High price of keeping up with 'heritage mania': The National Trust is pursuing a building firm for up to 20m pounds to restore a historic country house. Jonathan Glancey reports

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IN EVELYN Waugh's Decline and Fall (1928), the fashionable Mrs Beste-Chetwynde demolishes her ancient family seat so that her favourite architect, the android-like Professor Silenus (whose aim is to abolish the human factor in architecture) can build an industrial- style machine-for-living-in on the site.

The human factor in the case of Uppark, the William and Mary house designed by William Talman in 1690 and severely damaged by fire four years ago, was the Meade- Fetherstonhaugh family; the family, resident at Uppark from 1746, had kept the it perfectly preserved. It was bought by the National Trust in 1954.

How satisfying then for the Mrs Beste-Chetwyndes of the world when, in August 1989, two workmen stopping for a tea-break while re- leading the roof of the West Sussex house, allowed their oxyacetylene torch to set Uppark on fire.

Attitudes have changed since Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, however. Evelyn Waugh himself helped lead the way to our current obsession with faded country houses and mania for 'heritage' with his baroque apologia Brideshead Revisited. Ever since, Classical country houses have been held in awe. With bodies like the National Trust they are safe from changes in the taste of their custodians. And if, like Uppark, they catch fire, then they are restored to their original condition - no matter what the cost.

The cost of restoring Uppark to an authentic state of faded eighteenth-century grandeur is unknown. Since the fire, the National Trust has spent some pounds 6m on turning the clock back, but the final cost might be as high as pounds 20m.

Yesterday Lord Justice Otton adjourned the assessment of damages in a case brought by the National Trust and Sun Life Assurance against Haden Young Ltd, the building firm which employed the workmen. Haden Young, which has already paid out pounds 5m in a separate action brought by the Meade- Fetherstonhaugh family, had admitted liability for the damage.

Haden Young had assumed the National Trust's insurers would pay for the restoration. Yesterday, however, the court ruled that the company was responsible for the full cost. Haden Young ('no comment') might or might not appeal against Lord Justice Otton's ruling. But, whatever happens, someone will have to find a sum of money that would build Uppark at least twice over again from scratch. No wonder the final figure for the restoration is, as yet, sub judice.

Why is Uppark so expensive to restore, especially when, according to the National Trust, the building, if decimated, was certainly not devastated? The answer is that the house is a showpiece of the National Trust's restoration and conservation skills. Uppark is to be restored more or less as it was before the fire; step into the hall when the house reopens to the public in 1995 and you will walk straight into the eighteenth century; some rooms will be faded and worn, others will be as if plasterers and gilders of the 1700s had just finished work. Yet others will flaunt scorch marks as a reminder of what not to do with an oxyacetelene torch.

Authentic restoration of this sort is a slow and meticulous job, the costliest the trust has ever been involved in. The project, led by Darryl Fowler of the Sussex-based Conservation Practice, has, for example, involved sifting through something like 4,000 bags of debris containing between 500,000 and 750,000 architectural fragments. Mr Fowler is using computer simulations to help him make as much use as possible of this, the biggest country house jigsaw puzzle ever.

Meanwhile, Sussex craftsmen have been remaking such items as brick chimney pots as their great- grandfathers might have; Mick Pinner, a potter, has hand-thrown 43 earthenware chimney pots, enscribing them with graffiti as his predecessors would have done: 'Margaret Thatcher resigned as I was making this', one reads.

Only David Martin, the local MP has kept alive something of the spirit of Mrs Beste-Chetwynde: 'Demolish it', he barked at the time of the fire. But, where Mrs Beste-Chetwynde would have had Uppark rebuilt by Sir Richard Rogers, Mr Martin called for the site to be returned to nature.

Both strategies would have been much cheaper than the National Trust's showcase restoration.

Professor Silenus is dead: Uppark Revisited demonstrates the legal and financial might of the mature country house conservation movement.

(Photograph omitted)