Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The History of Undershaw and The Campaign to Save for Future Generations

Conan Doyle purchased 4 acres of very steeply inclined land at the crossroads of Hindhead, Surrey, close to the Devil's Punchbowl, at a height of 800 feet, for £1,000.00.

His wife, Louise at this time suffered for the last 3 years with tuberculosis and the high altitude air was considered helpful to the condition. Doyle employed his friend, the architect Joseph Bell, to design the house to his plans, and the house of about 7,500 square feet was built for about £5,000.00. He moved into the property in October 1897 with his wife and 2 young children.

Doyle was visited at this house by Bram Stoker, pictured on the left the author of Dracula, Barrie the author of Peter Pan, Hornung the author of Raffles, and many other notable people - the visitors book still exists.

It was in this house that Doyle wrote "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Return of Sherlock Holmes". He also defended Britain's actions in the BOER War with his 'Cause and Conduct' of the war for which he was awarded his knighthood. He also defended George Edalji and obtained his release from prison - an action that directly contributed to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Doyle's 10 year occupation of this house was also a traumatic period in his personal life with the courtship of his second wife during the final 9 years of his first wife's life - she died in 1906 - Doyle moved out a year later on his second marriage, his new wife Jean, did not wish to live in the house built for his first wife. When he left in 1907, his best work was largely behind him from a literary point of view. He did not sell the house but let it for a further 14 years finally selling in 1921 - after the death of his son Kingsley from the flu pandemic in 1918 removed any chance that he would occupy.

A wing of about 2,500 square feet was added to the side of the building in the mid-1920's. The property was sold to the Bridger family as an investment in 1935 and remained with the Bridger's until sold to the current owners in February 2004. The various tenants over that 69 year period were essentially under capitalised and thus few very major alterations took place, and the property remains in a 'time warp' largely as built. With many of his personal touches - heraldic windows, ornamental finger-plates, doors and room layout, low riser staircase - so not to exhaust his wife, his billiard room, study, kitchen - with the original brick lined well under the floor, it still even has its original windows (metal framed) and its pull down blind on the front elevation and orginal front door. The early motor house and stables still have the orginal water channelled floor and wrought iron stalls for the horses.

When Undershaw was offered for sale six years ago as an 'Investment/Development Opportunity' (from the agent's particulars in my possession) for £1 million plus, it was obvious that the current tenant's rent of £12,500 would have been multiplied many times to represent an adequate/viable return as an hotel investment. The purchaser Fossway Limited (incorporated in the British Virgin Islands) of St Helier, Jersey (from Land Registry records) paid £1.1 million in February 2004.

I cite Councillor Fay Foster's written comments in April 2006 to the previous application to redevelop: "A literary weekend, run by Haslemere Initiative last year, introduced the building to a large number of people, all of whom agreed on its architectural merit and its importance as a literary monument. The people running the hotel and restaurant there said that business was good but that their landlords wanted to maximise their asset and make more money out of the site....." etc.

Also, Lyn Heigl, written comments in April 2006: "I have enjoyed Undershaw in the last couple of years as a restaurant and taken Chinese, German, French, Australian and other friends there because they are delighted to be in Conan Doyle's former house. I have also recently attended a excellent Waverley Borough Council seminar encouraging people to open Bed and Breakfast premises because of the shortage of accommodation in the area ...." etc.

The tenant's vacated in May 2005 and within a few months, with no security on the property it was effectively trashed. The owners presided over dereliction - lead was stolen from the roof - water poured through 3 floors of the property, windows were smashed - including the heraldic window (partially broken), Elks antlers mounted over the front door by Doyle were immediately stolen. One of the finest literary houses in Surrey and almost unique in the South East as having been designed for the owner, was rendered totally uninhabitable. Where the creator's of the two most iconic characters in all fiction (Holmes and Dracula) sat and conversed water ran out of the ceiling rose and soaked the floors.

The rent of the tenant's of £12,500 would only have provided a minute proportion of the returns required on Fossways' capital investment. The purchase price reflected a vast 'hope value' element for "development opportunity" - the value of Undershaw lay in as many residential units on the site as the planners might permit.

The house, stables and beautiful grounds - Bram Stoker described the view as "an endless sea of greenery", should be left entirely undeveloped for future generations, it has survived 112 years and should be allowed to continue and not destroy the character, ambience and integrity of Doyle's vision in 1896. In the light of the foregoing I am of the opinion that Waverley Borough Council should refuse change of use from Restaurant/Hotel, or perhaps Museum/Cafeteria, and that at the right price - to reflect nil development opportunity and accrued dilapidations - this property would readily find a purchaser as an owner occupied lifestyle restaurant/bed and breakfast for heritage tourism. The owner's residence providing major consideration. The fact that it has not done so is that the asking price is, I understand £1,250.000, which, of course is rediculous. The local authority should never have discussed with the owners any prospect of division of this house with solid walls dividing this residence from ground to roof into 3 or 4 separate units. The developer has speculated (all developments are speculative) and it must fail. The value on the basis of nil development and dilapidations will be vastly less than the developers expenditure.

Waverley Borough Council served a Repair Notice on this property over a year ago - it has largely not be complied with - lead has not been returned to the roof, windows (including the heraldic window) still remain broken - although the time limit for the Repair Notice has long passed no Compulsory Purchase Order to protect the nation's heritage has been served.

This case has attracted national and international attention and it is important to show that the world's literary heritage is of more concern than developer's profit. I understand that a new planning application is imminent and it is important that the word goes out that it is not the duty of planners, in any degree, to, in the circumstances of similar cases, 'bale out' developer's speculative errors.

The vision of the Undershaw Preservation Trust is to restore the house, grounds and stables as close to how they would have been in 1900 - photographs are available. Furnish in period style. Use the later wing - opened up as an exhibition/lecture hall. The property would be a Sherlock Holmes/Doyle museum and cafeteria. It would exhibit in conjunction with the Portsmouth Museum's 50,000 item Doyle collection - of my late friend and associate Richard Lancelyn Green. Coach trips from London could have Sherlock Holmes tours calling at Undershaw, Portsmouth Museum, and the grave of Conan Doyle in Minstead Churchyard in the New Forest. It could certainly be a self-supporting enterprise. Trees could be thinned to provide views from Hindhead crossroads down the Nutcombe Valley to the South Downs, a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes could be discreetly placed at the corner of the property with the crossroads. It should be noted that the whole of Doyle's first family are buried in the nearby Grayshott churchyard as previosly posted. John Gibson, FRICS

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