Woodchester Mansion

by Gethin Thomas December. 13, 2020 285 views

"there is nothing more sad to the sight than an unfinished work and it is even more forlorn than a ruin of a building which has served its purpose..."

Benjamin Bucknall, 1878

First a bit of context to these photos. I visited Woodchester Mansion back in 2004 when it was not officially open to the public but it used to have occasional open days in the summer. I was lucky to see it then on a guided tour of the interior.

Recently while browsing Photoblog I came across a post by Amateurjacksnaps who has recently visited and taken some exterior shots although it is currently closed due to Covid.

So I decided to seek out my old photos on my external hard drive not really remembering what I had or if they were even presentable. They were probably taken on my first digital camera and I had not edited them in any way so they were a bit hit and miss. As an excuse for their quality I would like to use the fairly primitive nature of my early digital and also the fact that the house had no interior lighting so certain interior areas were very dark which meant using the rather basic inbuilt flash.

I have now edited them in Affinity and done my best with them just to highlight the main features in each shot.

So those are all my excuses, now for some background to Woodchester Mansion. It is a very rare house especially in a country that has hundreds of country houses of all types. We have every shape, period, size and condition of country house you could wish to see in Britain but what is unusual about Woodchester is that it was only ever half built. As a consequence it is possible to visit what is in effect a building site where it looks like the workers have just down tools and left. The skeleton of a mansion with all it's construction techniques in full view, something very rare indeed. Many visitors are architecture students from around the world.

This before and after gives a little impression of what I was able to improve in editing. That should be after and before in this case.

If you check out Amateurjacksnaps more recent exterior shots you will notice one major difference. In the recent shots you will see there are now glazed windows. Although it is intended to keep the house in an unfinished state, practicalities mean that it has to be made weather proof.

Some areas of the house never had their floors constructed so it is possible to look up from the ground floor and see the rooms above. There are several things to notice. Although the floors were never completed, the fireplaces and other decorative stone features were built because they are integral to the wall structure. As you ascend to the rooms above, the fireplaces get simpler in design. The top room would probably have been a nursery or child's bedroom. Notice the content of the wall materials, all sorts of random stone has been infilled with brick. Lastly notice the double brick arch above the fireplace, this is the true load bearing arch not the lintel of the fireplace which is purely decorative. The pillars of the fireplace have large rough hewn stone blocks underpinning them.

The style of the house uses barrel and fan vaulting for the grander ground floor rooms, and here you can see the base of an unfinished fan vault.

Again you can see here the true load bearing triple brick arch above this doorway. All of this structure would have been covered with plaster work. Leaving the dressed stone arches visible.

Here is a section of completed fan vaulting. There is also a staircase on the left with arched windows.

Here is a rare sight. The original wooden former still in situ. This is a mould that supports the arch while it is being built. After the arch is set the former is then removed. There is also a rough wood beam in a hole above left. This is also for construction purposes and would be later removed.

Because the roof was not fully weather proofed, at some point tiles have been attached to features like fireplaces to prevent water damage.

This would have been a very ornate and complex fan vaulted ceiling.

This was planned as some sort of double height room at the top, note the huge stone arch. It could have been a grand bedroom, or hallway or even a ballroom?

Arched openings to light the staircase.

A finished section of complex fan vaulting.

In 2004 this was the only habitable room, with furniture and drapes and of course glass in the windows.

Another grand upper hallway.

This was the part that fascinated me most. Something that nobody was ever meant to see. The top of the barrel and fan vaulting. You can see the rounded arch which would normally have a level floor placed above it. On our guided tour we actually walked on this vaulting. Probably the first and last time I will ever get to do that.

Here you can see a rough timber which would be removed and slots in the stonework at floor level where massive wooden beams would go to support the floor. These would probably have been in well finished timber possibly even carved with decoration and visible from the room below.

A grand reception room on the first floor with fan vaulting below, seen from two floors above.

Decorative stone arches on the top floor. It's interesting how the huge roof beam is off centre and cut into the stone.

A temporary staircase to enable access for workers and tours.

The large central stones are called bosses and the decorative flowers seen on the bosses in other photos are missing.

Some history of the house.

Woodchester Mansion is an unfinished, Gothic revival mansion house in Woodchester Park in Woodchester, near Nympsfield, Gloucestershire, England. The mansion is a Grade I listed building. The mansion was abandoned by its builders in the middle of construction, leaving behind a building that appears complete from the outside, but with floors, plaster and whole rooms missing inside. It has remained in this state since the mid-1870s. The mansion's creator William Leigh bought the Woodchester Park estate for £100,000 in 1854, demolishing the existing house, which had been home to the Ducie family.

William Leigh was born in Liverpool, and educated at Oxford and Eton. At the time of the purchase he was living at Little Aston Hall in Staffordshire, where he had recently converted to the Roman Catholic faith. This and the Gothic Revival style in architecture were fashionable, and formed the ideology for the new house. He approached Augustus Pugin to draw up the plans. Pugin drew up plans for the house but in 1846 he became ill and the project was allowed to drop. He then turned to Charles Francis Hansom, whose brother designed the famous Hansom cab of Victorian London, to take over the architectural planning. In 1857 Leigh dropped Hansom, and unexpectedly hired Benjamin Bucknall, a young man who was an aspiring architect and assistant to Hansom, but very inexperienced. Bucknall set about studying Gothic Revival architecture – the result, Woodchester Mansion, is Bucknall's masterpiece.

Woodchester Mansion was constructed from 1858 to 1870, and finally in 1873, when William Leigh died, all work stopped.

In 1878 Bucknall wrote to Leigh's son:

"there is nothing more sad to the sight than an unfinished work and it is even more forlorn than a ruin of a building which has served its purpose..."

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Jack Mathews 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Wow thank you so much for the shout out! Amazing photos, the one where you can see the arches through the floor is fascinating. Thanks for digging these out, I will definitely be returning next summer when they reopen and will do a follow up blog!!

4 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Gethin Thomas Replied to Jack Mathews 4 months, 2 weeks ago

It'll be interesting to see what they have done inside since I was there.

4 months, 2 weeks ago Edited
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