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When fire devastates England’s treasures

Some of the greatest insights of our history are embedded in the stately homes that lay across the country, full of stories that would put the saying “if these walls could talk” to shame. Unfortunately, with older homes fire safety doesn’t match that of modern day dwellings.

Most recently Clandon Park House, an estate home in Surrey, is nothing more than a burned out shell after a fire devasted the house. The future of Clandon is still up in the air until further inspection is performed. Yet the outgoing chief executive of Historic England and English Heritage, Dr. Simon Thurley, has said that most properties are able to be rebuilt.

“So many great houses that we know of have had fires, going right the way back to the Great Fire of London and beyond,” he commented. “People generally do rebuild them, mainly because they are incredibly valuable assets.”

Other stately homes which suffered the same fate have risen from the ashes.

Witley Court

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Known as one of England’s greatest country homes until a fire changed all of that in 1937. Even though the west side of the property was still intact, owner Sir Herbert Smith chose to sell instead of rebuilding. Witley was stripped down, leaving it to fall into ruin.

With passing time, Witley Court turned from the estate from a private home of royalty into a rare insight for the public. This has allowed tourists to see some of the most impressive gardens and architecture in England, even though the house is still empty.

So spectacular, the ruins and gardens have been used by Procol Harum for their music video Whiter Shade of Pale in 1967. Bob Dylan also visited in the mid-1960s whilst going on a ghost hunt.

English Heritage now cares for Witley Court and the gardens and fountains have been brought back to their former glory. The Perseus and Andromeda fountain on the estate are larger than both the fountains at Versailles and the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

Windsor Castle

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The year 1992 is better known as The Queen’s “annus horribilis”. A fire that tore through much of Windsor Castle on 20th November had a large part in that

The needed repairs divided the public on who should pay the fees to fix the royal residence – the Royal Family or taxpayers. With this, a debate broke out on the financing of the monarchy.

As a result, Queen Elizabeth’s private income was taxed and Her Majesty restricted the number of Royal Family members who were paid from the public expenses.

As for the restoration, Her Majesty said she would pay 70% of the costs and Buckingham Palace was opened to the public to raise extra funds. The grounds of Windsor Castle also started an entry fee to those who wished to visit. Ahead of expected, the £37m restoration was completed in 1997.

Hampton Court

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Despite Henry VIII’s many palaces, only two survive, one being Hampton Court in Richmond upon Thames. A fire in 1986 swept through starting in a “grace and favour” apartment of widow Lady Daphne Gale, who tragically passed away at 86 years old.

The aftermath of the fire raised questions about the management of the palace and so the formation of Historic Royal Palaces to manage six palaces came into place in 1989.

Dr. Thurley was the first curator of Historic Royal Palaces. He oversaw the repairs of Hampton Court and made it more attractive to visitors.

The argument has been made that the fire transformed Hampton Court for the best as the restorations were the biggest the palace had ever seen since the 1880s.

Uppark House

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West Sussex was home to Uppark house, until a fire devasted the building in August 1989, only days before the current restoration was finished. The National Trust started on the largest revamp that they have ever taken on – yet, Clandon Park House is expected to be larger once they begin.

The house was reopened in 1995 after hundreds of craftsmen were employed in restoring Uppark, and past skills such as rococo plasterwork modelling were rediscovered during the restoration journey.

Speaking about the National Trust’s hard work on repairing the property, Dr Thurley said they “did a tremendous job of making the most of a terrible tragedy”.

“When you go there you learn about how the National Trust saved the building from the terrible state that it was in, and the stimulation to craftsmanship”.

“There’s a very good exhibition explaining how it all went together. I think that they really did make the most of what was obviously a really ghastly situation,” he added.

Dunsland House

The once marvelous Dunsland House in Devon had seen better days when the National Trust acquired it in 1954. They then set out to restore and furnish the property. All the work was complete and about to be open to the public when a fire destroyed the house into ashes in November 1967.

The walls were so painfully damaged that even if the money existed to fix them, they would have needed to be demolished and built from scratch. The dangerous ruins were demolished by the National Trust and a plaque is now all that is left.

Although this all happened many years ago, Dunsland is still very popular with families coming to walk around the parkland to enjoy the scenery.

Photo Credits: Martin HartlandCraigPaul Hudson & florriebassingbourn via Flickr

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