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Errwood Hall

Errwood Hall

When I was young, especially when visiting relatives in Ireland, ruined country houses were virtually commonplace. Tax, bankruptcy, pessimism and misfortune led many owners post World War Two to abandon their homes and live somewhere cheaper to heat, and generally more convenient. Contents were sold and most often the house pulled down, but many were left and just fell into ruin. I except those in Ireland, for, although the above still applied, many had been burnt out during the ethnic cleansing inflicted upon the ascendancy during the Troubles.

These days, things have changed. The extraordinary return of prosperity that came about during the last two decades of the last century enabled country houses to become viable again, and many ruinous ones have been rebuilt, like locally-connected Benjamin La Trobe’s Hammerwood Park in Sussex, or new houses raised on the sites of lost predecessors, like Johnny Greenhall’s Wootton, near Ashbourne. Indeed, I can think of barely half a dozen surviving ruined sites in Derbyshire.

One of these is the remains of Errwood Hall, its impossibly spectacular setting facing SE across the Goyt Valley to the bare moors beyond. When I first visited about 1980, there was quite a bit of it remaining, but today, it has been further ‘tidied up’ as health and safety has no doubt decreed.

When built from 1841, the distinctive house must have been spectacular indeed in its setting. Designed by eclectic Scottish Regency architect Alexander Roos (1810-1881), the house was essentially a stone-built Regency Villa, romanticised by a sturdy Italianate tower and gabled roofs with wide eaves. It was constructed in rock-faced ashlar blocks of Millstone Grit Sandstone (Rough Rock), with smooth finished dressings of the same. 

The entrance front faced east, and consisted of a compact three bay main range with the centre bay breaking forward and rising to form the tower over the entrance, itself set under a stone tympanum containing the family’s arms. Above it, the tower contained an attic storey with a prospect room, lit centrally, embellished all round by a blind arcade and topped by a pyramidal roof and a battery of stacks either side. There were narrow end bays that stepped back and that to the left, connected to the main south front.

This consisted of a three bay centre with plain sashed windows in architrave surrounds, set above three full height terrace windows with segmental heads, flanked by wide end bays breaking forwards under pediments. Here the ground floor windows were what used to be called Venetian, but we now call Serlian, but with paired segmental lights above, with prominent key-blocks and an oculus in the pediment. There was a first floor sill band right round, and the roofs were slated. To the North ran an east-facing arcaded and dormered range containing the offices and stables, terminating in another pyrimidally topped tower crowned with a bellcote.

Inside, the rooms were surprisingly large, the dining room with a copy of the Pan-Athenaïc Frieze from the Parthenon set below the cornice; there was a library on the first floor, reached by a cantilevered oval staircase with iron stick balustrade, the cell of which was embellished with plaster medallions.

Samuel Grimshawe was the Mancunian-born mill-owner who founded the Manchester Assurance Company; thanks to his Spanish mother he was also a keen Catholic. He married Anna, daughter of Otho Hume, founder of the Manchester Pitt Club. The family lived in Sevenhulme Lodge, Lancaster, but building Errwood was an attempt to create a family retreat away from the grime of industrial Lancashire. To this end he purchased 2,064 acres of Taxal moorland (then in Cheshire but since 1936 in Derbyshire) on the west bank of the Goyt, then an attractive stream cascading through a fairly deep and bosky valley.

The house was situated on a platform carved out for the purpose, the excess spoil being thrown up on the SW side to form a considerable eminence, upon which Grimshawe intended to erect a domestic chapel. His architect having moved on with the completion of the house, in 1848 Sir Alexander Beresford Hope, Hon. FRIBA (1820-1887), was commissioned to design it, and the drawing he produced to give his client an idea of what the finished ensemble would look like, from which we can see that, unlike the house, the building was intended to be thoroughly Early English Gothic with an apse, much iron brattishing along the steeply pitched roof and a tower with slim spire. The chapel was all to be linked to the house by an arcaded passage rising up the mound, but designed in the manner of a cloister.

The grounds were landscaped with an extensive terrace in front of the house centered by a fountain in a round pond and approached via a triumphal arch with heraldic cresting. The terrace retaining wall was buttressed and crowned by urns. The wild hillside beyond was richly planted with rhododendrons and azaleas, swiftly becoming a notable showpiece of its kind. It even boasted a round Spanish shrine further south in the park, with a witch’s hat rood crowned by a crucifix which still survives, complete with internal fresco of Our lord. Exactly who created this stunning ensemble is not known, although Edward Milner (1819-1884) then Sir Joseph Paxton’s assistant is a possibility.

All this was hardly begun, however, when in January 1851 Grimshawe died aged 82, closely followed by his infant male grandson, Samuel Arthur Hope, leaving his only son and heir, the cultivated and bookish Samuel Dominic, who had been educated at Brasenose, Oxford. Instead of Hope’s extravagant Gothic chapel, they buried the old man on the mound, and added an extension to the west of the house, which had a wagon roof and became the richly embellished domestic chapel.

Rather than keep the house as a retreat, young Samuel decided to turn it into a seat, and began embellishing it with old masters; he was particularly fond of Velasquez and the more devotionally orientated products of the Italian seicento. He also commissioned some exceedingly expensive furniture from Gillows and much ormolu and silver-gilt items with which to embellish it.

Young Samuel died aged 71 in spring 1883, followed by his widow a decade later, leaving two married daughters. Anne Geniviève, the younger, had married Hon. Edward Preston, a son of Irish Peer the 13th Viscount Gormanston and had gone off to live elsewhere, but was childless. The elder, who inherited the estate, was Mary, who married, at Brompton Oratory in 1902, Hellier Gosselin of Bengeo Hall, Herts. who assumed the surname of Grimshawe by deed poll, but retained the Gosselin arms, for the achievement over Errwood’s entrance: argent a griffin sergeant, sable, beaked and membered gules, although used by old Grimshawe, had never been authorised by the College of Arms. The couple also had no children and he died in 1924. She followed him to the grave (by the house, of course) in February 1930, and there being no heir, the executors sold the contents of the house in a four day sale in the June of that year before disposing of the house to Stockport Corporation.

This development was driven by the Corporation’s plan to dam and flood the Goyt valley to create a reservoir to help water the homes of their ratepayers, and it was envisaged that the house would have to come down to allow for this, just as Derwent Hall was to be a decade or so later (see July 2016 Country Images). In the meantime it was let to the YHA and run as a much enjoyed youth hostel.

The hostel closed in 1934, but although the valley was flooded 1935-1938, the water never quite reached the house which had been left abandoned and the stunning grounds allowed to run wild.  The house remained a picturesque ruin, stripped of its more valuable materials (including the Pan-Athenaïc frieze, moved to Woodbank, a house now also under threat) and the best ashlar was soon afterwards robbed to build the dam’s pumping station.

The area is now given over to controlled leisure pursuits, and the remains consist of part of the ground floor wall of the south front and the footings of the remainder, along with parts of the terracing. Samuel Grimshawe’s florid heraldic entrance tympanum with its rearing griffin was dumped down to ground level flanked by the remaining steps to the front door where it remains to this day. The grounds have had municipal order imposed upon them and are laid out in a series of educationally relaxing trails under the aegis of the Peak Park Planning Board.

Alistair Plant


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