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It is a national treasure, but Melton Constable Hall has seen far better days and is now the subject of much concern. KEIRON PIM investigates its decline and hears its owner’s plans for the future.
When it formed the stunning setting for the film The Go-Between in 1970, Melton Constable Hall's beauty was revealed to an audience of millions.
But even then it took the concerted effort of a film crew to create an illusion of opulence, when in fact the building, the finest in the country of its type, had long since grown dilapidated and sad.
Reports at the time described how the film crew needed to patch up the interior of the hall and overcome the air of decay that had already set in. The film managed to depict it as a bustling and lively family home, but the truth was very different.
After director Joseph Losey and actors Alan Bates and Julie Christie had finished filming, the hall was left once again to settle into a state of slow decay - and apart from when it hosted concerts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the public has seen little of the hall since then.
With its 17th century architecture and beautifully landscaped grounds designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the much-loved Norfolk stately home is fondly remembered by those who visited in those days.
But people who have seen it since know that the building is now a sad sight to behold. While the 19th century North Wing, which is home to a number of people, has been expensively refurbished, the main hall is dilapidated and has long been covered in scaffolding. Many of the outbuildings have smashed windows and collapsed roofs, surrounded by piles of rubble.
Unlike Blickling Hall, the mansion is tucked well away from the nearest main road, and so its decline has largely been obscured from the public. The story of how this has happened is long and complicated, dating back to the 1920s, and its current situation is just as complex - it emerges that the hall's director of trustees, property developer Roger Gawn, runs it partly through companies based in secretive offshore tax havens.
Mr Gawn is known for his work as a property developer with interests in a number of historic buildings in Norfolk, such as the Custom House at King's Lynn, the Bethel Hospital in Norwich and the regeneration of the city's Colegate. When he bought the hall in 1986 hopes were high that decades of decline would be reversed and the property would be gradually returned to the state a building of its importance deserves. Such was the interest in the hall that in the late 1980s the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales, Princess Margaret and the Duke of Gloucester all visited to witness the progress in the restoration.
So, 20 years on, what state is Melton Constable Hall in today? Nofolk County Council's conservation department has recently published its annual Historic Buildings at Risk Register, which has long featured the stately home.
In its description of threatened buildings, Risk Category A means “immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed”; Risk Category C means “slow decay; no solution agreed”. The newly published register for 2006 states:
t Melton Constable Hall - Grade I Listed - Risk Category C, “major repairs necessary” - “Some work undertaken but building still at risk. East wing currently under restoration. Meeting arranged between English Heritage and NNDC to discuss progress.”
t Melton Constable Hall Terraces - Grade II Listed - Risk Category A, “Serious erosion to the fabric of the urns on the terraces. Ivy growth in isolated areas. Walls leaning out in danger of collapse if not consolidated” - exactly the same wording as four years ago, in a previous register.
It adds: “The leaning walls need to be consolidated. Ivy has been removed from the majority of the areas. Dangerous elements removed and stored.”
t Melton Constable Hall, stable court west and north wings - Grade II Listed - Risk Category C, “parts converted to residential. The stable to end of complex deteriorating with roof open and evidence of structural movement. Building not in use.” Again, this will be discussed at a forthcoming meeting between North Norfolk District Council and English Heritage.
North Norfolk District Council and its counterparts at county level have long been keeping an eye on the state of the hall.
“The condition of Melton Constable Hall has been a concern for a long time. In recent times the building has been in need of repair,” said Phil Godwin, of North Norfolk District Council's conservation and design department. In the late 90s, the district council and the county council monitored the state of the hall because there was a lot of local concern.
“There has been a lot of contact with the owners of the hall over the years, going back to the 1960s. It's a Grade I Listed building and through the changes of ownership there has been a chequered history since the 1960s, and major repairs are considered necessary.
“Mr Gawn has, from time-to-time, undertaken incremental repairs in what he considers to be his programme of repairs. So, from time-to-time, people may have noticed some work being done.”
The condition of parts of the hall and its estate has caused concern among people both locally and further afield with a passion for historic buildings.
Kevin Craske, of nearby Briston, said: “When we were kids they had cricket matches on the lawn in front of the hall. It's safe to say that it's now a fortress and, while one has to respect that it's private land, the degree of security seems to be excessive. It makes you suspicious as to what's going on.
“I am 51 and have seen it from being a maintained building as a little boy, to being in the state it is today, which is so poignant it makes you want to cry. In those days, although it was private land, there was no restricted access.”
Mr Gawn said that he was focusing on urgent work and that other areas of the estate would be dealt with in due course.
He said: “What you need to appreciate with a property like this is that it took more than 300 years to get to this point. In the 60-year period from 1926 to 1986, nothing happened to the property whatsoever. No one did any work on it. If you had seen it 20 years ago you would have been horrified.”
He showed the EDP the extensive high quality restoration that has been carried out in sections of the North Wing, for instance in a building known as The Pavilion.
“This has been under restoration for some years, but that's what it needs,” he said. “We have 18th century floor tiles from France. This staircase we put in nine or 10 years ago: that alone cost £100,000. The wooden door surrounds were all hand-carved by craftsmen from Norwich.
“The building was riddled with dry rot from the roof to the ground. Everything had to come out.
“On the main hall, the whole of the slate roof was restored with new lead in the late 1980s.”
He added that “beautiful estate railings” had been installed, and walls rebuilt with Portland stone, “the best you can buy. We had to restore this building. The stonework around here is really important. We buy it from a stone quarry and work it here ourselves. We have a permanent staff of stonemasons and carpenters.
“I'm not prepared either for myself or the various owners here to do anything but the best. This is my company that has done the work. It's what I have done most of my life. There's a never-ending process of maintenance of the grounds and gardens. This all costs money, a lot of money.”
Mr Gawn's finances have often been reported in the EDP, in both a positive and negative light. His business affairs have always been complicated and often subject to financial difficulties, as his creditors will attest. He has, however, been described as a visionary and has acted as a patron to the arts scene, establishing the St George's Festival in Norwich.
Mr Gawn currently has associations with 68 businesses registered at Companies House, seven of which have gone into liquidation and many more of which have long ceased trading. Currently 14 remain active while 32 have been dissolved. Norwich Union forced him into bankruptcy in 1995 after the collapse of his property development empire, and subsequently he was banned from being a company director. During this time he studied for a degree in the history of architecture and in conversation his passion for the hall comes across strongly - but what remains unclear is whether he has the money to return it to a reasonable condition.
In the past two months, five County Court Judgements have been published in the EDP's business pages:
t Gawn RC, t/a Gawn & Son, Melton Hall, Melton Park, £44,789, issued March 24, 2006;
t Gawn Roger, Gawn & Son, Melton Hall, Melton Park, £11,623, March 29, 2006;
t R Gawn & Son, Melton Hall, Melton Park, £2,642, March 30, 2006;
t IO Construction, Melton Park, Melton Constable, £41,950, March 10, 2006;
t Melton Estate Management, Melton Park, Melton Constable, £192, February 24, 2006.
Mr Gawn said that these debts were “a red herring”.
They had been incurred while he was in the Middle East on recent business and had now been settled.
However it is not the first time he has incurred heavy debts. Mr Gawn created the Merchants Court complex in Norwich's Colegate but after the economic recession kicked in, he saw his business empire collapse in 1993. The holding company at the heart of his enterprise, the Norwich Investments Group, went into liquidation. Mr Gawn was forced into bankruptcy by Norwich Union, to which he owed a reported multi-million-pound sum.
Around this time Mr Gawn sold parts of the estate from one of his businesses to a series of others in succession. The main 17th century hall moved from his company Melton Developments Ltd to his business Searchreason Enterprises Ltd for £20,000, according to a conveyance document from March 3, 1993. Units four, five and seven in the North Wing were sold from Melton Developments to Melton Constable Estate Ltd on April 23, 1993, for £1,800.
And then on March 1, 1995, these apartments were sold on to his company IO Corporation, which acts as the landlord and is based in the city of Monrovia in Liberia, described by the Houston Chronicle newspaper in the USA as a refuge for businesses “seeking protection from burdensome income taxes, wage scales and regulations”.
Searchreason, which owned the main hall, had its name changed in May 1994 to Melton Hall Ltd, and this company continues to own the main hall - although Companies House records that it has four outstanding mortgage charges against it. A total of 500 shares have been issued in this busines s, 460 of them to The Trustees of R Gawn 1990 Accumulation & Maintenance Settlement.
The remaining 40 shares are held by Elliot Finance Ltd, which is based at 112 Bonadie Street, Kingstown, in St Vincent and the Grenadines, of which the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia states there is “a small offshore financial sector whose particularly restrictive secrecy laws have caused some international concern”.
According to the credit information agency International Company Profile, “St Vincent & the Grenadines is a tax haven where numerous offshore companies are registered. Offshore companies are merely domiciled here but do not actually trade within the country, having their main operational addresses elsewhere in the world. These offshore companies are only required to disclose certain details and a bare minimum of officially filed information is generally available.”
Why a Norfolk stately home is being run by companies that are partly based in secretive offshore tax havens is known only to Mr Gawn and his associates. When asked to explain this, Mr Gawn said that “all these financial matters are confidential” and would only say that these were “business decisions”.
He said he only wanted to talk about the future of the hall, stating that he believes the best way forward lies in creating a preservation trust, a point on which the council agrees. Mr Godwin said: “We have had a dialogue with Mr Gawn and the trustees. We hope to help him through the Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust. We got the trust to make contact with Roger Gawn to try to get some movement. Part of that arrangement and contact would be that you have a discussion with Mr Gawn as to the way forward. It would involve the trust having a property interest in the building.”
The trust's secretary, Malcolm Crowder, one of the UK's foremost experts on building preservation, said that he remained optimistic that a plan could be produced and added that he had found Mr Gawn to be helpful and co-operative.
When the hall is returned to a good condition, Mr Gawn hopes to use it as a venue for concerts and other arts events, as he did until the early 1990s through his charity, the Melton Arts Trust.
He said that these events had to stop because health and safety legislation had reached a point where it was no longer viable for people to enter the main hall.
As for the high levels of security now surrounding the hall, he said that this was necessary because the hall was a vulnerable property, and he intended to restore public access when he considered it safe to do so - but he could not say exactly how long that would be, suggesting it would take at least five years. If and when it happens, it will satisfy a long-standing request from the local council.
Mr Gawn purchased the hall and its estate for £265,000 from local farmer Geoffrey Harrold in October 1986, eight months after the district council had designated Melton Constable Park as a Conservation Area. Along with Norfolk County Council, it issued a pamphlet detailing concerns about the hall's condition.
This states the intention that: “A degree of public access may be sought to parts of the park, affording views of the hall, together with access to the interior of the main blocks of the hall, on a regular or restricted basis as considered appropriate.”
Attempt to enter the grounds 20 years on and signs greet you declaring it out of bounds to the public. The council has experienced similar frustration in trying to get the renovation moving on apace.
Mr Godwin, of North Norfolk District Council's conservation and design department, said: “My colleagues in the district and county councils and I have been trying to monitor the condition of the hall for many years. Several attempts have been made to work in partnership with Mr Gawn. I have been here for eight years and I know attempts were made to work with him before I arrived.”
The pamphlet describes the hall and surrounding parkland, and notes: “Whilst these landscape and building features survive, their condition in many cases gives cause for concern. The hall and other empty buildings need to be repaired and brought back into use. This will require the investment of several hundred thousand pounds, although not necessarily by a single agency.”
Mr Godwin said that a planned cash injection from English Heritage collapsed because Mr Gawn insisted on using one of his own businesses to carry out the work, rather than go through the competitive process that is required for such a grant.
“At that stage no agreement could be reached with the owners. You have to have an open tender. The owners weren't happy with that. They have their own development and construction company, and they didn't want a competitive tender. Unfortunately to raise funding through English Heritage you must have a competitive tender.”
Mr Gawn said that he had grown frustrated with English Heritage, which he accused of reneging on a promise concerning who would undertake the work.
“There was a big falling out with English Heritage,” he said. “The records are completely clear: English Heritage acted in my view very badly. They failed to honour their commitments. Although they were not welcome here for some time, quite recently I have had an understanding that they can come back and take a look.”
English Heritage spokeswoman Sophie Clarke said the organisation had no comment to make on Melton Constable Hall at present. The mansion is considered Britain's finest example of the Christopher Wren style of grand English country hall, and was the historic seat of the Astley family. Lord Hastings sold it in 1948 to the Duke of Westminster, who let the hall to the Hon A M Baillie. In 1959 Mr Harrold bought the park but never lived in the hall, and it began to fall into disrepair.
The stately home came back into the public eye 11 years later when the American film director Joseph Losey decided to film his adaptation of LP Hartley's novel The Go-Between there.
But, given the long decline to the building's current state, why hasn't the local authority been able to do more?
Mr Godwin said: “Basically we keep a watching brief. The trouble with local authorities is that they do have powers to intervene, but they have to be used very carefully.
“The condition of the property must get very poor before we can intervene. You can't just go in without good reason.
“Three or four years ago we thought 'Right, this building is still on the Buildings at Risk Register'.
“I visited the site then and there were some difficulties with the state of the roof and rainwater getting in. There was also some subsidence in the main building. There seemed to be some problems still.”
He added that a structural survey found that “while there are a few problems, the basic structural stability of the building is sound, surprisingly, despite the fact that it was built in the 17th century with next to nothing in terms of foundations”.
Today, very few people know exactly what state the inside of the 17th century part of Melton Constable Hall is in - Mr Gawn said that health and safety issues prevented him from showing the EDP its interior. For now, Mr Godwin said the council felt unsure where to turn.
“In the early years of this century we are thinking 'What else can we do?' It's a fantastic property of national significance. So before we operate we have to think carefully.
“We are aware of public concern and the interest of those people with a bent for historic buildings nationally.
“I know that certain parts of the main hall have been repaired. It's not all negative with regards to the owners. He has always maintained that his objective is to restore the hall as a property for a family to live in, as it was originally. He has always maintained that long-term he wants to restore it to its former glory.”
t JUNE 1993. Mike Brackenbury, conservation architect for North Norfolk District Council, said that councillors were extremely disappointed that a great deal of money had been spent improving the 19th century wing of the hall, where Mr Gawn lives, and very little on the older main building. Mr Gawn said then that “several hundreds of thousands of pounds” had been spent on the original parts of the hall, and Mr Brackenbury acknowledged that the roof had been re-leaded and the ornate plaster ceiling over the stairwell had been repaired. But he said: “Otherwise, no work has been done. Quite the reverse - the building's interior has declined since it was bought.”
t JANUARY 1994. The EDP reported that “action is being urged to reverse the decay of the magnificent Melton Constable Hall”, and quoted English Heritage as warning that the mansion could be lost forever if nothing was done.
At that point Mr Brackenbury said that the “building is in a state of accelerating disrepair” and added that one staircase streamed with condensation. When asked its view on the hall's condition in 2006, English Heritage refused to comment.
t SEPTEMBER 1999. We reported on the failure of a plan to sell one of the hall's finest artworks in order to fund redevelopment and conservation of the west façade. It went up for sale at an auction of East Anglian art.
“The only disappointment came with the failure of the biggest picture to find a new home and so raise money for further restoration of Melton Constable Hall, near Fakenham,” said the EDP. “The painting, The Rt Hon Jacob Astley Lord Hastings with Horse and Hounds, presented to the peer by 400 of his Norfolk friends and neighbours in 1865, had been expected to sell for up to £30,000. “The problem with this picture, attributed to Swaffham-born artist Samuel Carter, was the size,” said James Glennie, spokesman for Bonhams in East Anglia. “We had to take the frame apart to get it out of Melton Constable Hall.”
t DECEMBER 2000. The EDP reported: “A company which manages a Norfolk stately home is to be wound up after a court heard it had failed to pay a bank more than £40,000.
“Melton Constable Estate Ltd, which carries out landscaping gardening and maintenance of a 17th century hall near Holt will be wound up after a legal petition brought by The Royal Bank of Scotland International.
“Robert Aldous, for the bank, told Norwich County Court that the company owed more than £40,000 and that a final ultimatum asking for payment had been issued on September 8.
“But Joanna Bradbury for Melton Constable Estate said that the company thought that negotiations about the debt were continuing and that it had been 'taken by surprise' by the winding up petition…
“Company secretary Roger Gawn asked the court to hear his evidence about the company's financial position and said that the company and bank had exchanged offers about a cash settlement.
“But when Mr Gawn pointed out that he had been banned from serving as a company director by the courts on a previous occasion, Judge Robert Sparrow said he was 'very concerned' about a disqualified director giving evidence. Rejecting the request for an adjournment and making the order to wind up the company, Judge Sparrow said that no evidence about the company's position or reason for the delay in payment had been put before the court.”