A house designed for subterranean living

The front door was inspired by a Hobbit's home while the Perspex domes look like something out of a sci-fi fantasy. Mary Wilson visits Mole Manor, a house designed to look distinctly different
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The Independent Online

Just past the very beautiful Westonbirt Arboretum, in Gloucestershire - designed by Robert Holford who also built the present Westonbirt House, now a girls' public school - is a very curious property. Surrounded by fabulous countryside, there is a gravelled drive that leads towards a stone wall with two garages, a couple of windows and in the centre a circular opening in which is a front door, inspired by Bilbo Baggins' house in The Lord of the Rings.

Decorated by a glorious Perle d'Azur clematis and on both sides by flowers and shrubs, it is obviously the entrance to someone's home - but where is the home? The answer is underground, hidden away beneath the grassy slope. It is lit extremely effectively by a huge, central glass dome, around which are a number of smaller ones that allow light into the rooms below.

Mole Manor was created in 1987 by the architect Arthur Quarmby for its previous owner, who used to live in a traditional Cotswold stone house next door. The owner wanted to build another house on his land, but the planners didn't want anything that would spoil the view from Westonbirt School, so he came up with the idea of going underground. Quarmby had built an underground home for himself on the edge of the Peak District in 1975 and was the obvious choice for the project. But the clever part of Mole Manor's design is that there are three areas where the sides of the house are exposed - the front courtyard and two other terraces - and because of this light floods into the house, not only from the top domes, but through the doors and windows at the sides.

"I don't really like it described as an underground house," says the present owner, Diana Waldron. "It's really a house which has a grass roof and is only partly under the ground." Diana bought the house in 1994 with her husband Dennis, who died two years ago. "We had argued all our life about where we were going to live when we retired. But we often came out to the arboretum to walk the dogs and we eventually decided that we both would be happy to live in the area.

"So, we looked in an agent's window in Tetbury and saw Mole Manor advertised. Dennis got very excited, although I said there was no way I would live underground. However, we went to see it and as soon as we did we both fell in love with it. But the man who was selling it kept on changing the goalposts, so we gave up - but of course, we couldn't find anything which was as lovely as this was. Three years later it came on the market again and we bought it."

Waldron says that her husband, who was a doctor, became totally besotted with the house. "He was working when we first moved in, but once he retired he really didn't want to leave Mole Manor at all, not even for holidays."

Once inside the front door, you come into a large, circular living room with four two-seater sofas placed on a dais under the central cupola, made of Perspex and held up by four stone pillars. "You can spend hours sitting here looking at the clouds scud by," says Waldron, "one feels absolutely at one with nature. And it's wonderful when there's a storm and you can see the lightning zigzagging down. I sometimes wish the snow would lie on it too, which would be rather nice, but it just slips off."

The man who built the house had been recently divorced and wanted it to be a bachelor pad, so all the smaller rooms, which are wedge-shaped, are off the living room, set up three steps through stone arches and mostly behind cream curtains, except for the kitchen, the dining room and a couple of "snug" areas. There are four bedrooms, including the master bedroom, which has an en suite with a whirlpool bath. "That was put in by the previous owner," says Diana Waldron. "He also put a plunge pool in one of the wedges, but that caused terrible condensation when the water was heated up, so we got rid of it." In the kitchen, which has units on three sides, there is an odd-looking table designed by her to exactly fit the space. "I think this will have to go with the house," she says, "it would look very peculiar anywhere else."

Mole Manor is a surprisingly easy house to look after, with stone walls and a tiled floor that is toastily warmed by electric underfloor heating. The couple added on an adjoining study, which doubles as a music room for the children and grandchildren and a lovely conservatory that opens onto a circular paved terrace. The gardens are glorious, created slowly over the years by Diana Waldron as there was only grass, with a large encroaching spinney, before. She has planted unusual plants and trees at one end to link it with the arboretum and like an English country garden at the other end, to reflect the village. Sadly, it is the garden that is forcing her to move. "My health is poor and I cannot cope with the garden any more, but I love the house very much and it is going to be very difficult to find anything which compares," she says.

Mole Manor has planning permission to build a self-contained annexe, also underground. Joint agents Butler Sherborn (01666 505105) and FPDSavills (01225 474500) are selling Mole Manor with a guide price of £650,000