Conversion reversion? Wardour Castle, Wiltshire

Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

With so many country houses lost in the twentieth century, almost any alternative which saved them from the demolition crew was to be welcomed; no matter how drastic.  For some this meant institutional use but for many others of all sizes the solution was conversion into flats and apartments – though with varying degrees of success.  However, as these properties come on to the market, is it perhaps time to consider converting them back into the single, glorious houses they were intended to be?

Launched this week (16 June 2010) in Country Life magazine is the principal apartment in what is considered James Paine’s finest creation; Wardour Castle, a supremely elegant essay in Palladian architecture.

Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)
Central stairwell and gallery, Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (Image: Strutt & Parker)

Built from 1770 – 76, for the eighth Lord Arundell the most impressive feature is a breath-taking central stairwell with first-floor gallery which Pevsner called ‘the most glorious Georgian interior of Wiltshire’ and which forms the core of Apartment One which is now for sale.  Wardour Castle house has proved to be adaptable becoming Cranborne Chase School in 1960 until it closed in 1990 when it was then converted into ten apartments.  As the divisions appear to have respected the natural sections of the house this seems to be a good example of where someone could convert the house back to a single home.

There are many examples of houses being rescued by conversion.  SAVE Britain’s Heritage have long campaigned to protect these houses and have worked in conjunction with one of the leading architects, Kit Martin, in supporting conversion.  A 1983 SAVE report entitled ‘The Country House: to be or not to be’, written by Kit Martin and Marcus Binney, includes particularly interesting studies of how these houses could be sensitively converted.  These show that although almost any country house could be sensitively adapted some are naturally more suitable particularly where the overall layout of the house is symmetrical, shallow and long.

The study was an important milestone in the practice of country house conversion and saved many houses from complete loss or inappropriate use including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, the grade-I Northwick Park in Gloucesterhire, Dingley Hall in Northamptonshire.  The sensitive approach they championed now means that it should be possible to consider converting a house back if the right opportunity arose.  It should be said that some houses are never going to be converted back due to a variety of factors including there being too many apartments involved such as at Thorndon Hall in Essex which contains 37 flats, or where not enough land has been retained to make the unified house valuable enough to justify reversion.

Perhaps the idea of reversion becomes more realistic where more than one part of the same house comes on the market at the same time such as recently happened with grade II*-listed Ampthill Park House, Bedfordshire.  Built by the Cambridge architect Robert Grumbold in 1687-9 and completed by John Lumley of Northampton in 1704-6, with major additions by Sir William Chambers in 1769 it is certainly one of the most impressive houses in the county. It was rescued from dereliction by conversion into just four large houses; two of which were put on the market in April 2010, the largest of which includes most of the principal rooms.

Although it’s nice to dream about these houses becoming single homes probably the biggest obstacles are not only being able to secure the other apartments but also that the value of the individual properties may be greater than the value of the unified house.  However, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that someone with deep pockets and a desire to restore a house could take on one of these conversion reversions and recreate a superb country house.

Property details: ‘Apartment One – Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [Strutt & Parker] – £2.75m

Detailed architectural description: ‘Wardour Castle, Wiltshire‘ [English Heritage: Images of England]

Orphan seeks new carers: Plas Gwynfryn, Gwynedd

Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Plas Gwynfryn, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

It’s often been said that there are no problem buildings, just problem owners.  However, an even more difficult situation is where the house is ‘orphaned’ because no legitimate owner can be found.  This can make it doubly frustrating for those looking to buy and restore a property who are forced to sit by and watch a building deteriorate as the search goes on to find the owner.  This also highlights something of a legislative loophole as having no known owner also prevents the council serving an ‘Urgent Works Notice’ to force repairs thus ensuring that the house will continue to deteriorate. Which brings us to Plas Gwynfryn; an orphan with good prospects if adoption takes place quickly.

The grade-II listed Plas Gwynfryn is another of the many Welsh country houses built to serve the minor gentry, with their increased wealth from the Victorian industrial boom.  The estate had been inherited from a childless uncle by Owen Jones Ellis-Nanney in 1819, and he hugely increased the size of his lands by purchasing the neighbouring Plas Hen estate. On his death it passed to his son, Hugh John Ellis-Nanney.  Having been educated at Eton and Oxford and, on his 21st birthday, now owner of a huge estate, Hugh was the epitome of the eligible bachelor and wanted a house to reflect his status.

The old house was demolished in 1866 and the new house was completed by 1876 at the then astronomical cost of £70,000 (approximately £3m in today’s money).   The design, by architect George Williams, was regarded as very fashionable to the extent that the house was featured in ‘The Builder’ magazine in June 1877.  Hugh was very active in local politics and in 1895 almost beat the local Liberal candidate, the future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, losing by only 194 votes.  Almost by way of consolation Hugh was given a baronetcy and happily lived out his days at Plas Gwynfryn, dying in 1925, with his wife following in 1928.  As their only son had died aged just eight, the house was inherited by their daughter who moved out to Plas Hen.  The house was then let to the Church of Wales before being sold off in 1959 when the estate was broken up.

It then became a hospital and then a hotel before a mysterious fire entirely gutted it in 1982.  Since then it has stood as an empty shell, slowly deteriorating, and is now in serious danger of collapse with the tower a particular risk.  Almost no work has been done on the house except for a brief period when a conservation-minded squatter moved in and started work.  This prompted the only known appearance by the apparently Canadian owner who appeared in a local court during eviction proceedings.   Since then nothing has been heard of the owner and the local council, though aware of the situation, seem powerless to act unless the owner can be found.  A local developer, Aaron Hill, who has completed other historic restorations, is keen to find the owner and buy Plas Gwynfryn with a view to fully restoring it as a family home – which would surely be the best outcome.

Although rare, this example shows that despite the combined efforts of the local Council and a potential buyer an owner can remain a mystery, thwarting well-intentioned efforts to rescue a house before it deteriorates beyond the point of repair.  If there is a legislative loophole it must be closed to prevent any other houses languishing in such a way.

Perhaps councils could be given the legal power to compulsorily purchase when a house is at risk of complete loss, with the money held in escrow in case the owner should appear. Councils are often reluctant to use their powers of compulsory purchase as they become legally responsible for repairs but surely in cases like this with an owner desperate to take the house on, the risk to the public purse is very low. The power would have to only be used in extremis when all other avenues had been exhausted but at least it would give a tool of last resort to ensure that more of our heritage is not lost just because a problem owner can’t be located and forced to honour their responsibilities.

If you are the owner and you happen to read this, please do get in contact with either me or the Council or SAVE Britain’s Heritage who would be more than happy to help get the process of rescuing this house under way.

Anyone with deep pockets? Country houses at risk today

It seems remarkable that between the popularity of country houses as tourist attractions or business or simply as homes that any would be at risk.  Yet as the 2010 SAVE Britain’s Heritage Building’s at Risk Register shows there are still a broad selection of fine houses which, for various reasons, are in need of someone with a desire to restore part of our heritage, lots of dedication, and pretty deep pockets.

Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)
Nocton Hall, Lincolnshire (photo copyright: Tom Vaughan)

One of the saddest is the case of Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire – a county which has lost so many of it’s fine old country houses already.  Fire is still one of the main reasons a house can quickly go from being a secure home to an ‘at risk’ shell.  Grade-II listed Nocton Hall is a warm honey-coloured stone house built for the 1st Earl of Ripon in 1841 to replace the original Jacobean house which burnt down in 1834.  After a stint as an RAF hospital in WWII it became a residential home before being bought by a property developer.  Unfortunately no development took place and the house was allowed to slowly deteriorate before a serious fire severely damaged what had been a perfectly good house.  Still sitting in its own gardens and parkland and near the village Nocton Hall cries out to be restored either as a h,otel or ideally as a grand family home.

Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
Barmoor Castle, Northumberland (Photo: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

To look at the photo, Barmoor Castle in Northumberland looks in pretty good shape – but a picture can hide as much as it shows.  The first issue with Barmoor is that it actually is unused and sits in the middle of a caravan park which has been established in the grounds. Inside, there is some water damage as the roof has been leaking – although recent work, part funded by English Heritage, has alleviated this for the moment. Barmoor was built in 1801 around an older tower by the architect John Patterson of Edinburgh in a castellated Gothic Revival style for Francis Sitwell, in whose family it remained until 1979 when it was sold along with 200-acres.  The current owners have operated the caravan park since then but didn’t live in the house or use it leading to it’s current neglected state.  This is a classic example of where a house could be rescued from an inappropriate use, restored and enjoyed as a fine country house as was intended.

St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)
St Botolph's Mansion, Wales (Image: SAVE Britain's Heritage)

St Botolphs Mansion in Pembrokeshire was built in the early 1800’s for General Richard Le Hunt is a house in need of a use rather than repair.  The Doric porch and neat window architraves create an interesting facade which would normally ensure that such a house would be jealously fought over if it came to market.  However it is now owned by the nearby oil refinery (the proximity probably ruling out residential use) but they are exploring options as to how to make use of this elegant Georgian house – perhaps as a conference facility might be more appropriate.  Either way, this is a house which shouldn’t be forgotten.

Other country houses of note in the report include the Grade-II* listed Plas Machen nr Newport, the surviving portion of the 15th-century house of the Morgans who moved up in the world to Tredegar House, which is for sale. Also for sale, since 2007, is Benwell Towers in Newcastle which was a country house when built but is now suburban, achieving fame in later life as the set for the kid’s TV series ‘Byker Grove’.

Even if your pockets can’t stretch to a country house there are many other buildings seeking a saviour so do order your copy of ‘Live or Let Die‘ and certainly consider joining SAVE Britain’s Heritage to help to preserve our architectural legacy for future generations.

‘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]

2009 English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register

Another year, another sad list of important, interesting, beautiful and sadly at risk properties.  Each year the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register and that produced by SAVE Britain’s Heritage give another sad reminder that though the UK is rich in vernacular architectural heritage there are still significant individual buildings at risk even today, after 50 or 60 years of interest in heritage protection.  Perhaps of equal concern is the fact that only 60% of local councils have their own BaR Register and often it is out of date – local councils should be the first line of defence for their local heritage.  Ask your council for their Register and if they say they haven’t got one or that it’s out of date demand to know why.

If you have the resources but most importantly a sympathetic understanding of restoration then please do consider taking on one of these buildings.  Remember that listed buildings – when well looked after and sensitively restored – always command a premium in the housing market.

Below are David Brack of English Heritage’s top five tips when taking on a restoration project:

  1. You’ll need to discover why the property is in the state it is?
  2. Get a proper survey.
  3. Appoint a good architect.
  4. Employ a good builder.
  5. Maintain contact with your Conservation Officer throughout your renovation.

Full story: ‘The pitfalls of buying a romantic wreck