Country houses for sale

Georgian Group winners

The fifth year of the Georgian Group architectural awards presented by Lord Heseltine last night recognised the achievements of conservationists and architects in eight categories. The ceremony was orchestrated by the Country Life contributor, John Martin Robinson.


* Belmont House, Unst, Shetland

This delectable 1775 house attracts superlatives. It is the most ambitious classical house in the Northern Isles and the most northerly classical house in the United Kingdom. It is not only on Shetland but on the most northerly of the Shetland Isles. This profound isolation contributed to Belmont’s neglect. It was left derelict by an absentee owner and by 2004 it was boarded up.

The Belmont Trust, essentially a consortium of local conservationists, then bravely stepped into the breach. Restoration has clearly been a labour of love. Necessarily, but also encouragingly, local people (including students) have put many hours into bringing Belmont back from a roofless, ruined state.

External restoration is now complete. A later extension has been demolished to restore the fine classical proportions, the house has been made structurally secure by jacking up the floors, the roof has been replaced using reclaimed Scottish slates and sashes have been reinstated using handblown glass. The house and the restored pavilions have been covered in sparkling apricot limewashed harl. Gate pillars have been rebuilt using existing materials. Altogether a remarkable achievement in difficult circumstances.


* Murrays’ Mill, Ancoats, Manchester

These mills, dating from the turn of the nineteenth century, are the earliest surviving steam-powered cotton-spinning mills in urban Britain. They were ruinous by the late twentieth century and, having no foundations, were at risk of imminent collapse. But they have now been superbly restored by the Ancoats Building Preservation Trust, now renamed Heritage Works.

The conservation strategy was exemplary: a light touch; retention of the maximum amount of original fabric and fittings; use of traditional materials and techniques. The depth of analysis and attention to detail are admirable: nail marks, for example, were meticulously analysed to inform the building of a new Welsh slate roof. Reference to early pictures allowed the fenestration to be replicated ? only two original windows in the entire complex remained. Two missing storeys were reinstated using handmade bricks and twentieth century excrescences that obscured the original elevations were removed. Most remarkably, given the tightness of the site and the economic pressures, a large canal basin that had been filled in and used as a car park was excavated and refilled with water.

All this happened in a relatively deprived part of Manchester. It could easily have been done badly, cheaply or not at all. The sheer scale and ambition of the work make it truly impressive.


* Castlemilk Stable Block, Glasgow

The stables are 1750, the only surviving remnant of Castlemilk House. They were empty by 1994, fire-damaged and at risk. All things considered, the prospects for survival were seriously bleak. This is a comparatively deprived part of Glasgow with more than its fair share of social and other problems. But there is a strong community spirit, carefully fostered, and that in the end saved the building. After a ten-year local campaign to preserve it and find it a new use, it is now a beacon at the centre of a housing estate and serves as a home for various community facilities.

For much of the day it is now alive with clearly very happy nursery school children. There are small touches that demonstrate attention to detail. We were impressed that the rough stone of the stables was left uncovered on the walls of the nursery corridors, so that young children could feel its texture. The internal spaces and the beautifully restored stable courtyard are commendably free of clutter.

This has been a victory against significant odds. Local attachment to the historic stables shines through. Notably, the building has suffered no vandalism or graffiti since it was restored. The civilising power of fine buildings kept in good order is evident here as elsewhere.


* St. Martin-in the-Fields, London SW1

This outstanding project shone through, as it would have done in any year. James Gibbs’ decorative scheme was reinstated, order and conceptual clarity were restored to the layout and coloured glass was replaced with more historically accurate plain glass. A new Purbeck stone floor has been laid. Outside, the stonework has been expertly repaired and cleaned. The church is lighter, purer and has something of its old gaiety back.


Joint Winners:

* Craigengillan, Ayrshire

This 1780s designed landscape, a rare example in Scotland of an unfragmented estate landscape, has been restored by Mark Gibson since 1999. It is astonishingly picturesque for southern Ayrshire, with deep ravines, waterfalls and lochs. Its special qualities were becoming lost amid alien and monotonous sitka spruce plantations; the lochs had silted up, bridges had collapsed and the house at its centre was badly decayed. Mark Gibson has coaxed new life into it with great energy but also great sensitivity. The eighteenth century planting plan has been reinstated, revealing the contours of the hills. Native species have replaced the sitka and native wildlife has followed. All the bridges have been rebuilt, the lochs dredged, 16 miles of new hedgerows planted. Three miles of drystone dykes have been meticulously repaired using a system patented by the Macadams, later of Tarmac fame, who lived here for 400 years.

Added to this is a very impressive social dimension. Craigengillan is on the edge of the depressed mining town of Dalmellington. Mark Gibson has transformed the relationship between the estate and the local population, providing employment for local youths with few other opportunities and making his estate accessible. Mutual antagonism, and the vandalism that follows in its wake, has been replaced by constructive engagement. The estate and to a large extent the town have a new sense of optimism and it is clear, on visiting Dalmellington, that Mark Gibson is held in genuine affection and high regard.

* Hafod, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion

This project involves the restoration of Thomas Johnes’s landscape at Hafod, one of the very finest picturesque landscape in Britain. Ten miles of paths have been restored, along with bridges (including the dramatic chain bridge) and landscape buildings.

The celebrated Hafod Walks, including the Lady’s and Gentleman’s Walks, had become obscured and overgrown. Woodland has been thinned to reveal them once more and make them negotiable by walkers. The Friends of Hafod, formed in the 1980s, have been engaged on the current restoration programme since 1994; all their work has been underpinned by impressive scholarly research.


* The Cilwendeg Shell House, Pembrokeshire

This 1826 shell house, recently derelict, has been restored along with its woodland setting and flanking rockeries by The Temple Trust, after extensive scholarly research.

A full archaeological survey by Cambria Archaeology was undertaken to inform the restoration. Much original material was buried and this has been carefully recovered through excavation. Local sparkling white quartz has been placed on the front, beneath a new crow-step gable. The shells, sourced originally from Welsh beaches instead of from the Caribbean, as was common in the 1820s, have been painstakingly reinstated. The floor, patterned with the knuckle bones of sheep and oxen and the vertebrae of horses, has also been fully restored. The Cilwendeg estate, once one of the finest in the Teifi valley, is a shadow of its former self, but this exemplary restoration points the way to a brighter future.


* Ashley Park Hampshire

This country house, within a 700-acre estate previously lacking as focal house, must be outstanding because the planning system says so. It was granted permission, albeit on appeal, under the so-called ‘Gummer Clause’, which makes exceptional provision for new country houses on condition they are architecturally outstanding. Ashley Park, in Bath stone and brick, is a cleverly conceived essay, influenced by Greek Thompson and Schinkel but by an architect at the top of his game and fluent enough in the classical language to make his own subtle innovations. The plan, based around a finely detailed cantilevered staircase, is precisely controlled, firmly logical, easily read ? and, we suspect, a pleasure to live in. Especially rewarding is the garage block, which surprises and delights not because of showy fireworks or applied ornament but because of its sheer rigour. Throughout the building, nothing is gratuitous, redundant or meretricious? all the carefully-considered parts contribute to the triumph of the whole.


* 45 The Park, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

This replaced a nondescript 1970s house in a conservation area and forms part of a strung-out row of elegant Regency villas. It takes its place seamlessly in its context, but not by means of the easy route of slavish copying or anaemic pastiche. Instead, the house makes a powerful statement of its own. And again this is not done through showiness. The architect has taken the more difficult path of assimilating the essentials of Regency Cheltenham and manipulating them to produce a building that harmoniously marries tradition and innovation. The proportions are worked out to perfection. The Ionic porch and cantilevered staircase are impressive, certainly, but the lasting impression is of a deeply satisfying composition, both externally and internally. The result has presence, has a personality, but is also well-mannered and disciplined to a level few architects can achieve. Ultimately, and remarkably, it adds something to the tradition of the Cheltenham villa.

The Georgian Group Architectural Awards 2007 were sponsored by Savills