Neill Denny 31 January 2012 - 4:30pm
It's not often you pick up a book that is so right and just think: 'yes, why has no-one done this before?'
But I had just such a moment when I first saw John Martin Robinson's Felling The Ancient Oaks. The book is based on a simple but engaging premise, consisting solely of pictures and short histories of 20 stately homes lost in the last century.
After a short, but erudite, potted history of the English country house, the book's core is a series of short chapters on the demolished houses, what remains of their estates, and why they failed to survive. There is something compelling and evocative about abandoned, lost or ruined homes that appeals to the voyeur in all of us, and this book hits that sweet spot again and again.
It is gloriously illustrated with some mesmerising black-and-white pictures of the houses in the pomp, and then some equally fascinating ones of their demolition and what now remains on the site. Martin Robinson is a contributor to Country Life magazine and many of the pictures come from its archives.
The houses were laid low by a combination of factors: heirs killed in the Great War, death duties, gambling addictions and worse. This is the world of Downton Abbey brought to life, or rather death, and all the more interesting for that. Every chapter could form a mini-series in its own right.
The accompanying text is a joy, shot through with a nostalgia for what has been lost and a disdain for the modern horrors, from golf courses to caravan parks and 'suburban villas' that now stand in place of these lost architectural marvels. You may not agree with Robinson's point of view, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to regret the loss of these magnificent buildings.