So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses:

 

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About Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat

An amateur architectural historian with a particular love of UK country houses in all their many varied and beautiful forms.
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13 Responses to So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

  1. Andrew says:

    Over 100 country houses have been converted into flats, including (in alphabetical order):
    http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_dbresults.asp?OwnershipUse=Flats
    Kit Martin’s 11 houses converted include the following (I was not aware that he also did Ecton Hall, what was your source?):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kit_Martin
    Christopher Buxton is currently the owner of Hampton Gay:
    https://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/lifting-the-curse-of-hampton-gay-manor-house
    Gosford Castle in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, billed as the largest home in Ireland, is currently being converted into 23 flats:
    http://www.propertynews.com/property/houses-for-sale/Markethill/NEW-Gosford-Castle/PNC361702
    with one of its apartments being available for self catering holidays:
    http://www.gosfordcastlesca.com
    Wyfold Court’s Number One apartment in Oxfordshire is still for sale:
    http://search.knightfrank.com/hot100037

  2. Andrew says:

    Following on from Christopher Buxton’s Period and Country Houses Ltd and Kit Martin’s Historic Houses Rescue Ltd, as covered in another article, there is currently the Sergeant family’s City and Country Group, who have already converted 6 country houses in the past 17 years:
    https://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/looking-for-a-saviour-st-osyth-priory-essex
    Ecton Hall was converted in 1986-9 by Hertfordshire building company Period Property Investments Plc, which was probably a one-off company set up specially for the project, being incorporated in 1984 and winding up in 1992. Does anyone know if this was connected in any way with Kit Martin?
    Ecton Hall’s Apartment 1 is currently for sale:
    http://www.michaelgraham.co.uk/details.php?pagevars=4-bedroom-property-for-sale-in-Church-Way-NN6-migrps-NOR100125-1287650018
    as well as a first floor apartment:
    http://www.vebra.com/property/1015/20941420
    and the restored Game Larder Cottage:
    http://www.vebra.com/cgi-win/vebra.cgi?details1?src=agent&PropertyCode=1445002/GAMEL/11150/2

    • countryhouses says:

      Hi Andrew – I included Ecton Hall as I was sure I’d read it somewhere (an old SAVE publication maybe) – but of course, I could be mistaken. I’ll keep checking and confirm.

      Thanks as always for a great selection of links – rather fancy the Ecton Hall apartment myself, if funds permitted. Seems quite a bargain really.

  3. Andrew says:

    Matt, seeing as you also mentioned the alternative conversion of country houses into hotels and conference centres, it may be worth creating a similar article discussing recent examples (e.g. Luton Hoo, Ickworth House, Heythrop House, Rushton Hall, Colwick Hall and Hartforth Hall) and future conversions delayed because of the recession (e.g. Tottenham House, Trentham Hall, Gwrych Castle, Mentmore Towers, Braunstone Hall, Oldway Mansion, Langley Park and Woolsington Hall), not to mention the three Historic House Hotels given to the National Trust in 2009 (Hartwell House, Middlethorpe Hall and Bodysgallen Hall).
    Over 130 English country houses are now hotels, with over 40 elsewhere in Britain and Ireland:
    http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_dbresults.asp?OwnershipUse=Hotel
    with over 30 used as conference centres:
    http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/Houses_dbresults.asp?OwnershipUse=Conference+Center

  4. Andrew says:

    Scotland also has its fair share of country house apartments, although generally not so grand inside, such as Houston House in Renfrewshire, dating from the 17th century, incorporating an 11th century castle owned by a Knight Templar, later owned by the Glasgow tobacco baron Alexander Speirs’ family 1782-1959 as part of his 10,000 acre Elderslie estate (http://www.elderslie.org), and converted into 6 flats around 1995, with the West (£699,000) and East (£545,000) Wings currently for sale:
    http://residentialsearch.savills.co.uk/property-detail/279703
    http://www.struttandparker.com/property-for-sale/houston-renfrewshire/property_GLG100172.html

  5. Andrew says:

    Wormleybury Manor in Hertfordshire, Grade I listed and designed in 1767 by Robert Mylne (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Mylne) with embellished interiors in 1777 by Robert Adam (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Adam) and paintings by Angelica Kauffmann (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelica_Kauffmann), has the largest of its nine 1996-converted flats for sale, the Adam Suite (£995,000), as well as the smaller Blenheim Apartment (£395,000):
    http://residentialsearch.savills.co.uk/property-detail/284962
    http://search.johndwood.co.uk/property/view/id/9762

  6. Andrew says:

    Ampthill Park House’s Ashburnham apartment (named after Lord Ashburnham), which occupies one of the principal parts of the Grade II* listed 1694 house in Bedfordshire, is under offer at £1.325m:
    http://search.knightfrank.com/brk100157
    Two of the other 3 apartments in the house were for sale in April, the The Hollands (£1.75m) and The Chambers Wing (£850,000):
    http://www.countrylife.co.uk/property_news/article/449022/Two-parts-of-a-magnificent-Bedfordshire-country-house-for-sale.html
    Alternatively the main section of Wardour Castle was recently available – though now sold:
    https://countryhouses.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/conversion-reversion-wardour-castle-wiltshire

  7. Andrew says:

    Umberslade Hall in Warwickshire was built 1690-1702 by Smith of Warwick for the 1st Lord Archer and is Grade II* listed, being used from 1968 as the offices of Triumph Motorcycles until 1978 when it was converted into 12 apartments (with share of freehold). Apartment 3 with 4 bedrooms on the ground and lower ground floor is for sale for £475,000:
    http://www.fineandcountry.com/more_details.php?profileID=50011469

  8. Andrew says:

    Sherborne House in Gloucestershire, rebuilt for the 2nd Lord Sherborne by Lewis Wyatt from 1820 and one of the larger houses to be converted into 19 flats in 1981-2, has a first floor apartment for sale for £345,000 which is not as big as some on the ground floor. The surrounding 4,000-acre Sherborne Estate including the Lodge Park grandstand were bequeathed to the National Trust by the 7th Lord Sherborne after his death in 1982. Another first floor apartment is available for holiday lets, as well as two on the second floor.

  9. Andrew says:

    The Edward VII Wing of Rangemore Hall in Staffordshire with 9 acres, owned by Hilary Devey (a Channel 4 Secret Millionaire in 2008, Channel 5’s The Business Inspector in 2010, and owner of pallet distribution business Pall-Ex), has had its sale price reduced from £2.5m in February to £1.9m, less than the £2m she paid for it in March 2006 (it was also for sale in November 2008 for £2.85m including the £1m fittings and furniture that Devey had added). The Grade II listed wing was built in 1898-1901 by Lord Burton of the Bass brewing family for a weekend visit of King Edward VII in February 1902.

  10. countryhouses says:

    Thanks Andrew for these.

    Alternatively, if you don’t wish to buy, the East Wing of the grade-II* Glynn House in Cornwall is available to rent at £1,995 pcm: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/property-28350883.html

    The house was badly damaged by fire in 1819 but was refurbished by the new owner, Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, when he bought it in 1833. Sadly, extensive remedial work in the 1950s to get rid of dry rot seems to have led to the loss of many original internal features but the general layout still gives it a classical Georgian country house air.

  11. Andrew says:

    Westwood Park in Worcestershire has its principal apartment, The Saloon, on the first floor entrance front, for sale with 2 bedrooms for £995,000. Also for sale is The Elizabethan Suite on the ground floor at the back of the house with 4 bedrooms for an undisclosed price, and Apartment 11 on the top floor with 2 bedrooms for £265,000. The Grade I listed house was built from about 1600 for Sir John Pakington and remained in the family (including Baron Hampton) for 463 years until 1902 when it was purchased by Edward Partington, the first Baron Doverdale. It was converted into flats in the 1950s after the estate was bought by the family of Lord Astor.

  12. Andrew says:

    The Principal Apartment, occupying most of the ground floor, of Whittingehame House in East Lothian, set in 16 acres of the estate’s original 10,000 acres, has now been sold, originally asking £2.5m including all of its £1m furnishings accumulated by the McMillan family since buying the apartment in 2007 (after selling Seton Castle, bought in 2003 from the 12th Earl of Wemyss). The West Wing is currently for sale for £750,000. The Category A listed house of 1817 was designed by Sir Robert Smirke for James Balfour, grandfather of the 1st Earl of Balfour, British Prime Minister 1902-5, who was born in the house in 1848 and inherited the estate aged 7 years, living there throughout his life. An interesting article would be a survey of the country houses of British Prime Ministers, in addition to Chequers in Buckinghamshire, not to mention the Foreign Secretary’s Chevening in Kent and the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire.

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