Rus In Urbe - A Country Retreat in the City, Derby

PUBLISHED: 13:59 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Rus In Urbe

Rus In Urbe

Recollections of a recently lost Derby town house.

There comes a time when the old cliche 'all good things must come to an end' becomes a reality. This applied to a Victorian vicarage and its splendid garden close to the centre of Derby that is now vanished.

The house was not always a vicarage but was built in the 1850s when the parkland of Mill Hill House on higher land beyond was sold for development. There were various features in this parklike setting which were, to say the least, unusual. They included two rocaille arches built of volcanic tufa rock, one heavy and baroque, the other slimmer and more Arabic in appearance. These were typical of the work of William Barron who built similar structures at Elvaston Castle for the 4th Earl of Harrington. It is almost certain that he was involved with Mill Hill House. There was also a handsome Victorian summerhouse made of wood with a wooden portico.

These structures were retained and became embellishments for the first private house to be built on part of the land and enclosed by high brick walls. It was then known as Swinburne House and was occupied by various families such as the Pikes (one of whom founded The Derby Daily Telegraph in 1879); Henry E. Ayre (1844-1926) (see Burke's Landed Gentry 1952); Henry Cummings, a solicitor (b.1858); Col. J.G. Sparkes (1898) and John Rawson, Mineral Manager of the Midland Railway (1908).

Within sight of some of the bedroom windows was the spire of Christ Church, the local Anglican place of worship, and thus Swinburne House was well placed to be Christ Church Vicarage which it became in the 1930s.

During the following decades Derby changed out of all recognition and the vicarage ceased to function as such when the church became Serbian Orthodox. Local people bought the old house and used it as a family home.

When it eventually came onto the market in 1984 the building was not in good order and the garden was a wilderness. It was bought by the last owners against all advice, as they had not been able to have the place properly surveyed. However the purchaser said afterwards that as soon as he spotted the rocaille arches he was determined to have them whatever the risk!

The new owners moved in and almost at once some of the elaborate plasterwork decoration and half the ceiling of the Drawing Room collapsed. By a miracle a local firm was able to restore the broken plasterwork so skilfully that it was not possible to detect the mishap. There were many other problems and heartbreaks such as extensive dry rot before the house became properly habitable. Work on the garden took several years with the help of John Bounds who had known the vicarage and its garden since childhood. He put his considerable horticultural skills into getting the garden in order and the family enjoyed fine lawns, follies, a 'secret garden' and even a vegetable garden for over 20 years. The dilapidated summer-house was restored and, in summer, sitting outside was rather like being in deepest countryside as traffic noise was muffled and the trees shut out views of most other buildings. Squirrels and many species of birds were encouraged to visit and make their nests and chirp their songs. On one occasion even a pheasant came to call. From inside the house the illusion was complete - views of the follies and the church spire, the well-trimmed lawns, beech, sycamore, laburnam and other ornamental trees and shrubs, and almost complete silence.

The interior was approached by an entrance hall with a large, impresssive ornamental staircase rising two storeys. The Drawing Room, ceiling repaired and the walls newly decorated in a rich geranium hue, made a fine background to display portraits and other paintings belonging to the family. High French windows led into the garden on one side and others opened into a small conservatory. A largish room overlooking the street made a suitable library for part of the family's 5,000 or so books. Another room became the Music Room and also served as a study.

What caused the owners who had lovingly restored and cherished this old house and its garden to abandon it after two happy decades? Maintenance of such a large building became increasingly difficult and expensive. It was not the most comfortable house to live in and none too warm. The owners had to think of the future. Open land behind one of the garden walls had been used to build a hostel for the homeless. A rich man would not have chosen a house in the inner city to lavish large amounts on and in any case not many would be likely to want the Vicarage as a private house in view of its condition and position. Development was the answer - which was a terrible decision to make for a family devoted to historic buildings and preservation. They were advised that if they did not do it to their best advantage, someone else soon would. And so its fate was decided.

But it was not all bad news. The firm of developers had a reputation for handsome new buildings (none of your 1960s glass and concrete) and the block of apartments designed would be a better prospect for neighbours or the passer-by than the dilapidated Vicarage. So apart from a section of the garden which would inevitably be lost (most of the trees remain), the final scenario, when it is completed and weathered, will be an asset to its surroundings.

Good news too for the garden ornaments. The large baroque arch was given to the Gerrish family who had recently bought and restored Herbert Lodge at Bonsall and who have embarked on a Paxton-style rockery which will eventually be crowned by Barron's arch. The other arch and the summer-house have also gone to good homes so they have not been made into a pile of rubble. As for the house itself, it was gently dismantled and was a model for recycling - its hundreds of roof slates, its fireplaces and other Victorian features and its bricks will all live on in other structures - a builder's version of organ transplants.

The Old Vicarage, after teetering on the verge of collapse, was restored and provided a quirky and beautiful home for many years for an appreciative family. It will not be forgotten.

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