PROPERTY / The saviour of the country seat: In the 1970s historic homes galore were succumbing to dereliction - or developers. Caroline McGhie meets a conservationist who has given the species a new lease of life

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TO understand the achievements of Kit Martin, you have to remember what life was like in 1976. The last property boom wasn't even a twinkle on the horizon. Restoration-mania had not begun. Country houses lay rotting in their parklands, barn conversions were a rarity, and the dockland warehouse flat had not even been thought of.

Quite unassailed by doubt, Kit Martin chose this time to buy and move into Dingley Hall, Northamptonshire, a Grade I listed ruined mansion which he proceeded to restore and divide into 10 separate houses. In so doing, he altered the course of history for a whole gallery of other country seats abandoned to dereliction in the post-war years of servantless austerity; and he turned the tide of public opinion back in favour of their rescue.

After restoring Dingley, he proceeded to turn his magic wand on The Hazells in Bedfordshire; Gunton Hall in Norfolk; Cullen House in Banff, Grampian; Keith Hall in Aberdeenshire; Callaly Castle in Northumberland; Tyninghame in Lothian; and finally, this year, he took on Burley on the Hill in Rutland. Flying in the face of yet another awful recession, he is due to announce his next prize rescue in the New Year.

Gunton Hall, in north Norfolk, a simple Palladian house designed in 1742 by Matthew Brettingham and vastly extended about 30 years later by James Wyatt, was one of Kit Martin's early foundlings. Now his permanent home, it was restored according to the simple principles that have become his hallmark.

He did none of the things other builders might have done. He didn't demolish it in order to use the old bricks and the site again. Neither did he rip out its interior and fill it with as many flats as possible, squeezing a two-bedroom apartment into a ballroom or dining room if necessary, thus destroying all the grace that these houses have to offer. Instead he found that most large houses divided vertically rather than horizontally into a number of smaller houses. And, unlike other builders, he kept elements of the old estate life intact - the landscaping and gardening was of paramount importance, while car parking and other services were hedged out of sight.

At Gunton, self-contained houses have been created within the stables, the octagonal game larder and the lodges, while the main facade of the house overlooking the park has been kept for himself and his wife, Sally. In fact, the house was designed originally to support exactly the same number of people as live in and around it now. Part of it has been left as an ivy-clad ruin, evoking the atmosphere of a gothic novel and maintaining a permanent contact with its past.

The seeds of this obsession with conservation were sown at Cambridge in the early Sixties when Martin decided to do up a little blighted house for himself to live in. 'It was in Orchard Street,' said Martin, 'and I bought it for pounds 1,700. It went from having a demolition order on it, to being part of a conservation area and listed, all during the time I was there.'

He sold it for pounds 8,000, which allowed him to buy a water mill at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire to practise on. 'It seemed to me at the time that, by this kind of restoration, you could get a huge floor area very economically. You must remember that no one was commuting much then. In those days there were still a lot of tithe villages, much less spoilt, with a few old men sitting in corners smoking pipes.'

Architecture was in his blood - his father, Sir Leslie Martin, was Professor of Architecture at Cambridge and designed the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Martin left Cambridge to work in a Northamptonshire architectural practice but found himself running into a conflict-of-interest trap by trying to operate as a developer at the same time.

'In the 18th and 19th centuries you could be an architect and a property developer. But an architectural practice at the level I was at, was a bit like being a local GP.' For example, people would telephone at night and say they wanted their bath the other way round. 'We had dozens and dozens of clients, and I never had time to do my own thing,' he said. 'All those bath taps at the wrong end.'

For Kit Martin, 1976 was the watershed. He gave up his share in the architectural practice and paid pounds 38,000 for Dingley Hall. Although listed as Grade I, the house had been stripped of its panelling, doors, chimney pieces, stone flags and roof slates.

'Nobody had taken on a thing like that, not even the National Trust. People had no confidence in, or conception of, living in a country house and making it work. I didn't think I would make a profit. I just thought it would be an amusing thing to do. It never occurred to me that there would be a property boom.'

He bamboozled a bank manager into lending him the seed corn to restore one part at a time and sell it on. He settled into the old, Elizabethan wing in the middle of the 1974- 1977 property slump, and was living there when he met his present wife Sally, a former model (he is proud of the the fact that she wore the first mini-skirt to Ascot).

He didn't give the recession a second thought at the time. 'It didn't worry me. I thought, 'I will live here and have this beautiful ruin around me'. It was the most exciting time. This was the social hub of Northamptonshire. Busloads of people would come down from London, mow the grass, drink a lot of wine and have a good time.'

It was at this time that he met another tireless enthusiast for the English country house, Marcus Binney - then editor of Country Life - who was busy trying to assess how many country houses were in danger of being demolished, and how many had gone already. In 1974, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Binney had mounted an exhibition of photographs showing houses being demolished or captured at the moment of collapse. 'This chap rushed into Dingley,' Kit Martin remembers. 'Sally and I thought he'd come to buy a house. But instead he suggested that he and I should write a book together.'

Martin represents Binney as a kind of frenetic Bertie Wooster character, the other half of his conservation double-act. Binney added the theory to Kit's practice, and then went out and sold it. 'Marcus thought it was terribly exciting, a chap doing this without government money and making a profit, so he told everyone it was a piece of cake.'

At a time when country houses were regarded as no more than white elephants, worth little more than the land they stood on, Kit Martin's solution was widely welcomed. It could be waved in the faces of developers who were buying the houses as architectural salvage and filling the gardens with modern estates; or worse still, redeveloping them in such a way that the grand rooms were forced to swallow whole maisonettes.

In 1980 the Conservative politician Francis Pym had a problem on his hands in the shape of his family home, The Hazells, in Bedfordshire, which he had inherited when he was 23 and still on active service in Italy. 'He really wanted to knock the house down,' said Martin. 'It was rather hard on him. It was derelict, which wasn't his fault. It had been used in the war as some sort of awful institution. Rows of lavatories had been smashed through a wonderful 18th-century floor.

'He let me have it for pounds 5,000, with a lot of covenants attached. The spotlight was on this one; there was a lot of publicity. Marcus was rushing around telling everyone it was easy.' The result was a successful conversion of The Hazells into 12 houses, cottages and flats.

The book Kit Martin wrote with Binney, The Country House: To Be Or Not To Be, appeared in 1982 and laid down the basic principles for rescue. The research for it revealed there were many more houses at risk than previously realised. 'In parts of Scotland there were hundreds and hundreds, with roofs caving in and some funny old lady living down the back passage. We felt these were much the most interesting. It was terribly thrilling being the first person to find the funny old lady with the Muscovy ducks round the back.'

Their claim that the cost of rescue need not be very much more than the price of the equivalent floor area in good quality new housing, and without a penny of public money, caused a stir. The book argued that country houses divided perfectly into hierarchical communities; they could be built on a rolling programme by recycling the profit from one house to the next, and by moving a team of craftsmen from project to project.

The book started a new phase. 'Suddenly there was a mass of new people appearing. Old ladies in fluffy hats telling you about houses they knew of. But a lot of the people who owned these places were extremely difficult. They had bought them by mistake, or they had wanted to knock them down for scrap. We just poked around and had a look.'

He and Sally found Gunton in a similar way. 'There was a bit of the house that looked as though it might have been lived in. There were two bottles of milk on the doorstep, and these dirty old mattresses lying around with the springs coming out. One of the rooms was used for rearing pheasants.'

Sally's gradually developing craze for flying (a little runway now cuts across the Gunton parkland) provided Kit with his own pilot and enabled him to turn his attentions further afield, to some of those Scottish houses that had shocked him. At Cullen House, in Banff, he confounded the experts yet again. Everyone had said Cullen was too remote and too far north to attract buyers, but he made seven houses out of it - and sold them.

But with his next Scottish house, Keith Hall, bought from Lord Inverurie in 1984, he had his fingers burnt by the Aberdeen oil slump. The houses sold very slowly, so he pulled back to Northumberland and came to the aid of an eccentric major who wanted him to restore Callaly Castle while he continued to live in it.

'Can you imagine an old man in the middle of this building site, with the water supply going on and off and him buzzing around in his electric buggy? He was in his nineties and slept during the day, but would get frisky over dinner late at night. He was a marvellous man; he used to pee in the fireplace. It was a tremendous relief for him to die knowing that the house was okay, and that the family had a wing there if it still wanted to use it.'

Martin and Binney now have a reputation as international conservation experts, and are welcomed abroad as consultants. They were invited to Gibraltar by The Landmark Trust to develop a restoration strategy for its old colonial buildings. Then they went to Jamaica to visit Tourism Action Plan, an organisation that wants to market the local architectural heritage. 'In Jamaica, outside the hotel compounds that the tourists are warned never to leave, there were these sugar planters' country houses, full of hippies, abandoned 10 years ago with the beds still made up and the cutlery in the drawers,' he said.

This year Martin snapped up Burley on the Hill, a Grade I listed Palladian mansion overlooking Rutland water. It had been in the hands of Asil Nadir who planned to build a golf course and club house, but then Nadir's Polly Peck empire went into receivership. By February Martin had bought the house and the immediate parkland, the heart of the estate, and had drawn into partnership the original owner of the house, Joss Hanbury, who bought back 700 acres of farmland. Together they paid well under pounds 3m for a package that Nadir had bought a few years earlier for more than pounds 7m.

Now the builders have moved in and Kit Martin is starting to sell some of the homes, together with six individual houses created within the mansion with prices between pounds 140,000 (for something in the old kitchen courtyard) and pounds 600,000 (for a house created within the main house). Before planning permission had even been obtained, he had already re-employed the old estate gardener and put 30 deer in the park.

The Duke of Grafton is president of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and has been a member of the Historic Buildings Council, now part of English Heritage, for 40 years. He believes that the foundation stone of Kit's success is his passion.

'I had written off Dingley. It was too far gone,' he says. 'Gunton would have simply vanished without him. There are others who have tried to follow him in rescuing historic houses, but there is nobody of his stature. When someone like Kit Martin comes into view we heave a sigh of relief, because he is so reliable. He always gets the job done and he does it sensitively and imaginatively.'

(Photographs omitted)