PROPERTY / Owning a stately pile of rubble: What possesses buyers who take on derelict properties and rebuild them? Jonathan Sale finds hidden advantages in absolute ruins

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The Independent Culture
WHY WAS Eggesford House, a Gothic wonder set in 80 acres of rolling Devon parkland, on the market for a mere pounds 300,000? Because it is a 'Grade II early 19th-century ruin'.

When the estate agent Strutt & Parker warns that 'any person inspecting does so at his / her own risk', we realise that more needs to be done to the structure than fitting a damp-course. The only reason the roof of Eggesford House does not leak is that there is no roof. Thanks to a saga involving a drowned architect, the mentally unstable third Earl of Portsmouth, and an owner who in the Twenties recycled much of the structure for another building project, the house has gone downhill for much of this century, looking these days like the set of a Ken Russell horror movie.

Yet an undisclosed buyer has taken it on to ensure it survives until the next century. The same is happening to more modest properties. There are people quite prepared to adopt a dilapidated shell fit only for animals. (The Scottish Civic Trust describes Udrigle House in Ross-shire as 'uninhabited for two decades except for a sheep'.) Words like renovation do not begin to cover the work needed on some of the freehold disaster areas families will live with and, ultimately, live in. Not knowing precisely what is lurking in the geriatric fabric and being bound by the constraints of the surviving structure can be worse than starting a brand-new house from scratch.

Most of us, when moving into a home with a little woodworm in the back bedroom and ghastly wallpaper in the dowstairs loo, moan that we are lumbered with 'an absolute wreck'. But for Graham and Marion Hallett, that description was literally true of a small cottage near Hungerford, Berkshire, which had been abandoned for 30 years.

'All that remained was rubble in the middle of a wilderness,' says Graham. To be fair, an old bread oven had also survived. Fortunately, there was outline planning permission to go with the outline of the house, and the Halletts were eventually allowed to put up a larger, thatched structure in keeping with the nearby property.

If, like the Halletts, you have only an oven surviving from the original structure, would it not be more sensible to start from scratch on an empty site? Why be painted into a corner, architecturally speaking, by the ghost of the old cottage?

The editor of Build It, Rosalind Renshaw, explains the lure of the rural ruin: 'It is a very good way, almost the only way, of getting planning permission for a house in the country.' The magazine lists plots of land for sale, some of which include an on-site ruin. But you should not buy before you know where you, and the new structure, stand. 'We strongly recommend that you don't take a gamble. Get express planning permission for the house that you want to build.'

The Devon architect Allen Van der Steen, whose rescue work includes the Mill Pond, Chagford, a three-storey house lacking its top two storeys, agrees. 'Derelict buildings give you a fairly splendid site in a fairly splendid situation which you would otherwise not be able to live in. A lot of derelict buildings have an extremely delicate quality about them.' He warns, however, that many people tackle derelict buildings with a lot of optimism - but not enough money. 'It is by no means a cheap option.'

One of the problems is that to be given a mortgage, you need a structure which can be roughly defined as a house. Loans are available, but the bank or building society will be happier if you sell your existing property first, even if this means living in rented accommodation or a caravan on the site.

The barn which Iain and Sue Dunsmoir bought in Cliddesden, near Basingstoke, was certainly standing up. Sadly, its ropey condition meant that they had to take it down, timber by timber; then they quickly put it together again, like a giant Lego house, before they forgot where each bit slotted in.

Nine years ago the Dunsmoirs spent pounds 24,000 on buying the property and a further pounds 15,000 on bringing it up to mortgage-worthy condition. They then put it on the market for pounds 275,000.

Even more perverse were Philip and Heather Martin-Dye, of Shamly Green, Guildford. Their farmhouse was very Sixties: the 1660s in the case of one room, 1960s for much of the rest. It was perfectly habitable, and indeed they lived in it for a while before ripping it out and starting again.

'The whole thing started because Heather wanted some new windows,' Philip, a British Airways captain, recalls. One thing led to another and soon the modern additions to the original cowman's cottage were pruned back and hidden, both inside and out, by the new growth of oak frame and cladding. Now, it even fools the experts. 'The finished thing looks as if it has been there 300 years.'

The house that author and journalist Jill Tweedie bought in Spitalfields, the fashionable part of east London, fooled people too. A casual passer-by would not have realised that it was there at all. Her husband, the writer Alan Brien, caught somone peeing into it under the impression that it was just an empty space between more substantial buildings.

'I think it had half a storey,' she says. Still, it cost only pounds 2,500, which, even 15 years ago, was a bargain. 'It took nine months to rebuild and we spent something like pounds 18,000. We had one man and me, and my son Luke - Alan was very busy at the time - and we put absolutely everything in. I was very proud of it; you could have eaten your dinner out of the drains. When we were digging the foundations, we came across plague pits, with debris and bones. There was some discussion about whether the plague virus could be reactivated, so we tied scarves round our faces and carried on digging. It was quite lovely when it was finished.'

Jill and Alan, for reasons they cannot remember, never actually moved in, selling at a modest profit instead. Later they bought a house in Northamptonshire - which was a wreck too.

The Scottish Civic Trust, based in Glasgow, is a good source of ruins. Mary Miers runs its 'dating service for buildings in need of rescue, and potential restorers'. Its latest Bulletin includes Newmilns Tower, Strathclyde, which offers buyers the chance to live in a Scheduled Ancient Monument - a 16th-century, four-storey former prison with walls 5ft thick.

Though less unusual in design, Breck Farmhouse is rather more open to the elements than is desirable, particularly where there are as many elements as on the main island of the Orkneys. 'Owners would consider selling,' declares its entry in the Bulletin, adding forlornly, 'if anybody was interested.'

Many of those interested in restoration work, faced with page after page of crumbling castles and former churches past praying for, may feel that the best sort of ruin is a ruin that someone else has already repaired. The Old Manse on the Black Isle peninsula, north of Inverness, is precisely that.

'The local authority served a repair notice,' says John Clare of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. 'The floorboards in one room were saved, and a few joists and partitions. There were holes in the roof with trees growing out and large cracks in the wall, and it was propped up by scaffolding.'

Now, thanks to the trust, it is a late 17th-century building with late 20th-century mod cons, a listed five-bedroom house with underfloor heating and a walled garden. 'It's a beautiful building,' he said. 'It had no value; we acquired it for pounds 12,000, which is what a plot in that village would have cost.'

In all, the trust spent pounds 405,000, received grants of pounds 180,000, and has put it on the market for 'offers over pounds 205,000'. The Scottish practice resembles an auction and is the opposite of the English system: the vendors name a price and the purchasers put in offers above it. This means that the modest Old Manse could conceivably fetch the same sort of money as the spectacular Eggesford House. And it has its very own roof.

The Scottish Civic Trust, 24 George Street, Glasgow G2 1EF (tel 041-248 3398).

(Photographs omitted)