Property: Learning to live with our history

Imaginative conversions win out over new-built tat, writes Robert Nurden
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The Independent Online
A QUIET revolution is taking place in the housing market and its leaders are you and me. The desire of ordinary people to win back control over where they live is leaving the building industry lagging behind. Builders - with some honourable exceptions - seem blind to the change as they throw up swathes of identical houses at breakneck speed. But the days of the Barratt house are numbered.

One way in which demand for greater choice can be seen is in the growing number of conversions, with people adding to or altering properties, inside and out, so their living needs are better met. It could be a nursery, a loft extension for a home-working study, a granny flat, a conservatory, an exercise area, knocking two rooms into one, or even converting redundant churches, warehouses, or mills.

More early retirement means that thousands of fit people have time and money to spare. This group is behind the emerging "property for the people" movement. Growing interest in DIY and traditional building techniques is a further impetus.

"People are asking what they really want and getting more choosy about where they live," says Julie Seebalack, of the Building Centre in Store Street, London. "Buying a property as an investment is no longer the name of the game. People are more cautious and treat their house as their home. If they're going to live longer, they might as well be comfortable and be somewhere that suits them."

Also, people in the 1990s have a greater desire to make do with what there is and treat the past with respect. In cities, people converting properties tend to go upwards to the roof, preferring to keep what garden there is. Urban conversions rearrange existing space with emphasis on fittings, layout and design. With listed buildings and in conservation areas, local authorities have strict rules about what can be done.

History usually has surprises up its sleeve when you buy an old property. Comedy actor Griff Rhys Jones and his wife, Jo, bought a semi-derelict machine works in Clerkenwell, London, which they renovated to provide more space for their growing family. A taxi driver told them its background: "I did my apprenticeship there," he said. "Servicing chicken-plucking machines."

The self-build market, both for new properties and alterations, is growing strongly. People are turning away from glass, concrete and steel towards buildings that breathe and are non-toxic. This, in turn, has renewed interest in lime mortars, recycled stone and green oak - but again, individuals rather than the builders are leading the way.

In reclamation, however, you're likely to run into cowboys selling old materials at vastly inflated prices. Salvo is an organisation set up to try to regulate the dodgy recycling industry.

The countryside offers the greatest scope for "creative" conversions - windmills, oast houses, watermills, barns, disused rail stations. "Converting a property gives someone a sense of personal pride and achievement," says Ms Seebalack. "It is creative, and hopefully enhances the environment too."

Railway children

THE families who live in Stamford's stylish, disused East Station have the private railways of the 19th century and an anxious aristocrat to thank. It was the scramble for rail power and political upheaval that caused the Lincolnshire town to have two stations with lines that ran parallel but never touched.

Add in the Marquis of Exeter, worried about losing his rotten borough to hordes of nasty, enfranchised working folk if the LNER line came through, and you have a melting pot of Victorian entrepreneurial intrigue.

The four-mile Stamford to Essendine line, built in 1856, was known as the Marquis of Exeter's private railway, after the lord who lived in nearby Burghley House. The Marquis used it to connect with the main line to Peterborough. It was also a way of getting at rail supremo George Hudson, whose Midland line ran from Birmingham to Cambridge but who could not get a proper eastern side link to London.

The branch line and station closed in 1957 and lay abandoned until a haulage company took it over. In 1986 the site was sold and the conversion to housing went ahead. It was divided into two, four-bedroomed houses, and the goods sheds, with modern extensions now called Welland Mews, became 44 flats for the elderly. The Great Northern Hotel opposite the station became a private residence, along with a nearby railway pub.

The lavishness of the Marquis's station is in evidence today. His coat of arms adorns the gables, while stone turrets and urns hover around the Collyweston tile roof, and an imposing tower rises above. This is transport centre posing as country seat.

In the right-hand house, one of the bedrooms is split-level with an overlooking gallery. This is where the station master surveyed the passengers waiting for their trains down below. In the sitting room an alcove shows where the ticket office was. The unusual shapes of the high-pitched rooms and unexpected turns in corridors add interest.

Sylvia Szymborski, who lives in the left-hand house, found a name carved in the stone, dated soon after the station was built. "It was probably made by someone bored with waiting for their train," she says.

She was so keen to get the house that she queued outside the sales office for 16 hours. "The only other person there is now my neighbour. Luckily he wanted the house on the right and I wanted the one on the left."

The romance of the steam age lives on in strange ways. Mrs Szymborski put an engraving of an old loco under the nameplate on her gate. A passing trainspotter prised it off and nicked it.

Many mansions

"IN MY Father's house are many mansions," says St John's Gospel. In Leicester's St John the Divine church there are 38 - not so much mansions as yuppie pieds-a-terre. Its conversion into one-, two-, and three- bedroom flats and maisonettes for young professionals caused something of a stir among church folk. Even though the 1854 building by Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of St Pancras Station, was a crumbling ruin and hadn't been used for worship for years, traditionalists wanted to retain the religious link. But some were glad to see the exterior preserved.

The flats - known as St John's Chambers - are on five storeys. Entrance is at the west end where church notices in the porch have made way for a push-button intercom. Many original windows were retained but with each flat needing its own lighting, others were added.

Some of the apartments in the chancel are blessed with stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings, arches, pillars and even a wooden angel or two hovering near the ceiling. "My one-bed flat's a bit cramped," said one resident, "but it's quiet and convenient for the station and town centre. I suppose the association with the church gives it extra appeal, but I never really think about it."

At one time, Jim Marshall, a Leicester MP, lived there. Barristers find it convenient for the law courts round the corner.

The development took a long time, and Leicester council's faith in the Grade Two listed building was tested as applications repeatedly fell foul. In 1976 the church was declared redundant and the next year it was bought by the council, subject to its being used for "civic, cultural, public or educational uses". It had been severely vandalised.

The council approved occupancy by a non-religious group but the Church Commissioners said its use should be Christian. There were ideas to make it into community, education or heritage centres, offices, a health and sports club, flats and even a fine art sale room.

An exasperated planning official wrote at the time: "As you can see from this lengthy saga, the situation is difficult if not impossible to resolve ... The present proposals [for flats] could be seen reasonably to represent a last ditch opportunity to put the building to good use."

q The Lime Centre: 01962 713636;

Salvo: 01668 216494; The Building Centre: 0171-637 1022.

Property: The mill on the hill moves into the present

PETER MOORE from Rutland is that rare breed: a builder who uses local materials and takes pains to preserve the essential character of a place. So when he bought the converted windmill at Morcott, on a hill above the Welland Valley, his plans for an extension were naturally in keeping with the area.

The new house was to be in local stone, and would echo the features of the 1760 listed windmill. Outline planning permission for a house on the 10-acre site had been granted because the authorities believed the chances of the windmill being vandalised would be reduced if people were living on the site.

But the authorities rejected the proposal because, they said, it would detract from the windmill: the house needed to be not like the windmill, but unlike it. Mr Moore's revised plan for a five-bed brick house in modern vernacular was granted on appeal. "We didn't want to rock the boat," he says.

The house's features echo the majestic mill, to which it is connected via a study annexe and a first floor walkway/roof garden. First-floor rooms have a balcony, the floors of which are built of heavy wooden beams similar to the mill's gangway. The balustrades have barley-twisted metalwork and white wood handrails.

The flour mill was unused for the first 60 years of this century. Then it was bought by a well-known TV personality, and used, rumour has it, for his wild parties. It has a sitting room, two bedrooms, bathroom, and behind the white conical top are the original workings. If the wind is in the right quarter the sails still turn. From each of the four windows it is possible to see a different county - Rutland, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire.

"I may use part of the mill as an office," says Mr Moore. "The rest will be for friends who stay, or B&B accommodation."

The mill's convoluted history may yet follow another bizarre turn, and do us all a favour. Vodafone wants to erect one of its ghastly mobile telephone receivers on a site only 50 yards away. But Mr Moore is cleverly grinding out an agreement for the company to hide its metallic and electronic junk in the cap of the windmill itself. Let's hope it's all plain sailing.

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