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Country House

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A Country House in Great Britain as generally accepted is a large house or mansion, once in the ownership of an individual who also most likely owned a house in the West End of London. Hence one moved from one's town house to one's country house.
Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire; country house of the Duke of Bedford

Country houses and Stately homes are sometimes confused - while a country house is always in the country, a stately home can also be in a town Apsley House, built for the Duke of Wellington at the corner of Hyde Park— "No. 1, London" it was called— is one example, though the last of the great private palaces in London, Northumberland House, was demolished for improvements in 1874 (date?). Other country houses such as Ascott in Buckinghamshire were deliberatly designed not to be stately, and to harmonise with the landscape, while some of the great houses such as Kedleston Hall and Holkham were built as "power houses" to impress and dominate the landscape, and were certainly intended to be 'stately homes'. Today many former 'stately homes', while still country houses, are far from stately and most certainly not homes.

The country house was a central node in the "squirearchy" that ruled Britain until the Reform Act of 1832. Even some of the formal business of the shire was transacted in the Hall.

The great country houses of Britain were mostly built, or converted from ecclesiastical properties of the great abbeys and priories, following the dissolution of the monasteries, by the 'so called'Ruling_class" title ="Ruling class">ruling class, these aristocrats, continued, in diminishing degrees, to hold high office until World War II. Sir Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim Palace was probably the last. The country house served as a wonderful place for relaxing, hunting and running the country with one'Chequers" title ="Chequers">Chequers to the nation for the use of a Prime Minister who might not possess one of his own. Chequers still fulfils that need today as do both Chevening House and Dorneywood country houses donated for sole use of high ranking ministers of the crown.

The country house was the centre of its own world, providing employment to literally hundreds of people in the vicinity of its estate. In previous eras, when state benefits were unheard of, those working on an estate were the among the most fortunate receiving secured employment and rent free accommodation. At the summit of these fortunate people were the indoor staff of the country house. Until the 20th century unlike many of their contemporaries they slept in proper beds, wore well made adequate clothes and received three proper meals a day, plus a small wage. In an era when many still died for lack of medicine, or malnutrition the long working hours were a small price to pay. The movie Gosford Park accurately recreated the stratified and repressed, but secure atmosphere of the English country house just surviving into the age of the automobile.

Many aristocrats owned more than one country house, and would visit each according to the season. Grouse shooting in Scotland, pheasant shooting and fox hunting in England. The Earl of Rosebery, for instance had Dalmeny in Scotland, Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire and another near Epsom just for the racing season.

The fall of the English country house began immediately following World War I. The huge staff required to maintain them had either left to fight and never return, departed to work in the munition factories, or to fulfil the void left by the fighting men in other workplaces. On the cessation of war of those who returned many left the countryside for better paid jobs in towns. The final blow for many country houses came following World War II having been requisitioned they were returned to the owners in poor repair. Many of whom having lost their heirs, if not in the immediatly preceding war, then in World War I, were now paying far higher rates of tax, agricultural incomes from the accompanying estates, had dropped, thus the solution appeared to be to demolish the house, and sell its stone, fireplaces, and panelling; and this is exactly what happened to many of Britain's finest houses.

Today, in Britain, country houses provide for a variety of needs. Many such as Montacute House, West Wycombe Park and Lyme Park are owned by public bodies including the National Trust and are open to the public as museums as part of the so called "Stately home industry". Some including Wilton House and Chatsworth House and many smaller houses such as Pencarrow in Cornwall and Rousham House in Oxfordshire are still owned by the families who built them, retain their treasures and are open during summer months to the public. Fewer still are owned by the original families and are not open to the public: Compton Wynyates is one. Easton Neston in Northamptonshire, one of the last of the architecturally important country houses never to have been opened to public viewing, has just (2004) been offered for sale by Lord Hesketh

The majority have fallen to the deprivations of modern life and become schools, hospitals, and prisons. Reduced from being 'Stately Homes'Home" title ="Home">homes. Many, for example Cliveden and Hartwell House have become luxury hotels, and many more less luxurious hotels. These are among the fortunate few. In Britain during the 1950s and early 1960s thousands of country houses were demolished.

Today owning a 'Country House'Government" title ="Government">Government supervision, often interpreted by the owners as interference as it is usually the most costly method that the Government inspectors insist upon. This system does however ensure that all work is correctly and authentically done, the negative side is that many owners cannot afford the work so a roof remains leaking for the sake of a cheap roof tile.

For all the hardships of owning a country house, many people still aspire to own one. Those that do often labour night and day, to retain the houses they feel privileged to have inherited.

See also

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