Bentley Priory has seen plenty of action over the years. Behind the calm exterior of this historic north-west London property, the Battle of Britain – the 1940 conflict between German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, the 72nd anniversary of which falls this weekend – was planned and directed.
The wartime role of the house was decided by its elevated position, which offers sweeping views of the capital. The location is still strategic for commuters, since the house is at the end of the Jubilee line in Stanmore, one of London’s “super-suburbs”.
Bentley Priory has returned to the property market and house-hunters keen to walk in the footsteps of RAF heroes can now do so. A few years ago, the building faced an uncertain future when the Ministry of Defence announced a big property disposal programme. “Veterans and campaigners won permission to convert Bentley Priory,” says Helen Moore, managing director of developer City and Country. “A collaboration involving the Bentley Priory Battle of Britain Trust, the Prince of Wales’ Regeneration Trust and our conservation specialists at City and Country has ensured the Priory remains true to its past.”
Property on the site includes one, two and three-bedroom apartments, three and four-bedroom townhouses and five and six-bedroom detached properties. There are 13 apartments in the Priory building itself, plus 93 other properties within the grounds. This rich history is reflected in the asking price for the Barratt and City and Country properties, which range from £575,000 for a small apartment to £5m for a five-bedroom house.
Another former military building currently on the market is Wrockwardine Hall in Shropshire. Leased by the war department in 1948 and subsequently bought in 1958, it has been a base for high-ranking officers. The property has now been sold to Annington Homes, which specialises in regenerating ex-army homes, and it is on the market at a guide price of £1.2m.
Then there is Roehampton House, seven miles from central London. It was used in the first world war for billeting troops being sent to the front, and then as a convalescent home for injured soldiers.
The house twice suffered bomb damage, but it has now been restored by developer St James. The main house has been converted into 22 apartments and the gatehouses into two detached homes. Prices for apartments range from £900,000 to £1.9m.
“It is vital to respect the history of the building to ensure its legacy lives on,” says Sean Ellis, chairman of St James. “Grade I-listed homes in London are extremely rare and rarer still is the ability to own one that offers extensive private gardens and a stake in British history.”
Not all developers want to take on a project this size. Some are put off Grade I-listed properties by the daunting list of caveats put up by the local planning authorities. Sandy Mitchell, founder of the RedBook architectural agency, says: “What can be done to a building is entirely dependent on how the conservation officer of the local council sees the essence of the building being protected. They can be very strict. Any developer who does things in contravention of the listing is open to criminal charges.”
Charles Dugdale, partner at Knight Frank, points out the high cost of such work. “[Military buildings] are rarely straightforward to develop as they often have unusual layouts or historical elements which need to be carefully dismantled or integrated into the structure’s new life. That said, military buildings often have character and architectural merit, whilst also having a strong history which can provide excellent branding and marketing opportunities for developers.”
Some say the planning process is getting easier. Edward Heaton of buying agent Property Vision says local authorities have become more realistic about the future use of historic but redundant buildings. “Over the last few decades there have been plenty of examples of amazing buildings sitting empty for years as agreement couldn’t be reached. This doesn’t seem to be so much the case now, but it doesn’t guarantee that all good buildings will be sought after as much still depends on where they are located.”
The key to attracting buyers, says Rupert Coles of Prime Purchase, is to make every conversion fit with the style of the period. “Consider each conversion on its own merits; a country house style needs a country house setting,” he says. “Plot size is important – a statuesque institutional building will not necessarily make a successful conversion if it stands on a postage stamp.”
Others will be drawn to the history associated with these buildings. “As a nation, we have always been fascinated by knowing the history of our homes and owning a piece of Britain’s wartime history will always be a draw,” says Heaton.
In today’s tough economic climate perhaps the only way we will retain these historical buildings is through redevelopment. James Grillo, director at Chesterton Humberts Country department, warns: “If a listed or historical building has no alternative use in the modern world, it tends to fall into disrepair.”
Lucy Warwick-Ching is the FT’s online Money editor