Minister ignores good advice: Scraptoft Hall

Scraptoft Hall (Image: wikipedia)

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities, has overruled the experts at English Heritage and approved the view of a local planning inspector which will see Scraptoft Hall forever compromised as a country house and reduced to a mere architectural footnote of a massive retirement village.

As had been previously reported (‘Scraptoft Hall at risk from ‘rescue’‘) a developer had used the standard excuse of ‘enabling development’ to propose building a massive 103-unit retirement village with the restoration of the house as a ‘reward’ to the council for this vandalism.  The house, although in a serious state of disrepair, is an important local house largely built in the 1720s but with a core dating from the 1500s.  A period as accommodation for Leicester University ensured that, although not ideal, the house was in use and maintained.  Once the university had left, the vandals and thieves moved in leaving the house as a juicy target for the developers.

It seems that the entire concept of ‘enabling development’ has been seriously compromised to allow councils (sometimes with the connivance of central government as in this case) to get around inconvenient restrictions on building houses.  Although it’s obviously of some social value to provide housing, it seems crass that the price to be paid for new homes is the irrevocable loss of important local buildings, and particularly country houses which are designed to stand proud in their settings.  Consider the English Heritage guidance on the appropriate extent of ‘enabling development’:

“English Heritage believes that ‘enabling development’ to secure the future of a heritage asset is unacceptable unless …it is demonstrated that the amount of enabling development is the minimum necessary to secure the future of the heritage asset, and that its form minimises harm to other public interests.” – emphasis mine – quoted from pg 9-10 of ‘Enabling development and the conservation of heritage assets‘ [PDF])

Reading that it seems incredible that the minister thinks a 103-apartment residential development is the ‘minimum necessary’.  I imagine that if there was a comprehensive review of the use of the ‘enabling development’ excuse many councils would be found to have waived through inappropriate schemes to meet ulterior motives.

So unfortunately Scraptoft Hall is to be sacrificed with the acquiescence of not only the local planning department, the local council, the local MP but also the minister who should ultimately be the last line of defence against these highly damaging schemes.  A further problem is that each time one of these schemes is approved it creates a damaging precedent which is then used against other houses which sadly find themselves the target of the rampaging developers.  If only English Heritage had a legal right to veto schemes which, in its expert opinion, were a gross abuse of the spirit and letter of the planning legislation.

More details: ‘Villagers hail ‘yes’ to plans for historic Scraptoft hall‘ [Leicester Mercury]

Despite objections, Forty Hall renovation to proceed as planned

Forty Hall, Enfield (Image: Enfield Independent)

Despite objections from the Victorian Society, the plans for the extensive works at Forty Hall planned and then self-approved by Enfield Council will start later this year.  As reported earlier (‘Forty Hall ‘renovation’ gets approval from council but probably not from everyone else‘) the council proposed to make some significant alterations to the Grade-I listed house which seem to threaten the interiors but the latest story gives a very rosy view of the plans.

It seems that little has been changed from the original plans and the council will proceed with the plans despite the various concerns about the proposals.   Official bodies have a long history of believing themselves to be right despite credible evidence to the contrary so this determined attitude is not unsurprising.  It does seem a shame that heritage protection has now been superseded by a belief that the ends justify the means – with one of the most used phrases being that the changes will promote ‘community access’.  However, any plans should always bear in mind that the house is not simply a resource to be used but a vital part of local heritage which is not simply for this generation to (mis-)use as they might see fit.  It will be interesting to see whether the council can deliver an architecturally sensitive project or whether the warnings and concerns of others will be proved valid.

More details: ‘Enfield’s crown jewel, Forty Hall, to be restored from next year‘ [This is Local London]

How did Bessingham Manor get into this state?

Bessingham Manor, Norfolk (Image: Eastern Daily Press)

Norfolk has suffered the loss of many of it’s larger country houses but the smaller houses often not only survived but were much cherished as manageable but beautiful examples of local architecture.  Yet, even today it’s possible for one of these lovely red-brick homes to slip into dereliction, at risk from the weather and criminals; Bessingham Manor has become another of these sad examples.

Built in 1870 for the Spurrell family, who had farming connections in Suffolk going back over 500 years, the house originally had 52-acres but this has now been reduced to a more manageable five.  The house remained in the Spurrell family until the last member died in 1952.  It was then bought by Robert Gamble who eventually found maintenance a significant challenge which was compounded by a poor quality roof repair which failed leading to massive water damage to part of the house, including the collapse of sections of the second floor.  The near derelict state of the interior is mirrored in the exterior which is partially supported by scaffolding or probably held together by the extensive ivy.  Perhaps questions should be asked as to why this gradual decay was not spotted by the local conservation department who may have been able to force repairs before the damage became so extensive?

It was in this sorry state that the house was finally put up for auction in September 2009 with the agents, William H Brown, who optimistically thought it might go for around £900,000 – despite a likely £1m bill to fully restore the house.  Unsurprisingly, it failed to reach even the reserve of £640,000 from a starting price of £400,000.  To compound the problems, thieves also broke in and stole a fireplace from one of the ground floor rooms.  Despite this the agents have continued to try to find a buyer but with only limited success.

By the beginning of 2010, there were three offers on the table.  Two were from individuals looking to create family homes but worryingly, one of the offers still in the table was from a developer looking for a commercial project – which is probably an inappropriate enabling development.  With all the wealth still available and our nation’s ostensible love of older buildings, it is sad and mystifying as to it’s been so difficult to find a sympathetic owner.   Once restored the house would probably be worth several million – so if someone has approximately £1.5m needing a profitable use then this would be the ideal opportunity; just please do it sensitively.

Estate agent: William H Brown

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Good news

Despite the initially pessimistic outlook and the subsequent challenges, Bessingham Manor has survived, and more than that, is nearing completion of the restoration – see this comment left on another Country Seat article by William Hickey. This shows that the analysis of developers should often be taken with a measure of scepticism, especially where heritage assets are involved.  The rescue/restoration of Bessingham Manor is to welcomed and the owners congratulated for their success.

Astley Castle rises from the ashes

Astley Castle, Warwickshire

The devastating fire which tore through Astley Castle not only ended it’s use as a hotel but also seemed to mark the end as a building.  However, a remarkable project by the Landmark Trust is seeking to once again restore life to this battered shell.

Although never a proper ‘castle’, Astley was designed as a fortified manor house (see also the beautiful Compton Wynyates nearby). This original house was built largely by the Grey family but it was slighted following the execution of Lady Jane in 1554.  The house was rebuilt in 1600 by a new owner, Edward Chamberlain, and it eventually became part of the Newdigate family’s Arbury Hall estate, with a new ‘Gothick’ stable block added in the 18th-century – but with little done to the house itself.  The grade-II* listed castle was leased out as home for most of in the 20th-century until the 1960s when it became a hotel until the fire destroyed it, leaving it as a deteriorating ruin for the next 30 years.

The Landmark Trust has been attempting to find a solution to this situation since the 1990s, originally looking at plans for a full restoration, but which unfortunately proved too costly.  The continued decline of the building fabric gave fresh impetus to their efforts as it was realised that without urgent work the house as a structure would be lost forever.  In 2005, the Trust held a competition to find a design for accommodation to be created within the shell as sensitively as possible, which could then be used as a holiday let.  The winning design from the architects Witherford Watson Mann will create a modern two-storey structure in the oldest part of the castle, with the first-floor living spaces enjoyed spectacular views across the parkland.  A £500,000 £1.47m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, plus earlier fund-raising, has taken the Trust to within just £134,000 of the total project cost of £2.3m, and great progress has been made on the scheme. What’s particularly impressive about this project is that it has enabled a full architectural survey of the house, which has revealed many fascinating features as the rubble has been cleared and the later Victorian additions are removed.

The Landmark Trust has a strong record of taking on derelict listed buildings, converting them, and finding a long-term sustainable use for them – usually as unusual holiday accomodation.  Although it’s not been possible to fully restore Astley Castle as a home it is encouraging to see it being consolidated and enhanced with a sensitive modern addition which will provide the opportunity for others to experience this amazing part of our architectural heritage which was so nearly lost.

More details: ‘Astley Castle‘ [The Landmark Trust]

If I won the lottery…Fillongley Hall

Fillongley Hall, Warwickshire (Image: Weddington Castle website)

Considering the difficulties faced by country house owners with death duties and a changed society, it’s always remarkable when a house is passed down through the generations; particularly so when it’s the same family for nearly 200 years.  Fillongley Hall designed by George Woolcott and was built in 1824-25 for the uncle of the 1st Lord Norton, extended in 1840-1, and now for sale again by the 8th Lord Norton after an unsuccessful attempt to sell in 2005.

The grade-II listed house is considered to be one of the best examples of smaller scale Greek Revival architecture which demonstrated the good taste of the Grand tourist with it’s fine interiors and classical exterior with recessed Corinthian columns on the main entrance front.    Bearing some resemblance to the now-demolished Thirkleby Park in Yorkshire, the house is a compact essay in elegant classicism with a restraint all too often lacking in modern country house architecture.  The house was inherited by Lord Norton in 1993 since when he and his wife have lovingly maintained and updated the house.  More images of the interior and exterior can be seen either on this fascinating local history website or on the Savills website.

When Fillongley Hall was put up for sale in 2005 the guide price was £5m but this included 400-acres as opposed to the 114 plus the house which are available now for £4.5m.  [The house subsequently sold in 2006]

This is a beautiful house and deserves and owner who understands the house and is sympathetic to its status as one of the best houses of its type in the region.

Property details: ‘Fillongley Hall‘ [Savills]

National Trust launches iPhone app and a free weekend to explore

National Trust iPhone application

The National Trust has just made it easier to visit their many properties with the launch of a new app for the iPhone and has announced it will be free entry during their ‘Bonus Time Weekend‘ on 20/21 March 2010.

The free application not only gives information about all the National Trust’s 350-plus properties and 600,000 acres of countryside but also other local attractions, routes and stop-offs.  Using location awareness, the app will let you know what properties are within 20-, 30-, and 40-miles of your current position but you can also just browse a complete list of all properties.

So how best to use their app?  Well, if you’re not one of their 3.8m members already, this coming weekend – 20/21 March – you can use this voucher to gain free entry to any of their properties which you would normally have to pay for.  See the full list of participating venues to see what’s close to you.

More details: The National Trust

Kiddington Hall sold – but as a home or an investment?

Kiddington Manor, Oxfordshire (Image: Country Life)

After many viewings and some speculation, the Sunday Times is reporting that Kiddington Hall has finally been sold for £15m to Jemima Goldsmith, the wealthy socialite.  The grade-II listed house, originally built in 1673 but largely rebuilt to designs by Sir Charles Barry, comes with 466-acres of gardens and parkland designed by ‘Capability’ Brown.  The Sunday Times quotes a ‘property source’ as saying “It was a romance. She just fell in love with it.”.

The sale was ordered by the court to fund the divorce settlement of the owner, Erik Maurice Robson, who needed to raise £8m to provide for his ex-wife (for a detailed estimation of the likely proceeds see the comments on a previous post: ‘The economics of selling a country house‘).  The estate, described as a ‘jewel in the heart of Oxfordshire’, was one of the most important estates to be launched onto the market last year as rarely do prime estates with a manageable house, fine gardens and a productive estate, come up for sale in the prime Home Counties and this was reflected in the original asking price of £42m for the entire 2,000-acres and house.

However, considering Jemima’s previous successful forays into property development, is Kiddington Hall to be a family home or will she take the advice of some who say that if she spends a couple of million on refurbishment the property could be worth £20m?  It will certainly be one to watch as if it is relaunched in a year or two, it will provide a useful barometer as to the recovery of prime country property.

The sale of the main house will also mean that the sale of the remainder of the estate, encompassing 1,600-acres plus several farms and houses can proceed.  These sales were contingent on the main sale as without the sale of the main house the rest of the estate could not be sold.  The Sunday Times is reporting that Alec Reed, founder of the Reed recruitment agency, is the purchaser.

More details: ‘Jemima Goldsmith jumps on £15m stately home‘ [The Sunday Times]

The glory that is Chatsworth House today

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (Image: Wikipedia)

The modern era has, in many ways, not been kind to our country houses.  Faced with massive social changes in the early part of the 20th-century staff became harder to find leading to reduced maintainence.  Often this started a spiral of decline which led to the demolition of hundreds of our largest and finest country houses.  Even today, faced with the costs of conservation standard repairs, it can be a struggle for owners to keep their houses looking at their best.   This is why the recently completed £14m restoration of possibly England’s finest country house, Chatsworth, is such an achievement.

Chatsworth House exemplifies the best in the fine tradition of the development of our country houses.  Passed down through generations of the Dukes of Devonshire, the south and east fronts of the house we see today were built for the 1st Duke by the architect William Talman in 1696 in a grand Baroque style around the origianal Elizabethan courtyard.   The west and west fronts are thought to be the work of another great architect Thomas Archer, with further work in the 19th-century by Jeffry Wyattville to modernise the house for the 6th Duke.  Within the fine exterior the Devonshires also had acquired one of the finest art collections in the world.  Unfortunately many have been sold off in the 20-th century to meet the rapacious demands of death duties but the house still holds works by some of the finest artists of the day.

With its spectacular interiors, grand exteriors and palatial grounds, the responsibilities are immense for the 12th Duke.  Happily for this wonderful example of the glory of the English country house, the wealth of the Devonshires allows them to maintain the house in a way many other owners can only dream of, and is allied with his own determination to ensure that the house and estate is maintained in the best possible condition.  Considering the ravages that economics and circumstance have visited on so many of our houses, it’s a remarkable testament to the care of the Devonshires that this house looks as fine as it does, as the covers come off and the house opens again to the curious public this weekend for another season.

More details: ‘Chatsworth reopens to public with exhibition amid £14m restoration‘ [The Times]

Ury House restoration project still in doubt a year on

Ury House, Scotland (Image: Geograph)

When the developers FM Developments went into administration in 2009, it put in jeopardy a huge development scheme which was to fund the restoration of the historic Ury House.  The size of Ury House meant that any scheme was going to have to be ambitious to provide sufficient funding and this one involved the building of 230 homes and the creation of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  The developers had been praised for consulting with local residents and had the full support of the council for bringing jobs and no small measure of glamour to Stonehaven. Now, a year after the collapse, it’s still not clear if the scheme will proceed at all, leaving the spectacular ruins of Ury House at further risk of decline.

The first house had burnt down in 1645, and the second house was subsequently completely rebuilt as the Ury House we see today in 1855 for Alexander Baird in a fine Elizabethan style by the architect John Baird.  Baird was one of the most successful of the architects working at this time even if he rarely followed fashion.  His work at Ury was a continuation of the style of Wilkins and Burns they had developed 40 years earlier but was of a high quality which is still visible even today in the shell of the house. As a first stage of the work of the restoration, extensive scaffolding had been erected around the house in January 2009.

The proposals for redevelopment of the 1,500-acre estate included the conversion of the house into nine townhouses.  Unlike in many other cases of ‘enabling development’ where the setting of the house is compromised through the encroachment of the housing, the plan put forward placed the residential estate well to the east of the house, thus protecting it.  With the bankruptcy of FM Developments these plans have  been thrown into doubt and local planning officers are now working on the assumption that the development will not go ahead – despite local councillors being determined to resurrect the scheme.  Unfortunately the danger is now that another, less sympathetic, developer will take on the project but may try to cram more houses in or extend the area of the estate taken for housing. This would be a real shame. Although the ideal but unlikely outcome would be the restoration of the house as a single family home, this project had developed as a good example of enabling development practiced in the right way, with sensitive restoration of the main house, protection of the setting of the house, and productive use of the estate.

More details: ‘Future of Ury mansion site in doubt‘ [The Press and Journal]

Future of Ury mansion site in doubt

A religious conversion: Rempstone Hall

Rempstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Country Life)

In the early part of the 20th-century one option for a country house to avoid demolition was to be converted to institutional use.  In this way, many houses became schools, hospitals or offices, but also some became religious institutions – for example, in the 1940s and 50s, Gloucestershire lost seven houses but twenty-two were converted to institutional use.  Now with property prices rising but membership of convents falling, houses used for holy purposes are now being sold – and could once again be homes.  Rempstone Hall in Leicestershire, currently the Holy Cross Convent, is on the market for £2.5m, as the nuns move to a purpose-built home nearby.

Rempstone Hall is a classically beautiful Georgian red-brick house, originally built in 1792 for William Gregory Williams, a major local landowner.   Various families passed though the house usually keeping it as a secondary house to much grander seats elsewhere.  By the beginning of the 20th-century it was unoccupied as probably, as with many other houses, at risk of demolition as the houses became surplus to requirements and a drain on finances already under pressure.  Rempstone Hall was saved in 1909 when P.W. Carr moved in and made significant additions including a new north wing and a fine stable block before selling it in 1920 to the Derbyshire family from whom the Convent bought it in 1979 for just £110,000.

During their time at Rempstone, the nuns have removed the exterior stucco to expose the warm red-bricks giving the house a bold appearance, the two red blocks framing an elegant loggia which faces the gently sloping lawn.  At 21,000sqft this is undeniably a large house with 20 bedrooms, a large entrance hall with possibly Jacobean staircase, a sizable chapel and many other rooms.  One downside of institutional use is the rather functional decor and Rempstone is no exception, with lino, acres of red carpet and various partitions which the new owner would need to remove; total renovation costs are estimated to be in the region of £500,000.

This fine and beautiful house, well-located in the Midlands, with 60-acres and several estate buildings, cries out for someone with taste to restore this house back to being a family home – which is helpfully the outcome favoured by the local planners.

More details: ‘Your prayers have been answered‘ [Sunday Times: Home]