The restoration of Bank Hall in Bretherton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 March 2020
It has taken two decades of hard work and dedication to save one of the county’s historic gems.
Janet Edwards remembers as a ten-year-old glimpsing through trees that hid an intriguing building. 'My grandad would drive me past Bank Hall and I'd be captivated by it,' she recalls. 'There was something magical about the place. I always found it fascinating.'
Fast forward half a century or so and the retired midwife remains in its thrall. 'As a young woman, I went off to study, never imagining for one moment that all these years later I would become so involved with Bank Hall,' adds Janet, who lives in nearby Longton.
By the time she managed to cross the threshold of Bretherton's listed Jacobean mansion much of the magic had gone. 'I was absolutely shocked and horrified that such a beautiful building had been allowed to get into such a state.
'A lot of it was down to bad luck, I suppose, but I was sad to see it literally falling apart and I wanted to do something about it.'
Fortunately, Janet wasn't alone in her desire to see this important building saved from destruction and an action group was formed, initially to restore the gardens and then to find ways of putting Bank Hall back together.
Their work will come to fruition this year when the house restoration project is completed, but this was no overnight success story. Bank Hall was abandoned in the early 1970s and what the weather hadn't damaged, thieves and vandals managed to remove or destroy. The feature that makes the house so special - the soaring Prospect Tower - had also started to crumble and collapse.
Saving Bank Hall, described as one of Lancashire's hidden treasures, was to take more than two decades and the hard work and determination of a substantial group of people who cared enough to devote their time and energy to a scheme many thought was mission impossible. 'It's something that has taken over our lives,' said Janet.
The hall goes back to the Bannister family, whose ancestors arrived with William the Conqueror and later settled in West Lancashire. The current hall was completed in the early 17th century - a date stone over the grand entrance says 1608.
There was a major renovation in the 1830s when the then owner, George Anthony Legh-Keck, a man with a passion for politics and collecting stuffed animals, hired Kendal architect George Webster, who had been involved with notable works at Penwortham Priory and Holker Hall. While keeping the Jacobean core, he enveloped it in a lovely mix of Georgian Gothic and Italianate styles that made it unique in the county.
Like many big estates, it lost its purpose after the Great War and while it was rented out and used by the military during World War Two, it then went through a long and heart-breaking period of decline and decay. Things started to look up when what is now The Friends of Bank Hall became involved.
In 2003 their campaign led to it becoming the first building to feature on the BBC Two Restoration programme presented by Griff Rhys-Jones. It was runner-up but it raised the profile of the project and eventually they put up a case which attracted £2.2 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
However, with the total bill coming in at £5.6 million some original thinking was needed to complete the job. Several ideas were considered and rejected - including an estate of mock Tudor houses.
Instead, working with Chorley Council, the Heritage Trust North West and regeneration company Urban Splash, the campaigners struck a partnership with Liverpool-based developers Next Big Thing Ltd.
This allowed them to finance the restoration by creating 12 homes within the current structure. These range from apartments to houses, with luxurious modern facilities combining with original features such as a striking stone fireplace in what had been the kitchen. Others have enormous floor to ceiling period windows.
The proceeds from these properties, expected to be for sale in the spring, will cover the match funding required by the Heritage Lottery. It's a neat solution to a complex financial challenge.
The Heritage Trust for the North West now has the site after signing a 999-year lease with the previous owners, the Lord Lilford Estate, allowing them to restore the hall and manage the surrounding 'Pleasure Gardens' of around 15 acres.
The icing on the cake is that the three floors of the tower will be open to the public for tours, exhibitions and community meetings two days a week. Meanwhile, the Friends, working with the Heritage Trust, hope to create public gardens of national significance in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society.
First, they must replace the great oak Jacobean staircase that once rose through six flights of the tower. What is left of it has been stored away and it is hoped that long-term it can be the basis for a restoration. But the cost means that, for the foreseeable future, they will make do with a well-made modern replacement.
It is one of many compromises they have had to make for the greater good of saving the hall. But many treasures have been saved, including the four quarters of the clock face, lost when part of the tower collapsed. Happily, they were rescued from the rubble and returned to the top of the now restored tower.
The clock has new copper hands made locally but time is standing still at Bank Hall because the brass cogs of the mechanism disappeared. These, like many other items from the hall, are believed to be squirrelled away in salvage yards across the north. The Friends have been involved in widespread detective work to track items down.
Essential parts of the stonework, such as the animal carvings from the Bannister family coat of arms, have been tracked down this way and returned to the tower. What can't be returned is recreated and John Miller, of the Heritage Trust, said this has been another success for the scheme with local people learning new skills.
Lionel Taylor, the hall's archivist, said: 'This is such a unique story - you really couldn't make it up. We have had generations working on this project - including my daughter. People never gave up.'
Janet, who is about to retire as chairman of the Friends added: 'There has been a real sense of pride among the workmen on this project and there has been a great feeling of satisfaction for everyone involved.
'There have been so many dramas and at times we have despaired because of the magnitude of the task. Now it is nearly done and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to welcome back Griff Rhys-Jones to see just what we have all achieved.
'I spent my working life as a midwife but this is the longest gestation period I've experienced!'
For more information go to bankhall.org.