Britain is littered with great buildings that are doomed by neglect to decay. But to save just one such wreck requires time, resilience - and a great deal of money. Lesley Gillilan meets a couple who aim to return a vast Victorian Gothic pile to its original splendour
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WHILE a kettle simmered over a tiny canister of camping gas, Denise Dajczak rummaged around in a pile of builders' junk and unearthed a packet of biscuits. We were standing in Leighton Hall's vast, empty Victorian Gothic hall, beneath a carved-wood minstrels' gallery and four ornate corner balconies. Natural light (there is no electricity) filtered through a magnificent stained-glass ceiling, giving a pale yellow cast to the damp-stained walls. Cold air (there is no heating, either) crept up from a dusty mosaic of Minton floor tiles and through the soles of my unsuitably light footwear. Every breath produced a little puff of white vapour.

"You should have been here last month," said Denise. "It was colder inside the building than out. Here, have a Bourbon. Take two." Then she handed me a cup of coffee and went back to work. Ever since her husband, Richard, 39, came home one night in October and told her that he and a friend had just agreed to buy Leighton Hall, the Dajzcaks have had a lot to do. Denise has turned the task of restoration into a full-time job.

When I arrived, she and her brother Jeffrey were outside, at the top of a scaffolding tower, fitting new wooden frames to a set of stone-mullioned windows. On another day, I might have found them in the valleys of the roof cleaning debris from the gutters; or upstairs in an oak-panelled bedroom, up to their eyes in muck and loose floorboards.

Since the Dajzcaks bought the mammoth country property, near Welshpool, in Powys, they have replaced more than 60 panes of smashed glass and hundreds of slate roof tiles. Nearly pounds 10,000 has been spent on chemicals to treat the dry rot. So far, they have done all the work themselves. They plan to do a lot more, but the day they move into their half of Leighton Hall is a long way off.

"We see it as a challenge," says Denise. "You need to have vision to take on something like this." You also need time, commitment, resilience and a great deal of money. For this is a DIY job of breathtaking magnitude. The Great Hall, alone, measures 1,500 square feet. The mansion is a maze of massive rooms (Richard says he's lost count) and has a three-storey castellated entrance tower and an elegant observatory tower rising 100ft over 15 acres of unkempt grounds. After years of neglect, every inch of the magnificent Grade II* listed building is crying out for attention. The Dajczaks took charge of Leighton Hall in the nick of time.

Last year, Leighton Hall was featured in one of a series of illustrated annual reports published by SAVE Britain's Heritage - a conservation charity dedicated to finding new owners and new uses for decaying listed buildings with potential for conversion. The report, Stop This Rot, highlighted the plight of 150 desperately needy structures, including a 15th-century timber-framed barn in Somerset, a Warwickshire Lodge designed by Capability Brown, an obelisk in Norfolk and a mud-and-stud cottage in Lincolnshire.

The report revealed that the local council was "extremely concerned" about the future of Leighton Hall. Now that the Dazjcaks have stepped in to stop the dry rot, its salvation is secured. The same can be said of a dilapidated cob-and-thatch cottage in Dorset and a Victorian waterworks in Kent - two SAVE subjects that have now been taken into care by new owners. But hundreds more committed visionaries with oodles of ready cash are needed to rescue other romantic ruins and abandoned historic buildings.

SAVE's 1996 report, One Damned Building After Another (see panel on page 65), exposes another catalogue of rotting roof timbers, crumbling masonry, cracked renders and broken oriel windows hidden behind walls of unchecked vegetation. At a rough estimate, 1,000 of England's listed structures are deemed "at risk" or vulnerable. In drawing attention to 130 of some of the more ravishing examples, SAVE hopes to tug at the heartstrings of the "huge number of people who long to find, rescue and restore a unique old building".

On this level it works admirably. A good ruin, in the right place at the right price, is a hot property and SAVE's reports have attracted hundreds of potential buyers. But if every case were simply a matter of exchanging contracts, most of these sickly buildings would have been nursed back to health long ago.

Some of them are not in the right place - one arboretum lodge in Derby is uncomfortably close to a red-light area - but as Emma Phillips, the secretary of SAVE, points out: "In many cases it is not the building that is problematic, but the owner. Often the buildings are derelict through neglect or are the victims of unscrupulous attempts to get profitable planning permissions for demolition."

Sometimes these properties are victims of ownership disputes, burnings, vandalism and builders' botched workmanship. A common scenario is that of the disillusioned impulse-buyer who bought the property in the boom years and quickly found that the cost of repairs was too high. Having given up on the project themselves, they then remarketed the property at an unrealistically high price.

Cloford Manor in Somerset - a late Jacobean, Grade II* listed property that has been empty since the 1950s - generated dozens of enquiries when it appeared in Stop This Rot last year. The bill for restoration, however, is likely to run into six figures, and while the asking price stands at pounds 300,000 (through Cooper & Tanner in Frome) the building is unlikely to find a saviour. Brackenhill Tower, near Carlisle, in Cumbria, attracted even greater interest, but the problem here is an owner (a local farmer) who seems reluctant to pursue the many offers that have come his way. While he dithers, the red sandstone walls of this 16th-century fortified house continue to decline.

In situations like these, the last resort might be a legal repairs notice, served on owners by the local authority and backed up by a compulsory purchase order. Such actions are easier to justify when a crowd of interested buyers is waiting in the wings. And in SAVE's experience, the simple announcement that a notice is in the offing is usually enough to persuade an owner to fix the roof, put the building on the market or reduce the price. Indirectly, local authority action provided the solution for Leighton Hall.

Richard Dajczak had his eye on Leighton Hall long before SAVE drew attention to its misery. His business is supplying precious metals to the aeronautics industry, and he keeps the company aircraft at Montgomeryshire Airport in Powys. He spotted the mansion from the air and set his heart on making the "raped and pillaged" building into his home.

Leighton Hall was built of grey Cefn stone in the 1850s by wealthy Liverpudlian banker, John Naylor. He is said to have lavished the 19th-century equivalent of pounds 10m on his Welsh borders estate. The interiors were designed by Pugin (responsible for much of the decorations in the Houses of Parliament) and executed by J C Grace. The palatial state rooms feature ornate gilded ceilings, hand-painted plasterwork and carved marble fireplaces. The finely carved linen-fold motif on the oak panelling is repeated on every door, window shutter and display cabinet in the house. Above the grand staircase, there is an octagonal stained-glass light that still adds a dash of brilliant colour to the now gloomy hall.

In Naylor's time, the Great Hall housed one of the country's finest private art collections. The gardens, designed by Edward Kemp, featured bridges, pools and bronze statues. Naylor planted Californian redwoods in the evergreen woods. He kept bison and kangaroos on the lawns. He built his own gasworks and installed a steam-powered central-heating system. Not only was his farm a model of early Victorian mechanisation, but his house was also one of the finest examples of the romantic Gothic style in the country. Strangely, it faded into oblivion and was not listed until 1986.

The original farming estate was fragmented in the 1920s, and apart from a short spell as a private school, the house has remained unused ever since. The last owner was a snooker club entrepreneur from Portsmouth who bought the Hall in 1985 for something close to pounds 500,000. When he ran into financial difficulty, he put the property on the market again, but even at pounds 350,000, it refused to sell.

By the time it was repossessed last year by the bank, SAVE was on the case. Soon afterwards Montgomeryshire District Council served a repairs notice that legally bound the owner to spend pounds 100,000 on emergency first aid. The bank wanted to get shot of the liability as quickly as possible and when Richard Dajzcak stepped in one Friday with an offer of pounds 190,000, the deal was done by the following Monday.

With two buyers involved, it sounds like a dream bargain - but not everyone can come up with that sort of money in cash over a weekend. The bills don't end there, either. The local authority's planning office put the full cost of the repairs and restoration at pounds 1m. Though the Dajzcaks argue that they can keep costs as low as pounds 200,000 by doing the work themselves, conservation officers will be keeping a watchful eye on the quality of their workmanship.

The job of resurrecting a forgotten corner of Britain's valuable architectural heritage is not for the frugal or the fainthearted. If you think you've got what it takes, however, the country is littered with damned buildings crying out for somebody's love and attention. !