The pitfalls of buying a romantic wreck

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Jools Holland's 14th-century castle is falling down, joining 5,000 historic British buildings registered at risk. Jonathan Christie reports.

We all know of a nearby building that is crumbling away, apparently unloved. Our countryside and streets are littered with them and although many are considered an eyesore, they also stir up feelings of rescue, restoration and salvation – the success of the BBC's Restoration series is testament to that. English Heritage's latest "Buildings at Risk" register has just been published and seeks to spotlight some of our most precarious historical structures. There are over 5,000 monuments, buildings, parks and gardens, shipwrecks and battlefields on the new register, all under threat and in urgent need of conservation and repair.

Although not meant as a name-and-shame exercise, it has thrown up some interesting entries such as Jools Holland's Cooling Castle near Rochester on the north coast of Kent. Described as "a quadrangular castle with ruined fabric and in need of major repair", it's really only four rough stone walls and a gatehouse, nothing habitable. English Heritage have graded its listings according to "condition" and "priority" and unfortunately for Mr Holland, Cooling Castle has crashed into the register as "very bad" and "A" respectively. The musician and broadcaster sounded nonplussed at his new-found status, saying: "It's not open to the public and I'm surprised we're on the register, but I have no quarrel with it. We've already restored some collapsed walls ... what we're doing is consolidation."

But Cooling Castle is just the tip of this conservation iceberg. With nearly 373,000 listed building entries across England, David Brock from English Heritage tries to put the enormity of the task into context. "The register only covers buildings that are grade II* or grade I, which accounts for just 8 per cent of all this country's listed buildings. We can't get involved at a local level for the other 92 per cent of grade II buildings and rely on local authorities having their own "at risk" register, although only 60 per cent of them do and these are often out of date."

Famous buildings, including Castle Howard, in North Yorkshire, which was used as the backdrop for the TV and film adaptations of Brideshead Revisited, are at risk. As well as Tillmouth Park, in Northumberland; Key Hill cemetery, in Birmingham; Redlynch House, in Somerset; and Crystal Palace Park in London.

Stately homes, castles, battlefields and shipwrecks aside, the list features many domestic properties on the verge of becoming dust. Like Tabley Old Hall in Cheshire, Hargreaves Farmhouse in Shropshire and 187 Shoreditch High Street in the London Borough of Hackney. All are priority "A" and are in a parlous condition, suffering from either neglectful owners, long-term vacancy or just lack of interest. But they also represent beautiful examples of their vernacular, rich in detail and local materials, despite having collapsed walls or tarpaulin on the roof. Half the tragedy here is that they could provide a wonderful home for someone. But who wants to take on such a task?

Buyers who do decide to take the plunge will find direct contact with English Heritage unlikely – it's the need to build a good relationship with their local Conservation Officer that's essential. One thorny issue that arises when a property reaches a certain state of decay is what is a repair and what is an alteration. "It's a common misconception that just reinstating what is missing from a derelict house will be seen as a repair," states David Brock. "But this is not always the case. If the damage is so great that you need to replace an entire floor, roof or gable end, this may be viewed as an alteration – not a repair – regardless of how faithful it is to the original. Buyers need to discover as much as they can through the Conservation Officer," suggests Brock, "and hopefully keep the Building Regulations department at bay."

And it's not just English Heritage who are on hand to help. SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, www.spab.org.uk) was founded by William Morris in 1877 to save old buildings from decay, demolition and damage. They offer training, and advice on materials, as well as an informal list of trustworthy builders and professionals.

For more specific advice on the period of your house, try the Ancient Monument Society ( www.ancientmonumentssociety.org.uk), The Georgian Group ( www.georgiangroup.org.uk) or The Victorian Society ( www.victoriansociety.org.uk) or very helpful Twentieth Century Society ( www.c20society.org.uk ).

The renovation game: Five top tips

* You'll need to discover why the property is in the state it is? A wreck of a house was once loved and cared for, so understanding why it has deteriorated so much will inform your purchase and subsequent restoration. Neglect is a very common issue, but not the only one. A lack of access can leave a house unused for decades, as can an ownership dispute. And don't forget the local environs such as a nearby slurry pit or noisy neighbours. Be pragmatic in pinpointing the property's problems.

* Get a proper survey. Ideally by a surveyor or architect with AABC (Architect Accredited in Building Conservation, www.aabc-register.co.uk) accreditation. English Heritage will also recommend, or ask RICS (www.rics.org) for a list of Conservation Accredited surveyors. Remember, if you have major structural problems, an ordinary engineer is not up to the job.

* Appoint a good architect. Not only will they provide you with sound conservation advice, they should also be able to predict what the local authority will require from any building work and then be able to argue your case.

* Employ a good builder. Don't skimp on this. Most ordinary builders need professional supervision – you'll need a workforce that knows its corbels from its cobbles.

* Maintain contact with your Conservation Officer throughout your renovation. It is crucial to get them on your side, especially when dealing with the Building Regulations department as they tend to be less imaginative. In the case of listed buildings, your CO can get waivers for most Building Regulations, although the more new construction you are planning, the less control your CO will have.

David Brock's top five tips for tackling a wreck.

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