Property: King of the castles

Special agents 1: Pavilions of splendour
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Want to live in a folly? How about a converted chapel, or a Gothic water tower? In the first of a series about specialist estate agents, Kate Worsley meets a man who deals only in 'historic, spectacular, eccentric and ruined' properties - as well as a satisfied customer

YOU CAN USUALLY rely on estate agents to regurgitate some of the English language's most torturous descriptions. "We are pleased to offer this most unusual established house situated in a convenient location close to seafront and town centre with both shopping and recreational facilities." Decoding it can be fun - "most unusual" means weird DIY, "convenient location" means on the main road - but more often than not, it's just depressing.

This is why Pavilions of Splendour, an estate agency which specialises in listed buildings, has such appeal for a certain class of people: those whose admiration for operatic architecture goes hand in hand with the repugnance they feel for ugly prefabricated descriptions. If the phrase "deceptively spacious" incorrectly applied offends you almost as much as does a uPVC window brutally inserted into a Georgian terrace, then Pavilions of Splendour's Gwyn Headley is your man.

"Yes, you're never living on a road or a street, are you?" he sighs. "It's always a turning. To be an estate agent you have to go to a special writing academy where you learn to say 'being on an agreeable turning, within easy reach of ... , favoured with a southerly aspect ... ' It's not jargon, though, it all comes from Victorian auctioneers' dialect. I'm on a one-man crusade to destroy this writing, although I'm just as bad in my own way with my flights of purple prose - outrageous!"

Headley is an architectural book consultant who turned estate agent in November 1992 when a newspaper article mistook the Folly Fellowship, a registered charity which he helped set up in 1988, for an estate agency. He took the name Pavilions of Splendour from the hymn "Oh Worship the King, All Glorious Above". He is perhaps our only modern equivalent of the celebrated Mayfair agent Roy Brooks, whose often brutal, but always inspiring, property descriptions wowed discerning London buyers in the 1960s.

A hearty, poppy-wearing, self-acknowledged "army brat", Headley grew up in dozens of houses around the world: "Africa, Austria, Poland, France ... " He ended up in London living in a John Soanes treasure, complete with trompe-l'oeil "moat", followed by a delightful Christopher Wren. Unwilling to face the eight years' training necessary to become an architect, he fell into book publishing, but always managed to incorporate distinguished buildings into his author tours. One jaunt with the cookery queen Fanny Craddock culminated in her hijacking the lunch of an unsuspecting party staying in the Landmark Trust's Clytha Castle in Gwent.

Fans of the Landmark Trust - cherry-picking retired couples, weary middle-class parents desperate for decorum and dreamily aspirational arts students - would love his properties. They are "characterful, not necessarily beautiful buildings", for "agreeable people who like build- ings for their own sake. There are lots of sharks and villains around, but we always include a 'wealth warning', and we do exaggerate all the downsides." A "Roman temple with grounds" in Cobham, for example, is on Pavilions' books for pounds 20,000, but plastered with the warning that it needs at least pounds 2m spending on it.

From humble beginnings as a telephone- and-SAE outfit in Maidenhead which priced its properties in guineas, Pavilions is now an international Web-based agency selling to clients as far away as Korea and Argentina. Headley designed the website himself, with useful links to other historic buildings' sites. It is updated every Friday and gets around 300 hits a day. Five scouts around the UK notify him of suitable properties. One is a young mum, another a driver employed by schools for the handicapped in Wales.

Headley and his two partners currently have only a quarter of the 100 or so properties they need on their books to achieve critical mass, but word of mouth is good, and they don't expect to rise above a niche market. "Our central register that appears on the website always has about 1,200 listed buildings on it. There are 520,000 listed buildings in the UK, so it's not an impossible business proposition."

Otherwise, Headley is keen to emphasise his lack of financial acumen, his four-finger typing and his chaotic attic office in what local estate agents now term "Crouch End Heights", where Folly the cat winds herself round his legs. "My skill is enthusiasm, simple as that." But towards the end of the interview his charming air of determined amateurism disappears as he is door-stepped by an angry client.

"I have come here today to ask you why you have lied to us and misled us over a number of properties."

The client sounds as though he should be on The Cook Report. Headley invites him in to air his accusations in front of me. The wheedling, nasal voice belongs to a tubby man who at first refuses to look Headley in the eye or to give his name. He launches into a rambling tale of unacknowledged offers and gazumpings, couched in painful cod-legalese.

Much taller and better bred, Headley has the advantage. He folds his arms. The other man does the same. "Ah. You're the telephone box man aren't you?"

"Yes, I had to use call boxes because of my marital difficulties, which I also attribute to you." Headley switches from disciplined politesse to calibrated dramatic effect. "Are you accusing me of running off with your wife? This is outrageous. I did try to contact you, Mr ... "

"Mr Scoop. Mr Bentley Scoop."

"Mr Scoop." Headley can barely conceal a smile. "I could never reach you on the number you provided for your company. They said they'd never heard of you, Mr Scoop."

Bentley Scoop sidesteps this one and tells Headley he's already gone to the authorities. "Which authorities?" "The London authority, actually." "Is that supposed to scare me more than the Birmingham authority?" Scoop wilts beneath Headley's withering tones. As he is ushered out Scoop thanks me for my help, although I haven't said a word. I ask him to contact me if he wants to explain his side more fully, but he never does. When I ring the telephone number for "Towerhouse Construction Ltd", Five- Star Secretaries in Burnham answers. "Bentley Scoop? We don't know anyone of that name. Towerhouse Construction? No idea."

Headley, shaken, puts his hand to his heart. Normally his clients are such nice people. He calls the incident "very Grand Guignol" and apologises for his esprit de l'escalier. But after all, characterful architecture can attract some equally strange characters.

A FOLLY OF MY OWN

AT SOME point, her weekends in Landmark Trust properties ceased to assuage Claire Chesilton's yearning for her own place of "significant architectural interest". A ceramics specialist who spent her childhood in an "interesting, but not open to the public" 700-year-old house, Chesilton searched for a folly of her own for years. Then two years ago she bought an 18th-century Gothic shooting lodge.

"I went to countless estate agents, asking 'how do we buy a Landmark Trust-type house?' They just used to look at me rather quizzically. I was a little bit uncertain about what I wanted, to be honest," she admits. "One of those pests who's always looking for the dream but can't find it and doesn't really know exactly what it is, just something different. Then I rang up Gwyn Headley four or five years ago and we began a rather amicable telephone friendship. He had a very amenable attitude and he seemed to hit on exactly what we were looking for."

Almost immediately, an observatory came up in Brighton, but Chesilton was too slow off the mark. She then rang Headley periodically, until he tipped her off about an isolated fenland folly with windmill attached. "I just went there on a whim, with a video camera slung around my neck. My husband wasn't sure - he thought it was in flat, boring fenland. But then we heard that a woman was flying in from America to see it, which rather focussed our minds. We went to look at it again and it really stirred our hearts."

Chesilton asked Pavilions of Splendour to take it off the market for two weeks while she got a surveyor in: "We didn't even know whether it had a water supply at that stage. Gwyn honoured our offer - which is very rare, I've since heard. He was extremely gentlemanly."

The one-storey folly was built between 1820 and 1840 - "nobody is really sure" - as a hunting lodge on a large shooting estate. Its half-acre of grounds include a barn, lawn and swing seat, trees and a 300-year-old postmill, which was moved from a nearby valley in the 19th century to make room for a railway line. By the 1960s the lodge was a run-down shack, but was immaculately restored by Dudley Poplack, the fashionable interior decorator, as a symmetrical arrangement of three cubes - a large central living-room, which is as high as it is wide, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms off in the wings. It retains its original ogee arch windows and wooden shutters.

By the time the Chesiltons moved in, there was surprisingly little work to be done. It already had heating, and a newly laid roof complete with handcut scalloped tiles. The Chesiltons converted one of the two bathrooms into a bedroom, installed a new kitchen, and replaced the previous occupant's rather "bohemian" taste with something more period. "We were very keen to get it as 'Chinoiserie' as we could, so we've probably gone a bit mad. We even found someone who makes Regency hand-painted wallpaper."

The Chesiltons now get a lot of strangers knocking on their door to get a peep not at the folly, but at the windmill, which Chesilton's two little boys have nicknamed Bunnytop Mill because of its rabbit-shaped weathervane. "We hadn't realised quite how special and rare the windmill was, we just thought it was a very attractive addition to the garden. But it's quite well-known to postmill-spotters. So although we own it, we share it."

The grounds also harbour a large rabbit warren, which thrills the Chesilton boys. And the lodge has entirely satisfied Claire's longing for a folly. She has no plans to sell up. "It's really more of a love nest than a family home, but we manage to squeeze in. We've really fallen in love with it in a big way. We wouldn't just do it up and move on. It would be hard to sell it, quite frankly. I don't think we could do it."

! Pavilions of Splendour, 22 Mount View Road, London N4 4HX, telephone 0181 348 1234. E-mail address: pavilions@heritage.co.uk. Website address: http://www.heritage. co.uk/

Next week, in Part 2 of Special Agents, Oliver Bennett goes on a home- buying pub crawl

HOW TO BUY A LISTED BUILDING

1 make friends with your local planning/conservation office, which will be pleased to hear from someone who wants to support rather than thwart what they do.

1 check whether you can get a grant for works. These are available for Grade 1 listed properties but are rarer for Grade II buildings. Contact the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings on 0171 377 1644.

1 find a surveyor with listed building experience. Contact the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on 0171 222 7000.

1 get the building in question insured by a company which specialises in listed buildings. Pavilions of Splendour can get you a quote from companies such as Simply Listed. You may find that the premium turns out to be less than for standard policies, since listed buildings tend to be better maintained.

1 The Conservation Directory, pounds 5.99, is a fount of useful information and addresses, as is the Guildhall Library in London for historical information about buildings.

1 do remember that the purchasing price is only the start: you'll probably never make back the money that you spend on a listed building. Intrinsic architectural value is only rarely reflected in prices. These days, after all, uPVC rules.

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