Bats in the battlements!

Nick Childs, of Childs & Sulzmann Architects, reveals the trials and tribulations involved in gaining planning permission for a hotel extension to a Tudor castle.

We were sitting around a huge refectory table in the Barron’s dining room when I was asked: “Ok, but do you think you can get planning consent for this?” The question came from the financial backers of Luxury Family Hotels, who own and operate the hotel.

We were at Thornbury Castle, one of the very few Tudor Castles in England that’s used as a hotel. The owners, the bankers, the GM and the design team looked expectantly at me for an answer. This was the moment of truth! This was the $64 million question.

I don’t want to over-dramatise this, but it’s always a difficult moment as an architect when one has to make that judgement call and promise the client that what they want is achievable. We have been designing country house hotels and working with listed buildings for 25 years, but never one quite so complicated.

The Castle, as we see it now, dates from the 16th century. It is a proper castle, with towers and battlements, but has an extraordinary story. In 1508 Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham, obtained permission from the king to castellate the house and embarked on an ambitious building programme. Unfortunately too ambitious because it soon antagonised Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, who found reason to charge him with treason and had him executed in 1521.

So half the towers and the outer walls remained unfinished. When news came from London that the ‘client’ had perished, the masons simply dropped their tools and went back to Wales.

Nothing much happened until the 1960s when the site was sold to Kenneth Bell, apparently for just £26,000. As chef-proprietor, he developed a phenomenally successful restaurant with rooms, that Egon Ronay proclaimed ‘Restaurant of the Year’ and declared Bell ‘the monarch of British restaurateurs’.

But now our client had a new problem. The market had moved over the last 25 years and LFH needed to change the business model for Thornbury to take advantage of this extraordinary property and its great location at the gateway to the Cotswolds and the West Country. The Castle only had 27 rooms and a small restaurant. What was needed was more guest rooms of a scale and quality that would attract international recognition, a second restaurant and a spa – at the very least. Difficult enough, we all know, in the context of any historic country house, but even more tricky around a Tudor castle.

We’ve done some complicated projects in sensitive locations, with English Heritage at Osborne House, and for the National Trust at Cliveden and Ickworth, and we have good relationships with these authorities at a senior level.  So, I took the risk and said: “Yes, if you give me the team I need.” This was in March 2016.

Nigel Chapman, CEO of LFH, and Patron Capital gave us instructions on the spot and a deadline of Christmas 2016. I appointed the best consultants I could get hold of, all specialists in their fields including the renowned heritage consultant, James Edgar, ex-English Heritage, and the award winning Integral Consulting Engineers from Bath.

We had already done some work around the hotel to generate some very glamorous new rooms out of vacant spaces and a new kitchen to serve the Tudor Hall. But we had run out of spaces and had to think more boldly. The problem with the planning process nowadays, and particularly in this sort of context, is the sheer number of experts that are needed, even to make the initial submission for planning approval. From archaeologists to ecologists, highways consultants to drainage engineers. But we had a really good team.

More than anything, this was an architectural challenge. How do you put an extension on a castle? Well, you certainly can’t use the same materials in the same style, it would be inappropriate and prohibitively expensive. So, we developed a truly modern design using timber frames and glass in and around the castle walls. The idea was to lean the new up against the old and to make it really clear what was historic and what is to be added. This strategy was agreed at an early stage with Historic England who supported us right through the process.

The next task was to do the research and gather all the data we needed to truly understand what we were dealing with. Seventeen different investigations and surveys were done of the walls, the trees, the archaeology and every other aspect of the existing conditions. Armed with all this information, we got cracking with the design work and had an agreed scheme by the end of June. Everything was submitted and we started rounds of meetings with all the authorities to investigate and examine every detail of the proposals. By the middle of December everything was agreed and the planning officer confirmed to me that he was happy to recommend approval. We had met the deadline!

I was about to pick up the phone to our client, and then came the fly in the ointment – in the form of a bat! The council’s ecologist decided that he wasn’t happy with the methodology used for the bat surveys we’d done the previous summer. No amount of pressure, or pleading, could change his mind. So everything went on hold until the bats could be counted again. Unfortunately they don’t come out until May, so it was July before we’d submitted the data, which said exactly what we had found before, but satisfied the experts.

The notice of approval followed within days for 15 new guest suites, a 60-cover restaurant, a luxurious spa and a gothic style function room within the walls. I’d delivered the consent we’d promised but the sleeping bats had held us up for a while.

Images of the designs are under wraps for the moment but watch this space. Thornbury Castle is on the market and these new development opportunities are attracting a great deal of interest from potential investors. We are just hoping we now get to build it!

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