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New book delves into Hylands history

If you live in or around Chelmsford, you probably feel there’s little you don’t know about Hylands Estate. The elegant white mansion with its graceful parkland is a familiar sight to visitors, often used as the defining image for the city.

But how much do you really know about the story of this grand estate, which has been the site of horticultural innovation, a military hospital, and a family home visited by a movie star and maybe even royalty?

Hylands Book Outside House

Official account published

A new book about Hylands Estate is being released which hopes to make the story of the house, its many past owners, and its remarkable restoration as famous as its appearance.

It’s been written by Nick Wickenden who was the head of Chelmsford Museum for many years and played a key role in Hylands’ restoration. Nick told City Life that the site’s complex history makes it a fascinating subject.

“Unlike many fine estates, Hylands hasn’t been passed through generations of one rich family. It has changed hands many times, from members of parliament, a polar explorer and now a local authority. The house is the main character of its own story; it isn’t a memorial to any particular owner but an architectural icon which has witnessed much change.”

Author, Nick Wickenden

Hylands history brought to life

Details of nearly 300 years of life at the estate can be found throughout the book. These have been added by Linda Knock, a dedicated researcher of the house and the chairman of the Friends of Hylands House. Linda hopes these stories will bring insights to readers whether they are familiar with the Hylands story or not.

“There are so many wonderful details left to us and it’s been a pleasure to bring this all together for a real understanding of what life was like inside this extraordinary house. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are plot lines to rival those of any popular period drama: society parties, war heroes, prisoners of war, visits from royalty, a plane on the lawn and even a jeep driven up the main staircase by the SAS.”

Contributor, Linda Knock
Hylands Biplane On Lawn
Aviator Grahame White’s biplane on the lawn

Like many grand country houses, there are also darker aspects to the estate’s past. Danish merchant Cornelius Hendrickson Kortright bought Hylands in 1797 and made extensive improvements using wealth made from the sugar and slave trades.

Nick Wickenden says the creation of a new guide is also an opportunity to shine a light onto this important but lesser-known aspect of life in many English stately homes.

“Looked at through our modern moral lens, some former owners like Kortright, with abhorrent investments in slavery, come up very short. Hylands House has had a long and multifaceted history and it’s important to understand all of it rather than just remembering the periods which give us a sense of pride today.”

Author, Nick Wickenden

Hylands restoration celebrated

The new book isn’t just about the many people who have owned the house. Much of it is devoted to the restoration of the neo-classical villa and the incredible transformation which took place in the 1990s and 2000s.

Hylands Before Restoration
Hylands House before its restoration

It begins with an anecdote about The Times’ correspondent and architectural historian Marcus Binney who deplored the terrible state of the house in a piece for the paper in 1991. In 2003 he returned to the house, finding in just over a decade it had gone from ‘Heap of the Week’ to a model of ‘painstaking restoration’.

As we’ve become used to the glorious sight of Hylands House back to its best, it’s tempting to forget the parlous state it was in just a generation ago. This new book is a timely reminder of the story behind this jewel in Chelmsford’s crown, which is every bit as compelling as its appearance.

Hylands Banqueting Room
The restored interior of the Banqueting Room

Copies available now

Hylands ‘A Remarkably Elegant…Mansion House’ is on sale for £9.99 from Sunday 16 May.

Copies can be bought online on the Hylands Estate website. If you’d prefer to buy it in person, you can pick up a copy at The Stables information point or the Friends of Hylands House bookshop.

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Julie Weight
Julie Weight

Julie writes stories and creates videos for Chelmsford City Council. Contact her at julie.weight@chelmsford.gov.uk or on 01245 606984.