Things have taken a turn for the better at Jacobean Apethorpe Hall, near Apethorpe, Northamptonshire, where, following an intensive £4 million programme of largely external renovation by English Heritage, the 51,000sq ft house has been put on the market by Smiths Gore (01865 733304) with a guide price of £4.5 million to £5 million. The intention is to seek a single buyer with the wherewithal to spend a similar amount completing the interior to the same high standard. The future of Apethorpe Hall—now that it has a future, and not just an illustrious past—will depend on a successful meeting of minds between a resilient new owner, the planners and English Heritage.

Apethorpe Hall began as a substantial late-15th-century manor house, built by Sir Guy Wolston, constable of Fotheringhay Castle, sheriff and MP for  Northamptonshire. Of this house, the great hall range running north-south, which divides the main court from the main service court, and the gatehouse, on the north side of the main court, survive. There’s evidence of a substantial building on the south side of the main court, which was remodelled in the 1530s, and later in the 1560s by Sir Walter Mildmay, who bought the estate in 1551, and entertained Elizabeth I here in 1566.

James I came to Apethorpe Hall in 1603 on his journey south, to be entertained by Sir Walter’s son, Sir Anthony. Sir Anthony Mild-may’s son-in-law Sir Francis Fane, who took over the estate in 1624 and was created 1st Earl of Westmorland in 1624, remodelled the Great Chamber, Withdrawing Chamber and King’s Chamber and the Duke’s Chamber with interconnecting closets. Fane also added the handsome, 110ft Long Gallery, originally above an open arcade, and the roof above with leads and walkways to enjoy the views. These apartments were created in 1622–24 by Sir  Francis Fane expressly for the service of the king, who came to hunt at Rockingham—of which Apethorpe was once part—and who granted Sir Francis 100 trees from the royal forests to aid in their construction. Over the years, James came to Apethorpe 11 times, more than any other country house he ever visited.

Fane’s descendants sold the house in 1904 to nearby local landowners the Brassey family, who employed Reginald Blomfield to restore its 17th-century character, but retain some early-18th-century work (Country Life, March 20 and 27, 1909). The Brasseys sold the house in 1949, after which Apethorpe Hall became an approved school, with the addition of some fairly hideous modern buildings, most of which have now been removed by English Heritage. In 1983, the school closed and the estate was bought by Libyan national Wanis Burweila, who never lived there and allowed the house and its buildings to go to rack and ruin. Indeed, were it not for basic maintenance carried out on the house and gardens by its resident caretaker, George Kelley (much of it unpaid), Apethorpe would have been in an even worse state when, in 2004, the then Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, put a compulsory purchase order on the estate, which was then handed over to English Heritage.

The hall splits quite naturally into three contiguous houses: the Jacobean Hall, a central medieval hall house, and an Elizabethan hall house incorporating the 18th-century orangery. There’s also the three-bedroom gardener’s cottage built by Reginald Blomfield. Despite the restoration of the Jacobean Hall and main 17th-century buildings, there are still 48 rooms in need of work, including the Orangery, which previously had planning consent for conversion to an indoor swimming pool. English Heritage has also restored the exterior of the 13,000sq ft stable block, which has a three-bedroom house and a former groom’s accommodation.

Apethorpe Hall is in 45 acres of gardens and grounds—including period walled kitchen gardens and greenhouses laid out by Reginald Blomfield—in the heart of this pretty village, from where London-Kings Cross is less than an hour from Peterborough, 11 miles away. Will this indeed be the final chapter for Apethorpe Hall? ‘Who knows?’ replies selling agent Harry St John of Smiths Gore, adding ‘but if it’s not, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’.