TV show that saves classic buildings 'blighting restoration projects'

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The Independent Online

In the words of Martin Bell, the former Independent MP, who outlined its merits on the BBC's Restoration programme, Brackenhill Tower in Cumbria is a fascinating historical remnant of what was once Britain's "Wild West".

In the words of Martin Bell, the former Independent MP, who outlined its merits on the BBC's Restoration programme, Brackenhill Tower in Cumbria is a fascinating historical remnant of what was once Britain's "Wild West".

A peel tower built in a no man's land where neither English nor Scots law prevailed, it was home to one of the Borders reiver families of cattle rustlers and villains who ruled by terror in the 16th century. The nation was convinced of its merits: Brackenhill came second in the 2003 Restoration series and a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant soon followed to restore its glory.

But far from saving the red sandstone structure for the nation, the BBC programme has inadvertently removed all hope that it might be opened to the public. A private buyer, alerted to Brackenhill's beauty by the television series, has bought it from the previous owner and revealed plans to convert it into a 10-room private dwelling.

The sale of the building, which Mr Bell remains adamant "should have been the winner", means the Friends of Brackenhill Trust have been forced to return a £50,000 HLF grant, which was to have paid for a project manager to lead renovation efforts. The group, which had been working for eight years on restoration plans, claim they were well on the way to raising the £3.5m needed, with expressions of interest from English Heritage, the Architectural Heritage Fund and Carlisle City Council.

When the group was approached by English Heritage about appearing on Restoration, it seemed like a perfect boost to its profile, said Bruce Graham, chairman of the trust and a member of the Clan Graham which once occupied the place. But the buyer's approach came just as the trust was about to sign a 99-year lease on the building. "It pulled the rug from under our feet and left a sour taste," said Mr Graham. The buyer, whose home is possibly the only Scots-built tower on English soil, does not want to be identified.

Cumbria's disappointment contributes to north-west England's growing sense that the benefits offered by the Restoration spotlight are not all they were cut out to be. The winner of the 2003 series, Manchester's Victoria Baths, has also failed to lived up to expectations after its devotees could not agree with the HLF about what form the proposed restoration should take. As a result, hardly any of the £3.38m prize money has been spent on the century-old building.

The problem for the Victoria Baths Trust seems to be television's need for rapid, makeovers. Endemol, the series producer, focused on a Turkish bath in one corner of the building, in a film which attracted 280,000 votes, but was less specific about the rest of the building. HLF and the local council insist that the whole building - and not just the Turkish bath - must be restored. The trust says it cannot deliver that kind of project for £3m.

The series has delivered a more positive contribution to heritage elsewhere. Greyfriars Towers in King's Lynn has made good progress after getting one of the three 2003 runner-up HLF grants. The £850,000 helps pay for removal of vast quantities of pigeon dirt, reglazing the windows and a gauze to prevent birds returning to the Grade I-listed tower. The surrounding park will also be relandscaped. The broadcaster John Peel, who before his death last year declared himself "ready to help in any way I can to restore the tower", would have been delighted.

Appearing on Restoration can also have its drawbacks for projects which do not gain grants. A 2004 also-ran, Wiltons Music Hall in London, was flooded with promises of money and help that failed to materialise after the cameras disappeared. "Last August, when the series had finished, we had to start again from scratch," Francis Mayhew, fundraising co-ordinator, said. "We could have done with advice on how to make the best of the exposure."

In Cumbria, the owner of Netherby Hall, a sandstone mansion built by Brackenhills' creator, Sir Charles Graham, has offered the Brackenhill Trust space for a Graham museum and craft shop. "Restoration might have cut us off from the tower but it has given us access to something else," Mr Graham said.