Dispute leaves Alice's idyll at weather's mercy: Will Bennett on a country house falling into disrepair while debate rages about its future

ALICE in Wonderland would scarcely believe the dispute that is allowing Sedgwick Park, a fine country house once famed for its ornamental gardens, to remain empty while the weather destroys it.

In its Victorian heyday, Alice Liddell, who as a child inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, spent an idyllic honeymoon there, delighted by its wide terraces, water gardens, yew hedges and views.

Country Life once described the park as occupying 'a distinguished place among the gardens of England'. But the house, a Grade II listed building near Horsham, West Sussex, now lies empty and its gardens are unkempt.

It has been unoccupied since the last private owner left in 1987. In that time, the house and its 117-acre park have been owned by three developers, the last paying about pounds 1m for it in 1989. But recession struck and the owner, Keeper Holdings Ltd, has gone into receivership. A dispute over its use and value has led to an impasse which has angered local people and conservation groups.

Tomorrow, Horsham councillors will discuss rival schemes for Sedgwick Park. But unless Lloyds Bank, from which Keeper Holdings borrowed the purchase money, changes its attitude, the deadlock will continue.

One of the schemes is being put forward by Sedgewick Estates Ltd, a development company, which has already had one plan to convert the house into flats, and build four homes in the park, turned down by the council.

The council was asked to consider the first plan as 'enabling development', whereby permission for a scheme which contravenes planning policy is granted because it would raise funds to restore a historic building. Sedgewick Estates has exchanged contracts with the receivers but is unlikely to complete the deal without planning permission.

Councillors are being recommended to reject the company's revised scheme because it contravenes planning policy. But they are being recommended to approve another plan, involving only minor alterations, from a local businessman who wants to move in with his family and restore the gardens to their former glory.

The price is the obstacle to what seems an ideal solution. Sedgewick Estates has negotiated the price down to pounds 450,000, which will mean a massive loss for the bank. The prospective private buyer has offered pounds 330,000, only pounds 20,000 less than the price estimated by the district valuation officer. But Lloyds, to the anger of local residents, rejected the businessman's bid. Brenda Shaw, spokeswoman for the Sedgwick Park Action Group, formed to preserve the house and prevent development, said: 'It is the bank which has made a financial mistake by lending money to the wrong people at the wrong time.'

Lloyds Bank said in a statement: 'We, too, would have preferred a sale on a residential basis. However, the bank has to judge in commercial terms the relative values of competing offers because of our obligation to our shareholders and customers.'

Concern is growing about the state of the house which has deteriorated recently with outbreaks of dry rot and leaks. The council is to issue an urgent repairs notice and carry out work worth pounds 40,000. But Tony Curtis, Horsham's chief planning officer, said that unless a permanent solution was found before next winter, 'we can expect very rapid deterioration'.

(Photograph omitted)