A full recovery from major surgery

The Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth is an example of how to redevelop an historic building without ruining it.
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It is unusual for a property to have had one careful owner for more than 200 years, but the old Royal Navy Hospital buildings, at Stonehouse, two minutes west of the centre of Plymouth, can certainly boast that. And that owner, the Ministry of Defence, has left them in superb condition.

The hospital was constructed in the 1750s, the first to be built with separate ward blocks to avoid contagion. It is set in 241/2 acres, surrounded by an 18ft high stone wall. In the late 18th century, further residential accommodation was built, substantial five-storey limestone buildings and cottages, and these are now for sale as family homes. The central part of the site, meanwhile, will be commercial - the Chamber of Commerce and Business Link are future tenants. The eastern end has been taken by St Dunstone Abbey Girls School.Work there is frantically being completed before the new term starts next week.

The site has an unusually low ratio of bricks and mortar to open space, and the new owner values this highly. Charles Howeson, a naval officer for 27 years, left the service six years ago. He was looking for property in the South-west of England for Peaceston, a Scottish Investment Group, which prides itself on its environmental and conservation concern.

"I was part of a local initiative to attract investment to this part of the world," he explains. "When the hospital was vacated, I recommended that this would be an opportunity for the company to be involved in some responsible regeneration.

"Peacestone was interested in long-term investment, so devolved the residential side to my company, Crown Hill Estates. We exchanged contracts last February and I then had five months in which to make my business plan stack up before we completed."

Howeson and his wife, Emma, initially raised the money from the local Barclays Bank, with the intention of selling four houses and one commercial property by August. This they did, and all at the asking prices. "I knew Solar Wetsuits was looking for new premises, so I approached them; a senior local government officer from Plymouth City Council obviously knew about it and had been banging on my door as soon as he heard of my involvement; and the managing director of the merchant bank contacted me, too. Another house went to an ex-marine and his sister."

Although Howeson says he paid over the market price for the residential element of the site, he has already made a sizeable profit. But he is also very concerned about the environment. "My role is to protect the place," he says.

"We have put in new services and Eurobell has installed the newest fibre- optics for telephones and so on. The company is moving into the gate house next month.

"We are also putting in a new road and have restored the jetty which now juts over a grass 'sea'. One of our first jobs was to deinstitutionalise the place. There was a forest of signs to remove, including all the ones which said 'Don't Walk On The Grass'."

The site is now called Millfields, the original name of the place in the Domesday Book. It feels remarkably peaceful, a quality dependent in no small part on the excellent security which is proving a definite selling point. There is one entrance only, with guards on duty 24 hours a day. Burglar alarms and fire alarms are also directly connected to them.

Each property is sold on a 999-year lease with protective covenants such as no boats and caravans. "The first properties were completed at the same time, so the buyers all had a hand in moulding their lease," says Howeson.

A collection of outbuildings has been bought by John Chaddler, a property developer from Sussex, who was born in Plymouth. He is converting these into 10 one-, two- and three-bedroom flats. Three of them have already sold. "Where else in Plymouth, could you buy a flat with this sort of security?" he says. "If these were in Sussex or London, they would be double the price."

Tony Allen, an ex-marine, has jointly bought the Commander's House with his sister. "I knew the way the MOD looked after its premises and so I was not surprised when we discovered 10 original fireplaces hidden away - and an old range in the basement, also boarded up," he says. "In the laundry room, we found the original flagstones and huge old brick fireplace."

Howeson is adamant that only the right people will live here. "It is like a ship," he says, "the first people who move in are the ones who create the ambience of the place. I refused someone who offered a lot more than the asking price because I did not think he would be happy in the long term." Which is a polite way of saying that he was just not suitable. Howeson is therefore delighted that an ex-naval nurse who worked here and whose father was a doctor at the hospital, has just bought one of the houses.

Prices of homes at Millfields range from pounds 38,000 for a one-bedroom flat to pounds 75,000 for a two-bedroom cottage and pounds 265,000 for the Admiral's House. For more details call May & Trout, 01752 225601 or Constables, 01752 668242.