Book review: Felling the Ancient Oaks by John Martin Robinson

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For some of England’s most historic estates, the current imperative to preserve our past has come far too late.

A case in point is Lancashire’s old estate of Lathom, near Ormskirk, which had at its centre one of the finest classical houses in the county, built on the site of the 15th century neo-castle home of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, the family which helped establish the Tudor dynasty.

The medieval house, which boasted nine towers and a moat, was demolished by Parliamentarians at the end of the Civil War and the 7th Earl of Derby, ironically from a family noted for always choosing the right side, was executed at Bolton for supporting the Royalist cause.

When the estate was bought by Sir Thomas Bootle, chancellor to Frederick, Prince of Wales, in 1724, he commissioned the Anglo-Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni to create an imposing Palladian house.

It had ‘a sumptuous and lofty’ frontage with a pair of flanking pavilions and a beautifully landscaped park with one of the largest and widest avenues in England – over two and a half miles long and 200 yards wide.

The park was embellished by the succeeding Earls of Lathom with further planting, water features and new buildings including a temple and an icehouse.

All that stands now is the west pavilion which has recently been restored and converted for residential use. The carefully and lovingly planted 300-year-old trees have long since been felled and the site is dominated by Pilkington’s Technical Centre, a huge, dull 1950s office block.

Lathom and its former glories provide some of the most compelling pictures in a magnificent new book from architectural historian John Martin Robinson.

Felling the Ancient Oaks offers a stunning and heartbreaking visual record of our most spectacular and scenic country estates which have been broken up for sale and lost forever, often to be replaced with an endless sprawl of light industry and soulless suburbia.

The collapse of Lathom in the early 20th century was swift and destructive, and entirely due to the shenanigans of Edward Bootle-Wilbraham, the 3rd and last Earl of Lathom (1895-1930), a ‘theatrically obsessed chum of Noël Coward’ who failed to produce an heir and sold up in 1925 to pay off his debts.

Before inheriting Lathom, he lived at Blythe Hall, an outlying property on the estate, and transformed it into an American-style Elizabethan house with bowling alley, Hollywood inspired swimming pool and crystal stair spindles. These extravagances, and a theatre built especially for Noël Coward, finally finished off Lathom estate.

And the end was definitive with all family archives being fed into the furnaces of the estate’s colliery at Skelmersdale. Three years before his death, the earl unexpectedly married an exotic divorcee originally from Singapore but such was the notoriety of his finances that the Ritz requested his wedding reception was paid for in advance.

The purchaser of Lathom demolished the main block of the house and felled every tree in the park. The flanking pavilions were left standing but allowed to fall into dereliction, with the east service wing disappearing in the 1950s. A sad end to over 600 years of local history...

Robinson pulls no punches in his illuminating book which surveys 20 lost gems from Haggerston Castle in Northumberland to Hinton St George in Somerset using over 150 stunning photographs.

A modest municipal park is all that survives of the impressive Cassiobury estate near Watford, the once splendid Normanton estate now lies underneath the expanse of Rutland Water and Deepdene in Surrey is memorialised only by an ugly office block.

Felling the Ancient Oaks reminds us of how our landscape looked before death duties, mining subsidence and sometimes the recklessness and incompetence of the black sheep in the family took their toll and forced the break-up of so many historic landed estates.

It’s a book to return to time and time again, a treasure trove of history and a reminder of a part of our heritage that now exists only in long-forgotten photographs...

(Aurum, hardback, £30)