I have visited Dunham Massey in Cheshire over many years and have observed how it has grown into a lively modern visitor destination, with the National Trust undertaking a phased programme of conservation and development for well over a decade.
I have to be honest, the hall is good but unadventurous, architecturally speaking. There have been three historical halls since the 1600s. They have been spectacularly painted in a series of bird’s eye view illustrations and the best of the three was perhaps the 1690s hall. This, as far as I can tell, was a courtyard design replete with Dutch gables, corner towers, huge leaded light windows and other Elizabethan and Jacobean features. It seems to have been a lively building with several phases. It was unfortunately replaced, or perhaps encased, in the 1730s by a very plain brick building designed by John Norris, a largely unknown architect. It was a very conservative and dated design but it at least it had the typical Georgian qualities of efficiency, harmony and balance.
The main façade and interior, however, was completely reworked in Edwardian times by Joseph Compton Hall, another unknown designer, into something even less interesting! I can see that he was trying to introduce some warmth and interest but, to be honest, it was probably better before altered it. The eaves and dormers either side of his odd Carolinian style focal point are too domestic for such a large building. Consequently, Dunham has nothing to match the dramatic Palladianism of nearby Lyme Park. What there is, however, is beautiful workmanship in a lovely orange Cheshire brick and, most importantly, a gorgeous der park setting.
The Trust seems to have instinctively realised this and has spent a great deal of time and money developing the parkland and gardens in recent times. The park has a magnificent formal layout, of the type often erased when Capability Brown changed English parkland design for good. the design has been carefully conserved with new formal planting and the management of the woodland areas.
However, it was perhaps the creation of a new feature, the lovely woodland winter garden, that has most captured the public’s imagination, with its striking planting schemes from snowdrops to silver birch.
Most recently, huge sums have been spent on a large new visitor centre and car park, set away out of view to one side of the hall. The Trust has been careful to ensure these new contemporary-style facilities are an addition to the much loved café above the stables. This brings me to perhaps my favourite bit of Dunham Massey… the incredibly tall archway running through the 1721 coach house to the front of the hall. It is a wonderful feature which seems to continue as a shaft of space through a pair of trees into the distance.