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Battle is on to save the house that Conan Doyle built

Andy McSmith
Friday 17 December 2010 01:00 GMT

The curious affair of the old, empty house has taken a new turn. No one lives in the old, empty house, you might wish to point out. But that is what is curious about it.

It was a fine house designed with loving care by the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, so that his wife's last years could be made comfortable. Now a battle to prevent it being converted into flats is to be taken to the High Court.

Undershaw, in Hindhead, Surrey, has become a sorry sight, empty and vandalised, but this is where Conan Doyle wrote some of his most famous stories, including The Hound of the Baskervilles – though his story Silver Blaze, with the famous line about the incident of the dog in the night-time, was written earlier, in the 1890s.

Visitors to the old house included Bram Stoker, J M Barrie and a young Virginia Woolf. It is a Grade II-listed building in a three-acre plot with glorious views down the Nutcombe Valley to the South Downs. Doyle drafted the first designs of the house, then passed them to his architect and friend Joseph Henry Ball to complete. It included an electricity generator, and a model railway in the garden.

He chose Hindhead because of its mild climate, believing it would ease the suffering of his wife Louisa, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. They moved into Undershaw in 1897; Louisa died in 1906.

Doyle wanted to leave the house to his son, Kingsley, but he died in a flu epidemic at the end of the Great War, in 1918. Doyle then sold the property for £4,000 – a big loss on the £10,000 it had cost to have it built. In 1924, it was turned into a hotel, which closed in 2004. It was then bought by a developer, who got permission from Waverley Council to turn it into three flats and build five more houses on the site.

Campaigners have formed the Undershaw Preservation Trust in the hope of getting the council's decision overturned. They want the house to be turned into a self-financing Sherlock Holmes/Conan Doyle museum.

The trust's founder, John Gibson, a retired charted surveyor and author, said he was mystified by the council's decision to grant the developers planning permission. He said: "The historic associations of a building have to be considered, particularly where a listed building is concerned, otherwise what is the point of listing them in the first place? There were over 1,300 objections in the form of petitions and letters and it surprises me how much the planners have ignored public opinion."

A statement from Waverley Borough Council said they had not yet been served with papers challenging their decision, "but if papers were to be served, it is Waverley's intention to robustly defend its decision to grant planning to developers Fossway Ltd.

"In granting planning permission to develop Undershaw, Waverley has secured the long-term future of Conan Doyle's former residence, which is one of the key planning considerations when dealing with listed buildings."

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