History



Apley hall; that sleeping gothic pile on the banks of the Severn was the inspiration behind P.G.Wodehouse's famous Blanding’s Castle. Wodehouse stayed briefly at the hall, and its many gothic pinnacles, lancet windows and castellation made it the ideal inspiration for his comic duo Jeeves and Wooster. However larger then life real heroes’ extraverts and villains have resided at Apley and their ghosts remain.

Evelyn Waugh once described Blanding's as "…………that original garden from which we are all exiled,"………… "All those who know them long to return"

Thomas Whitmore, whose family had held the estate since 1572, had the house remodelled to the gothic taste apparently in 1811. Whitmore was an iron-founder and had prospered by producing cannon and arms for the navy during the Napoleonic wars. His foundry was up river at Coalbrookdale and his works down stream at fort Pendleston Bridgnorth so from the towers of Apley he could watch his cargo production-line as it progressed along the Severn towards its final destination in Bristol. At the time of its realisation Apley was the height of frolicsome regency taste and folly. A cousin of Strawberry Hill gothick romanticism; the architectural design is attributed to the Wyatt family and the fine Grinshall-stone ashlar-work porte-cochere and polygonal turrets the work of the Carline brothers, master masons of Shrewsbury. Records are scant in detail about the construction 0f the hall and at that time there was an embargo on building due to the threat of invasion from Napoleon’s Grande Armee so it’s perhaps not surprising to find that the house is suddenly owned up to after his trouncing at Trafalgar!

Apley is set in magnificent parkland landscaped by William Webb of Armitage using an army of navvies who hitherto had been engaged in building Staffordshire’s canal network. They set about manipulating the rolling Shropshire hillsides to emulate a perfect English country landscape painting of the day. The effect is stunning; a study in harmony perspective and peace.

Evidence of the pre 1811 house still exists although cleverly disguised by a facade emulating a gothic chapel with ornate tracery no doubt intended to give a false impression of piety to the world (a more modest chapel was located by the library). The interiors of the folly are deceivingly domestic and secular. Georgian in style and proportion there is an ornate staircase with a shallow rise and four spindles per tread; rooms are adorned with earlier mouldings and cornices and it’s clear that the "faux chapel" was the original pre 1811 house.

Far more ornate are the saloon-library and drawing- room to the main house with fine ogee-ribbed gothic vaults and plasterwork attributed to itinerant Italian Stucciotori under the direction of Francesco Bernasconi. Heavily carved oak doors in the Tudorbethan style compliment the gothic masterpiece but the breathtaking aspect of Apley is the central alabaster staircase with cast iron gothic tracery a mastery of engineering of the time.

The house was sold for what is believed to be a record amount in 1867 to William Ormes Foster. The Foster family were also hugely successful iron founders in the black-country.

The most famous of the Foster family and one from which the fortune derived was Williams's uncle James Foster, talented entrepreneur and Member of Parliament for Worcester. In the early 19th century Fosters Company was on the leading edge of technology; producing a wide range of products such as blast furnaces and rolling mill equipment, sugar mills for export to the colonies and steam locomotives; the most famous of which The 'Stourbridge Lion' became the first steam locomotive to run on a commercial railway in Pennsylvania. James Foster’s business empire was undoubtedly successful but expansionist plans led to fears of overtrading by the companies bankers, the bank requested him to reduce his overdraft- he is reputed to have settled his account in full by taking the money to the bank in small coins loaded into wheelbarrows and insisting it be counted in his presence.

Inevitably as Victorians the Foster family felt the need to improve the house though it had been scarcely 60 years since its regency remodelling. Tastes had changed and the need for a more ornate garden and Orangery were sought and executed under a design by E. Milner noteworthy landscape architect of the day. It incorporated spectacular water features fountains grottoes and cascades gravity fed by a massive underground tank. In addition Foster’s lavish entertaining and socialising led to the need for a legion of servants and so service quarters were bolted on to the back of the house in barrack like fashion; fašaded in roman cement, ruled into faux block-work and castellated to continue the gothic theme but with little daylight for the servants and quite inferior quality to Carline brother’s original masonry work or Wyatt's vision.

W.O. Foster was succeeded by Major A.W. Foster decorated hero of the Boer and First World War he had lost his leg in battle. Major foster had a passion for life; entertaining dancing and exercise [not easy for a man with one leg] the hall was during his era host to grand balls and social occasions and during the inter-war period enjoyed something of a renaissance. Berner’s mother would have been appalled to find the modest-chapel remodelled and adorned with rich Aubusson tapestries. Games and billiard rooms were constructed and the crenulated Orangery converted into a swimming pool designed by the architect A.W .Forsythe. Said to be the first private pool in the country, finished in sparkling green terrazzo the pool was witness to Clivdenesque frolics of chic society but more importantly was Major Foster’s daily source of exercise- Swimming.

One famously eccentric character born at Apley was the 14th Baron Berners. Gerald Tyrwhitt. He was William Foster’s nephew and became a painter composer novelist, and naughty boy writing several autobiographical works including his memoirs of Apley as a child and teenager entitled “first childhood”. Prankster and extravert he took enormous pleasure in teasing his cantankerous Uncle William, dyed pigeons in vibrant colors using Indian-ink and at one point had a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. Apparently having heard that if you throw a dog into water it will learn how to swim, he once threw a dog from the window on the grounds that if one applies the same logic it should learn how to fly! Berners did not enjoy a particularly happy adult life but remembers being happy at Apley and the park as 'an earthly paradise for children'.

After the Second World War Major Foster continued to live at Apley though in far less grandeur and with the legion of staff gone; unmarried and accompanied towards the end by only his nurse and valet he passed away in 1960 and the house became vacant.

In 1962 none of Fosters successors felt any great inclination to live in the “Big Dark house” and so the building was leased to Shropshire Country Council as a boarding school. It is a shame that during this era much damage was done to the historic fabric of the building. Rooms were partitioned off and architectural features typically hacked about to make the building more suitable as a school with little care for heritage. Nevertheless many of the pupils enjoyed idyllic school years here to judge by their reminiscences. Canoeing on the Severn, abseiling from the battlements and some being chased off Apley park estate by gamekeepers; until 1987due to lack of funding the school closed down and fell empty.

The house remained empty and boarded up for almost 10 years and fell into decline- a haven for architectural thieves and lead- fetishists. With its roof coverings stripped and guttering blocked those two demons of the underworld Dry-rot and Decay took their hold. Apley Estates found themselves frustrated by the listed building constraints security problems and phenomenal costs of upkeep; eventually they sold the house and grounds to Apleyhall Restoration ltd a company owned by Neil Avery. Neil is a specialist in conservation and architectural repair; he had formerly lived close by at his previous project and home Patshull hall Staffordshire; with his specialized crew of artisan conservators they began to waken the sleeping beauty ; cutting down the briar roses opening the shutters to let daylight and fresh air in clearing overgrowth from the arboretum-gardens [which in 10 years of neglect had become impenetrable jungle] and making the building watertight. Fireplaces and other adornments which had been stolen and subsequently recovered by the police were now refitted in their original positions.

The house gradually blossomed into life again with great open log fires and sunlight once again streaming through the gothic tracery. At first [other than security staff] Neil lived in the vast house alone; a solitary shadow working late into the night on flood-lit scaffolding attending to specialist Architectural repairs. His famously fast whippet Milo accompanied him on early morning walks through the now cleared gardens of enchantment that had been the sanctuary of so many famous sons’ daughters and schoolboys of Apley. Before long Neil was joined by his French lady Marie and her two daughters from Champagne France and daffodils and crocus’s blossomed beneath towering coastal redwood trees. During the Avery era many magnificent masked charity balls were held at the hall and it was once again a family home and scene of much joy and celebration. Neil recalls magical early mornings at Apley when the mist rises from the river Severn to surround the hall reminiscent of Avalon.

Ironically the complex planning laws which govern listed buildings often serve to obstruct their reuse and over the years this has certainly been the case at Apley. Neil and conservation architect Andrew Arrol often burnt the midnight oil sketching possible designs and alternative uses for the Hall including Hotel Spa and Residential-subdivision which were patiently tabled with the district planning department pondering every minute detail of change. The main limitation being due to the labyrinthine 19th century bolt-on service wings which give the house a forbidding density; this precluded the use of the house as modern private home both because of its size and lack of daylight so for that reason a bold scheme was conceived to reduce the meandering monolith to Wyatt’s original regency plan so that it could continue to be used as a family home.

A successful modern composer fell in love with and agreed to purchase the hall as a fully restored house from Neil’s company if planning could be gained based upon one of Andrews detailed designs. This would involve demolition of the servants’ hall and kitchens and the substitution of a crenulated gothic fašade installed in keeping with the original. The scheme would have included the use of the stable block as studios the cellars for sound recording and the house for entertaining and as a family home. The beauty of this project would be its low intensity and more original use of the building however two alternative applications were turned down for planning consent by the district council even though they did have the backing of the parish council and the Georgian society who were keen to see the original plan restored. Hotel use was considered out of the question too so that left sadly only one future for the hall other than to fall back into ruin –subdivision into apartments.

Timeless apley may appear but time waits for no man. Progress continues and the hall is being split into residential apartments by developers Earlstone under the expert guidance of Mr Graham Moss conservation architect who has been at great pains in his designs to minimise the impact of sub-division on the structure, but sadly those enfilade staterooms will never be able to host grand-balls of past epic proportions.

Neil and his French family are currently traveling Europe with a small band of international craftsmen repairing ruined chateaux and other historic buildings. But have many pleasant memories of halcyon days and sumptuous soirees at Apley.