High drama at Hylands House Chelmsford
PUBLISHED: 10:54 12 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013
With its Georgian façade, it may be a dead ringer for The White House, but the restored Hylands House is a true Essex landmark, writes Nicky Adams
WHEN the film crews park up on the gravelled drive of a country mansion outside Chelmsford, it is the home of the president they have come to visit.
With the hasty addition of a few false columns knocked up by the props men, and some rearrangement of the flower borders, it's true that this white-stuccoed Georgian mansion does a very passable impression of The White House, on the silver screen at least. But if the camera were to draw back a little it would have no choice but to drink in the 574 acres of rolling Essex parkland and the formal gardens designed by the great English landscape artist Humphry Repton that surround it. For this is in fact Hylands House, a sedate country pile built in around 1730 for local worthy and Maldon MP Sir John Comyns, which has recently risen from the ashes to become one of the county's best-loved historic homes.
'People step through the front door and marvel at the craftsmanship of the restoration work and the sheer beauty of the interiors,' says Ceri Lowen, house manager at Hylands, who last year welcomed no fewer than 731,000 visitors to the estate. 'It is wonderful that a home of this type is open to the public for so many to enjoy.'
And enjoy Hylands, they do. Whether walking their dogs through the park and woodlands, strolling in the pleasure gardens or wandering the lovingly refurbished rooms of the house and learning about its history, Hylands is a place that draws people back time and again. Many regular visitors are locals, but Ceri reports a sharp increase in the number of tourists who travel from elsewhere in the UK and even from as far as Europe and America to see this house in all its restored glory.
Phoenix from the flames
It wasn't always this way, though. Anyone who visited between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s will remember a very different Hylands House. Although the estate was bought by Chelmsford Borough Council in 1966 and the grounds opened to the public, in the four years that had passed since the death of Hylands' last private owner, the house had suffered some dramatic deterioration. Damaged by fire and plundered by thieves, Hylands stood empty, boarded and forlorn for two decades, despite being listed in 1967 as a Grade II building of special architectural and historical importance.
In 1985, however, Hylands' luck changed. The borough council set up a restoration fund and later that year English Heritage gave its consent to the council's proposal to restore the exterior of the house to its neo-classical form. To this end, the building was re-roofed and even rebuilt in places. But the money couldn't be found to tackle the inside until 1994 when the Heritage Lottery Fund granted £3.4m and gave the green light to the council to launch a major restoration and refurbishment project.
Turning back time
So began the painstaking process of turning back time and peeling back the layers to reveal once more the glorious interiors of Hylands' 19th century heyday. By 1996 the Entrance Hall had been fully restored to its Georgian grandeur and The Blue Room and Boudoir were refurbished. Work continued apace and today, visitors can wonder at the gilded Drawing Room, the grand Staircase Hall, the Saloon and the Library as well as a fabulous collection of Hylands finds.
'Hylands has something for everyone now,' says Ceri. 'People just seem to love it here.'
The history of Hylands
Known in Medieval times as Highlands, the estate's first official owner was Maldon MP and Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Sir John Comyns, in around 1731. The house was relatively unassuming with just two storeys and constructed of red brick. Three generations of the Comyns family lived in it modestly until in 1797 Cornelius Kortright, a Danish merchant, bought the property at auction. It was Kortright who commissioned Humphry Repton to transform the formal gardens. Repton famously disliked red brick and Kortright went along with his suggestion to stucco the outside of the building, White House style.
The house's third owner, French merchant banker and patron of the arts, Pierre Labouchere, acquired the property in 1815 and added a west wing to mirror the one on the east. A pioneer in horticulture, he also added
a 300ft heated conservatory. Victorian entrepreneur, ironmaster and MP for Harwich, John Attwood paid £50,000 for Hylands in 1839 and set about transforming it into an extremely grand country seat.
He enlarged the park to 590 acres and employed the architect JB Papworth to rebuild the east wing and part of the west wing, from their foundations up, to create a suite of lavish reception rooms. A third storey was added and the portico was redesigned to shelter carriages. In 1847, Attwood was found guilty of election bribery and his career and speculations plummeted.
Hylands was put up for auction and stood empty for four years until it was sold, with only a portion of the original land, to Arthur Pryor.
Visiting Hylands House and Park
The 574 acres of Hylands Park, including recreational ancient woodland, grassland, lakes, ponds, pleasure garden and the One World Garden, are open to the public seven days a week from 7.30am, usually closing at dusk.
The recently restored Grade II-listed Stables Centre houses a visitor centre including Huttons Courtyard Cafe, a gift shop, artists' studios and the Friends of Hylands bookshop (the proceeds of which go towards the upkeep of the estate).
Hylands House is open to the public on Sundays and Mondays throughout the year, between 10am and 4pm October to March, and 10am and 5pm April to September. For full information and admission prices, go to www.chelmsford.gov.uk/hylands or call 01245 605500
What's going on at Hylands?
March 22 to April 27 Gadgets and Gizmos Exhibition
Hylands House and Stables Centre hosts a range of adult and children's events and Hylands House is a popular venue for weddings, functions, conferences and events.
For information, call 01245 605500
Friends of Hylands House organises fund-raising and social events for the preservation and improvement of the estate. For more information about the group go to
www.friendsofhylandshouse.com, or contact Brian Hinds on 01245 259733