Perhaps the most common building type over the last hundred years or so in Britain is the Tudor style house: the dream of any self-respecting middle-class aspirant; the waking nightmare of most professional architects and critics. Unlike its other revivalist cousins – Neo-Georgian, Gothic Revival, Neoclassical – it’s never been respected enough to be called anything other than ‘Mock’ Tudor, as if it were an entirely imaginary style. Yet, just like any other copycat style, the Tudor refers back to a real form of architecture, or rather a type of building that characterised the period in Britain from 1485 to 1603, when the monarchy finally shed its Norman roots – and its basis in foreign lands – and, at least in the popular imagination, became fully British, namely during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
In the Manchester region, genuine Tudor buildings cling to life precariously, long since swallowed up by either industrial buildings or, later, vast housing estates. The wrecks are all too present, often the subject of plaintive appeals from local residents or the city’s newspapers. Wythenshawe Hall – a 16th-century timber-framed former manor house standing in splendid isolation in the middle of Wythenshawe Park – was badly damaged after a fire was deliberately started there on 15 March 2016; its fate is now uncertain, despite assurances from Manchester City Council and the charity group The Friends of Wythenshawe Hall that the building will be restored and put to public use. Nearby is an even older building, Baguley Hall, probably built in the 14th century, making it one of the oldest (and pre-Tudor) medieval timber-framed halls in North-West England. It stands anachronously amongst Wythenshawe’s endless residential streets, mostly built en-masse in the 1920s and 1930s as a new garden-city suburb of Manchester. After being used for many years by the Council for storage, it was acquired by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works in 1968 and is now in the care of English Heritage. Surrounded by a high fence and obscured by overgrown vegetation, Baguley Hall is both an obdurate survivor and also a poignant reminder of just how difficult it is to find new uses for old buildings, especially when their very oldness is the quality that is valued. Sadder still is Hough Hall in Manchester’s northern suburb of Moston. Probably built at the end of the 16th century, and long enveloped by Victorian terraces, it has been mostly empty for decades; only partially used by its last owner as a commercial business up until 2005. Today, its dilapidation is extraordinary: plaster is crumbling into the ground, accelarated by the plants that have found sustenance in it; while the distorted timber beams have none of the picturesque qualities we so admire in other Tudor buildings that have survived.
Of course, there are a few celebrated Tudor buildings in Greater Manchester that have gone on to find other uses that cherish rather than resist their ancientness. Ordsall Hall in Salford, built in the 15th century, was sold by its longstanding owners, the Radclyffes in 1662. It was eventually acquired by Salford Council in 1959 after centuries of use as variously a working men’s club, a school for clergy and a radio station. Refurbished between 2009 and 2011, the Hall is now a free museum that hosts exhibitions, immersive room settings and a cafe. The City of Manchester still has its most famous medieval building, Chetham’s School and Library, founded in 1421 as a priests’ college for the nearby Collegiate Church (now the cathedral). Dissolved by Henry VIII in 1547, Chetham’s was subsequently acquired by the Stanley Family and remained in their hands until the Civil War. It has been a school since 1653 until the present day – now one of the most esteemed private music schools in Britain. But perhaps the most stubborn survivor is the Old Wellington Pub, built in 1552 and located next the Cathedral in Shambles Square. Having miraculously survived the bombs of the Luftwaffe, the Pub and its 17th-century neighbour Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, only escaped demolition in the 1970s when they were raised up 15ft and literally lifted out of the ground to a new location in Shambles Square. Spared once more after the IRA bomb of 1996, they were moved again to their current location next to the Cathedral as part of the more recent redevelopment of the city centre.
Like all the medieval buildings that still stand in Greater Manchester – other examples include Clayton Hall and Hough End Hall in the city of Manchester, Bramall Hall in Stockport, Wardley Hall and Old Worsley Hall in Worsley, and Hail i’th in Bolton – their survival has not been the result of careful preservation but rather their ability to find new uses in the face of the destruction or redundancy of old ones. Because they are of relatively simple construction – brick, timber and plaster – and organic in their evolution, Tudor buildings are eminently adaptable, even as this inevitably leads to the loss of their authentic architectural identity. Indeed, it could be argued that nearly all Tudor buildings that survive are ‘Mock’ Tudor, bastardised by centuries of adaptation. And even those buildings that are seemingly irrevocably lost, like Hulme Hall that was demolished in 1840 to make way for the Bridgewater Canal, live on in other ways – the building’s 15th-century carved oak panels were saved and rehoused in Worsley Old Hall, later to be transferred to the new seat of residence of the local landowners, the Egerton family.
Back in 1972, when Hough Hall was scheduled for demolition under a Compulsory Purchase Order, local residents organised a one-off festival to demonstrate their resistance to the Council’s plans – children made Tudor costumes and walked around the market on Moston Lane enlisting support from shoppers. Today, children are encouraged to dress up in Tudor costumes in both Ordsall and Bramall Hall, and, on a visit to Ordsall, my daughter willingly obliged by donning chain mail. The recent popularity of Tudor histories – perhaps most notably the BBC series Wolf Hall (2015) and The Tudors (2007-10) – with all their sensational sexual and political intrigues and lavish costume design, demonstrate that the appeal of the Tudors is most definitely not limited to children. In the popular imagination, Tudor buildings and their inhabitants signal a golden age in British history – a time when the elusive but much coveted notion of Britishness revealed itself most strongly. Of course, this is mostly myth-making, and a dangerously seductive one at that in these post-Brexit times; but perhaps we can at least celebrate the Tudor in its exemplary adaptability – its seeming ability to be moulded into any shape, its very lack of authenticity its greatest strength.