CASTLES IN DIRE NEED OF DEFENCE
The Daily Telegraph – 19 October 1994
Tom Rowland finds two mansions fortunate enough to be rescued by developers not intent on destroying their looks or their character.
With the market for country-house hotels and golf clubs as dead as a dodo, you might have thought the future for stately homes unlucky enough to be left alone with nobody to look after them was bleak.
In the seventies, before the hotel boom, redundant mansions were frequently left to fall further and further into disrepair until the planners — faced with seeing them crumble away — allowed developers permission for unsuitable schemes that divided big spaces into tiny flats. In the process they sacrificed most of the buildings' charm, inelegantly chopping up the grand rooms and inserting car ports into the kitchen garden.
Fortunately, that is less likely to happen now. The market for little flats in bad conversions is dead in most areas and finance for speculative schemes is almost impossible to obtain.
The situation is allowing a new generation of developers with considerably more sensitivity to pick up important houses at figures which make it economic to divide them into a relatively small number of large apartments.
Two very different properties illustrate the trend. Both are called "castle” although neither is. They have suffered at the hands of institutional users in the past, and have recently been purchased by property developers intent on turning out a small number of high quality units. There the similarities end. Wardour Castle, between Andover and Wincanton in Wiltshire, is a startlingly large, almost monolithic, piece of top-rate Palladianism, built by James Pain as a seat for the Lords of Arundell in 1770.
It did time as a girls school, which at least saved much of the glorious plaster work; the school never had the money to repaint with modern paints, which would have damaged the detailing. It came up for sale in the pit of the property slump in 1992 and a developer with experience of high quality refurbishment projects secured it for around £1 million, which — considering it is around half an hour's drive from Salisbury and in reasonable condition — counts as a steal.
Sundrum Castle, not far from Ayr on the west coast of the Scottish lowlands, started as a dour medieval tower house which, for an unexplained reason, a family of 18th-century sugar cane barons adopted and decided to transform into a country house.
This proved difficult and unlike Wardour the building is certainly no architectural masterpiece. Still, it is rather jolly, with Georgian parts jumbled up with medieval banqueting halls and a string of I9th-century additions to one side.
It came up for sale three years ago as a bank repossession after the plans of two developers to turn it into a holistic healing centre came unstuck.
Robert Watson, a Ludlow-based developer, bought it for a madly low price of around £75,000. But the lead had been removed from the roof and a winter of Ayrshire rain had destroyed most of the interior, which had rot running riot through the fabric.
Mr Watson is doing the basic repairs to the fabric of the castle, which he intends to sell off as three large units at around £250,000 each with finished interiors or £80,000 as shells, although he says he would dearly like to keep one for himself.
He has also renovated the clock tower and a row of outbuildings turning them into pleasant houses.
The project took off this summer, with half a dozen of the outbuilding conversions going under offer, just at the point when he was beginning to believe that the project might sink.
At Wardour, developer Nigel Tuersley intends to rent the nine finished apartments he is building in the peripheral parts of the castle while he and his new bride Vanessa, live in the state rooms and a large bedroom wing under construction.
The rentals will be on leases at a rate of around £2,000 a month, and tenants will get some elegant flats distinguished by main reception rooms up to 50ft long and bathrooms lined with marble that would not look out of place in the Savoy. Most will have just one or two bedrooms, although in some, room has been found for guest accommodation.
Mr Tuersley says that in order to complete the project he has had to raise another £1.3 million, and this meant involving five banks. It is very much a family project and Mr Tuersley has moved his parents into a converted apartment at one end of the house and sold a garden house to his sister.
Eventually he hopes to open a conference centre in the grounds.
The apartments at Wardour are being rented through John D. Wood. Slater Hogg and Howson in Ayr are joint agents with Cluttons on Sundrum Castle