The real ‘Restoration Man’
On the 22nd of November 2011 four youths broke into Sandhill Park near Taunton in Somerset and started a fire which destroyed much of the remaining fabric of the near derelict Grade II listed stately home.
The blaze caused the roof and top floor to collapse and many of the building’s architectural features were lost with damage to the historic mansion estimated to be in excess of £3m. Although the building had been in decline for more than 20 years this final act of arson appeared to seal the fate of a building which had started out as a showpiece home for an 18th Century MP.
Sandhill Park was built around 1720 by John Periam II, Member of Parliament for Minehead. Originally known as simply ‘Hill House’, it was set in 2000 acres of land and commands beautiful views over the surrounding Quantock and Blackdown Hills. Parcels of land have been sold off over the years, but the house still retains around 100 acres of grounds and parkland.
Sandhill Park was home to the Lethbridge family from 1767 to 1913 and during World War I it was used as a prisoner of war camp for German and Austrian officers. Between the wars it became a home for disabled children but from 1940 to 1944 Sandhill Park became an American military and neurological hospital with more than 1000 patients. In 1948 the building was reopened as an NHS psychiatric hospital until the estate was sold in 1991 and part of the grounds redeveloped for housing. The main house however fell into disrepair and it became an easy target for vandals culminating with the arson attack in 2011.
Placed on the Historic England ‘At Risk Register’, the future looked extremely bleak for this once beautiful Georgian mansion. Lawrence Butler, founder and Chairman of Devington Homes, has established himself as one of the leading lights in the rescue and renovation of unusual old buildings. A trained designer with credits on the Concorde project at the start of his career, Lawrence has spent the last 30 years developing desirable homes across the South West of England. By taking run down, historic buildings and transforming them into luxury apartments, Lawrence and Devington Homes have been able to restore important and often iconic buildings to their former glory. Recent success stories include the restoration of the Grade II listed Victorian Grand Hotel on Plymouth Hoe, the redevelopment of the Exminster Hospital in Exeter and the St Clements Vean former Workhouse in Truro.
Lawrence’s passion for sensitively restoring old buildings has brought him recognition from one of the best known advocates for retaining and restoring the nation’s heritage, HRH the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles, who describes Lawrence as ‘My hero’, occasionally calls upon Lawrence for guidance and he has travelled all over the country visiting other ‘at risk’ buildings the Prince is keen to see rescued. Lawrence is himself a Trustee of Harvey’s Foundry Trust in Hayle, Cornwall; a charitable organisation dedicated to restoring and promoting the historically important site and the buildings in the wider Hayle community.
Sandhill Park had come to Lawrence Butler’s attention several years before the arson attack made it Somerset front page news. He had in fact previously engaged in tentative negotiations with the owner to buy the decaying mansion and estate for a future project. However, the owner proved unpredictable and negotiations faltered. Ironically the fire which nearly destroyed Sandhill Park House in 2011 may actually have saved it. What was a decaying Grade II listed Georgian mansion was now not much more than a charred, roofless, shell and realising that the market for the house and estate had just become considerably smaller, the owner’s children persuaded him to re-open serious negotiations. In 2013, local developers Strongvox together with Devington Homes acquired Sandhill Park and secured planning permission for 28 new executive style homes in the grounds behind the main house. Devington Homes would be restoring the stately home and adjoining orangery and outbuildings to create 33 luxurious apartments and barn conversions.
Fast forward three years to 2016 and on a rare warm and sunny day in May, Lawrence is celebrating a pair of important milestones in the rebirth of Sandhill Park. The reconstruction of the roof has been completed and the scaffolding and plastic sheeting which has shrouded the building for more than three years has finally been removed. There’s no doubting the beauty and grandeur of this fine old building but when we get inside and see the scale of what’s still to be done you realise that it takes someone of extraordinary vision and determination to take on a project like this.
Adrian Miles is Lawrence’s ex-bank manager and he got to know Lawrence very well over the early years when Devington Homes was just starting out. When Adrian retired, Lawrence asked him if he’d continue to work with him as an occasional consultant and it’s clearly a task he enjoys. It’s Adrian who tries to keep Lawrence financially grounded but he admits that Lawrence doesn’t always take his advice.
“When Lawrence told me he was considering taking on Sandhill Park I told him he was bloody mad.” Adrian explains. “I knew it wouldn’t do any good though. Where most people just see a derelict wreck, Lawrence sees the potential. He’s got amazing imagination and vision but he’s also got the drive and sheer bloodymindedness to pull it off. He gets a thrill out of restoring these old places. His life’s work will be an incredible legacy of restored buildings.”
As we make our way up through the labyrinth of ladders and gangways to reach the rooftop, Lawrence explains that the first phase of work on site was extremely hands on.
“We had to get in and remove around 700 tonnes of debris and rubbish from inside the main house. When the roof collapsed it took out much of the floors on the way down and all of that debris had to come out. We obviously couldn’t get heavy machinery inside so clearing out the rubble often meant having to get it out handfuls at a time.” He says.
As we move up through the house, Lawrence describes the layout of each apartment and the sometimes strange demands of meeting the criteria for acceptable renovations of a Grade II listed building. For example, the apartments have beautiful, tall sash windows and those on the top floor enjoy the most fantastic views of the Quantock and Blackdown Hills. However, despite the obvious energy efficiencies of having double glazed sealed units, these windows must remain single glazed. Also, where internal door openings are to be bricked up to create the new floorplan, the plasterwork must still be slightly inset to show the positioning of the original doorway. As we walk into one large room Lawrence points out one of the stranger features he’s required to keep, a decidedly wonky window ledge.
“Part of the wall dropped many years ago and the window ledge dropped with it. But rather than let us straighten it up so it looks as it would have done in the 1720s, we’ve got to leave it as it is now. Whoever buys this apartment will get one extra unique feature.” Devington Homes have also had to go to great lengths to ensure that some of the non-paying residents of Sandhill House will always have somewhere suitable to live. The 2011 fire destroyed the original roof of the main house but in the rebuilding, Devington have had to provide two purpose built bat roosts and convert the mansion’s old pump house by the lake into a very desirable home for the Pipistrelle and Greater Horseshoe bats which have previously colonised the house.
It’s something of an obstacle course to reach the door out on to the roof but Lawrence is keen for us to see it now it’s finished. He takes a great deal of pride in ensuring that jobs are done properly on his restorations. Not just because the permissions always dictate it but because it’s important to him that the buildings retain their integrity. The roof we’re now standing on is an excellent example. The slate roof is perfectly laid. Nothing too unusual there, after all it’s a must have for any builder who doesn’t want to store up future problems. What stands out is the ornate detail in the leadwork. It must have taken many extra hours for a craftsman to do such a beautiful job and the detail won’t make a blind bit of difference to its purpose. Once the house is occupied probably the only person who’ll ever see it will be the person who comes to clean out the bat roosts once a year. But Lawrence will know how good that leadwork is, and that’s what’s important.
The same attention to detail and focus on quality will be applied to each of the 33 apartments and barn conversions Lawrence has planned. Once finished, the 2 and 3 bedroom apartments will be luxuriously appointed and retain the elegance and character of the original building. The classically proportioned rooms will be bright and airy with high ceilings and styled with ornate rococo plasterwork. The large sash windows will give superb views over the 100 acre private grounds and allow light to flood in. The converted barns behind the main house will be contemporary in design but with rustic character provided by the vaulted ceilings and exposed brick and stone walls. The barns will also have their own private gardens as well as access to the full 100 acre grounds of parkland and formal gardens which will be fully maintained, the costs shared through an annual management charge. There will even be a small fleet of golf carts for residents to use to get around the grounds or just to ferry their shopping from the car park area to the house and back again.
The Sandhill Park lifestyle will appeal to a variety of purchasers, but Lawrence expects a good proportion to be retired downsizers looking to enjoy a relaxed and hassle free country life. It would also be a stunning location for holidaymakers to spend a little ‘Downton Abbey’ break in the beautiful Somerset countryside. This is the second project funded by United Trust Bank, but Paul Keay, Property Development Director for United Trust Bank, has known Lawrence, Adrian and Paul Ross-Gower for the best part of 20 years. There’s a strong bond between the four men which goes beyond the usual developer/broker/lender relationship.
Paul Ross-Gower is the founder of Funding Procurement Consultancy and is the man Lawrence Butler entrusts to find him the best financial partners for his projects. According to Lawrence and Adrian, Paul’s contribution has been vital to the success of the business and he’s an integral part of the Devington Homes operation. He explains why he rates United Trust Bank’s Development Finance team above its competitors:
“UTB are consistently reliable, they have the skills and the desire to fund these more complex developments and they create effective relationships between the professions and the client to the mutual benefit of the project. Their superior knowledge and experience makes them stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.”
Lawrence adds: “Paul and the rest of the team at UTB are great to deal with. The Bank has a huge amount of experience and they’re very supportive and encouraging of what I do. They’re not at all fazed by these large restoration projects. UTB trust me to know what I’m doing but they also accept that on projects like this there will be the odd surprise and it’s how we deal with problems that matters. I need a lender which is flexible and adaptable and that’s what UTB have proven themselves to be.” So why did UTB choose to back such a large and complex renovation project? Paul Keay sums it up:
“It’s a privilege to work with a man like Lawrence Butler on a project like Sandhill Park” Says Paul. “He’s a real force of nature and his enthusiasm for what he does is totally infectious. You can’t help but be swept along by his passion and drive but he’s also exceptionally good at what he does and he has a superb track record of successful developments behind him. There’s also a tremendous sense of achievement when you see a once great but now decaying building transformed into beautiful new homes which will last another few centuries. It’s great to be involved in something like that.”
Looking out over the glorious parkland grounds it’s easy to see how this grand old house could capture anyone’s imagination. However, when most developers would enjoy the view but walk away, Lawrence stayed. As a result, Sandhill Park will join a growing list of historic buildings rescued and transformed by Lawrence Butler, the real Restoration Man.