LONDON — Devotees of G.K. Chesterton are celebrating the news that Beaconsfield planning authorities have rejected plans to demolish the acclaimed Catholic writer and philosopher’s former home, Overroads.
Just before Christmas, developers lodged two applications with the local council to knock the historic property down and put up an apartment block. Now, as of Jan. 31, both applications have been rejected.
Among the reasons cited for the decision rejecting the proposed development, planning authorities cited both aesthetic and historical reasons, noting that the proposed development “would not be compatible with the character of the area and would be inappropriate in its context” and that the proposal “does not have regard or respect for the character of the area.” Furthermore, the planning authorities said “the proposed building would also adversely impact upon the setting of the Grade II [of special interest, warranting every effort to preserve it] listed property Top Meadow, which lies opposite. The proposal would also result in the total loss of the existing dwelling, which is considered a non-designated heritage asset.”
At St. Teresa’s Church Beaconsfield, where the Chestertons were parishioners, the current parish priest, Msgr. Sean Healey, told the Register, “I am delighted to hear that the planning application has been turned down. I hope that this will now signal an acceptance by local government and by the people of Beaconsfield that Overroads is an integral part in the story of Gilbert and Frances Chesterton living in the town.”
Canon John Udris, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Northampton, carried out the preliminary investigation into Chesterton’s cause for canonization. On hearing of the plans to demolish Overroads, which is located in the Northampton Diocese, he had told the Register, “Whether or not we win, the fight is worth it.” On hearing that these plans had been rejected, he said, “I’m thrilled to bits at this latest news. Very well done to all who got involved!”
Speaking for Britain’s Chestertonians, Stuart McCullough, president of the London-based Catholic G.K. Chesterton Society, told the Register, “It is great news that Overroads is not to be demolished at this time; it shows the level of support that G.K. Chesterton still has all over the world. It also shows that saying the ‘GKC Prayer Card’ gets results, as many of us have been saying the prayer for the intention of saving Overroads.” He added, “It is important that this great historic building is now listed in some way to save this landmark for future generations.”
News of the saving of Overroads has spread quickly around the globe. Marco Sermarini, the president of the Italian Chesterton Society, had written to the Beaconsfield planning authorities. He stated in his submission that the destruction of this “beautiful house would be a great loss” and that it would be better to preserve “this noble house so meaningful for European culture, a symbol of hope for people all over the world.” He added that he spoke on behalf of hundreds of members of the Italian Chesterton Society and, no doubt, many more thousands of Chesterton devotees across the globe. Reacting to the latest news, Sermani told the Register: “Grande! This is great news. I hope that now we can work to give real value to Overroads. England should recognize this man as one of her best sons.”
Dale Ahlquist, president of the U.S.-based Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and The Chesterton Schools Network, pointed out that although the application for the redevelopment has been rejected by the authorities, “Now begins the work to make the property a protected and listed historical and cultural site. … We still have a great task before us, but I think we made our point.”
In 1909, Chesterton and his wife, Frances, left London to live in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where the Chestertons were to live for the rest of their lives, living first at Overroads (from 1909-1922) and then at Top Meadow, which is literally across the road from Overroads. The reason for the move was space. Initially, it was envisaged that the new property would be used only as Chesterton’s studio, where he could work. During the next 10 years, when what would become known as Top Meadow was being constructed, the couple continued to live happily at Overroads. It was a period of immense creativity and output for Chesterton. The Ballad of the White Horse, Manalive, Magic and The Flying Inn — to say nothing of the countless essays and journalism — were all written at the house.
In total, the Chestertons lived at Overroads for 13 years, almost the same length of time as they were to live at Top Meadow, where Gilbert and Francis moved permanently in 1922 and lived until their respective deaths in 1936 and 1938.
In their will, the Chestertons left both houses, Overroads and Top Meadow, to the local Catholic diocese. They requested that the property be used as a seminary, a convent or as a temporary resting place for Anglican clergymen who had converted to Catholicism. For a number of years, this was indeed how Top Meadow was used. Eventually, however, the Diocese of Northampton sold both properties.
Work in Progress
Today, both houses are privately owned. Although Top Meadow is recognized as a building with historical significance and so classified as a “listed building” — and thus enjoys some measure of protection — Overroads has no such status.
Last year, the current owner of Overroads had put the house on the market, with an asking price of £1.9 million pounds (about $2.4 million). But, having secured no buyer, the owners were considering selling the property to Octagon Developments. The developer planned to demolish the existing structure and build a new apartment block on the site. The local planning authorities have now rejected this proposal.
Still, Overroads does not have any official status as a building of historic importance. Therefore, until it is so protected, Overroads remains at threat from future developers with similar proposals to demolish it.
Leading the local fight to preserve Overroads has been Ken Sladen, for the last 25 years owner-occupier of Top Meadow. Speaking to the Register of the recent news, he commented, “Now we have to prepare for the possible appeal or new submission, which may try and address the issues which caused the refusal. We are still focused on the potential listing to protect the building permanently.”