There is nothing more sad to the sight than an unfinished work – it is even more forlorn than the ruin of a building
which has served its purpose. ¹
Understanding how our contemporaries respond to the wide and varying issues involved in conservation is important. Visiting historic properties and sites, other than only our own works, makes sure that we keep an open mind to new ideas and different interpretations of building conservation.
Woodchester Mansion is a fascinating example of a particular conservation approach.
Construction of the mansion commenced in the late 1850s, but halted with the death of William Leigh, who conceived of and commissioned the project. Today, Woodchester Mansion still stands and is conserved as a designated Grade I listed structure, a skeletal testament to Leigh’s ambitions; the house never having been completed, nor fully inhabited.
Leigh’s early C19th ambition for this house was to create a home, conceived in a Gothic Revival style, as the built expression of his new Catholic faith. Its construction was part of his wider personal mission - that of establishing a Catholic Community in Woodchester.
Establishing this Community required the concentration of funds to erect a monastery and church. In addition, to build the house to such ecclesiastical standards in both detail and material was expensive. Both ambitions saw Leigh’s resources dwindle and assets mortgaged. Sadly, therefore, it may have been the scale of this ambition, along with that of the house, that contributed to the final incompleteness of the Mansion.
This was a position from which Leigh’s descendants were never able to recover, so the structure remained incomplete. No subsequent owner significantly invested in the building, and it gradually became the habitat of bats and provided one small apartment. In 1989 the Woodchester Mansion Trust was founded and leased the building from owners Stroud District Council.
In 2014 the structure stands in the damp and narrow secluded valley of Woodchester Park, itself a Grade II listed Landscape. Never the home of a Catholic family, nor used by another religious order, the property is now – literally and spiritually - hollow. It is not a ruin, but never having a use beyond providing small units of ad-hoc accommodation it stands only as a shell.
The Mansion is now destined to remain unfinished, to be conserved in accordance with the Mansion House Trust’s ethos of repair but not completion. What it has also become is a valuable resource of the construction methodology of Gothic Revival Architecture - which we were able to study at our visit (see the accompanying sketches to this post).
I struggle philosophically with this ‘frozen in time’ approach and the deleterious effect that it has on the building fabric, but respect the time, expertise, skill and dedication of all the people that have worked on the project - ultimately it has meant that the Mansion - in some form- is still here today.
For more information and to plan a visit: www.woodchestermansion.org.uk
¹ Benjamin Bucknall, Architect of Woodchester Mansion, p. 14, Davenport, L. (2014). Why was Woodchester Mansion never finished? Plans Post 1873. Nympsfield, Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, GL10 3TS: Woodchester Manion Trust Ltd.