Page last updated at 02:19 GMT, Sunday, 1 April 2007 03:19 UK

Abolitionist's house escapes ruin

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

Work on Dropmore House, home of Lord Grenville (inset)
Work is under way to recreate Lord Grenville's house and park

For the prime minister who piloted the law abolishing the slave trade, creating the Dropmore estate was a lifelong labour of love. It came close to destruction in recent years, but is now being recreated.

North of Burnham in Buckinghamshire, the crowded M4 corridor gives way quickly to rolling wooded hills, barn conversions and "Keep Hunting" posters.

Hidden from the roads, craftsmen work to recreate a remarkable house, in the middle of a still more remarkable park.

Lord Grenville - the prime minister who pushed through the law abolishing the slave trade - bought the core of the Buckinghamshire estate in 1792 when it was occupied by a labourer's cottage.

He knew the spot from rambles during his time at Eton, and prized its distant views of his old school and of Windsor castle. On his first day in occupation, he planted two cedar trees.

In his old age he was pushed around the gardens in a wheelchair, and was read to in his library as his eyesight failed. And here he died.

Sheltered

The house he had built by architects Samuel Wyatt and Charles Tatham - and the grounds with their extraordinary garden buildings and matchless collection of conifers - were for Grenville a refuge from politics.

He praised it as "deep sheltered from the world's tempestuous strife" - but here also some of the meetings were held by which politics were conducted in the age of powdered wigs and great men's shifting alliances.

Old and new brickwork
Rebuilding involves combining the new brickwork with what survived

Here he kept his books. "All the rooms along the south front, the gallery, the anteroom, even the drawing room were all lined with books. It was an extremely important book collection," says council conservation officer John Brushe.

Since Grenville's death the house has had a variety of occupants - including the Army, a newspaper magnate, an American university and an Arab ambassador. In 1972 it appeared in a Doctor Who adventure called Day of the Daleks.

But in 1990, one of the two wings of Wyatt's original design was gutted and had to be demolished. Another fire in 1997 destroyed much of the rest.

Grenville's house and park were left ruined, prey to vandals, thieves, vegetation, muntjac deer and rabbits.

Mary Trevallion, who lives opposite the gates to the site, tells of encounters with people entering Dropmore and making off with stone, ironwork and fittings.

It's very, very rewarding... It's not just a job; it's more than that
George Kalopedis,
Architect

"We spiked the back of the gates so that you couldn't open them - but we did that because otherwise it was open house," she says.

The ways through the pinetum are blocked by undergrowth; the garden aviary and Greek temples built of trellis are shabby and neglected.

Now, the house and surrounding buildings have been acquired by property company Corporate Estates and are being reconstructed as luxury dwellings, under the severe conditions that apply to a Grade I listed building.

A conservation plan is also being developed to restore the gardens and grounds.

Reconstruction of the south front of Dropmore
Much of Dropmore's south front must be rebuilt from scratch

By the time Grenville died in 1834, his pinetum contained the biggest collection of conifer species in Britain - the plan is to use what survives as the basis for a collection of some 200 species.

The plan, extending 15 years and more into the future, also includes restoration of the formal flower beds, Italian garden, woodlands, lawns, vistas, roads, bridges and gates.

A key element is "the renovation of garden structures such as pavilions, a stunning Chinese aviary, the massive framework of trelliswork and pergolas," says Lionel Fanshawe of landscape architects Terra Firma.

Original rooms

Within the house, rebuilding has brought a series of discoveries, says George Kalopedis, architect on the Dropmore project.

With the help of council conservation officer John Brushe, "we've been able to find drawings of the original layout - when we stripped out the more recent alterations we found the original footings. We're able to now rebuild the original rooms as Lord Grenville intended".

Trelliswork and aviary at Dropmore
Restoring Dropmore's garden buildings will be a key element

One example was Grenville's study - an octagonal double-height room that had disappeared in the later conversions.

During the rebuilding, the foundations of this room were found - now it will be reconstructed as part of the Grenville Suite, one of the most prestigious apartments.

Mr Brushe keeps a benevolent but strict eye on the rebuilding work, with the authority the Grade I listed status gives him.

He hunts for breeze blocks where reconstruction should be in bricks like those of the original, orders windows removed from the roof when they are in the wrong place, and seeks out pictures of rooms in existing houses similar to those Grenville had.

Of Dropmore, he says "It's one of the most important buildings in south Bucks, and I very much love it too. I want it to be a project that everyone is going to feel proud of."

Mr Kalopedis adds: "It's very, very rewarding for the entire consultant team and the directors of Corporate Estates. It's not just a job; it's more than that."

William Wilberforce wrote to Grenville that success over abolition was mainly due to "yourself, and the tone you have taken and the exertions you have made".

For his memorial, on the anniversary of abolition, Grenville would undoubtedly have chosen Dropmore.




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