Is Mentmore Towers finally for sale?

Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)
Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire (Image: wikipedia)

After various legal battles it seems that Mentmore Towers, one of the finest country houses in the UK may be for sale.  Part of the property empire of Simon Halabi, who was declared bankrupt in April 2010, it was bought with the intention of turning it into six-star country hotel with the ‘In and Out Club’ as the London clubhouse.  The plans were thwarted by the global financial crisis which not only reduced the market for such a venture but also the financing.  Now with the recent £150m sale of Halabi’s prime London West End estate, which included the ‘In and Out Club’, putting Mentmore on the market is the next logical stage of the disposals.

The only source for this story is a blog post by Christian Metcalfe who writes the Legal blog on the Estates Gazette website which has enough details to make it sound very plausible.

The grade-I listed Mentmore Towers was built between 1852-54 for Baron Mayer de Rothschild as one of several country houses built for the Rothschild family in the area.  Designed by Joseph Paxton, architect of Crystal Palace, the neo-Renaissance house was inspired by the Elizabethan ‘Prodigy’ houses such as Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.  Inherited by the Baron’s wife and then his daughter, it then passed to her husband, the Earl of Rosebery, following her early death.  It remained in the Rosebery family until the death of the sixth Earl in 1973 when the then Government stupidly turned down the offer of the house and world-class collections in lieu of death duties, triggering one of the finest country house sales of the 20th-century.  The house plus 81-acres was then sold in 1977 for £220,000 to the Transcendental Meditation foundation as a meditation centre, who cared for the house until it was sold in 1997 to Simon Halabi.  Since then little work has been done on the house and there have long been fears for its condition with English Heritage placing it on the ‘At Risk’ register.

The house is now apparently being quietly offered for sale, by as yet unknown estate agents, for around £16m – but no details on how much land would be included.  At that price, the house would be a bargain on square footage basis alone – but it would require a huge financial commitment from the new owner to not only restore the house but maintain it in the future, ideally as a family home.  The Rothschild’s have remained very much involved with the estate so perhaps this is their opportunity to bring it back into the family – although with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild living at nearby Ascott House perhaps Nat Rothschild, the incredibly successful hedge fund manager said to be worth around £300m, might like to take a look?

Original blog story published June 7, 2010 3:35 PM: ‘Will the real estate agent please stand up, please stand up‘ [Estates Gazette] – @Christian: if I do find out who the estate agent is, I’ll be sure to let you know.

‘Live or Let Die’: the 2010 Buildings at Risk Register

'Live or Let Die' - 2010 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register
'Live or Let Die' - 2010 SAVE Buildings at Risk Register

For anyone interested in architectural conservation the annual SAVE Britain’s Heritage ‘Buildings at Risk Register‘ will always trigger ‘what if’ moments as you contemplate possibly taking on a forlorn building which catches your eye.  Yet the Register should also inspire some concern and disappointment that once again so many wonderful buildings are at risk in the first place.

The 2010 report, entitled ‘Live or Let Die‘, again provides a fascinating snapshot of a broad collection of buildings which we are now at risk of losing.  Some are merely unused and crying out for sympathetic conversion, others are more extreme and would require great quantities of time and money – but they would deliver the most incredible homes or workplaces once finished.  And remember, estate agents almost always value good quality, well-restored period properties higher than a similar but modern property in the same area.

The report features over a hundred properties from the large country houses such as St Botolph’s mansion, in Herbrandston, which was built in the early 1800s, but is now empty and deteriorating.  Other substantial houses include the house featured on the cover; Northwold Manor in Northwold, Norfolk.  However, it’s not just houses, but mills, schools, libraries, town halls and many more.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been successfully campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architects, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment. It has published a Buildings at Risk Register for England and Wales since 1989 and has had many successes and is responsible for saving many buildings we love today.  Even if you can’t take on a property, if you wish to support their work, please consider becoming a Friend of SAVE and you will not only receive discounts on publications, but newsletters and access to the online version of the Register featuring over a thousand properties in need of care.

Order your copy today: ‘Live or Let Die – 2010 Buildings at Risk Register‘ [SAVE Britain’s Heritage]

A suburban survival at risk: Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire

Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive))
Braunstone Hall, Leicestershire (Image: East Midlands Oral History Archive)

Two of the most important aspects of campaigning to save country houses are vigilance and visibility – and yet sometimes even this doesn’t always seem to bring about restoration any quicker when faced with a slow-moving owner. Braunstone Hall, a Georgian gem still with significant grounds but now swallowed up in the sprawl of Leicester, has been empty for over ten years but despite a vigorous campaign both in the media and online it still remains very much at risk.

Braunstone Hall, now grade-II listed, was built in 1776 (date on rainwater head) for the Winstanley family by the architect William Oldham (b. 1737 – d. 1814) who also designed an early Leicester racecourse grandstand (1770), Master’s House at Alderman Newton’s School (1789) and the New House of Correction (1803) – all though now demolished.  The red-brick house is two and a half storeys tall by five bays wide with a cornice and hipped roof.  The relatively simple front is enlivened with stone bands marking the ground and first floors with an impressive tripartite doorway with fluted columns, a small pediment and an elegant fanlight with arched glazing bars.  One further very distinctive feature is the giant blind recessed arch in the central bay – an architectural device which seems quite popular in Leicestershire with examples in Burbage, Belgrave House (also 1776), and the beautiful rectory at Church Langton (by William Henderson – 1760).  The interior is largely complete with some impressive detailing.

The Winstanley family bought the estate from the Hastings family in 1650 and remained there until forced out in the 1920’s by the pressure to build houses following the First World War.  Estates on the edge of existing towns and cities were eagerly eyed-up by local councils.  For some families, already facing financial hardships following the war this was a perfect opportunity to sell the family seat and relocate.  Others, including the Winstanleys in the shape of Major Richard Norman Winstanley, fought the prospect of compulsory purchase arguing that this was still a family home and the building work would undermine the value of his recently modernised house.  However, he was unsuccessful and so the house, gardens, parkland and further 949-acres were compulsorily purchased in 1925 for £116,500 (equivalent to £5.2m – 2008).  Most of the land was built over except for the house and 168-acres surrounding it which became a public park.  The house remained in council ownership and was first a secondary school, opening in 1932, before becoming a primary school a year later until it closed in 1996.

Since then the Leicester City Council has failed to either find a viable long-term use or adequately protect Braunstone Hall with the house falling victim to repeated acts of vandalism and arson.  The latter is the most worrying as the incidents have not only included fires outside the building but also now inside.  Over the last few years the Council have been making very slow progress towards finding a solution but, as always, they are claiming poverty when it comes to heritage projects.  A very active campaigning group has been set up on Facebook with the members regularly corresponding with councillors and reporting any damage or deterioration at the hall – effectively a dedicated ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ for the house.

The Council put the house up for sale on a 125-year lease in 2007 and had recently been negotiating to sell the house to a local businessman for conversion to a hotel, conference centre and wedding venue. However this has been delayed by changes to what’s being offered in relation to the land for enabling development.  Each delay increases the risk that the local yobs will finally succeed in their mindless vandalism and burn down this elegant and important part of Leicester’s heritage.  If this happens the blame can be laid firmly at the feet of Leicester City Council and their apathy and indecisiveness over the last 14 years.

Join the Facebook campaign group: ‘Restore Braunstone Hall

Detailed history of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [Leicester City Council]

Detailed description of the house: ‘Braunstone Hall‘ [English Heritage]

The start of the rush? Country houses for sale in the Sunday Times Home section

Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)
Sandley, Dorset (Image: Knight Frank)

The usual spring rush of country houses coming to market has been later this year – a combination of the hangover from the uncertainty in the market of the last couple of years along with that of the General Election.  That traditional shop-window of the country house – the Home section of the Sunday Times – has this week (16 May 2010) heralded what it sees at the start of the rush by including three pages of those for sale.

For those who like their country houses to look traditional from the outside but prefer a more modern interior then the Grade-II listed, six-bedroom Sandley in Dorset, set in 178-acres, might be perfect – if you have the necessary £9m.  The owners decided that the rather ‘quaint’ style of the house was not for them and so they spent ‘a couple of million pounds’ and over two years to strip it back and then make it look very ‘London’.  Personal taste is the final arbiter for whether you think this is a good thing – but not all tastes are the same and it can mean that the appeal of the country house is taken to new markets.

Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)
Ebberly House, Devon (Image: Savills)

However, if your tastes are more usual and traditional then there are other options. Holt Manor in Wiltshire, set in 94-acres, mixes both old and new with a more traditional interior cleverly concealing the latest in sound, television and security systems.  With parts dating back to the 12-th century, the Grade-II listed house has been thoroughly modernised whilst still being a recognisably English country house. £5.95m [Holt Manor: Knight Frank]

If, however, you are looking for a more architecturally impressive house, the Ebberly House, near Winkleigh in Devon, could well be the house for you.   Designed by Thomas Lee, a student of Sir John Soane, Ebberly was described by Pevsner as an ‘unusual and attractive house’ and was the first to sell in Devon for over £1m when it sold in 1997.  The Grade-II* listed house possibly benefited from Soane’s personal influence as he was working nearby at Castle Hill which may explain the elegant, and very Soanian, top-lit oval stair hall with its fine cantilevered wooden staircase and curved doors, or the drawing room divided using three shallow arches. Set in  250-acres it has a wonderful estate featuring 20-acres of woodland, estate cottages generating £20,000 p/a in rental income, and spectacular views across to Dartmoor. It was also given an excellent and detailed write-up in Country Life – always a good seal of approval.  [Ebberly House: Savills]

Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)
Chapel Cleeve Manor, Somerset (Image: Webbers)

Perhaps one of the most interesting of the houses featured is unfortunately only given a photo and no details is Chapel Cleeve Manor in Minehead, Somerset. Perhaps now not strictly a country house as it only has 7-acres, at £1.695m for 17+ bedrooms, it may seem a bargain for someone who wants to live in a country house but doesn’t want the responsibility of an estate. Although such a situation a hundred years ago could have led to the demolition of the house as happened to so many others. Yet, with so much wealth now generated without the need for a large estate to support the house, it’s now entirely reasonable for someone to take on and enjoy such a pleasing Gothic-Revival house. The house has been used as a conference venue for a number of years but with careful restoration this could be rescued from commercial use and be a spectacular home for someone who requires a lot of space. [Chapel Cleeve Manor: Webbers]

So has the rush started?  Nobody really knows and asking estate agents is never an exact science.  Several house which have been launched recently are still waiting to find new owners but the right house launched at the right time for the right price usually does find the right buyer.

Full story: ‘The landscape has changed‘ [The Sunday Times: Home section]

If you thought ‘The Restoration Man’ projects a bit small-fry; try Overstone House

Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)
Overstone Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Martin Sutton on flickr)

Although hated by Samuel Loyd who commissioned it, Overstone House is fondly remembered by the generations of girls who were taught there after it became a school.  A vast, rambling property, it was sold to an obscure evangelical religious group who lived there until a devastating fire in April 2001 destroyed the main part of the house – although Loyd might have been quite relieved.

Overstone House replaced the earlier Overstone Hall and was built in 1862 for the banker Samuel Loyd, who became Lord Overstone for services to finance.  His wife  was keen to have a property commensurate with their status and so her husband decided to rebuild on a grand scale.  However, he inexplicably picked the unknown architect William Milford Teulon (brother of the more famous Gothic revivalist Samuel Sanders Teulon) who was instructed to design with a mixture of Elizabethan and Renaissance features.  This choice led to the creation of one of the most derided houses created in the Victorian era.

Both Girouard and Pevsner were uncomplimentary with the latter describing it as ‘drearily asymmetrical’.  However, the most damning verdict  came from Samuel Loyd himself, who, in what could be regarded as a wonderfully amusing piece of architectural criticism, said:

“The New House I regret to say, is the cause of unmitigated disappointment and vexation.  It is an utter failure – We have fallen into the hands of an architect in whom incapacity is his smallest fault.  The House tho’ very large and full of pretension – has neither taste, comfort nor convenience.  I am utterly ashamed of it … the principal rooms are literally uninhabitable – I shall never fit them up … I grieve to think that I shall hand such an abortion to my successors.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Loyd’s wife died before the project was finished leaving him with this rather large problem – which he promptly ignored by going and living with his daughter at Lockinge house in Berkshire where she had become Lady Wantage. Loyd must have eventually finished it as, on his death in 1883, it passed to Lady Wantage who, along with her husband, used it regularly during the hunting season until 1901.  After her death it was tenanted until sold to become a girls school in 1929.

It remained a girls school until 1979 when the pressures of looking after such a vast pile became too much and it was eventually sold to the New Testament Church of God for £100,000 in 1980 who are the current vendors.  The devastating fire in 2001 destroyed approximately 60% of the building including all the principal rooms and the impressive carved staircase.  Parts of the grade-II listed house remained in use as an old people’s home but the rest became a concern, leading to it being added to the ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.

However, the house is now for sale as a grand project with the opportunity to create a truly palatial home – the original house contained 119 rooms totalling around 20,000 sq ft.  The local council’s preference is that it become a single house – but to do so would require someone with big ideas and very deep pockets, willing to spend at least £5-10m on restoration on top of the £1.5m to buy the house and 50-acres.  However, as the main cause of Loyd’s distress has now been destroyed, this is great opportunity for someone to perhaps create a house which might meet with greater approval.

For anyone with the necessary funds and Kevin McCloud on speed-dial, please call Robert Godfrey of Bidwells (01604 605050).

A detailed history of the house is available on the Overstone School for Girls website.

More details: ‘Property restoration project: Overstone Hall, Northampton‘ [Daily Telegraph]

Lifting the curse of Hampton Gay manor house

 

Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire
Hampton Gay Manor House, Oxfordshire (Image: Robert Silverwood on flickr)

 

The fire which gutted the largely unaltered Elizabethan Hampton Gay manor house in 1887 was seen as the retribution of a curse said to have been put on the house when the inhabitants refused to offer help and shelter when the Paddington-to-Birkenhead Express crashed nearby in 1874.  The fire tore through the building leaving nothing but a shell which has stood for nearly 150 years.  However, with continuing structural deterioration threatening its very survival, an application has been submitted to restore it as a new home.

Even ten years ago the idea of restoring a historic ruin would have probably been immediately refused by English Heritage but over the last decade a series of interesting restorations have shown that ruins need not always remain that way.  This re-evaluation was probably a result of the realisation that it is almost impossible to fully arrest deterioration to a building which is not in use.  However, there is a strong incentive for an owner to ensure that his home remains secure and watertight.

One example of this new permissiveness is Eggesford House in Devon.  Formerly the home of the Earls of Portsmouth, this house, built between 1820-30, was abandoned in preference for their Hampshire estates in 1911 and put up for sale in 1913. It was eventually bought by a local man who slowly stripped it of anything usable in the 1920s leaving a derelict shell.  In the early 1980s it was expected that within a few years the last remaining walls would collapse leaving no sign of the grand house.  However it (plus 80-acres) was sold in the 1990s for around £300,000 to the architect Edward Howell who created a huge new house within the existing walls which successfully uses the old room heights to create Regency-style proportions in a very modern house.

Another project which was driven forward by sheer determination was that of Hellifield Peel in Yorkshire whose story was told as part of a 90-minute special edition of Grand Designs.  At it’s core a 14th-century fortified tower, it had been modernised in the Georgian period but abandoned in the 1950s until it was a roofless shell.  With dereliction threatening total loss, English Heritage decided to allow conversion – albeit with some serious stipulations regarding the archaeology. Architect Francis Shaw had always wanted to live in a castle and this was a labour of love – certainly only someone very dedicated would continue after seeing the central spine wall collapse into hundreds of tons of rubble.  However, anyone who sees the house today would probably agree that English Heritage made the right choice.

Astley Castle in Warwickshire was another ancient home ravaged by a fire in 1978 and a fast deteriorating ruin which the Landmark Trust, with grant support from English Heritage, are in the process of rescuing.  Their plan involves the insertion of a smaller house into the shell of the castle to support the walls and provide holiday accommodation thus ensuring an income to provide a secure future for this historic house.

So the plans for Hampton Gay aren’t as radical as some might believe. However, the 18th-century passion for the ‘Picturesque’ – an appreciation for natural environments and particularly for ruins – is still influential today and some may object to this interference in what is considered one of the most beautiful views in Oxfordshire.  However, without significant intervention there is a real risk that the ruin would simply collapse and be lost forever.  So if the choice is between losing an atmospheric ruin or allowing restoration it seems that the current preference from the official bodies is that the latter is to be allowed – although the heavy restrictions will hopefully ensure that only well-funded restorers with a sympathetic understanding of the building will undertake these projects.  This raises some tantalising prospects; perhaps one day we may even see Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire as a home once again?

Story: ‘Grand design for ruins‘ [Witney Gazette]

A labour of love: the restoration of Hammerwood Park

Hammerwood Park, Sussex (Image: South Downs Living)

Once a house has sunk to such a level of dereliction that even the developers won’t take it on, this can easily lead to an application for demolition and the loss of another piece of our architectural heritage.  Yet, as we see in the media, there are often people willing to commit themselves and their money towards saving these beautiful homes – Hammerwood Park is one which certainly falls into this category.

The house was built in 1792 for Benjamin Sperling and is particularly important as the design of the house was the first commission of Benjamin Latrobe (b.1764 – d.1820) who was later to be hugely influential in the direction of American architecture.   Latrobe had studied architecture privately and served for a year from 1789 as an architectural draughtsman in the office of neo-Classical architect S.P. Cockerell. Howard Colvin suggests that Latrobe was also strongly influenced by the work of French architects such as Étienne-Louis Boullée whose own strictly neo-Classical style emphasised the paring back of unnecessary ornamentation and the use of grand scale with repetitive elements.  Through Hammerwood Park it’s possible to see this philosophy in practice with the giant pilasters on the garden front and the miniature temples on the flanking wings.

The early death of Latrobe’s wife in 1793 caused him to abandon Britain and head to America where he made friend’s with President George Washington’s nephew.  It was these contacts which enabled him to obtain further commissions including the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia which has been described as the ‘first monument of the Greek Revival in America’ (dem. 1867).  It was this and his later work designing the first Capitol building in Washington which so greatly influenced the future of American architecture towards the ne0-Classical which is so evident even today.

That a building as interesting as Hammerwood Park was ever allowed to deteriorate to that extent was unfortunately all too common in the post-WWII era. It is only the dedication of it’s current owner, David Pinnegar, that has probably saved the house from conversion or even demolition.  After various owners it was requisitioned during WWII for use by the Army who left it in their usual poor condition.  Post-war, the Chattell family, who then owned the house, sub-divided the house into flats but as dry rot took hold, the residents moved out and the house was sold in 1973 to the rock group Led Zeppelin for use as a country retreat to work on their music. However, touring commitments meant they never moved in (and rumour has it they even forgot they owned it) and whilst empty, thieves took the roof lead leading to massive wet rot outbreaks.  The house was boarded up in 1976 before finally being offered for sale in 1982 in Country Life magazine with the marvellous understatement that it was ‘in need of modernisation’.

David Pinnegar, then only 21, bought the now grade-I listed house and has since dedicated his life to its restoration.  The vast house has revealed many interesting architectural nuances as he and many volunteers have worked through the vast catalogue of repairs. Although he has secured some grants from English Heritage, the vast majority of the work has been financed through day visitors, B&B guests, and its use as location for a wide variety of films and music video shoots.  In many ways, David’s dedication is proof that all houses, no matter how poor their condition, can find a saviour.

Full story: ‘Hammerwood Park, East Grinstead: Whole Lotta Love‘ [South Downs Living]

House website: ‘Hammerwood Park

A problem shared? Whitbourne Hall visited by Country House Rescue

Whitbourne Hall, Herefordshire (Image: David Cronin on flickr)

The great wealth generated by the Victorians led to the creation of some of our grandest country houses.  Designed to impress guests and provide a showcase for the collections and taste of the owners, these houses were remarkable and beautiful expressions of the power and preferences of the age.  However, in the more straitened circumstances of the 20th-century, this left owners with running costs which far outstripped their wealth and which unfortunately led to hundreds of our country houses being demolished.

Some escaped the wreckers pickaxe through conversion into apartments – but this doesn’t always solve the questions about the long term sustainability of a house, as shown by the visit of the TV programme Country House Rescue to Whitbourne Hall in Herefordshire.

The grade-II* listed house was built for vinegar magnate Edward Bickerton Evans whose father founded the Hill Evans Vinegar works in Worcester in 1830, which was, by 1905, the biggest vinegar producer in the world.  As was standard practice for the discerning Victorian millionaire he decided to build a grand country house and chose a cornfield in Whitbourne as the perfect location.

Despite its Georgian appearance, it was built between 1860 and 1862 to a design by Edmund Wallace Elmslie and inspired by the Erectheum on the Acropolis in Greece. The house was a lavish example of neo-Palladian architecture with a six-column portico, whilst on the south front a huge orangery, now known as the palm house, was added in 1875 and was thought to be the tallest in Europe.  The interior features a fine pillared main Hall with a rare blue and white glass ceiling, and the main reception rooms retain many original features.  At it’s height in 1876, the estate extended to over 2,500 acres with the classically beautiful Whitbourne Hall sitting proudly at the centre.

Remarkably, the Hall remained in the Evans family until 1980, when it was purchased by Whitbourne Hall Community Ltd to be run as a communal housing project with individual apartments and set in eight acres of gardens.  This original arrangement floundered and a commercial company was created to run the house as a more conventional managed community of 23 apartments.  The main rooms have been preserved much as they were with the Morning and Drawing Rooms retaining their original wall coverings.  However the sheer scale of the house means that the average annual maintenance bill is about £42,000 – and due to extensive and significant work required to maintain a house of this quality, that bill is expected to double in 2011, posing serious problems for the residents.  Extensive restoration is now required as the house is now suffering from a catalogue of issues including failing plasterwork as water penetrates through the coffered ceiling of the main hall.    Curiously Whitbourne Hall doesn’t seem to be on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register – it would be interesting to know why not.

One of the perennial difficulties of owning a country house is not just the huge costs such as heating but also the ongoing maintenance (as demonstrated by the Earl Spencer’s sale), the costs of which, rise significantly the higher the classification.   With the paucity of public grants for maintenance it falls to the owners to seek innovative ways to make these wonderful houses financially self-sufficient if possible.  However, as Country House Rescue often shows, it’s the owners who can sometimes be the problem who need to be convinced before they become part of the solution.

More details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ [Channel 4]

A glimmer of hope: ‘Country House Rescue’ visits Kelly House

Kelly House, Devon (Image: English Heritage)

Kelly House has a series of long associations; there has been a house there for over 900 years, it has been the seat of the Kelly family for that entire time, and, sadly, has been on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register for over five years.  Now the latest twist in the tale is that the house will feature in Channel 4’s ‘Country House Rescue’ on Thursday 1 April when expert Ruth Watson offer possible solutions which will help the Kelly family remain in their ancestral home.

The Kelly’s are one of the very rare families able to trace their lineage back to pre-Conquest times.  Warin Kelly is the 31st squire of the family to live in a house which has been passed down since 1100 through fathers, grandfathers, and brothers.  Described as being ‘in a class of its own’ by Marcus Binney*, the elegant Palladian house was built in 1743 -45 for Arthur Kelly by Abraham Rundle (d.1750), a joiner and provincial but obviously skilled architect who lived in Tavistock.  The house is grade-I listed and features a Portland stone doorcase, sash windows glazed with Crown glass and made in London, with local slat stone walls with moorstone quoins. Inside, the extensive high quality woodwork  features superb carving including panelling, chair rails, and a particularly good staircase with chunky corkscrew balusters.

However, the fine panelling hides serious issues such as the periodic bouts of dry rot which break out. Mr Kelly, as a conservation architect advocating minimal intervention, admirably refuses to treat it with chemicals or by stripping out the panelling.  This ongoing damage is largely the fault of death duties, with two demands being levied in swift succession which have severely limited the family’s ability to maintain the house.  Kelly House is exactly the sort of house which the Historic Buildings Councils would have provided grants for when they were set up in the 1950s.  Today, with English Heritage’s budgets under severe pressure, Mr Kelly was told in 2005 that they were unable to provide funds as the increase in the value of the restored house would be greater than the grant – meaning that they force owners towards the sale of their ancestral homes.

Much as it would appear difficult to argue for the provision of public money to preserve private residences, there has to be a better solution than just letting them slowly grow more derelict despite the often heroic efforts of the family involved.  The current generation doesn’t want to be the one which is remembered for having to sell the family seat, leading to a battle against the elements of decay which saps finances and families and often doesn’t provide a long-term solution.  Outside expertise is to be welcomed as it may show the way to a sustainable future for these beautiful homes. Hopefully Ruth’s suggestions can be taken on by the Kellys and other families to ensure their homes are self-financing and not a burden to either the state or the owners who are then able to look forward to the prospect of handing a home and not a liability to their descendants.

Programme details: ‘Country House Rescue‘ (Channel 4)

More information: ‘TV show could help manor restoration‘ [Western Morning News]

Official Kelly House website: ‘Kelly House

* – ‘Houses to Save’ – article by Marcus Binney in Country Life magazine (8 September 2005)

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]