Aficionados of GK Chesterton must be feeling a palpable sense of relief at the news that a plan to bulldoze his former home and replace it with flats has been thrown out by the local council.
South Bucks District Council dismissed proposals by Octagon Developments to demolish the house, called “Overroads”, in Grove Road, Beaconsfield, and replace it with a block of nine apartments.
Planning officers concluded that the size and the scale of the proposed flats would make them “intrusive” and incompatible with the character of the area. Further, they would “adversely impact” upon Top Meadow, the Grade II-listed home that also once belonged to Chesterton, which directly faces Overroads. Other objections included dissatisfaction with how the developer would protect the apartment block from the risk of flooding, and what it would do about protected trees. Doubts were raised about access for bin lorries, and the need for more affordable housing in Britain’s most expensive market town.
It is significant that the application was dismissed mostly on such practical points and not so much upon the literary, historical or cultural merit of the property. This is the local authority that allowed the demolition of the former homes of both Enid Blyton and Robert Frost.
Given that Overroads is not listed, or otherwise protected, there is nothing to prevent Octagon from appealing against the decision or from other developers submitting alternative applications in the future.
Chesterton, a Londoner until his mid-30s, arrived in Beaconsfield on a whim in 1909. He and his wife, Frances, were so taken by the place that they never left. They were especially attracted to Overroads, their first home there, because of its arts and crafts design and its beautiful setting.
This was the place where Chesterton wrote his first Father Brown stories about the priest-detective, perhaps his most important literary creation. It was also where Chesterton threw parties and staged charity fund-raisers and amateur theatre productions.
He soon realised that he would need a bigger house, but wanted to keep the design of the first, so he commissioned an architect to design “a typically English home of oak beams and wrought-iron fittings following the pattern of Overroads”.
This became Top Meadow (pictured) and Chesterton lived there from 1922 until his death in 1936.
Frances died in 1938 and the couple had left both their houses to the Diocese of Northampton, stipulating that they preferred them to be used as seminaries, convents or to give a roof to Anglican clergy who were converting to the Catholic faith. The diocese attempted to honour their wishes but eventually sold the properties to private buyers; Overroads was recently acquired by Octagon for £1.9 million.
Top Meadow, however, is owned today by Ken Sladen, one of many people who sees value in Overroads beyond the opinions of developers and town planners. He successfully argued that knocking down Chesterton’s first home would detrimentally affect the character of the second.
“We’re very, very pleased,” Mr Sladen told the Spectator after the council’s decision, adding that he was heartened by the outcry over to the proposed demolition, both at home and abroad.
The development did indeed attract much opposition, and not only from Catholics or lovers of crime fiction, but also from academics. One open letter from 39 scholars called upon the council to defend “so important a piece of national and international cultural heritage”.
According to the Independent Catholic News website, admirers of GK Chesterton around the world were demonstrating their horror at the prospect of losing the writer’s former house. They included Dr Dale Ahlquist, president of the US-based Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who described the plans to demolish Overroads as “insane”.
He said: “To an American, it would be the equivalent of demolishing a home where Ernest Hemingway lived.”
Dr Ahlquist added: “I am struck by the fact that Chesterton the writer – and prophet – is so well known and appreciated around the world but is sadly overlooked and neglected in England.
“I have had the privilege of visiting Overroads and I was impressed by how well cared-for the property was. It has been wonderfully preserved.”
Closer to home, such sentiments were echoed by Canon John Udris, the priest who conducted the preliminary investigation into Chesterton’s cause for canonisation, which was dismissed last summer by Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton.
He said it would have been at Overroads where Chesterton wrote “The Ballad of the White Horse”.
The “magnificent poem”, he said, is “all about fighting for something even when it seems hopeless”, adding that it was “great to witness such a groundswell of people, both local and abroad”, fighting against the demolition.
There will be many who share such gratitude. Yet it can only be hoped that it is not short-lived, as the future of Overroads, for the moment, remains uncertain.
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