Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, has joined the growing campaign to stop a major new housing development just 300 yards from the grade I-listed, Elizabethan Wolfeton House.
Lord Fellowes, who is president of the Thomas Hardy Society, says “to destroy the context and setting of a great and ancient house is really to destroy the house”.
Dr Tony Fincham, acting chairman of the society, has also said the development “would be an act of literary and architectural vandalism”.
But in a new twist, it has emerged that West Dorset District Council planners have criticised the outline application for being “too piecemeal”.
Planners are looking at the whole area – within a possible new A35/A37 link road – as a site for a future major expansion of Dorchester to meet ambitious government housing targets.
The current development is being planned by Land Value Alliances, which wants to build up to 120 houses on a 15-acre, green-field site south of Westleaze Road on the edge of Charminster.
Buffer between Charminster and Dorchester
Land Value has also implied a possible eastern extension that protesters fear could see the number of homes double to 240.
The site lies outside the village development boundary and in an area classed as Land of Local Landscape Importance, partly due to its value as a buffer between Charminster and Dorchester.
The archaeological remains of the deserted medieval village of Wolfeton lie within the site plan (below), but are not affected by the planned development.
Lord Fellowes said in a letter to planners at West Dorset District Council he could not “stay silent when heritage is under threat”.
He points out Wolfeton House provided the model for settings in several of Hardy’s stories, and the name of the family who then owned it, the Trenchards, was used in one of Hardy’s most celebrated novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge.
The house was also fictionalised as Ashover Hall in John Cowper Powys’s novel, Ducdame.
‘Magic will be gone’
“Once the new estate is built, the magic of the surroundings will be gone and cannot ever be restored,” said Lord Fellowes.
Dr Fincham said the new development would be even closer to the grade II-listed, 16th century Riding School – described by Historic England as a “monumental” building of “considerable architectural importance” and thought to be one of the oldest surviving riding schools in England.
The Landmark Trust, which runs the gatehouse at Wolfeton House as a holiday home for owners Captain Nigel Thimbleby and his wife Katharine, said the development would “result in present and future generations being unable to enjoy a scene that will not have significantly changed for the last 500 years until now”.
Meanwhile, in a detailed submission, Historic England said: “We are not convinced this application can be achieved without heritage harm… The roof-line of the southern-most dwellings within the site will be clearly visible from Wolfeton House and parts of its grounds.
“The very definite segregation from the adjacent settlements, characterised by mature trees, low-lying pasture and views across the water meadows… contributes to the significance of this medieval manor house.”
The Dorset branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has also objected strongly to the proposals, as has Charminster Parish Council.
Under pressure to build homes
WDDC’s own planning policy forbids “development that would cause harm to the green infrastructure network” – within which the site is classified.
However the council says it is under pressure from the government to build more homes, and there is a shortage of suitable sites, which overrides these heritage and environmental factors. The government has now warned it will take away planning powers from councils that don’t meet targets.
In a letter to Land Value, senior planning officer Penny Canning implies the council is looking for a much bigger development in the area, saying she is concerned “the proposed piecemeal approach… could compromise the delivery of a successfully integrated expansion for the village and wider county town”.
She adds: “This site could form part of a much larger and comprehensive strategic expansion to the county town of Dorchester.”
Councillors are making a site visit and are due to decide the application on 22 March.