An old Suffolk coaching inn described as labyrinthine and “mouldy” by Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers has been added to England’s Heritage at Risk Register, suffering from decay and dry rot.
The Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich — where Samuel Pickwick bought “the worst possible port wine” and entered a lady’s bedroom by mistake — is one of 159 historic sites added to the list this year due to serious threats to their survival. Others include the Midlands mansion where the Gunpowder Plot conspirators made a last stand after their failed attack in Westminster.
More positively, Historic England, the national heritage body, also announced that 203 sites have been removed from the register, which it publishes annually. These include the Tolpuddle Old Chapel, a modest-looking building in rural Dorset that is a landmark of trade union and radical history, and now open to visitors.
Becky Barrett, national lead for Heritage at Risk at Historic England, said: “The register published each year as a snapshot of the health of our historic environment. It includes buildings and sites that need some investment and TLC to bring back into good repair or use. Importantly, it’s a tool to help focus attention on those sites that are most in need of our support. The vast majority are looked after by individuals and organisations that care really deeply about the history and the stories of their place, but just need a bit of extra help.”
Here are some of the most important buildings and sites that are under threat, or newly saved:
ADDED AS ‘AT RISK’
Great White Horse Hotel, Ipswich, Suffolk
Guests at this 16th to early 17th-century inn have included Admiral Lord Nelson, who stayed with his mistress Lady Hamilton, and her husband Sir William, in November 1800. However, it was immortalised by Dickens in his first novel, in 1836-7. The writer, who had stayed there, likened the hostelry’s fame to that of a prize ox, an unwieldy pig or a turnip featured in the county newspaper. He added: “Never was such labyrinths of uncarpeted passages, such clusters of mouldy, ill-lighted rooms, such huge numbers of small dens for eating or sleeping in, beneath any one roof, as are collected together between the four walls of the Great White Horse at Ipswich.”
Such was its subsequent fame that a replica was built to represent Great Britain at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Today, the original is a budget hotel but its main historic areas are closed due to their poor condition. Problems include active dry rot in the second-floor Dickens Room, crumbling plasterwork in the ballroom and damaged windows, gutters and drainpipes. Historic England is now discussing the building’s challenges and possible future uses with the local authority, tenant and landlord.
Holbeche House, Dudley
This country house was only a few years old when the dramatic final act of the Gunpowder Plot played out there on November 8, 1605. Holbeche was stormed by a sheriff’s posse after a number of the conspirators holed up there when their plan to blow up parliament and the king was thwarted. The ringleader Robert Catesby was shot and killed in the ensuing gunfight, along with Thomas Percy and brothers John and Christopher Wright. Co-conspirator Stephen Lyttelton, Holbeche’s owner, was not present but was captured and executed soon afterwards.
The building, until recently a care home, is empty and becoming a site of concern for the local community. Historic England is working with Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council to find options to secure its future.
Church of St Mary, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk
The 15th-century church of Stoke-by-Nayland was built under the patronage of Sir John Howard, who was made Duke of Norfolk in 1483 and died fighting for Richard III at Bosworth Field. Its features include oak doors depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, with angels and saints, and an octagonal font carved with the signs of the Evangelists and figures of monks reading and writing. It also incorporates elements of older churches on the site going back to the 1080s or earlier.
St Mary’s tower dominates the landscape of Dedham Vale and was a frequent focus of paintings by the artist John Constable, who wrote that it “seems to impress on the surrounding country its own sacred dignity of character.” After the fall of some of the south aisle wall in October 2020, the parochial church council and community have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to carry out urgent structural repairs, supplemented by a Historic England grant of £135,500. Given all this progress, the charity hopes it will come off the register soon.
Tolpuddle Old Chapel, Tolpuddle, Dorset
This plain former Methodist chapel was built around 1818 and used for worship by four of the six local men hailed as the Tolpuddle Martyrs: George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield and Thomas Standfield. The men were convicted in 1834 of swearing a secret oath as members of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers — an organisation they had founded to protest low wages. After they were sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, their plight became a cause célèbre and they were pardoned in 1836 following mass protests.
Some of the Martyrs may have been involved in building the chapel, which was converted to agricultural use sometime after 1843 and added to the Heritage At Risk Register in 1998. It was acquired by the Tolpuddle Old Chapel Trust in 2015 and restoration work, supported by grants from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England, was completed this summer. It is now used for community events and is open to visitors on Monday and Thursday mornings.
Northeast bastion, Weedon Depot, Northamptonshire
The Royal Military Depot at Weedon was vital to the supply of weapons, ammunition and equipment to the British Army from Napoleonic times and through to the two world wars. Not far from the small arms factories and workshops of Birmingham, and connected via the Grand Union Canal, its stores could easily be transported to wherever they were needed. It has been claimed that the site was a potential refuge for George III, away from the South Coast, if Napoleon’s threatened invasion had gone ahead.
After decades of neglect, the depot has been restored and redeveloped. The imposing storehouses of the Duke of Wellington’s day are home to businesses, workshops and a free visitor centre. The walls and bastions of the defensive perimeter remain in poor condition, but a Historic England grant has funded the repair of the northeast bastion and made it accessible so visitors can better appreciate the site’s history.
Holmfirth Conservation Area, West Yorkshire
Nestled in the South Pennines and on the River Holme, the mill town of Holmfirth is best known as the home of long-running TV comedy Last of the Summer Wine. A conservation area protects the town centre and its surroundings, which are characterised by textile industry heritage such as former mills, dye works and weavers’ cottages.
The conservation area was put on the Heritage at Risk Register in 2009 due to economic decline which led to retail and commercial premises becoming vacant and, in some cases, derelict. In 2015, residents formed the Holmfirth Conservation Group to address the problems head on. Volunteers undertook a comprehensive survey of every historic building and street, which fed into policies that have helped to boost the economy and seen buildings restored and repurposed.
The town has also developed a vibrant cultural scene centred on Holmfirth Picturedrome, a historic cinema building that is now a live music venue.
HOW THE REGISTER WORKS
There are 4,871 entries on the Heritage at Risk Register this year. Around 6,800 sites have been removed from the register, as saved, since the scheme’s launch in 1998. As for how sites are selected for inclusion, Barrett explained: “We work closely with local authorities, community groups and other organisations such as the Theatres’ Trust or the Victorian Society to identify buildings or sites at risk, but anyone can flag a building or site they are worried about. It’s worth saying that our register mostly includes grade I and grade II* listed buildings, although in London it includes grade II and we include grade II churches. Often, local authorities have their own heritage at risk registers as well, which cover grade II buildings.”
“There are brilliant stories up and down the country of buildings brought back into use”Rebecca Barrett, Historic England
She said sites could end up at risk for all sorts of reasons. “It might be a building or site that’s no longer used for its original purpose. So it might be an old school or a mill or courthouse that just needs a bit of imagination to bring it back into use. Or it might have suffered from a fire or vandalism. But, more often than not, it’s simply that it hasn’t had regular maintenance. It’s amazing how quickly a slipped slate on the roof or a blocked gutter can can cause more serious and expensive damage.”
Sites are removed from the register once they are fully repaired and Historic England is confident that their future has been secured, she added. “On the whole, we see more sites removed than going on, which is positive news and testament to the determination, perseverance and imagination of so many people, whether that’s volunteers, local authorities, developers or funders. It’s amazing how often people will see a site in their own community that they’re worried about, and will rally around to find the support and funding they need. There are brilliant stories up and down the country of buildings being brought back into use, whether it’s providing new homes or offices or shops or cultural venues — just once again playing a really vibrant part in the communities within which they sit.”
The image at the top of the article is an illustration titled ‘Mr Pickwick arrives at the Great White Horse hotel, Ipswich’. Photo: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo