The rebirth of Condover Hall

PUBLISHED: 12:26 27 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:36 20 February 2013

The rebirth of Condover Hall

The rebirth of Condover Hall

The corridors of stately Condover Hall are ringing with the laughter of children after its dramatic transformation into a flagship activity centre for schools

Thecorridors of stately Condover Hall are ringing with the laughter of children after its dramatic transformation into a flagship activity centre for schools.

From the outside the elegant Grade I listed Elizabethan building retains the majestic appearance which earned it the title of the grandest manor house in the Midlands.

But where once the wood panelled rooms within echoed with quiet conversation, sedate activities and the occasional Ball, there is now a hubbub of boisterous fun and young voices having the time of their lives.

The hall, in the heart of Condover, near Shrewsbury, was purchased last year by JCA, a leading school trips provider and part of Tui Travel plc, a global travel organisation.

In just a few months, the company transformed the interior and the gardens outside, turning what was a shabby, rather unkempt former school into a stunning residential activity centre for young people.

The building work, including a new dining area, has been carried out very sensitively and, in keeping with its listed status, the halls historic features have been retained and, in many instances, restored and improved.

We are very proud of the end result, said Janie Burt, managing director of JCA.

We have worked extremely closely with English Heritage and the conservation team in Shropshire throughout the project, and have great respect for the history of this magnificent building.

Residents of the villages of Condover and Dorrrington and neighbouring hamlets were invited to a star-studded open day to celebrate the official launch of the new venue.

Among those who attended were a number of local people who last ventured inside the hall when working there during its periods as a school for the blind and, most recently, as a school for children with autistic spectrum conditions.

The unanimous impression among villagers was delight at the quality of the workmanship and the wonderful facilities.

They also welcomed the opportunity to meet the celebrities who turned out to support the launch event, including double gold Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes, TV presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle, and former MP Lembit Opik.

The venue, which can sleep up to 500 people in newly refurbished accommodation, boasts activities from archery to abseiling, tennis to dancing. Indoors is a laser maze, superb computer suite, indoor sports hall, dance studio and swimming pool children can even have a session testing their Harry Potter skills in the themed spell room!

Condover Parish Council chairman Tony Tudor said the quality of the renovation and of the facilities was impressive. We are very pleased the hall has come back into use and has created local employment, and also that the owners are working to integrate with the village, offering use of the facilities to the primary school and local youth club.

We have had cause to hold discussions with the owners about noise levels and other issues that have caused some worry for residents, and have found them approachable and willing to listen, so we hope they will be true to their word and address those concerns.

Children from Condover Primary School were among the special guests at the event, along with youngsters who had won the chance to interview the celebrity guests.

Locallegend has it that any heirs to Condover Hall are cursed, never to prosper. The story goes that a former butler, falsely accused of murdering his master by the then heir Lord Knyvett, cursed the hall from the gallows with the words: Before Heaven I am innocent, though my masters son swears me guilty. And as I perish an innocent man, may those who follow my murdered lord be cursed.

The new owners will be hoping the curse has by now been lifted and that their business prospers. They have made a considerable investment, in the order of 10 million, to secure the future of a house of considerable renown, both locally and nationally.

A Royal manor in Anglo Saxon times, the current hall was designed by influential architect John Thorpe in the 1560s and rebuilt in the succeeding decades.

In 1586 the hall was granted to Thomas Owen, MP and Recorder of Shrewsbury, by Elizabeth I, thus passing out of the Crowns tenure. It is built out of pink sandstone quarried at nearby Berriewood; the magnificent two storey high ground floor rooms lit by tall windows, with a roofline adorned with fine chimneys and gables.

The gardens, now dotted with adventure activity sites including a high ropes course and abseil tower, are mainly laid out in formal 17th Century style with boxed yew hedges and sandstone balustrade terraces. Until the 1860s the hall was owned by the Owen family until it passed to the Cholmondeley family. Reginald Cholmondeley owned the house in the 1870s, hosting two visits by author Mark Twain in 1873 and 1879.

During the Second World War the hall was commandeered by the War Office and used as the officers mess for nearby RAF Condover; then in 1960 it was bought by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and opened as a residential school for blind children aged 5 to 18 the first such facility in the country.

In 2005 the hall was sold to the Priory Group and a residential school for autistic children and a college for young people with Aspergers Syndrome were opened. Both facilities closed two years later.

It then enjoyed two further brief incarnations as Condover Horizon School and Farleigh College Condover during 2009, and most recently provided residential and day places to adults with visual impairment and severe learning difficulties, until its sale last year.

Ben Fogle or posh Ben as he describes himself rather self effacingly is no stranger to Shropshire.

He spent several months living near Church Stretton while filming Ben Fogles Escape in Time at Acton Scott Working Farm Museum, visiting Ludlow and Shrewsbury regularly.

Fogle first came to public prominence on the TV programme Castaway a decade ago. In what is often described as the first reality show, Fogle and a group of fellow adventurers were filmed for a year as they created a community on a remote Scottish island.

The other Castaways are long forgotten, but the very likeable Fogle seized his chance and has since carved out a respectable TV presenting career.

He has also made a name for himself as a daring adventurer, rowing across the Atlantic in a two-man canoe with Olympic rower James Cracknell; running the Marathon des Sables through the African desert; cycling a rickshaw from Edinburgh to London; and completing the South Pole Race.

I love adventure; I love pushing myself to my limits; and I love the outdoors, he told me.

This facility at Condover Hall is the perfect antidote for the computer generation. I hope youngsters come here and are inspired to take on challenges in their own lives.

Another perfect poster girl for the activity centre is Dame Kelly Holmes, who will forever be remembered for her ecstatic reaction, crossing the line with arms aloft, as she won the 800 metres gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She won the 1500 metres gold the same week.

I have always had a passion for outdoor activity. As a child I was outside at every opportunity. Children now dont always have that freedom, so venues like Condover Hall offer them a place where they can take risks in a safe environment.

Also supporting the launch was former Montgomeryshire MP Lembit Opik. He has strong links with Shropshire it was at Shropshire Gliding Club on the Long Mynd where he learned to fly a glider, and he currently shares ownership of a four-seater single-engined Mooney airplane with a Shropshire friend. It was also at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital that he was treated after a near fatal air crash which left him with a broken back. I owe my life to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, he said.

Since losing his seat in Parliament Opik, who was accompanied by his girlfriend Merrily McGivern, has faced criticism and sometimes ridicule from the media. Sometimes you have to face and overcome adversity, he said. I have had difficulties in my life and I have found that the most difficult periods of life can also be the most educational. I have learned a lot about myself during the most difficult times. Right now I am in a very good place personally and professionally.

He spoke warmly of the transformation of Condover Hall. This project has breathed life into an iconic historical building. It guarantees the future of a great house it will be living and breathing, rather than stagnating. It will be filled with the energy of young people, which is quite wonderful.

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