After farmsteads and farm houses, historic buildings and landscapes associated with gentry and nobility estates are the most characteristic aspect of the rural historic built environment in this period of growth and relative stability. The study of estates has often been divided between the social and art historic evaluation of the mansion house and designed landscape, and the agricultural development of the estate (Knight et al 2012, 113), although there are some examples of a more comprehensive approach in the region; research and analysis by or for the National Trust has studied both the landscape of the estate, the farm and estate buildings and the mansion at Dunham Massey (Woodside and Miln 1999 and Matrix Archaeology forthcoming).
Historical pictorial sources for key country houses and gardens in this period include the remarkable bird’s eye view engravings published by Knyff and Kip (Knyff and Kip 1707), which record designed landscapes and buildings that in many cases were swept aside by later changes. Lowther Castle, Eaton Hall and Dunham Massey were all recorded by Knyff and Kip; at Dunham, later bird’s eye paintings of the estate by Harris from c1750 have assisted with interpreting subsequent changes to buildings and landscape features (Gregory and Miller 2013).
Gentry and nobility estates developed and expanded during the post-medieval period, and many examples survive in the North West, with or without an intact country house at their heart. However, most pre-1750 designed landscapes with geometric and formal gardens were later swept away by more naturalistic landscaping in the later eighteenth century, although some notable formal landscapes partially survive at several North West country houses, including the landscape under restoration on the south side of Lowther Castle. At Stonyhurst the parterres, twin canals and avenue laid out in the 1690s by the Shireburns have survived within an earlier deer park landscape, assessed by OAN, Chris Burnett Associates and AHP (Barter et al 2015). Levens Hall garden, first laid out by Guillaume Beaumont in the 1690s, is nationally significant for the topiaryand also for the ha ha, a feature introduced to separate the pleasure gardens from pasture fields whilst enabling an uninterrupted view; the Levens example is considered to be the earliest in England (Hyde and Pevsner 2010, 495). The formal compartmentalised gardens at Little Crosby Hall in Lancashire, owned by the Blundell family, were referred to in the early eighteenth century diaries of Nicholas Blundell, and the subject of a paper in the journal of the Garden History Society (Edmondson and Lewis, 2004). The gardens of the North West have not received the attention they merit, and further study is needed to highlight whether more design and features from this period are extant.
The phasing and key aspects of North West country houses are recorded in the Buildings of England volumes and in the gazetteer compiled by Robinson, county sections are preceded by his useful summaries (Robinson 1991). Renaissance influences on the houses of the gentry from c1600 mark a shift towards ‘polite’ architecture, although local vernacular traditions continued further down the social scale. The use of symmetry was gradually adopted for houses which otherwise retained some elements of late medieval plan-forms; a distinctive group of Lancashire and Greater Manchester houses adopted symmetry for the principal elevation, as at Bispham Hall, Hacking Hall, Harrock Hall, Staley Hall and Winstanley Hall, all built or rebuilt in the 1590s to early 1600s, as noted by Hartwell for the Pevsner revised volumes (Hartwell and Pevsner 2009, 15-19). In these houses, the double-height hall characteristic of medieval houses was replaced with a central 2-storey range with chamber above the hall, and the offset position of the screens passage and entrance was often retained, as part of a new symmetrical facade. Staley Hall, a timber-framed house of c1556 was re-faced in stone in the early seventeenth century, recorded by York Archaeological Trust before refurbishment by Persimmon Homes (York Archaeological Trust, 2018).
The shift from late medieval to early modern houses is an area meriting further research. Research and analysis can enable reinterpretation of previously misunderstood houses; at Astley Hall near Chorley, a building condition survey by Geoff Maybank and research by Hartwell and Barter for Chorley Borough Council shed new light on the phasing of this fine gentry house (Barter and Hartwell 2016) showing that the current brick front façade was built onto the timber-framed structure of earlier front range which survives behind later wall linings. The fine hall panelling and staircase were found to have been introduced as part of nineteenth century remodelling. Studies of other multi-phase gentry houses including Bramall Hall where Barter and Hartwell initially researched the house for a conservation plan (Donald Insall Associates 2009), followed by detailed recording by Matrix Archaeology supplemented by dendrochronology (Matrix Archaeology 2017). The introduction of classical features during the Elizabethan period in the North West is reflected in internal joinery, chimneypieces, plasterwork and painted interiors in gentry houses as at Bramall Hall where the chamber over the hall was created in c1590, with Renaissance details (Hartwell et al 2011).
In Cumbria a distinctive group of late seventeenth century stone houses incorporate classical details; Moresby Hall is one of the earliest Cumbrian house with a classical elevation and features such as pediments and moulded architraves (new wing built c.1670, attributed to William Thackeray). Hutton-in-the-Forest, retaining a pele tower, was modernised with a classical facade (designed by William Addison) in c1680. These gentry houses are covered by Cooper’s national study of gentry houses, noting the influence of Dutch pattern books, which helped to spread Renaissance architectural details across northern Europe in the seventeenth century (Cooper 1999, 235-40). Worsley’s national research on stable buildings refers to significant early examples in the North West such as Peover Hall’s remarkable stables of 1654 and the classical stables at Dunham Massey, built in the 1730s to complement the remodelled house (Worsley and Rolf 2004). The Dunham Massey stables are the subject of recent research and measured survey (Arrowsmith et al 2015).
Not all medieval houses were developed and improved for domestic use in this period; there are examples of decline where a high status house was abandoned for domestic use and converted for agricultural use. The Stanley’s mid fourteenth century medieval hall house at Storeton Hall on the Wirral was partly demolished and the remains adapted for farm buildings in the late seventeenth century; recent research, confirmed by dendrochronology, showed that a farm building was built against one retained wall of the hall, containing timbers felled between AD 1682 to c AD 1701 (Tyers, 2010).