The villages where feudalism never died

This post is by Guy Shrubsole.

In exploring the old landed estates that still dominate large tracts of England, I’ve visited many stately homes, landscaped parks and barren grouse moors. But the weirdest manifestations of enduring aristocratic influence are to be found in the villages where feudalism never died.

These are the settlements where almost every house belongs to the big estate – and is suitably marked out with the estate colour scheme, from the colour of the front door to the paint-job on the guttering. Some estates have gone further, branding their tenants’ houses with their noble master’s initials or heraldic crest. Down the road, the post office, village store and pub all have the same colour scheme, too – to say nothing of the signage. There might be a village hall with a dedication to the lord of the manor, or a chapel with stained glass windows commemorating his ancestors.

Walking through these villages, I’m often put in mind of Hot Fuzz, with local order being maintained by some decorous yet shadowy patrician operating out of the Big House on the hill. They’re not necessarily a bad thing at all; estate villages are often neat and well-looked-after, and have retained their shops and services when many other rural settlements have seen theirs disappear.

On the other hand, I guess it might sometimes feel a bit claustrophobic to have the estate dominating all local decisions (check out the parish council minutes of such places and you’ll usually find a representative of the estate attending, far more regularly than members of the public). Some tenants may find their estate-owned properties to be subject to ancient restrictive covenants governing what building work they can do on their house. And, whilst it always used to be said that council house tenants in the 1970s couldn’t even choose the colour of their front door before Right to Buy came along, I find it ironic that such questions never seem to get levelled at England’s aristocratic landlords.

Above all, though, such quirky and fascinating villages seem to me to epitomise England’s anachronistic yet enduring quasi-feudal system of land ownership. So, here are a few examples I’ve strayed across; if you know of more, please post them in the comments section below.

Albury, Surrey

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The 3,000-acre Albury Estate near Guildford in Surrey has been owned by the Duke of Northumberland since 1890 (he also owns Syon Park in London, and around 100,000 acres of Northumberland). As you can see, the estate’s colour scheme is green, and its ensign is a crescent moon on its back – and almost every building in the village of Albury (population: 1,190) is decorated in this way. From the green gables…

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… to the green fencing…

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… to the green drainpipes; and on this house, you can also see the Duke’s crescent emblem embedded in the wall of his property, together with the date of construction – 1899 – not long after he acquired the village and surrounding hills for miles around. I found various examples of this on houses in the village.

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In Albury, the village hall’s owned by the Duke…

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… as is the post office!

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Here’s a map of the overall Albury Estate, with the village nestled in the middle (created by digitising Highways Act landowner deposit maps, originals here.)

Albury estate map

Eridge, East Sussex

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The little village of Eridge lies to the south of Tunbridge Wells, within the 3,000-acre Eridge Estate of the Marquess of Abergavenny (the Nevill family). The whole area is controlled by the Nevill Estate Company; estate map below.

Eridge - Marquess of Abergavenney

In Eridge’s chapel you can find both the stained glass window pictured above, and the arms of the Marquess of Abergavenny emblazoned on a pew; note the golden portcullis and the red rose (incidentally, the family played a big role in the Wars of the Roses):

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Walking around the village, these emblems soon started popping up everywhere; on walls and gates…

… but also on the side of houses, together with the initial ‘A’ for Abergavenny.

I mean, you might own the place, but do you really have to stamp your initial on the side of every house in town…?!

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Glynde, East Sussex

Glynde is indelibly associated with opera, thanks to Glyndebourne (owned by Gus Christie), but the village itself is owned by Viscount Hampden – whose coronet and initials can be found moulded onto the front of Glynde Social Club…

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… and whose estate colour scheme – a deep blue – can be found throughout the village, such as on this row of flint-walled cottages, resplendent on the edge of the South Downs:

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Firle, East Sussex

Just south of Glynde is yet another aristocratic estate: Firle Place, the domain of Viscount Gage. Just in case you thought I was overegging it about this feudalism business, even Tatler magazine describes Lord Gage as living “in feudal splendour” at Firle. And, as befits a Viscount, the beautiful little village has been given the estate paint job:

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The village’s reading room bears a 1913 dedication to the 5th Viscount Gage, made out in an earlier era of forelock-tugging deference “as a token of esteem and affection by his tenants”:

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Mind you, these days the Gage family seem content to dine with the plebs at the village’s (amazing) pub:

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Yattendon, West Berkshire

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Yattendon is both a village and an 8,000-acre estate in West Berkshire (the county I grew up in, where just 30 landowners own nearly half the county). Baron Iliffe, a newspaper magnate, acquired Yattendon in 1925, and painted the town conifer-green. His ancestors have gone on to also carpet the surrounding fields with xmas trees, a major income stream for the estate.

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All the usual things in this quaintly feudal village are green: doors, window frames, guttering, the village pub, etc. But what’s unusual about Yattendon is that even the telephone box is painted green…

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Other ‘feudal villages’

  • Abbeystead, Lancashire – heart of the Duke of Westminster’s Abbeystead grouse moor estate – the village/ estate colour scheme is gunmetal grey
  • Raby Estate, North Pennines – all the estate-owned houses in Baron Barnard’s vast 55,000-acre estate have whitewashed walls – the story goes that a previous Baron mandated this so he could find his properties to shelter in if caught out in a storm…
  • Midhurst, South Downs – the Cowdray Estate’s tenanted houses are all painted yellow, reflecting the first Viscount Cowdray’s political affiliation with the Liberal Party (he owed his peerage to Liberal PM Lloyd George).

This article in Country Life has more examples of estates and their colour schemes.

14 thoughts on “The villages where feudalism never died

  1. Hahaha – you’ve had a lot of fun Guy!

    It is my understanding at Blenheim that there is a Parish Council there with a single councillor who happens to be of the Estate – I think it was the estates’ manager.

  2. The Bell family if Arncliffe Hall ( Ingleby Arncliffe, North Yorkshire ) have two estate villages, the aforementioned Ingleby Arncliffe & East Rounton, the latter remodeled in the Arts & Crafts style. Also the Duncombe Estate in Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

  3. The village of Cartmel in Cumbria, just outside the Lake District is another example. Owned by the Cavendish family of Holker Hall. The village is peppered with buildings of a traditional style and splashes of the estate’s light green colours.

  4. This is fascinating Guy.

    Do the people who live in these places own their houses but with restrictive covenants or is every house a tenant of the estate?

    1. Hi,

      I have written a bit about the village of Lacock, owned by the National Trust, below. The Trust does have covenants over some estate villages, such as Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, which it works hard to protect. The extent of the estate runs to nearly 4000 acres. The Hambleden estate was placed on the market for the first time in decades in 2007, causing considerable distress to inhabitants of the 44 cottages put up for sale, who were all long standing sitting tenants on very cheap rents. I believe the sale was withdraw, except for Culham House.

      The covenants covered Culham House, listed grade 2* at the time, just south of the river, which was sold with some 900 acres, if my memory is correct, shortly afterwards.

      It is possible to impose covenants on properties but I am not familiar with these nor the legal niceties. What I do know is that an estate village is owned by the estate, by definition. In addition to Lacock, the National Trust lays claim to owning a good thirty villages, but not quite so comprehensively. I know that the 8000 odd acre estates of Buscot and Coleshill in Oxfordshire were given to the Trust by Ernest Cook in order to preserve the community, a responsibility that the National Trust does respect.

  5. Rockingham,near Corby is one that springs to mind. I think there are plenty around the Nottinghamshire town’s of Worksop…there’s the huge estate of Wellbeck to name one in what is known as The Dukeries.

  6. This is brilliant and insightful stuff Guy. In many ways the chocolate box Nature of these villages are an example of an injustice hiding in plain sight. It also highlights the complicity of government, and the helplessness of ordinary folk. I have no gripe with the great estates per se…they often do good work managing the land etc, rather it is the class system and the system of control that require more scrutiny…should wealth be inherited and should the class system be continued to be propped up by a public school system that stands on the backs of ordinary tax payers… Anyway lots to think about and discuss over a pint maybe in one of those village pubs… Cheers
    Robert

  7. About forty to fifty years ago Country life reckoned there were about six hundred estate villages in the UK, although huge numbers will have been sold off or fragmented since then. I regret I am unable to give the specific reference for this information.

    There is a good side to these places. Communities survive in them which would be outpriced in a free market. A good example is Lacock in Wiltshire, owned by the National Trust, where the local population is made up very much of local people leading a true village life which is rare in the UK. Needless to say there are grumbles about not being able to put up satelite dishes and the hoardes of tourists, as there would be anywhere, but the one real complaint I get from the locals is the claustrophobia arising from everyone knowing everyone else and everyone knowing your business. But that is people not landlords.

    I appreciate this does not support the general gripe about toffs lording it over the peasants, but there are always two sides to the argument, even if, in this case, the landlord is a responsible public institution with massive popular support.

  8. A lovely, thoughtful piece Guy! I live in the far west corner of West Berks where several of these estates adjoin – Highclere, Faccombe, Wes Woodhay, Combe, Linkenholt etc. We used to live & work on the (very feudal) Highclere Estate (blue doors changed shade with the succession of each new Earl) & have now lived as tenants on the Kirby Estate (green paintwork) for 16yrs. Our children have grown up with ‘estate life’. Our 1950s estate cottage is one of six identical ones (the other 20 odd cottages, houses & farms on the Estate vary greatly in age). They have the date & initials of their owner (John Astor MP) over the porch & all have identical curtains, blinds & carpets.

  9. The village of Eastnor surrounding Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire is another I believe. All the houses have the same reddish colour scheme on the doors and guttering.

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