Penny Churchill uncovers the story of Runnymede Park, in Surrey, and its remarkable 20-year restoration which has seen it turn from crumbling wreck to a truly elegant estate.
Writing in Country Life (May 11, 2000) of Grade I-listed Runnymede Park near Englefield Green, Surrey, the architectural historian John Martin Robinson commented: ‘Although many fine country houses were demolished in the aftermath of the Second World War, it is remarkable how many others have been rescued from the brink of demolition or ruin by optimistic and determined owners. Runnymede Park in Surrey is a perfect example of such a heroic rescue.’
Known as Crippsfield in the Middle Ages when it was owned by Chertsey Abbey, Runnymede passed to the Crown at the Dissolution in 1538 and was later acquired by Edmund Hilles, who built a home on lower ground to the south of the present house and owned the estate from 1575 to 1633.
In 1760, John Jebb, Dean of Cashel in Co Tipperary, bought the old house and estate for £1,400. He died in 1787, leaving his property to his son, David, a prosperous flour miller who owned mills at Slane and Drogheda.
He had the old house demolished and commissioned Samuel Wyatt to build the present one between 1789 and 1792 on a more elevated site to take advantage of the fine view south-east over Runnymede towards the River Thames and London.
By a series of purchases and exchanges, including that of some Crown land in 1807, and the diversion of the nearby main road away from the house, he also established the boundaries of the park—still some 66½ acres overall.
David Jebb would have known of the Wyatt brothers, Samuel and his younger brother, James, through his Irish and milling connections. James designed Slane Castle for Jebb’s Irish business partner, William Conyngham, and Samuel designed and built, in 1783–86, England’s first steam-powered flour mill, Albion Mill at Blackfriars, London, a company with which Jebb was also involved.
Interestingly, Samuel was only confirmed as the designer of Runnymede Park by the relatively recent discovery of handwritten draft sales particulars in the Surrey Record Office, prepared when Jebb got into financial difficulties and was forced to sell the estate in 1805. Two Wyatt-office plans for the ground and first floors of the house also survive.
They show the layout of the house much as it is today, with the drawing room and dining room, each 27ft by 19ft, on either side of the garden entrance, and a smaller library, main staircase and servants’ accommodation on the entrance front, with four principal bedrooms and two dressing rooms on the first floor.
From 1929 until 1939, when it was requisitioned by the military, Runnymede Park was the home of Lady King, the eldest sister of the 1st Viscount Rothermere. Following Lady King’s death in 1945, it was sold in poor condition to a company that planned to develop the park as a zoo, a project that never materialised. The house was to remain empty from 1945 to 1977.
Mr Robinson relates how ‘by the 1970s, most of the roof had gone, the interior was a demonstration case of dry rot and the subsidiary service wing was teetering on the brink of collapse. That part of the house subsequently fell down, with a loud crash, one night’. The way things were going, Runnymede Park might have been a prime candidate for inclusion in the ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in 1974.
Instead, it was bought that year by Mr and Mrs Robert Collins who, in the course of the ensuing 20 years, painstakingly repaired the fabric of the building, redecorated and furnished the interior and rebuilt the stables. Both having recently died, Runnymede Park is for sale, for the first time in 47 years, at a guide price of £8 million through Strutt & Parker’s country department.
The house offers more than 8,600sq ft of Classical living space on three floors, including a reception hall, three elegant reception rooms, a summer room, study and kitchen/breakfast room on the ground floor; the principal bedroom suite, three further bedrooms, two bathrooms and a roof terrace on the first floor; and a two-bedroom guest annexe on the second floor.
It comes with a courtyard of four secondary dwellings, all currently let and producing a steady income.
Egham: What you need to know
Location: North east Surrey, just over 5 miles south of Windsor and 4.9 miles from Heathrow Airport. Train services run from Egham, Virginia Water and Wraysbury into central London.
Atmosphere: The town is home to a good range of shops, a leisure centre, library and museum.
Things to do: There are plenty of good sporting facilities in the area with racing at Windsor, Newbury and Ascot. Polo can be played at Smith’s Lawn and The Royal Berkshire, plus there are a number of local golf courses. Windsor Great Park offers lovely walks and Savill Garden.
Schools: Schooling in the area is excellent, with options including Bishopsgate School, St John’s Beaumont, Eton College St. George’s School in Windsor and St. Mary’s School in Ascot.
Catch up on the best country houses for sale this week that have come to the market via Country Life.