, bedrooms and boudoirs were added with such names as the Chintz Bedroom, the Arragon Room, the Doria Suite, and the Pugin Rooms. Several of these were decorated with the star motive replicated in the Star Garden and Fountain. 

The magnificent Talbot Gallery enclosed this garden and was dominated by a tower that recalled that of the Entrance Hall. Lit solely via glass panels set in cast-iron bracketed frames in the ceiling, the gallery was impressive in size and stature with its Gothic stone fireplaces. Engravings and photos exist of this gallery, and one can only imagine it in all its glory, illuminated at night by huge brass and gilt chandeliers. Indeed little more remains of the gallery or many of the other truly breath-taking rooms from the Alton Towers of the mid-19th century. It is difficult to equate these images of its lavish decoration then with the reality that confronts us today, let alone understand how this fall from grace could have happened in such a relatively short space of time... 

It is hardly surprising that the Alton home doubled in size under the 16th Earl nor that its realization demanded great sums of money (£1.2 million a year) which also doubled over the years. Wishing to create the largest private chapel in the country within Alton Towers itself, the Earl sought to demonstrate his religious beliefs and also reflect these spiritual convictions through the aesthetics of this stately home as a whole. As the restriction on Catholics slackened, the Gothic Revival style took precedence in much of the architecture of the time; the only 'Christian' form of architecture according to the architect Pugin. With these aesthetic and religious affinities - both Pugin and the Earl of Shrewsbury being of Catholic faith - it was perhaps to be expected that they would share the same vision for Alton Towers. Alongside his Alton Towers project 'Good Earl John' was also the sponsor to the building of many other Catholic chapels in the Midlands and proved to be one of Pugin's greatest patrons. For the architect, Alton Towers offered the opportunity to elaborate a Gothic style that would be highly influential, not just in architectural structure but in all aspects of interior decoration too. 

Although much structural work had already been completed before Pugin's intervention from 1837, the architect chose to work around the existing forms rather than simply impose a new structure by destroying these. In this manner, his decorative work was able to neutralize and harmonize forms that were, for him at least, discordant and went against his aesthetic notion of 'True Principles'. Gothic details of vaulted ceilings, intricate wood carvings, panels and doors bearing fine tracery and linear features unified the vast expanses of Alton Towers in an organic style as did the richly ornate tiles, wallpaper and flooring. In the renovated chapel this stylistic approach was fully developed so that Gothic aesthetics combined the spiritual and the more earthly. An elevated decorated screen - a reredos - was included over the altar bearing scenes of the Saints with the Earl and his wife dressed in Medieval clothing to set a suitable Gothic tone. A beautifully carved altar screen also featured in the chapel, and its style was replicated in the tall panels that decorated the walls beneath the cast-iron roof trusses in the form of angels beneath a stunning celestial ceiling.

Just as impressive as this ascent to reach the heights of aesthetics and spirituality, was the subsequent free fall to ruin of this magnificent creation. Both the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury and Pugin, mastermind behind the realisation of Alton Towers, died within months of each other in 1852. Their loss seemed to set in motion a sequence of events and ironic twists of fate that would unfurl over the following decades, right into the 20th century. The demise of Alton Towers and those who occupied its spaces seemed to be assured by some kind of malevolent curse - a hex indeed. Pugin had died at the age of 40 after a stay in the notorious mental asylum Bedlam, due to a nervous breakdown triggered by overwork and perhaps the consequences of syphilis contracted in youth. The Earl, John Talbot, died overseas of malaria and the title and the estate were duly inherited by his young cousin Bertram, who himself died just four years later, in 1856 aged only 24. 

Despite the fact that the 17th Earl shared his uncle's desire to uphold the building of Catholic churches and likewise the completion of Alton Towers, his death cut short these projects. Pugin's son had been taken on to continue his father's work with the same vision, but the mission was to remain incomplete. As the 17th Earl, Bertram, left no direct heir, the senior line of the Talbot family came to an end. In accordance with Earl John's wish that the earldom and family home remain in the Catholic line, Bertram ensured that the Duke of Norfolk was the sole beneficiary of his will. 

Here again, fate dealt a cruel blow to Alton Towers, this time 'from the inside'. Indeed, a distant cousin of the Earl contested the succession specified in the will, and proclaimed himself the rightful heir. Following ligitation, Henry Chetwynd-Talbot became the 18th Earl of Shrewsbury in 1858 and the lawful owner of the Alton Towers house and gardens in 1860. This ownership, did not, however, extend to the contents of the stately home which meant that these were sold off at auction by executors in 1857. Over the course of five weeks, huge sales stripped the magnificent house of the furnishings and trappings that had been so meticulously designed, collected and arranged by the 16th Earl. 

The scale of the celebration procession to the Alton Towers to mark the 18th Earl's succession did little to hide the fact that he may well have acquired a grand home and title, but had nevertheless lost vast sums of money on legal costs in the process and had limited means to furnish this empty trophy. As Ingestre Hall was his principal residence, this did not have an immediate impact on his life. 

His attempts to refurbish Alton Towers gave a rather eclectic result as furniture and furnishings were brought together from a basic need to fill out the rooms, rather than a desire to recreate a glorious aesthetic harmony. Whereas the 16th Earl had opened up the grounds to the public to show off the Alton estate, under the 18th Earl the same move was largely financially-motivated. Henry Chetwynd-Talbot simply needed to raise money to maintain the showpiece he had fought for, but he set off a trend that was developed further by his successor, the 20th Earl of Shrewsbury, Charles Henry Talbot. 

Confronted with the same old constraints, the 20th Earl of Shrewsbury also needed access to ready cash since all his wealth was tied up in a stately home that consumed a large part of the financial resources he possessed. During the 1890s summer fêtes were held in the resplendent Alton grounds, animated by firework displays, balloon demonstrations, clowns shows and various exhibitions. In this way the activities and entertainment set in this impressive backdrop became a key attraction and duly drew in huge crowds. However, the Alton estate was not to be Charles Henry Talbot's sole interest, and nor was his wife... In 1896 the Earl and the Countess separated, and whilst he left for the family home of Ingestre Hall, she remained at Alton Towers. The Earl had promised to give his ex-wife an allowance, but whenever he did honour this agreement, the money never met her requirements and certainly could never assure the upkeep of such a vast home. 

As Alton Towers entered a period of steady decay and decline, the 20th Earl involved himself in other business concerns - notably the launching of the Talbot motor company at the turn of the century. Alton Towers no longer seemed to have any real hold on him, except as an onerous charge and so the 20th Earl decided to sell off most of the estate by auction in 1918 and later sold the house itself in 1924. After almost seven hundred years Alton Towers was no longer in the possession of the Talbot family, or linked to the Catholic faith. Now owned by a group of local businessmen under the name of Alton Towers Limited, the house lost its symbolic references and spiritual meaning.

For the second time the Alton house was stripped of its contents as these were auctioned off. Fixtures and fittings did not feature in the articles for sale but little by little stained glass, carved wood panelling and doors were removed for quick financial gain. The gardens were still open to the public after the auctions had taken place. Indeed, events were proposed and certain areas of the home were turned into cafés and facilities to cater for the public's needs. Whilst drinking tea in the former Banquet Hall or Music Room must have been a unique experience for any visitor to Alton Towers in the 1920s it was nevertheless a sacrilege of Pugin's vision. Although neglected, Alton Towers survived in spite of a lack of repair work to the roof which caused interior damage to the house. It soldiered on, casually pillaged by the majority shareholders who continued to filch wood, lead and even plaster in the period between the two wars.

 Even the fact that the grounds and house were used as an army officer training unit from the onset of the Second World War did not result in any major harm to Alton Towers. On the contrary, army occupation may have preserved it a little longer from the onslaught that took place once it had been handed back to the owners in 1951. Certainly a survey carried out by the National Monuments Record at that time showed that the house had suffered minimal damage. Perhaps using the previous years of military presence as a convenient cover to empty the building of anything that could be sold, the owners set out on the wholesale gutting of Alton Towers. 

The post-war years saw England desperate for building materials of all kinds and a dilapidated building such as Alton Towers offered huge possibilities at considerable profit to those willing to seize the opportunity. From 1952 vehicles loaded down with builders' spoils could be seen leaving Alton Towers, as the house was relieved of its timber, flooring, wall coverings, plumbing and glass. All that had previously been vital components of a functioning, viable house now became a rich supply of cash-earning scrap which led to the full-scale quasi-legal looting of one of the finest houses of the country. Any materials that proved to be too cumbersome or of no financial interest was dumped in the East wing of the house and unceremoniously burnt.

As the estate continued to draw in crowds, new ventures were introduced to increase their numbers from the latter part of the 1950s. A great model railway, said to be the world's largest, was installed in the Chapel entrance whilst the Armoury housed a gift shop. Travelling fun fairs set up in the grounds, gradually leading to the association of Alton Towers with the experience of thrilling rides and sensations. The addition of a boating lake and chairlift across the dramatic valley garden made the site ever-more attractive to visitors of all ages.

Alton Towers house was mercifully given Grade II listed status in the 1970s and as such benefitted from basic, but vital structural work. Parts of the building were restored, and concrete flooring and roof covering protected it from exposure to the elements and prevented it quite simply from collapsing. 

Perhaps by another twist of fate, Alton Towers gradually emerged from the dust through the union of the Bagshaw family and a wealthy property developer. In 1973, John Broome married the daughter of the main shareholder of Alton Towers Limited - from the same family who had been involved in the sorry dilapidation of the house in the post-war years. Holding the main stake of the Alton company Broome embarked on an ambitious programme to make of Alton Tower a modern-day tourist attraction. In the 80s this process continued as Alton Towers became a leading theme park, offering sophisticated roller-coasters and sensational rides with increasingly atmospheric names. The Black Hole and the Corkscrew were later joined by Rita, Nemesis, Oblivion, Ripsaw, the Hex and Thirteen and many others when the park was consecutively purchased by the Tussauds Group in 1990, the DIC investment group in 2005, Merlin Entertainment in 2007, and then the current owner, the property tycoon Nick Leslau (who also owns Thorpe Park). 

Today more restoration projects are underway, to follow on from the marvellous work carried out on the Conservatory in the 2000s. I would love to go back to Alton Towers to see what magic has been performed on the house since our visit last year - after all, the motto of Alton Towers is supposed to be "Where the magic never ends". If only those with vast sums of money, inherited or otherwise acquired would simply give part of their fortune to aid projects like this, instead of spending (often squandering) on their ephemeral desires and interests. Restoration schemes could save estates similar to this one but which do not benefit from the public attention as Alton Towers does.

I would also appreciate having more time to explore the gardens, preferably at different periods of the year and of course having the opportunity to return to the scariest rides again at any moment! I certainly wish I had taken more photos during our visit, as one day was just not long enough!!! But if I could have just one wish regarding Alton Towers, it would be to have the chance to visit this stately home at its finest in the 19th century - that really would be magical in every sense! 


  1. This is probably the most beautiful review on Alton Towers I have ever read and I felt compelled to write a reply when I read about your wish to of had the chance to go to the Alton of the 19th century.
    We go to Alton Towers quite a lot, sometimes just to have a look around the beautiful house. I admit I absolutely love the house, the pictures I've seen of how it used to look are stunning, I too would love to of visited it in the 19th century when it was at the height of its splendour.
    When I hear about it's sad demise at the hands of those scumbag businessmen in the 50s, it really bothers me that they could treat such a perfect building like that without a single care in the world, but that's the thing, they obviously didn't give a shit about beauty and heritage as soon as they saw the pound signs flashing in front of their eyes that's all they care about and I truly hate them for what they did to that house. I mean why did they have to burn the unsalebale stuff in the east side of the house, did it not occur to them that it would make sense to take it outside? I do wonder if they were doing that as an insurance scam, I mean why else would someone intentionally burn half the house down.
    I often wish that the house would be completely restored to how it was (east wing included) although I doubt that will ever happen.
    With all the money Alton Towers must make, I just wish they would put more into the house and gardens. Now if by some miracle the National Trust could get hold of the house and gardens I would be one very happy girlie indeed:)

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, and for taking the time to share your thoughts. I seem to spend alot of time wondering what things would be like if we could 'turn back time', or failing that, restore them to their former glory. Alton Towers house is but one of many, but seems to highlight every failing in human nature. As I said in the post, I feel so frustrated by the squandering of money today by those who have it in vast quantities, on such trivial, short-lived tacky signs of wealth and 'success' (mega-yachts, numerous sprawling homes, massive underground cinemas and swimming pools, statement art and of course multiple facelifts, diets, tans and goodness knows what else to present a youthful, 'fun' façade). None of these hollow trappings of success, destined for purely personal and individual benefit are of durable value to anyone. These things contribute nothing, or very little to heritage, culture or even humanity on any level. Of course, most of the old buildings that I so admire were probably built with very little concern for the 'masses', or certainly exploited them in their creation or maintenance, but at least the intrinsic beauty of these places speaks for itself and does so for years and years. The need to restore old buildings and grounds is growing but in these hard times our heritage falls second place to our immediate necessities. But what will remain of all of these magical places? We may scrape through recession on recession but we will be impoverished on this vital level.


Please share your ideas...