Fight to save house of the Baskervilles: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s home could be carved up into eight houses

For ten years it was the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Undershaw, a large, rambling red brick house, was where Conan Doyle wrote 13 stories about his renowned detective – including the most famous of all, the Hound of the Baskervilles.

But now it is an empty shell, its garden overgrown and its windows either broken or boarded up. It is also at the centre of a planning battle that could see it partly demolished and turned into eight separate homes. Opposing the conversion is Conan Doyle scholar John Gibson, backed by literary celebrities including Stephen Fry, Julian Barnes and Ian Rankin.

Yesterday a High Court judge was told that Undershaw, located in a four-acre site at the Hindhead Crossroads near Haslemere in Surrey, had been seriously neglected by its owners, who view it as a ‘development opportunity’. Mr Gibson is asking Mr Justice Cranston to quash Waverley Borough Council’s decision to allow the Grade II-listed Victorian building to be divided up.

Paul Stinchcombe QC, representing Mr Gibson, founder of the Undershaw Preservation Trust, said there was strong public support for preserving Undershaw because of its literary and historic importance. The author designed the house and lived there from 1897-1907.

Waverley Council issued decision notices in September 2010 allowing current owner Fossway Ltd permission to redevelop it. Mr Stinchcombe said the Fossway scheme involved using concrete blocks to divide Undershaw into a terrace of three houses.

The proposals also included some demolition, the building of a three-storey east wing to provide five new townhouses and the conversion of the stable block into garages. The QC argued that the planning authority had failed to give proper consideration to another offer to buy the property so that it could once more become a single home.

Undershaw had been used as a hotel since the 1920s. Mr Stinchcombe said it was sold to Fossway in February 2004, the last hotel tenant vacated it in May the following year and it had remained unoccupied ever since.

Fossway was a limited company based in the Virgin Islands that had bought Undershaw as a development opportunity. Mr Stinchcome said: ‘There was serious neglect by the owners of this building.’

Its condition deteriorated rapidly through water coming in following the theft of lead from the roof and lack of security. The council ordered urgent works in 2006 which stopped further deterioration, and recovered nearly £75,000 from Fossway to cover the cost.

Mr Stinchcombe said there were 1,360 objections to the Fossway proposals, including from the Victorian Society and local MP Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. Other objectors were Sir Christopher Frayling, ex-chairman of the Arts Council, and Julian Barnes, who set his Booker Prize-nominated novel Arthur And George in Undershaw. They also included crime novelist Ian Rankin and writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry.

Mr Stinchcombe told the court an alternative application was received in 2010 to restore Undershaw as a single home. The applicant offered to buy the house for more than £600,000, a reflection of the market rate for the deteriorated property. But, he said, the committee erred in law by accepting a planning officer’s advice that the alternative proposal was not a legitimate basis for rejecting the Fossway scheme.

Timothy Mould QC, for Waverley Council, urged the judge to dismiss the challenge. He said the planning officer’s advice was lawful. Undershaw itself was said to be of unexceptional quality architecturally, he argued. It was its literary association with Conan Doyle that had resulted in it becoming a listed building.

The council was entitled to take the view that the development proposed by Fossway would meet the objectives of preserving and safeguarding its literary associations. He said the house would retain important features including fireplaces, stained glass windows and staircases and it would be saved from further decline.

The judge reserved his judgment and said he hoped to give his decision soon.


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