A mansion built for an underwear tycoon is being lovingly turned into tasteful flats.
Mike Wilson is a serial resuscitator. For more than 20 years this architect/property developer/builder has been scouring the country for abandoned mansions begging for another chance. After serving as schools and hospitals, many bruised Georgian and Victorian beauties have been sensitively restored by him and carved into well-proportioned flats.

Ashwood House in Woking is the first 20th century structure to receive his attention. The smell of boiled cabbage no longer wafts through this brick mansion which, until recently, housed a National Children's Home.

Straddling a hilltop five minutes from the centre of town, Ashwood might easily be dismissed as yet another pre-war pile from which bowler-hatted Surrey stockbrokers set out to the City with tightly furled umbrellas. Yet the house has a racier genesis. It was built in 1929 by Frank Derry, who made his fortune developing a corset complete with magnetic ribs to help cure rheumatism.

The architect whom the corset king chose for this imposing house was Hugh Baillie Scott (1865-1945), the distinguished and uncompromising disciple of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement. In his heyday, Baillie Scott was much in demand for his simple yet finely detailed vernacular- style houses with an innovative approach to the use of interior space.

This lesser known contemporary of Voysey may have been looking backwards in championing the romance of the manor house but he was a great advocate of opening up interiors into flowing, linked spaces to suit modern lifestyles. When a law was mooted to raise ceiling heights in domestic buildings, Baillie Scott fought a successful campaign against the legislation to preserve what he called "the long, snug effect which is so characteristic of the English house".

The exterior of the Grade II-listed Ashwood is disarmingly plain. Unadorned mullioned windows stare blankly under steeply pitched roofs. Almost the only decorative concessions are the diamond-patterned diaper brickwork and a Tudor-style servants' wing. Inside is a very different story - elegantly proportioned oak-panelled rooms, an intricately carved wooden screen and ornate latticed plaster ceilings.

How do you stay true to the open-plan pioneering spirit of Baillie Scott whilst dividing up the interior into seven individual flats. Isn't the conflict irreconcilable? Mr Wilson disagrees. "All the existing room spaces have been retained. The only compromise we made was to divide up the first- floor long gallery by adding a perfectly matching panelled partition," he said.

For the duplex upper-level flats, he has used every inch of the roof spaces. These have been cleverly colonised for bathrooms and extra bedrooms. Elsewhere, new spaces have been carefully added within the plan. For a first-floor flat, formerly the master bedroom suite, a kitchen has been built out within the existing canopied areas of the roof terrace.

At Ashwood, as on all his projects, Mr Wilson supervises every detail of the restoration. He not only acts as architect, financier and developer but also runs his own construction company. His well-honed team is made up of skilled craftsmen such as plasterer Paul Lynch who has worked with him for 20 years. This home-grown approach would chime well with Baillie Scott who firmly believed in making use of local crafts and materials. Each of his houses was unique in its detail; local blacksmiths often forged the ironmongery for windows and doors. Where Ashwood's elaborate plaster ceilings had been damaged or removed, Mr Lynch has made accurate vinyl moulds of existing patterns and reproduced them in a specialist plaster workshop on site. One ceiling called for 360 leaf patterns to be individually added from a single mould. Ashwood is also peppered with a fine range of ceramic-tiled fireplaces with decorated brass hoods. Uncovered and restored, these now play a prominent role in the new interior scheme.

Within Ashwood's four acres of grounds, Mr Wilson is adding two detached properties divided into five houses. They have been partly built of recycled bricks from the original garden wall. Each will echo the detail of the Arts & Crafts main house, including oak-framed windows with leaded lights. Confessing to finding the 1929 exterior over-austere, he has added stone lintels to the new houses, confident that Baillie Scott would not turn in his grave at this minor embellishment.

He explains the rationale behind his meticulous approach to detail in two ways: the constant need to satisfy the strictures of English Heritage whilst, at the same time, boosting the appeal of the newly created flats to discerning buyers. Whether in suburban Surrey or the wilds of Yorkshire, he has found that well-heeled empty-nesters are willing to pay handsomely for a slice of a listed house with original features.

This may be Mike Wilson the shrewd developer talking, but at heart he remains an unabashed conservation buff. With a string of successful rescue missions to his name, he can indulge his passion for detail whilst ensuring the means to bankroll his next projects. After the lair of the corset king, next in line for the Wilson treatment are a former nursing home, a Victorian woollen mill and an abandoned convent.

Details of flats and homes to be available at Ashwood from FPD Savills, 01483 796820. Prices will range from pounds 300,000-pounds 500,000

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