Countryside conversions: new homes carved from heritage buildings within easy reach of central London

·8-min read
The 1840, St George’s Gardens in SW17, for homes  that blend heritage with modern style (Matt Tyler Photography)
The 1840, St George’s Gardens in SW17, for homes that blend heritage with modern style (Matt Tyler Photography)

Few properties set the heart racing as much as prized heritage conversions. Buildings with classic good looks - handsome architecture, grandeur, charm and a sense of arrival - always impress. And buyers’ appetite for them is unsatisfied.

London and the South-East lead the way when it comes to the imaginative reuse of historic buildings. High quality projects continue to hit the market and that’s remarkable given the conversion fever of recent decades, with thousands of new homes carved out of period properties, from Georgian warehouses to Victorian hospitals, to Fifties factories.

While the working from home revolution is likely to spark a fresh wave of office to residential conversions, developers and landowners are responding to the growing demand for "country cool" brought on by Covid.

Cash-strapped farmers are converting barns, stable blocks, mills and hop kilns - the rural equivalent of factory lofts and riverside penthouses, with scope for dramatic open-plan interiors - and building in-keeping new homes overlooking pastures and meadows.

Run-down mansions are being split into grand apartments, the grounds re-landscaped and a modern-day spa added. Redundant hospitals, colleges, barracks, convents and sporting estates are also providing a steady supply of new homes in attractive parkland, green belt or bordering golf courses.

Often such developments are within the M25, meaning buyers don’t have to choose between a convenient commuting location and isolated country splendour. "There’s real appetite for these sorts of homes because they’ve got genuine wow factor and cachet," says Tim Sargeant, boss of specialist heritage developer City & Country, which creates "old-but-new" homes by restoring or reinstating period features and using well-conceived contemporary interior design. Its latest scheme is a listed former psychiatric hospital in a prime south-west London location between Tooting, Balham, Earlsfield and Wandsworth Common.

The 1840, St George’s Gardens in SW17 (Matt Tyler Photography)
The 1840, St George’s Gardens in SW17 (Matt Tyler Photography)

It opened in 1840 as the Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum. Like other magnificent institutions of the Victorian period, it was built in an impressive parkland setting, with sweeping avenues and lavishly landscaped grounds of 97 acres to highlight the therapeutic nature of outside space.

The wider estate has become Springfield Village, while the first of the original buildings being converted into apartments is called The 1840, St George’s Gardens. This Tudor-style property sits behind a gated entrance and boasts gabled roofs, parapets and battlements. It has nine acres of private walled gardens for residents, plus parking, concierge service and work hub. All flats have period features and some have roof terraces. From £440,000 to £915,000. Call 020 8159 8881.

Aldershot, the Hampshire garrison town that has been the "Home of the British Army" since 1854, has a new mission: to attract London leavers searching for an accessible and affordable family home in green and pleasant surroundings.

Weston Homes’ ex-military hospital conversion, Gun Hill Park, in Aldershot (Grant Frazer)
Weston Homes’ ex-military hospital conversion, Gun Hill Park, in Aldershot (Grant Frazer)

Break-up of the garrison has paved the way for a 3,850-home new district called Wellesley. The 20-year project is spearheaded by socially minded property company Grainger, which is putting in fresh infrastructure including roads and superfast broadband, converting older buildings and selling off parcels of land to other developers to build homes in accordance with a design code. Wellesley will also have two new primary schools, shops and offices, 800 allotments plus parks and playing fields and 16km of nature trails and cycle paths through woodland areas.

Aldershot became a permanent garrison during the 1853-1856 Crimean War, when tents gave way to wooden huts, later replaced by robust Victorian buildings. The original parade ground around which the so-called "Stanhope Lines" (rows of barracks) grew, will be a central square holding together the various zones of the new neighbourhood, defined by wide, tree-lined roads, the legacy of a street plan that had to accommodate tanks and other large Army vehicles.

Jewel in the crown is listed Cambridge Military Hospital. Dating back to 1879, it fell into dereliction after closing 20 years ago. The hospital’s design was heavily influenced by Florence Nightingale and has an awesome quarter-mile ground-floor corridor, off which were spacious wards with south-facing balconies to catch sunlight and allow soldiers to convalesce in fresh air.

Weston Homes’ ex-military hospital conversion, Gun Hill Park, in Aldershot (Grant Frazer)
Weston Homes’ ex-military hospital conversion, Gun Hill Park, in Aldershot (Grant Frazer)

This now forms part of a mini neighbourhood called Gun Hill Park, being developed by Weston Homes.

The old hospital is being split into 74 apartments, including a spectacular penthouse within the hospital clock tower. Built in Italian neoclassical style, the building has grand entrance porches and foyers plus restored Victorian staircases. Flats have ceiling heights of up to 15ft, original arched windows, fireplaces and panelling.

A splendid 19th-century educational institute has been commandeered as a marketing suite and eventually will become a neighbourhood centre for residents. Prices from £299,000 to £675,000. Call 01252 957843.

Aldershot has a 50-minute commute to Waterloo and is also part of a regional commercial hub that includes Farnborough’s hi-tech and aviation zone.

The town centre is earmarked for an upgrade, too, with a heritage trail linking monuments and memorials, including the famous Duke of Wellington equestrian statue which was moved in 1885 from Hyde Park Corner to Aldershot, allegedly because Queen Victoria said it marred the view of Buckingham Palace. Another commuting bonus for this part of the world is the new 1.2-mile Hindhead Tunnel, which has solved the dire traffic snarl-ups on the A3 as well as preserving the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a dramatic natural amphitheatre listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

CROUCH END, N8

The Town Hall is now a lively neighbourhood hub

Regenerated: Hornsey Town Hall is a fine early example of modernist architecture (Handout)
Regenerated: Hornsey Town Hall is a fine early example of modernist architecture (Handout)

Local authority buildings are another source of newly minted "heritage" homes, and Art Deco Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End is a modernist masterpiece. Unveiled in 1935, it has a symmetrical frontage with a tall tower, seven bays and wide steps leading to three entrance doorways.

It flourished as a local landmark until 1965, when Hornsey borough was swallowed up by newly created Haringey council. This triggered the old town hall’s demise. Despite being used for concerts and as a film location, the building slipped on to Historic England’s Heritage At Risk register before being snapped up by Asian investors.

They turned the complex of buildings into a lively neighbourhood hub with 135 apartments, an arts centre, spectacular auditorium, boutique hotel, co-working spaces plus a café and rooftop bar with views of Ally Pally.

Meticulous restoration followed, though elements were in decent condition, including the original oak-panelled council chamber, meeting rooms and mayor’s parlour.

The grand entrance foyer with tall, bronze-framed windows, marble columns and decorative metalwork is again open to the public, while a new square was created at the front, near the unmissable clock tower. Prices from £505,950. Call 07972 000253.

WEST BYFLEET, KT14

Coach house homes on a gated estate

From £650,000: homes at the coach house, Broadoaks Park (Handout)
From £650,000: homes at the coach house, Broadoaks Park (Handout)

Near West Byfleet in Surrey, Broadoaks Park is a gated 25-acre estate where developer Octagon is building 115 new homes alongside charming apartments in converted listed buildings, including an original coach house. Prices start at £650,000. Call 020 8481 7500.

Twentieth-century buildings, especially Brutalist ones, find it harder to win admirers. But as they grow older there is growing appreciation of their architectural merit.

Back in 1961, the iconic Walton-on-Thames headquarters of food giant Birds Eye was one of the first corporate campuses to be built outside London, bringing together its staff at one leafy location close to rail, road and airports. That has resonance today as Covid is likely to trigger office relocations to the suburbs. Tasty new homes have come out of the deep freeze following a sympathetic redevelopment of the six-acre site. The main central listed building has been retained along with listed sculpture, Leaping Birds, created to reinforce the Birds Eye brand.

New low-rise blocks set around garden squares and courtyards with reflective pools seek to reinterpret the original’s crisp geometric forms. Crest Nicholson, the developer, has created 375 apartments and townhouses.

Called Walton Court Gardens, the address is Station Avenue, which explains why the homes are striking a chord with London commuters, occasional or otherwise. There are four trains an hour to Waterloo, and the journey takes just 26 minutes.

Prices start at £324,950. Call 01932 282119.

ENFIELD, EN4

‘It’s great to be able to pop outside into nature’

In the know: Alex and Claire have found a happy home in the former surveillance centre at Trent Park (HAYLEY BRAY)
In the know: Alex and Claire have found a happy home in the former surveillance centre at Trent Park (HAYLEY BRAY)

After living apart during lockdown, Alex Sharp and Claire Roberts, both 26, were determined to find a well-connected home in a country setting. The couple settled for ancient Trent Park in leafy outer north London. A former hunting ground of the Tudors, the 413-acre estate has a listed mansion surrounded by parkland, nature trails, bike paths, lakes, forest glades and woodland, a golf course, equestrian centre and wildlife sanctuary.

During its early 20th-century heyday, the estate was owned by Sir Philip Sassoon - politician, art collector and legendary socialite - who hosted glittering parties for the rich and influential, among them Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and the painter Rex Whistler, whose murals adorn the mansion’s state rooms.

Requisitioned by the War Office in 1939, Trent Park became a surveillance centre, with MI6 obtaining vital intelligence by bugging conversations between high-ranking German officers incarcerated there. Today the estate has 56 acres of private grounds where developer Berkeley’s collection of 270 homes includes grand apartments in the mansion, flats in a redeveloped dairy, plus clusters of new semidetached and detached houses.

"We’re surrounded by nature, and it’s great to be able to pop outside during the day when I’m working from home," says Claire, who is studying for a masters at University

College London. Alex loves the country club-style residents’ amenities, which include a gym in the original orangery, an outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts. A courtesy shuttle bus runs to Oakwood Tube station, which has 26-minute trains to King’s Cross on the Piccadilly line. Prices from £565,000 to £1.95 million. Call 020 3930 4912.

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