“The house was so full of personal effects that it had an eerie stillness without the owners being there.”
These are the words photographer Josephine Pugh uses to describe the atmosphere of this derelict manor house in Berkshire, which was abandoned 26 years ago after its last inhabitant died at the age of 96. The present house was built in 1848 on the site of an earlier manor that is said to have been rented in the early 1600s by the poet John Milton. Milton, of course, wrote Paradise Lost – a phrase that could well apply to this once magnificent but now rundown dwelling.
Anyone who’s walked around an old, abandoned house knows the strange sensation you get while peering into the private space of previous inhabitants. And the feeling of unease is even stronger if the house – like this one – is still crammed full of furniture and personal possessions that offer clues into the lives and characters of the long-departed occupants.
Like a lot of urban explorers, Josephine Pugh prefers not to name the house, as it’s currently not open to the public. She doesn’t want to encourage the wholesale exploration of the site – particularly by those who, through carelessness or intent, might damage the already deteriorating house and its contents.
“The atmosphere felt like a pregnant pause; like people had been there one day and had simply vanished the next,” Pugh recalls. “Nowhere was this more evident than in a large, first floor room which housed an untold number of pictures and objects.”
Describing the room, Pugh continues, “In one corner there was a rusty bird cage. Inside the bird cage there was a fragile, desiccated, dead bird. I could not get the picture of that bird out of my head for days, weeks. I could imagine the bird in that cage, alone, calling out through the day and into the night, finally starving to death. Left. Forgotten.” Pugh’s words and photographs paint a sad and lonely picture that borders on despair.
Presumably, most of the artifacts in the manor house must have belonged to the last inhabitants to live there. According to records, a farming family bought the house in 1945, but it was abandoned after the death of its last occupant in 1987. Perhaps he, like Milton, was something of a writer, as he left behind this wonderful antique typewriter.
We wonder if any of Milton’s works are among the many books left to molder in the old manor. Dedicated bibliophiles would be sad to see so many old hardbacks wasting away in the decaying bookcases.
According to some records, Milton lived in a house on the site with his parents and brother Christopher from 1632 to 1638 (his mother died in 1637). However, there are conflicting reports about the exact dates, and the Miltons also had a house in Hammersmith, London. It was during this time that Milton, who had recently received his MA from Christ’s College in Cambridge, chose to do six years of private study – some of it, so it seems, at this very location.
This forlorn-looking mounted deer’s head may have been shot locally, perhaps when there were more deer around to hunt – or at least woods in which to hunt them. During Milton’s time in this part of Berkshire, the area was already being deforested. And on top of environmental woes, the local village also suffered outbreaks of plague – so not quite an idyllic country retreat for the studious young poet.
These personal effects look as if they might have once belonged to the lady of the house, but since the manor has a long history of being occupied, it’s hard to say whom this might have been. In the early 1600s, Milton’s mother died while the family was living here, and her remains are buried at the local church.
This lovely dressing table, another feminine touch, appears to have had some undesirable visitors. The empty green bottle and pulled out drawers suggest that not all explorers like to leave things as they find them. It’s therefore understandable that many responsible urban explorers prefer to keep locations secret.
It appears that music was just as popular as literature in this manor house, as it contains both this pipe organ and the piano seen earlier. In the early 20th century, organs such as this one were a popular addition to the homes of the wealthy. Perhaps the family once gathered around this instrument to sing rousing songs. Imagining such a scene makes the now decrepit instrument seem even more somber.
This must have been a comfortable place to curl up with a book – provided nobody was playing the piano! The photograph suggests that the armchair was at some point protected by a dust cover, but this has since been pulled off.
Here are some more sadly neglected books. From the 18th century onwards, English country houses often had well-stocked libraries, thanks to classical education, the Enlightenment, and of course the rise of printing technology, which made books less expensive. Still, some of these look like more modern paperbacks, probably purchased by the later occupants.
Music and literature weren’t the only arts appreciated in this manor. It seems that painting was a pastime practiced in the house at some stage, as well. Some of the pigments still look bright in this photograph, as if at any moment the artist might come back to finish their painting.
Old portraits add a touch of melancholy and intrigue to abandoned houses. We wonder if this woman was a previous occupant. What would she think of the manor as it is in its present state? It’s interesting, if a little unsettling, to think of the many people who lived here in the past wandering the building’s rooms and hallways.
This beautifully decorated fireplace must have once been a cozy spot at which to gather on chilly nights. The vinyl record on the right is another relic of a not-so-distant past. It’s strange to imagine these rooms with music reverberating around them.
Here, piles of books spill out onto the floor from an over-stacked bookcase, more evidence that a book lover – or lovers – once lived here. And the blanket must have kept a reader snug and warm while they devoured a good novel. Aside from the peeling walls and debris, it looks as though someone could have just put their book down a short while ago.
A flock of birds flies across the sky in this painting, while the wallpaper around it peels away. The decay from damp and neglect is obvious, yet considering the fact that the house has been empty for the past 25 years, much of it still looks in pretty good condition. We’re sure more than a few antique dealers wouldn’t mind digging around in here.
The structural damage to the building is obvious in this photograph. A large part of the ceiling has fallen down, which isn’t good news for the bookcase and its contents below. Large manor houses like this one are great to explore, but they require a lot of maintenance – which may be why the current owners live elsewhere. While it’s sad to see such a once splendid home disintegrating, it does make for beautiful and interesting photographs. We thank Josephine Pugh for sharing hers with us.