Arundells, Salisbury: Inside the private sanctuary that was the beloved home of a former statesman

Sir Edward Heath's house in Salisbury, Arundells, is at the heart of this wonderful small city. John Goodall pays a visit to tell its story; photography by Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library.

In the early 1980s, the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath was searching for a country house. His requirement was for something Georgian with a view of the sea, a concession to his passion for sailing. The house had to be small enough to be comfortable, but large enough to entertain and within easy striking distance of London.

Sir Edward failed to find what he wanted, but discovered instead a property with which he fell in love: Arundells in the Cathedral Close at Salisbury.

The introduction was made through Robert Key, his then parliamentary secretary and MP for Salisbury, who had been educated at the cathedral school in the close. At the time, the property was available for only nine years, the tail end of a lease.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 1985, Sir Edward bought this for the then-astonishing sum of £120,000. Seven years later, he secured the freehold. It was, as he liked to say, the only home he ever owned.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

The history of Arundells is inextricably bound up with that of the great cathedral that overshadows it. In the 1190s, plans were drawn up to move the seat of the see of Salisbury from nearby Old Sarum and, with the approval of Richard I, the site for the present church was identified two miles southwards at the confluence of the Avon with four tributaries.

From the first, the idea was to create a close in the shadow of the new cathedral. In the words of a 13th-century Dean of Salisbury, William de Wanda, this low-lying and open site — exceptionally spacious by comparison with its peers — also provided ‘each of the canons a proper space for the erection of a dwelling house.’

In about 1213, the chapter decreed that the 52 canons should build themselves ‘fair houses of stone, near the wall of the close or the river that compasses the close, and two stone walls to enclose the ground assigned to them’. The direction to build in stone is striking, a clear mark of permanency and architectural ambition.

Not all the building plots around the close were of equal size, a reflection of the very different financial circumstances of the individual canons. Arundells stands on one of 14 1½-acre plots intended for the richer members of the community to the west of the cathedral, with gardens dropping to the river. It’s still defined by the two medieval walls erected according to the chapter’s instruction.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

Frustratingly, there is no documentary evidence as to who built Arundells or exactly when it was begun, but, in 1219, the canons were instructed to move into their new houses by the following November 1, All Saints Day. The probability is, therefore, that it was actually begun shortly before the foundation-laying ceremony of the cathedral church itself, almost exactly 800 years ago on April 28, 1220. Certainly, it must have been under construction before Whitsun 1223, when any unclaimed building plots were to be resumed by the bishop.

Depending on when work began to the medieval house, it’s possible it was constructed with the oversight of Elias of Dereham, celebrated by his contemporaries as an artificer and designer. He was a canon of Salisbury before 1222, built his own residence here and was closely involved in the new cathedral works. Whatever the case, a two-storey range of the original 13th-century house survives embedded in the existing fabric.

Most of the close houses were not attached to particular canonries or offices, which makes it very difficult to trace the medieval ownership and development of individual buildings. A 1993 survey by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, however, suggests that all the larger house plots were entered through a gateway that faced the cathedral. At Arundells, this survived into the 18th century, when it was replaced by the present gate.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

Beyond this was a yard and the canon’s house itself. This comprised a great hall with cross ranges to each end, one for services and the other incorporating a withdrawing chamber for the canon. According to this analysis, the surviving medieval fragment at Arundells is the withdrawing cross range with a projecting stair. The first securely recorded occupant was Henry of Blunston, Archdeacon of Dorset, who died in 1316.

During the Reformation, the number of cathedral canons was reduced and the close ceased to be an exclusively clerical preserve. The last clerical occupant of Arundells, Leo-nard Bilson, left in 1561 in unusual circumstances. He fell in love with a widow and got a former monk to his chapel at Arundells ‘to say a mass to call on the devil to make her his lady’. Bilson was pilloried and later imprisoned in the Tower of London; the house was then leased from the chapter by the lawyer and MP for Salisbury John Hooper, one of several properties he owned in the city.

In 1609, Arundells was, in turn, leased by Sir Richard Mompesson, a former MP and disappointed courtier. He demolished most of the medieval house and attached two blocks to opposite corners of the cross range he preserved. The smaller contained a kitchen and the larger a handsome series of domestic chambers including — according to the Parliamentary Survey of 1650 — a hall and dining room, both wainscoted, as well as a chapel, gallery and 12 lodging chambers.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

The scale of the remodelling reflects the prestige enjoyed by the close as a place of residence. An anonymous visitor in 1635 described it as ‘very spacious encompass’d in with a wall very strong’ and accommodating ‘the Bishops Palace, the Deans, the Canons and Doctors Houses, and many others, wherin Knights and Gentlemen of ranke and quality have their residence’.

Many gentry families occupied different houses in the close over several generations. They also built in connection and competition with each other. Arundells was re-cast in broadly its present form by a member of one, John Wyndham of Norrington, who leased the property in 1718. His family owned a large private house in Salisbury town, the College, but his father, an MP and Sheriff of Wiltshire, had also lived in the close.

In about 1720, Wyndham refaced two sides of the 17th-century house — the main (east) and south fronts in stone, installed sash windows and created the present hipped roof. He furnished the interior with its surviving much-restored stair and panelling. It’s not known who undertook the work, but it was probably a local builder.

The changes are recorded in a detailed survey made of the property in 1745 by J. Lyons, which also shows the remarkable formal gardens he laid out. They terminated at the water’s edge with a greenhouse and summer house, as well as an iron fence to open out the view beyond.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

Wyndham’s daughter married James Arundell, a son of the 6th Lord Arundell, who bestowed his name upon the house. A full inventory of 1803, taken when his wife died, describes a full set of domestic and service chambers and an associated ‘chapel’ in the cathedral.

Thereafter, Arundells was leased to various tenants, including two schools, until 1845, when it became the home of Fitzherbert Macdonald, a solicitor and the diocesan regi-strar, and his wife, Eliza. They lived here for 50 years and modernised the house with plate-glass windows and added an extension, now demolished, between 1860 and 1879.

The house continued to be leased out to successive owners into the early 20th century and several inventory descriptions of the building have been identified by Annie Boag, who is preparing a history of the property.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

During the Second World War, the house was used as a wool depot and by the Red Cross library service. Its occupants were reluctant to spend money on the fabric, however, and, by degrees, it fell into neglect.

Incredible as it may now seem, following the death of one resident, Canon Alderson, in 1962 an advertisement was placed in The Times that read: ‘Salisbury Close. Will anyone save and live in a historic house with two acres of walled garden and river frontage, but will cost money?’

Robert and Kate Hawkings, who visited the property in the spring of 1964, took up the challenge. They drew up plans with the help of an architect friend, Jim Ralph, based in London. Their far-reaching repairs and alterations, recorded in a survey of 1968 by Frederic C. Levitt and Partners (a conscious evocation of that done by Lyons in 1745), included the demolition of the Victorian extension. The footings of the latter now serve as a stone terrace to the back of the house. The Hawkingses also redecorated much of the interior and restored the gardens, in return for a 30-year lease at a ground rent of £200.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

It was the tail end of this lease that Sir Edward bought in 1985. He engaged design consultants Derek Frost Associates to adapt and rewire the house, work that was relatively unconstrained as the interior preserved few historic fittings of interest.

As Prime Minister, Sir Edward had been involved in the redecoration of both Chequers and 10, Downing Street so this undertaking was not without context and he took a close interest in it. In some points, the changes were historicist, as, for example, the insertion of period fireplaces in the entrance hall and library. Such insertions and some of the pale colour schemes are redolent of official government residences of the period. These are combined with rather more striking alterations; for example, the bold redecoration of the dining room and the mirrored display and new floor in the entrance hall.

The contents reflect Sir Edward’s wide-ranging interests in music (his Steinway grand piano has pride of place in the drawing room), sailing, Japan and China. There is a good collection of paintings, with an emphasis on the early 20th century.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

One source of pride was two works by Winston Churchill. Politics is relatively marginalised, apart from a set of cartoons and a formidable bank of framed photographs recording Sir Edward’s meetings with world figures. His book-lined study enjoys the garden and water-meadow view that was his great joy.

During his career, Sir Edward survived two attempts on his life and there was concern for his safety. He nonetheless fought off attempts to enclose the bottom of the garden and its magnificent view. Instead, he planted the garden to reduce sightlines to the house and accommodated two police posts and a panic room on the property.

Sir Edward died at Arundells on July 17, 2005, and, as were many previous occupants of the house, was buried in the cathedral. He had no direct heirs, so, by the terms of his will, he established the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. This was charged with opening the house to the public and making it available for charitable purposes, including activities linked to music, sailing and education. It was initially chaired by the former cabinet secretary Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, a long-standing friend.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

In 2008, the ground floor of the house opened to guided tours. After a promising beginning, however, visitor numbers began to fall and the trustees contemplated selling the building. In response, another group of friends and former staff, headed by Peter Batey, a former private secretary, assumed a leading role in the trust in 2013.

The current members have broadened the activities accommodated by the house to include lectures, events and concerts. More rooms have been opened and there are plans to create an enlarged exhibition space in the stables, which have, until recently, been occupied by an electricity substation. An appeal to raise £5 million, the majority as a capital endowment, has also been initiated.

Arundells, Salisbury. ©Justin Paget for the Country Life Picture Library

The aim is to attract a maximum of 14,000 visitors a year, but the present circumstances are very challenging. The irony is that Sir Edward’s political legacy — particularly his interest in Britain’s connections with Europe and China — has never felt more immediate.

Acknowledgements: Annie Boag and Ivan Smith. Find out more about Arundells, Salisbury, Wiltshire, at www.arundells.org