Ever since the early 1950s English Heritage and its predecessor bodies have purchased outstanding buildings that were imperilled, restored them and sold them back into the open market with a requirement for public access. This has always been seen as a good way of fulfilling its mission to identify the most important national heritage and secure its future. Very occasionally buildings bought in this way have been retained as visitor attractions, but normally such places were bought with the express intention to pass them on. The buildings have always been in a state of terminal dereliction and the repair process has always taken decades. One major feature of the work is that EH has always published a full report on its findings.
So Hill Hall, Essex, a unique Elizabethan mansion, was acquired in 1980. It had suffered a terrible fire in 1969 and was deemed to be at risk of complete collapse and ruination. A massive programme of investigation and repair followed and the house was turned into apartments and sold, with public access in 2001. Acton Court in Gloucestershire, an outstandingly important Tudor house with close connections to King Henry VIII, was bought in 1985. It was in a terrible condition and no private owner was likely to come forward with the sort of money required to rescue it. Work started on emergency repairs and it was agreed by 1994 to sell on the house with public access requirements when the work was completed. In 1999 the house was sold with the condition that it be opened for 60 days a year. Danson House, Bexley, London, was rescued in 1995. This incredibly fine and important Georgian Villa was in catastrophically poor condition and a major project restored it by 2003 when it was handed over to a Trust to open it to the public. There have been others but these examples give an idea of the sort of buildings we have acted to save.
During my time at English Heritage we have been faced with some big challenges: really important buildings in a terrible state. Many we have saved with large grants to their owners, a few we have taken on ourselves. But a number we have bought and then sold on. Apethorpe Hall is a Grade 1 listed country house of exceptional importance, in particular its royal lodgings built at the command of James I in 1622-4. It suffered a long period of neglect from 1982-2004, becoming the leading Building at Risk in the country. Statutory action led in 2001 to service of a full Repairs Notice by the government on advice from English Heritage. This was followed by Compulsory Purchase Order and a Public Inquiry in 2004. Since taking over the property in 2004, English Heritage has undertaken an extensive programme of repairs, though much work is still necessary, with many areas in very poor condition. The total expenditure on the property up to April 2012 will be £5.9m, plus the £3.7m acquisition costs which DCMS agreed with the previous owners. The projected cost for completion of the repairs is £3.5m, giving a total expenditure of £13.1m.
As agreed with the government during the Compulsory Purchase, and set out at the Public Inquiry in 2004, English Heritage’s stated policy was that repairs should be carried out and the property marketed, seeking a suitable single user of the whole site, to avoid damaging break-up, as proposed by previous owners. In return for the substantial public investment in saving the site the new owner will be obliged to open the house to the public on terms agreed with English Heritage. In the meantime English Heritage plans to complete the Repairs Notice works, which remain a legal obligation.
The saleability of Apethorpe Hall is seriously affected by a number of issues. Besides the cost of repairs refurbishment costs for the buildings will be at least £6m. The site access is awkward and constricted, and the landscape setting has been adversely affected by planting. The margins of the village have also encroached as a consequence of development on adjoining land. The extensive size of the buildings presents a considerable challenge to any ‘single user’ of the site. Public access will be required to the state apartments and gardens. Once fully restored Apethorpe Hall will probably be worth £5m and so whoever buys it must be prepared to restore it at a loss.
The property was put on the market in 2012 andafter a careful selection process a buyer was chosen and the house sold in 2014. The new owner has already started work to convert it back into a family home. Public access will be available for 50 days a year managed by English Heritage. If you want to visit Apethorpe Palace – English Heritage – it’s well worth it.
Ditherington Flax Mill is another building we have taken direct action on. It is sited on the outskirts of Shrewsbury and is one of the most important industrial buildings in the world, built in 1797 it is the first iron framed building on the planet. Two other buildings on the same site – the warehouse of 1805 and the Cross Mill of 1811 use the same construction method meaning that, in Shrewsbury, are the first, third and fourth buildings in the world to use modern construction techniques. This group of buildings has an outstanding global importance as the direct ancestors of the steel framed skyscraper.
In 1897 after the decline of the flax industry the mills were converted to a Malting and this in turn closed in 1987. This outstanding site remained empty and derelict for 15 years despite attempts by local developers to find a beneficial use for it. In October 2002 English Heritage agreed to underwrite up to 95% of the cost of the works associated with an Urgent Works Notice to enable essential roof repairs. However in 2005 after no significant progress from the owners we bought the site with aid of money from the then Development Agency. After substantial expenditure on securing the structure of the buildings an Outline Planning Application for the whole site was secured in November 2010, together with a Detailed Planning Approval for some of the main heritage buildings identified for Phase I. At the same time significant local interest led to the formation of a Friends Organisation, and this active group worked with Shropshire Council and us to secure a £12.8m Heritage Lottery Fund Grant for Phase I, announced in July 2013.
Work is currently underway to demolish the old silos and build a base for the friends. Work continues to find a viable scheme for the future. If you are interested in what happens next in this project see Major Projects – Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings – Historic England.
JW Evans & Son Ltd was a family owned silver ware and plate manufactory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, recognised as ‘an historic industrial area of international importance’. This significance derives from the survival of an inner city cluster of specialist industrial buildings. Many are still used for producing jewellery and metal products, but the Evans building is unique in being a repository of traditional craft skills, industrial processes, tools and machinery dating from the peak of the area’s importance.
The manufactory retains all its original 19th century and early 20th century machinery and tooling in working order and nearly all the archival and family papers associated with the business since before it was established. This completeness represents a unique historic survival. When it became clear that the factory was going to close down and that most likely the entire ensemble would be dispersed we tried to find an alternative owner or operator for the complex. Eventually we decided to take the buildings on in 2008 and we bought the factory from the Evans family. In April 2009 we started a major repair programme which was completed the following year at a cost of £800k. Sadly, even in its repaired state the National Trust nor any local Trust were interested in having the building and so now English Heritage opens the factory to the public.