Sale of the Century?

Great Maytham

By the time you read this, what has been called “the country house sale of the century” may well be complete, for eight listed country houses – including one designed by Lutyens and another having associations with him – came onto the market before Christmas owing to the liquidation of the Country Houses Association which would have celebrated its 50th anniversary next year.

Founded in 1955 as the Mutual Households Association by Rear-Admiral Sir Bernard Greathed (1891-1961), the first great country house to be acquired was Danny, the Grade I listed Elizabethan house at Hurstpierpoint, near Brighton. Its great hall was used during the First World War for meetings of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, culminating in Arthur Balfour’s proposals for the Armistice, which was eventually negotiated by President Woodrow Wilson. The MHA was originally granted a lease of Danny from the Campion family, but when the family sold its 1,480-acre estate in 1983, the Association was eventually able to buy the freehold of the house and its gardens from its new owner in 1985 for £300,000 with the help of an anonymous donor.

By this time the association had changed its name in 1984 to Country Houses Association, a charity registered under the Industrial & Provident Societies Acts 1965-78 to save historic houses under threat and give them a viable new use by creating apartments in them for letting, nine listed country houses had been acquired. In addition to Danny, there were another three Grade I listed houses Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, Flete in Devon, and Gosfield Hall in Essex), four Grade II* houses (Pythouse in Wiltshire, Swallowfield Park near Reading, Albury Park in Surrey, and Great Maytham in Kent) and one Grade II house, Ford Manor near Lingfield, Surrey, which was renamed Greathed Manor by the CHA in memory of its founder after his death.

The house of greatest interest to us, of course, is Great Maytham, which Sir Edwin designed in 1907-09 for the Rt Hon H J ‘Jack” Tennant (1865-1935), Liberal MP for Berwickshire, who became Under-Secretary of State for War in 1912-16. The house was built between 1909 and 1912 on the foundations and original basement of an 18th century house, some of whose outbuildings survive. Lutyens also designed the gatehouse, which (like the main house) is listed Grade II* and has a small cottage on either side of the central arch and clock-tower over the entrance drive.

English Heritage’s listing notice for Great Maytham says that the earlier house “was largely burned down in 1893,” but it is known that the house was subsequently repaired and let to various tenants including Frances Hodgson Burnett, who leased Great Maytham Hall (as it was then called) from 1898 to 1907 after her divorce from Dr Swann Burnett. She restored the walled rose garden that inspired her children’s novel “The Secret Garden” published in 1911, though she called the house Misselthwaite Manor. Sadly, the walled rose garden is no longer secret, having been licensed since 2001 for marriage ceremonies and receptions, but all 16 acres of gardens at Great Maytham are Grade II listed in their own right.

In 1936, the Great Maytham estate was sold to Thomas Cook, the travel entrepreneur, and was subsequently broken up, the house being used by the National Institute for the Blind and then requisitioned for use by the Army during World War II. After the war, the house and its 16 acres of gardens slowly fell into decay, and by 1955 the house was waiting to be demolished when it was discovered by chance by the landscape designer Anthony du Gard Pasley, who got a preservation order placed on it. A private buyer was then found who began restoring the house, and in 1961 it was sold to the then Mutual Households Association, who converted it into apartments for letting.

As this Newsletter went to press, Deloitte & Touche were acting as liquidators to obtain vacant possession of eight of the houses – the ninth, Greathed Manor, having already been closed 18 months ago when Country Houses Association declined to renew its lease from the Spender-Clay family. All the residents of the remaining eight houses – some of whom include former residents of Greathed Manor have been given six months’ notice, expiring in June, after which the properties will be sold to new owners.

Offers have been received from various companies and organisations to buy all eight properties, for which offers of £22 million were being invited, but the individual houses are also under offer subject to contract at prices from £500,000 to £4.25 million.

The guide price for the freehold of Great Maytham with 16 acres of gardens and grounds is £4 million. A building survey prepared on behalf of’ liquidators says “the materials and standard of workmanship used in the construction of the main house are considered to be of high quality, and the building has been well maintained” but urgent repairs costing around £400,000 are needed to the building fabric and services, and “further significant sums will be required to be set aside over the next five years to bring the property in line with current standards expected of a well-maintained asset.”

The house with the lowest price is Flete, the Grade I listed house at Holbeton near Ivybridge, Devon, for which offers over £500,000 are being invited for the remaining 17 years of a 60-year lease granted in 1961 at a ground rent of one shilling a year by the Mildmay-White family.

This brings us neatly to the second property connected with Lutyens, for Alfred Mildmay was his client for a new library at 28 Portman Square in London in 1913 and, more importantly, for major additions and alterations in 1922-25 to Mothecombe House, the present home of the Mildmay-White family on the 4,500-acre Flete estate. Having had the pleasure of seeing Lutyens’s work at Mothecombe House for myself, it is to be hoped that members of the Lutyens Trust may have another opportunity to do so at some future date. As for Great Maytham, this was to have been the subject of a visit by the Lutyens Trust in the Spring, but this has now been cancelled.

Michael Hanson