The Telegraph - 08 May 2015
When Gertrude Jekyll, one of Britain’s most celebrated garden designers, was invited to landscape the grounds of a country hospital at the turn of the last century, she set about creating an oasis of calm.
Believing the sight and smell of plants to be beneficial to patients’ health, she transformed the 165-acre plot into a profusion of rhododendrons, magnolias and rosemary – a sensory delight which became part of the cure.
Today, Jekyll’s innovative vision remains – although the wards, patients, doctors and nurses are long gone. The former King Edward VII hospital in Midhurst, West Sussex, has now, after a £45 million refit, been converted into a series of luxury flats, 300 of which have just gone on sale.
For some years, however, the future of the one-time tuberculosis sanatorium had been uncertain. Could its picturesque, if dilapidated buildings be resuscitated? Would anybody put them back on the road to recovery?
The challenges facing a potential buyer were legion. A multi-million pound bill. The possibility of local opposition. A looming recession. A housing market in the doldrums.
But there were positives, too. The Grade II*-listed Arts and Crafts main building lies in the beautiful South Downs National Park – a stunning property in a glorious setting. It had the potential to become one of Britain’s architectural historical gems once more.
The gauntlet was taken up in 2009 by the award-winning heritage developer City & Country. Their biggest challenge in 50 years, says managing director Helen Moore:
“Until the 1950s the building fared well, with the necessary extensions being designed in a sensitive manner,” she explains. “However, from the 1960s onwards such sensitivity was put aside, with the practicalities of a hospital being the overriding influence. These unfortunate additions paid little regard to the historic architecture and landscape.“
Opened by King Edward VII in 1906, the original hospital had cost £200,000 to build. It was designed by the eminent architects Charles Holden and Percy Adams, and celebrated as an advancement in the treatment of the sick, where the importance of rest, relaxation, fresh air and light were incorporated into the plans. Its structure, as well as Jekyll’s therapeutic gardens, were, it seems, way ahead of their time.
An octagonal chapel featured stained glass windows, striking cornicing and a large vaulted ceiling. Patients attended services here to seek refuge from their debilitating disease. At the time, TB was one of the major causes of death in Britain – a grisly period in the country’s history.
Underneath the main building was a warren of service tunnels, stretching across the property. A nurses’ accommodation block nearby housed those brave souls who worked at the hospital.
After the eradication of tuberculosis, the sanatorium was transformed into a modern hospital, admitting NHS and private patients, specialising in cancer care, cardiology and facial reconstruction.
Following its closure in 2006, an entirely different set of residents took over. A colony of bats moved in. Badgers roamed the grounds. Three years later City & Country purchased the site. Following 18 months of public consultation and one failed attempt, planning permission was finally granted in 2011.
Today, nearly four years on, the renovation is taking shape. Open an elegant egg-shell blue wrought iron gate, stroll along a quiet path and the hospital appears. It is now a striking sight, with steam-cleaned bricks and freshly painted metal casement windows.
Enter a tiny door beneath a royal crest at the rear of the property and the oasis of calm is temporarily on hold, however. Workmen of every specialism are working frantically to restore the building.
The main entrance hall was covered in eight layers of paint, which were painstakingly removed to reveal the beautiful brickwork underneath. High above, a wooden gallery gives a Tudor feel to the hallway.
Every effort to retain the original fabric of the building is being made. Parquet floors in some of the flats are being returned to their original honey-coloured hues. Others apartments have exposed beams, wooden panelling or original fireplaces. All have well-proportioned rooms with tall ceilings and large windows, allowing light to flood in.
The apartments went on sale in April. A one-bedroom basement apartment will set you back £195,000, while a three-bedroom flat will cost £995,000. A tennis court, gym and pool will be on offer to residents. A concierge service will cater for their every whim.
Who will buy a property in this remote location? “Downsizers, London commuters and even first-time-buyers have already shown an interest,” adds Moore. “The first people will be moving in later this summer.”
Clearly, the building’s future is secure. The refurbishment is a fitting tribute to the people who lived and worked here over the past century. After a clean bill of health, who wouldn’t want a prescription of rest and recuperation that will be a lasting legacy for future generations? A sure cure for the stress of modern life.
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