When enabling development makes things worse: Sandhill Park, Somerset

Sandhill Park, Somerset (Image: English Heritage)

There is always a temptation when any country house and estate comes to the market for the land to be built over with residential developments which provide a quick and relatively easy profit – even if it does ruin forever the setting of the house.  Usually the houses are snuck through under the cover of ‘enabling development’ with a promise that this will secure the long-term future of the house.  Grade-II* listed Sandhill Park in Somerset is an interesting example of where this fails if the development is build in an inappropriate location and a council who apparently haven’t ensured that at least some of the profits are invested in the house.

The main house at Sandhill Park was built around 1720, for the John Perriam, the MP for Minehead and inherited in 1767 by his grandson John Lethbridge (who was knighted in 1804) and remained in the Lethbridge family until 1913.  On inheriting Sandhill Park in 1815, Sir Thomas Buckler Lethbridge, the 2nd Baronet (b. 1778 – d.1849) added a grand portico to the main house and large wings to the rear.  The main house was substanially rebuilt in the 19th century giving it the distinctive and elegant sandstone ashlar look it retains today. These changes were funded through debt which burdened the family for years but ensured that no further major changes were made.  However, following the death in 1902 of Sir Wroth Acland Lethbridge, the 4th Baronet, the family moved out and the house was let until it was sold, along with 4,000 acres, in 1913.  It was subsequently bought in 1929 by Somerset County Council for use as a hospital and was requisitioned as a military hospital during WWII.  After the war, it became a psychiatric hospital until it closed in 1992 since which the house has remained unused.

The assumption appears to have been that the house could not be returned to being a family home which appears to have given the green light to the estate being built on and the conversion of the house with further building works to the rear, again turning a wonderful country house into a mere afterthought in a large development.  Planning permission was initially refused for what is now known as the Lethbridge Park housing estate which has been built to the east of the main house with the nearest property being just 100-metres away.  The only access for this estate is a small road to the north – the opposite direction to the town – which forces all traffic through a country lane before joining the main road back to Bishops Lydeard. It’s not possible to walk to the town so even to get a paper the residents must use their car.  Surely it would have been better to site the estate away from the house and use the parkland nearest the town?  The isolated residents gain no benefit from being so close to the house and the council’s decision has merely ensured more traffic on the local roads whilst compromising the setting of the main house.

This development has made it harder to sell the house as a home as the roofs of the new houses are visible from the main house. But perhaps this was part of the plan as the Knight Frank sales particulars explain that planning permission has been granted for the conversion of the main house into apartments with many more houses being built to the rear of the house.  However, as the house and 145-acres are now for sale for £2.75m it appears that after completing the residential development, the owners have decided to pocket the profits, sell the ‘difficult’ part and run.  This is apparently a prime example of a fine, though misused house being failed by the local council who are supposed to protect it.  How did they get planning permission for such an inappropriately sited development?  Why did the council not insist that the house be restored? Why are the old derelict hospital buildings still standing – surely they should have been removed as a minimum?  The council seem to have decided that it’s better to have two inappropriately sited developments rather than looking after an important part of their local architectural heritage.

Sales details:  ‘Sandhill Park, Somerset‘ [Knight Frank]

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Update – 22 November – Sandhill Park seriously damaged by fire

Fire at Sandhill Park - 22 Nov 2011 (Image: Lucy Robert Shaw / This is Somerset)
Fire at Sandhill Park - 22 Nov 2011 (Image: Lucy Robert Shaw / This is Somerset)

Sadly, as so often happens with uninhabited country houses, Sandhill Park has suffered a serious fire which has affected large parts of the house.  The mysterious  blaze started on the first floor (and considering there are no services to the house, this has to be suspicious) and quickly spread through the rest of the first and upper floors.  The huge quantities of water the fire brigade would have had to have used have almost certainly brought down the ceilings in the rooms below and the now serious damp house will be extremely vulnerable to wet rot.  If it is proved that the fire was arson, it’s a terrible indictment of the NHS for abandoning the property and the local council for approving such a ridiculous housing scheme which has made it harder to sell the house – compounded by their ineffectiveness in getting the old hospital buildings removed and the house restored in the first place.

I can only hope the owner was insured and is able to take protective measures to mitigate the fire and water damage and to somehow get ownership of this fine house into the hands of someone who can care for and restore it.  Anything less would be an architectural tragedy and would reflect badly on those involved. However, if history is any guide, I suspect we will shortly see an application to demolish, claiming that it is ‘dangerous’ (usually this is not remotely true and just a developers excuse) and more bland housing will march across this once fine parkland, a poor memorial to the heritage of the town.

News story: ‘Blaze strikes Somerset mansion that was left to rot‘ [This is Somerset]

Still available for sale – the country houses proving difficult to sell

Despite the enthusiasm of the estate agents, it seems that some of the most impressive houses featured in the glossy adverts at the front of Country Life magazine are proving difficult to sell.  Whether this is due to a poor local market or unreasonable prices, or just bad luck, here are a few stunning country houses which are still looking for buyers.

Noseley Hall, Leicestershire (Image: Knight Frank)

Noseley Hall in Leicestershire has been in the family of the present Lord Hazelrigg for nearly 300 years but was put up for sale in April 2009 at a guide price of £14m for the grade-II* listed house plus the 1,200-acre estate.  Built in 1728 on the back of Northumberland coal mining wealth, the house is decorated with works of art (though fewer now following several auctions), and fine plasterwork.  However, Lord Hazelrigg admitted that the estate doesn’t cover the costs of running the house, and so he decided to sell, but it’s still listed on the Knight Frank website – and still with a guide price of £14m.   More details: ‘The last of the romantics‘ [Sunday Times]

Dowdeswell Court (Image from Savills)

Another house which has been for sale is Dowdeswell Court in Gloucestershire which was first advertised in 2005 and then sold for £4.75 but then came back on the market in summer 2009 with a guide price of £7.9m (and was featured in this blog).  When serial restorer James Perkins took on the house it had been a 46-room nursing home resulting in a huge restoration project and since he sold in 2005 has moved on to restoring other country houses including Aynhoe Park.  The grade-II house was built between 1833-35 by local architect Charles Paul of Cheltenham and was originally three storeys but during the 1920s the top storey was neatly removed.  The more manageable house is a beautiful example of neo-Classical detailing combined with modern comforts. The house is available through either Knight Frank or Savills.

Compton Pauncefoot Castle - Somerset (Image: Bidwells)

The final property for this list is the impossibly beautiful Compton Pauncefoot Castle in Somerset which has been for sale since 2006.   Built in 182o, the grade-II listed house sits in a 1,278-acre estate with 40-acres of stunning gardens and lakes.  Originally on the market for £22m, it failed to sell even during the boom years of 2007-8 and despite 20 buying agents being invited to a launch event, and being featured in the The Sunday Times, it’s now being sold at auction – though I suspect the reserve would be near the current price advertised on the agents websites of in excess of £17m.  Perhaps the fact that it’s only for sale as a whole may have put off those who might just want the house and immediate grounds – but this would deny the owner the certainty of privacy that the surrounding estate would bring.  The house is available through Bidwells and Knight Frank (who despite putting it as their lead advert in Country Life this week fail to have it on their website).