knepp castle history


The home of Charlie and Issy Burrell

By Mary Miers for the Country Life Magazine

In the first decade of the 19th century two brothers, Sir Charles and Walter Burrell, each commissioned John Nash to design a new house for their neighbouring estates of Knepp and West Grinstead in the Sussex Weald. The houses belonged to a group of fashionable Regency Gothic "castles", but their plans and setting, and ultimately their fates, were very different. West Grinstead, sold out of the family in 1912, became riddled with rot and was demolished in 1970; Knepp emerged phoenix-like from a devastating fire of 1904, and has recently undergone something of a renaissance in the hands of a new generation of Burrells. 

Knepp came into the Burrell family through the brothers' mother Sophia, whose father, Sir Charles Raymond, had acquired it in 1787. A poetess and playwright, Sophia had married her second cousin, the lawyer, archaeologist and Sussex historian Sir William Burrell, who inherited the Raymond baronetcy from his father-in-law in 1788. There was no habitable residence at Knepp at this time, so they bought the Deepdene near Dorking in 1790.

The 1787 sales particulars described Knepp as extending to 1600 acres and having, near the upper end of its 80-acre "fish pond", an "elevated and beautiful spot, to build a house upon". When Sir Charles Burrell inherited it on his mother's death in 1802, he decided to make Knepp his home. To finance his new house, he was permitted by an Act of Parliament to sell the Deepdene (to Sir Thomas Hope in 1807), and other inherited properties. The Act stipulated that proceeds be spent buying lands in Sussex and building a family mansion at Knepp. Meanwhile, his brother Walter had inherited West Grinstead, which their great uncle, Sir Merrik Burrell, had bought in 1749. A prosperous merchant and governor of the Bank of England, Sir Merrik had re-established the Burrells in Sussex, buying back former ancestral lands. 

There is some uncertainty as to the exact dates of the two Nash houses, but it is likely that West Grinstead, replacing an earlier house on a different site, was under construction by 1806. We know that by 1808 Nash had already designed "a mansion house and offices be built for the said Sir Chas. Merrik Burrell on his estate called Knepp", because that year he was obliged to produce the drawings under oath in Chancery (being prone to falling out with clients). Nash estimated that it would cost "about 13,000 exclusive of the charge of the architect and carriage of materials, by comparison with an estimate of 12,625 for another house.......on a different scite at Knepp of similar dimensions tho of different form allowing for the increase which has taken place in the price of materials since the first estimate was made". The affidavit suggests that Nash had been involved at Knepp for some years before 1808. 

His estimate proved somewhat optimistic. A document dated 1812 states that the "mansion house with offices....complete except in the inside work" had cost "upwards of 19,000". Decoration was to cost a further 9,500. The building works were superintended by Alexander Kyffin. Whether Humphrey Repton's son George was involved as well is not documented, but he was Nash's assistant at the time, and illustrated West Grinstead in two of his notebooks.

When in 1831 Sir Charles inherited West Grinstead from his bachelor brother, the two properties were consolidated as a 5,000-acre nucleus of Burrell lands in mid Sussex. The family had been associated with the county since the 15th century, first as farmers and vicars of Cuckfield, then as wealthy ironmasters in the 17th century. After several generations away as merchants in foreign trade, they returned to Sussex, and Sir Charles Burrell was MP for Shoreham for 55 years. His descendants, Sir Merrik and Sir Walter Burrell, both became presidents of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. 

The present owner, Charles Burrell, took over Knepp from his grandfather, Sir Walter, in 1985. He has recently initiated the restoration of elements of the historic landscape, which originated as a medieval deerpark. Re-landscaped in the Reptonesque manner from 1806, Knepp's parkland was greatly extended over the next century. The Burrells have recently enclosed some 500 acres, established a herd of fallow deer and realigned the ha-ha.

The Castle lies to the west of a long sweep of water - a medieval hammer pond which served an iron furnace in the late 16th century and was fished intensively in the 17th and 18th. In 1835 it was described as "the most extensive piece of water south of the river Thames". Much reduced in size, it is still a remarkable feature of the landscape, appearing to flow past the house like a great river. Combining with the wooded parkland, it creates the perfect setting for Nash's picturesque castle mansion. 

Across the lake to the south east stands the last surviving fragment of old Knepp Castle, an early Norman keep built by William de Braose as a dependency of Bramber Castle and used as a hunting lodge. Illustrated in various antiquarian views, its ruin, backed by the gentle rise of the South Downs, has been perceived as an eyecatcher since the early 19th century.

Nash's only surviving drawing of the present castle (now in the Mellon Collection) is a view from the south. This shows how effectively he disguised the symmetry of its entrance front, with its four (unusually for Nash) identical towers, by adding long, thin service wings, crenellated and punctuated with towers. Without compromising the prospect of the main rooms, these contribute to the picturesque grouping of the house and provide a false impression of size. Nash had assured Sir Charles Burrell that Knepp would be "not too large for any gentleman above the rank of tradesman".

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