The original Manor House for Woodchester was in the village, adjacent to the old church. After a succession of owners, the manor was granted to George Huntley in 1564. Subsequently, he decided to create a deer park, a little distance from the Manor House, by both purchase and through the enclosure of common agricultural land in the Inchbrook valley. A seven mile long boundary wall surrounded the park and by 1610 a hunting lodge was built at the western end. The expense of creating the park is thought to have nearly bankrupted the Huntley's and the manor and park were sold to Sir Robert Ducie in 1631. Later generations of the Ducie family decided to build a grand country house and, at the same time, create a magnificent landscaped park out of the deer park. Quite why this site was chosen will forever remain an enigma. The steep sides of the valley mean that for much of the year the sun is obscured. The house being positioned halfway down the length of the valley reduces the dramatic views that would have surely been seen if it had been built on a higher spot. The site is neither convenient nor easy for transport. As it wasn't the Ducie's principal residence, they may have looked at it more as an isolated retreat. In any case, they decided to extend and adapt the hunting lodge and lay out a formal garden, and although a precise start date isn't known, the house - called Spring Park - was constructed during the 1740s. Certainly by 1750 it was finished, as Frederick, Prince of Wales stayed - and in 1788, George III visited.
Before George III's visit - and only 30 years after the formal gardens were established - a start was made on extensively re-landscaping the grounds from plans drawn-up by John Speyers, working with Capability Brown. This plan removed the more formal aspect of the garden to create a naturalistic park. Part of the plan also turned a group of small fishponds in to a series of lakes - and this was done in the late 18th or early 19th Century.
Not only was the park remodelled but the house too - several times in the 1770s and 1830s (including the reintroduction of a more formal garden area by Humphrey Repton) but in 1840 when the 2nd Earl Dulcie wanted further alterations and repairs, the estimate was thought to be too great and the estate was sold to William Leigh, a wealthy merchant.
A splendid Victorian edifice
William Leigh bought the 1000 acre Woodchester Park in 1845. Born in Liverpool and educated at Eton and Oxford, when he bought the estate he was living in Staffordshire with his wife and young family. Here, he had been converted to Catholicism by the controversial priest Dominic Barberi and joined the Oxford Movement. Reports suggest that his neighbours in Staffordshire didn't receive his attempts to convert the local population happily, so he moved to Woodchester.
Leigh asked the renowned architect A.W.Pugin for advice; he recommended that the old Spring Park be torn down and replaced with a new house as the exisiting building was cold and damp. Work was started on the demolition but before a new house could be built, Leigh decided to build cathedral in Adelaide, a monastery on the outskirts of South Woodchester and establish a Catholic religious community in the village. Only after this was completed did Leigh return to thoughts of building a new country house.
A.W. Pugin was one of the great exponents of the Gothic revival and had become a Catholic in 1835. From 1835 to 1852 he designed more than one hundred buildings, wrote eight books and established a flourishing business in the production of metalwork and stained glass.
However Pugin's plans proved to be too expensive and Leigh commissioned a second architect, Charles Hansom, to take over. Hansom was also responsible for the priory that Leigh had built. Hansom's design can be seen at the rear of the Mansion but ultimately it is thought that Hansom and Leigh disagreed and the project was handed over to Hansom's assistant, a local architect, Benjamin Bucknall.
Bucknall was one of the many English architects to be heavily influenced by Violett-le-Duc, the great neo-gothic French architect who was responsible for much of the restoration of Notre Dame.
The twenty one year old Bucknall designed a house that was almost entirely made of stone: walls, roofs, gutters, gargoyles, stairs, baths, kitchen tables. Various types of Cotswold stone were used, quarried from the Park, Selsley Common and Minchinhampton among several sites. The design as a whole had a distinctive medieval monastic feel with its stone vaulted ceilings with intricate tracery and carved stone ceiling bosses, along with the laundry, bakery, brewery, game larder and cheese room, and all built round a courtyard with massive buttresses and fine windows. Outside, there were animal-shaped gargoyles with bats, owl, boar and ravens depicted. In fact, it is easy to believe that the whole project was more one of a religious rather than a secular nature, designed to help elect Leigh’s soul to heaven. We can speculate that within the house there would have been the singing of the offices by the Dominican Order, visits by the Catholic Church's great and good, and an academic repository of Catholic thinking - all running alongside the bustling domestic life of the Leigh family. But whilst the building as a whole clearly embodied Leigh's faith, Bucknall also ensured that the house was based on the local vernacular and from outside is unmistakably Cotswold with its gables and simplicity. On the other hand, there are aspects to the house that are peculiar in design: there is an overall lack of symmetry; there is no grand entrance apparent from the outside; the kitchen is small and a long way from the dining room - in fact the shortest route between the two is through the Chapel; the bathroom is likewise a lengthy walk from the main bedrooms; and whilst the limestone bath and taps are a stunning piece, their practicality is questionable. The inner courtyard, hemmed-in by tall walls would have been perpetually in shadow, cold and, as it is now, damp. On a more prosaic level, there are problems with the guttering and rain drainage. This all hints to Bucknall's youth and lack of experience; or could it be the result of combining earlier designs into his own - something that perhaps Leigh insisted upon.
Work started finally in about 1856 and a significant portion of the basic structure was finished by 1866 when the clock in the Bell Tower was installed. Under the clock is the motto- In sapientia ambulate tempus redimentes. This is quite a common moto (it can be found on the sundial at St Trinity's, Cambridge for example) meaning "walk in wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time". The reference is found in both Paul's Ephesians 5 and Collosians 4:5 and can be thought to mean 'be wise in your dealings with the outside world.'
Building continued for a few more years after the clock was installed but then stopped in the early1870s - when the house was still far from complete. None of the rooms had been finished, many were no more than a shell with neither floors or ceilings - but we can see that the standard of workmanship was extremely high. (It is thought that some of the masons and glaziers were French and their skills were exemplary.) Only the drawing room is today almost complete but this was finished some time after Leigh's death by his son. In the ceiling can be found more than fifty carved stone bosses - though these do not compare to the standard found in the original carving found elsewhere in the Mansion. The windows are glazed with uncoloured leaded panes. Even if the room doesn't match the highest standards of finish William Leigh intended for the Mansion, it is still a beautiful and embodies what the Mansion might have been.
Most dramatic of all is the chapel. A fabulous design with a spectacular fan-vaulted ceiling that soars high towards the heavens.
David Verey described Woodchester as 'one of the greatest achievements of 19th-Century domestic architecture in England.' Without doubt it is an inspirational building that never fails to impress any visitor.
It is a big house in more than just its physical aspect. Bucknall made no compromises in its construction. But why building stopped is not known for certain as no records or correspondance exist. However circumstances point to a probable explanation: it is likely that Leigh's money was running out as it is thought that the cost of building significantly ran over budget. (In the last few years when construction was taking place, the pace of work was getting slower and slower.) This period also coincided with a decline in Leigh's health and perhaps Leigh could see it was a house he would find difficult to live in. It would not be surprising if one day we learnt that Leigh lost the will to drive the project to completion. In 1873, at the age of 70, Leigh died. Perhaps for some time, he had been more than aware that he was dying, and decided to stay in the cottage that overlooked Woodchester Park. It was also said that he was depressed by a series of early deaths in his family; two daughters had died before they'd married and one son died in infancy. After Leigh's death, a public sale of tools from the Mansion was held, signifying that the project too had ceased.
We can also summise now that Leigh's surviving family were less keen on the design for shortly after Leigh's death they asked another architect, James Wilson of Bath, to propose a new design. This he did in his flamboyant Italianate style but the cost of completing a new Mansion was too great for any of them to afford. (Indeed, it begs the question how they ever thought they could both demolish and build a completely new building but clearly it underlines that they did not share their father's passion for living in monastic conditions.) Wilson had his own opinion of the site and wanted the family to build, if they were going to, in a new location in the valley. He wrote, 'I consider the situation far from the best that might have been selected on the Estate; it is low, damp, and has much shut-in on the South, West and North, so that a free circulation of air is impeded. Its position is much too close to the high bank on the North, which will always keep the House damp, and if this bank were sloped off and formed into terraces (which must be allowed with a large outlay) still there would be a closeness and humidity, which would always prove to be detrimental.' In the meantime, Bucknall had moved to Algiers where he worked on domestic projects and villas. The reason for his move is unknown, although poor health is one reason put forward, but without doubt he must have been bitterly disappointed that his grand vision and architectural statement had not been realised. Indeed, in 1878 he wrote to Leigh's son, 'there is nothing more sad to the sight than an unfinished work and it is even more forlorn than a ruin of a building which has served its purpose...' Thereafter the Mansion was slowly forgotten.
In 1938, William Leigh's granddaughters, Blanche and Beatrice sold the house - and what was left of the estate - to the Barnwood House Trust who intended to convert the Mansion into a mental hospital but subsequently this plan was shelved. During the Second World War the Mansion's grounds were used as a billet for troops, and the house itself used by St Paul's Teacher Training College. It was then abandoned to the elements. Fortunately, its isolated position meant it didn't suffer from vandalism; it was not redeveloped. None the less, the efforts of Reginald Kelly - who lived nearby - ensured that the Mansion didn't fall into a state of total disrepair.