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If someone offered you an eighteenth century country house for one pound, would you take it? I would too. But, then again, it's not likely to happen is it? If you were to read of such an event, you would be excused if you put it down to yet another sensationalised story engineered to wow its reader. But on this occasion you'd be wrong.
On the morning of 29 September 1981, in the state of Georgia, Marcus Binney, President and one of the original Founders, received a phone call from Sophie Andreae (the then secretary) telling him that Barlaston Hall had been offered to SAVE for one pound. Although a pound for a building sounds like a bargain, there are definitely easier purchases to be made for a pound. Barlaston's condition was serious. It was in a state of decay, having been left to rot for over twenty years. No repairs or maintenance had been carried out for a long time and water had begun to pour though the roof. Although this sounds bad enough, the real problem was subsidence. Barlaston stands above one of the richest coalfields in Europe. If mining had continued as planned, there was a possibility of the whole village of Barlaston sinking up to 40 feet in the process. To add to the list of problems, (just when you thought it couldn't get any worse) Barlaston was sat astride a fault. For the non-geographically minded amongst us, a fault is the junction of two different types of substrata. If a gap opens up at this junction, then any settlement that lies over the top would probably tilt. The result of this unfortunate location meant that the settlement was likely to be uneven. To anyone's standards, this was a huge restoration task. Surely you'd have to be mad to take it on? Marcus rose to the challenge and bought the house.
The deal took place at a public inquiry when Wedgwood, the owner of Barlaston Hall, was applying for a second time for consent to demolish. SAVE, with the help of Kit Martin, the architect Bob Weighton and the engineers Peter Dann and Parners, managed to draw up a scheme in Barlaston's defence that showed how the house could be both protected from the effects of coal mining subsidence and restored. The terms were simple. SAVE had to complete the restoration within five years. If they didn't meet this deadline, Wedgwood would have the option to buy the building back for a pound. Simple? Perhaps it was on paper but in practice the challenge that lay ahead would prove to be complex and costly.
The scale of such a project became apparent when Marcus first visited Barlaston on 9 October: 'All the floorboards had been removed, and the ceilings and plasterwork had crashed down into the basement with the weight of water pouring through the roof. The main staircase had collapsed long ago, only the upper flight remained, hanging precariously in space. The back staircase collapsed a few weeks later.' (Marcus: 'Our Vanishing Heritage').
Most people would view this situation as one close to desperation. Marcus, however, looked upon it with optimism and excitement. He managed to see a beauty beyond the ruins. He described the Palladian-style house as an example of a building built by an architect (Sir Robert Taylor) who placed elegance before richness and valued simplicity over elaboration. Additionally, from an archaeological angle, he saw the house's derelict condition as a way in which its history could be revealed. Everything that was normally concealed behind plasterwork was open up for all to see, making it an important (or 'outstanding' in the words of Michael Heseltine) archaeological document.
The first step in restoring Barlaston was to set up an independent trust to repair the building and to get a secure roof so that it could begin to dry out over the spring. Over the next four years, with the help of Historic Building Council grants and the support of the Manifold Trust, the whole of the exterior was successfully restored. The remarkable octagonal windows (a hallmark of Sir Robert Taylor's work in the 1750s) were also repaired or replaced, making Barlaston one of the few remaining examples of Taylor's work to keep its octagonal sashes. Things were going to plan and good progress was being made. But then things started to go wrong.
Problems had developed with the National Coal Board. At the inquiry they had stated that, if the Secretary of State decided the house should be preserved, they would pay not only for past subsidence damage but also for preventative works, in the form of a raft underneath the building, which could be jacked up to correct the effect of any subsidence. Now, however, the Coal Board took the view that as the secretary of State had never formally ruled on the consent to demolish after the inquiry, they were not obliged to honour their undertaking. Instead, SAVE were directed to a clause in the Coal Act which enabled the Coal Board to offer minimal compensation for a building in a very derelict state.
According to the Act, three conditions had to be met if the Coal Board was to pay for the repair and stabilisation of the building. The Secretary of State had first to rule that the building was of outstanding architectural interest, which Michael Heseltine had already done. In addition, he had to certify that restoration was both practicable and in the public interest. Unfortunately, where Michael Heseltine (as Secretary of State for the Environment) had been decisive, his successors procrastinated and failed to provide the last two assurances. One problem led to another and SAVE was warned that the Act was so confused that there was little chance of winning in court. Things looked bad. Then they got worse.
Sensing the dilemma, the Coal Board then refused to carry out the preventative works and offered a mere £25,00 towards past damage, which had been estimated at £100,000. This undeniably unfair move enabled SAVE to seek leave for judicial review. It was time to fight back.
The writ named the Secretary of State for the Environment as the first party for failing to provide the necessary certificates, with the Coal Board conjoined as second party. Being cast as the number one villain didn't go down well with the Department of the Environment. Needless to say, the certificate came through the post the next day.
Now it was the Coal Board's turn. Feeling exposed and isolated, they agreed to come to the negotiating table. Eventually, the Coal Board agreed to pay some £120,000 in compensation, and to fund preventative works as well as the legal fees. To add to the good news, the time limit originally set by Wedgwood of five years was extended by three years in recognition of the work SAVE had done. With the help of grants from English Heritage and a loan from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, work recommenced.
Barlaston is one of, if not the, biggest success stories in English heritage. It is a landmark case in the history of preservation and serves to illustrate how perseverance can win over overwhelming odds. As Marcus so rightly pointed out: 'If Barlaston can be saved, no other major country house need be forsaken.' After eight years of struggle, Barlaston is now lived in again as a family house. The owners have a passionate interest in their home and have worked incredibly hard to complete the restoration of the interior to the highest standard. Now the house is back in safe hands, all that hard work has been rewarded.
The Public Inquiry opens at 10.00 am on Tuesday, 11 February 2014, and is scheduled to last for 12 days, until Friday, 28 February.
Monday 20th January, 18.30
The Gallery, 77 Cowcross Street, London