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To the manor bought

5 June 08 12:56 GMT

By Fiona Graham
BBC News

It is the stuff of a historical pot-boiler - secret royal trysts, decay and ruin, a doggedly loyal servant. Only the main character in this tale is a stately mansion, Apethorpe Hall.

A tale of intrigue and adventure surrounds Apethorpe Hall, near Oundle in Northamptonshire. A favourite haunt of the royal and the wealthy, it boasts rare intact Jacobean interiors. But, in the last 20 years of the 20th Century, this unique building fell into decay and ruin, riven with dry rot.

Now lovingly restored by English Heritage after a compulsory purchase order, it's on sale with a guide price of £4.5m.

This in itself has led to controversy. Critics claim that £2m of taxpayers' money has been wasted on a building to be enjoyed by a private investor - but English Heritage say it would have been lost forever and that the public will have access.

Originally built in 1470-80 by Sir Guy Wolston, it then sold to Sir Walter Mildmay and stayed in his family for 350 years. Its stately apartments were where James I indulged in "more commodious entertainment... and princely recreation" with his favourite, George Villiers, later to become the Duke of Buckingham. Workers uncovered a passage connecting the pair's bedchambers during the recent renovations.

The hall's more recent owners include the Catholic Church - which used it as a school - and Wanis Mohammed Burweila. After the shooting of WPc Yvonne Fletcher during the Libyan Embassy siege in 1984 he was among the many Libyans to leave the UK.

His caretaker, George Kelley, spent the next 20 years damming leaks, chasing away would-be vandals and thieves in the dead of night and pleading with the owner for help. For the last 10 of those years, he received no pay.

It was he who warned East Northamptonshire District Council and English Heritage that the building was rapidly decaying. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), began the process of moving towards compulsory purchase.

But the absentee owner sold to developers in 2002, who planned 20 homes on the site. These plans never came to fruition, as compulsory purchase still hung over the property, and the developers in turn sold to multi-millionaire Simon Karimzadeh.

Despite his own plans to renovate the hall, paid for out of his own pocket, the compulsory purchase went ahead in 2004.

Extreme restoration

Since then English Heritage has set about returning the hall to its original purpose, as a single dwelling country house.

It is the largest and most intense restoration project of its type in the country, involving 150,000 hours of work. The leaking roof has been repaired using traditional Collyweston tile. Intricate panelling has been repaired and reinstalled, and elaborate plaster ceilings restored to their former glory.

Now the estate agents, Smith Gore, have the house listed at between £4.5m and £5m. And there's the rub.

The total cost to the taxpayer is £7.6m - £3.6m for the purchase and legal fees, £4m on conservation - meaning a loss of at least £2m if it sells for the guide price.

Nick Hill, project director for English Heritage, is quick to defend the restoration. "We've brought it in under budget and within the programme, done to a really high standard by a really first class team."

And his colleague, David Tomback, disputes Mr Karimzadeh's claim that he could have restored the house with no recourse to public funds. "Mr Karimzadeh wanted to develop the grounds and in so doing would have harmed the setting of the building."

"We are the buyer of last resort - so that the building would be saved for the nation. This was not something that was undertaken lightly"

Now that the hall is back on the market, Mr Karimzadeh has no plans to buy it again: "After my experience before with [English Heritage] I don't think I'd want to get involved."

For the new owner will need deep pockets. Funding and carrying out phase II of the renovations is a condition of the sale, a project estimated at £4m. At least another £2m is needed to install utilities, decorate and furnish.

"That person is not going to be able to recoup his money - we're really looking for a white knight," says Mr Tomback.

And as taxpayers' money has been used, the public must be granted access for 28 days a year for 21 years.

Wander the elegant state apartments and it is not hard not to see how someone could fall in love with this spectacular building, as both a monarch and a caretaker did, separated by centuries.

The renovations have been lovingly carried out, and George Kelley lavishes the same care and attention on the gardens as he has since 1982. He's still waiting for the back-pay.

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