Country houses on the Sussex Downs by Sue Berry


The story of the country house on the Downs. They developed a distinctive role as the centre of country house estates, the number of which increased and then declined between about 1200 and 1950.  As England became wealthier and more politically stable from the later medieval period, the ownership of an estate with a country house became an aspiration of people who had made their wealth through business or profited from their dealings as holders of government posts.

Some very grand houses were built on and near the Downs in the Tudor period such as Firle, Parham and Wiston. Many of the new owners bought land formerly owned by monasteries, the Diocese of Chichester, and the See of Canterbury but taken by Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth Ist. The stories of some of the people involved in the development of houses during this period such as the Shirleys (or Sherleys) of Wiston, and the Gorings of Danny would make a TV mini-series.

During the ‘long’ eighteenth century (between about 1680 and 1830) a few more new houses such as Lavington House (now Seaford College) and the remarkable Goring Castle were built. Most of the old ones such as Uppark, Petworth, Goodwood, and Compton Place (Eastbourne) were lavishly refashioned, hiding older buildings within the new exteriors. This was the period when owners chose from a variety of architectural styles. That is reflected in the diversity of Georgian facades we see today. Owners also landscaped the surrounding grounds. Some of the owners, such as the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, and George O’Brien, the Earl of Egremont of Petworth could afford to lavish huge sums of money on their houses. But Nathaniel Kemp of Ovingdean could only afford a modest country house, built for him for £2653.10s.10d by a local builder.

From the 1830s, the role of landed estates changed. Their political influence in rural areas and small towns declined because of reforms to the electoral system and limits to their authority when they held a government post.  Many owners’ incomes declined, particularly after about 1870 because rents, their key source of income, fell and taxation increased. The huge debts owed by many, thanks to years of borrowing to fund the country house lifestyle also contributed to the loss of estates and their houses. Owners of businesses bought some of the estates and modernised the houses. Other estates were broken up into smaller units, the houses sold with some land for use as schools and hotels or as offices for local authorities. Amberley Castle, Burton Park, and Stanmer House are in this group.

This 160 page book includes over 100 illustrations and four maps in colour, and a list of places which are accessible to the public, and where to find more information about going there. 

Sue Berry was the Principal Lecturer in Tourism Management at Brighton University. She wrote Georgian Brighton, and has published in books, in national and international journals, on tourism and history, and in the regional historical journal for Sussex – the Sussex Archaeological Collections. She has also been a trustee of national and regional bodies such as the National Trust, and the Sussex Archaeological Society.  She lectures on aspects of the historical period between c1680 and 1914.

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