Overroads is marked down for demolition.
Last year, the owners of the former home of G.K. Chesterton and his wife, Frances, put the house on the market with an asking price of £1.9 million pounds (about $2.4 million dollars). They found no buyers, and so turned to property developers. These, in turn, applied to the local council for permission to knock down the house and erect an apartment block in its stead. The demolition and building application was lodged just before Christmas; the decision came through last week: the application was refused.
Before cheering too loudly, you need to know that there is another, second planning application still pending, lodged by the same firm of developers. This is a case, therefore, of a battle won and not yet a cessation of hostilities in this ongoing war.
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Having relocated from London to Beaconsfield, the Chestertons came to live at Overroads in 1909. The Buckinghamshire town is situated some 24 miles northwest of the British capital, and this is where they lived for the rest of their lives. Gilbert and Frances lived at two addresses in Beaconsfield over the course of their lives: Overroads, from 1909 until 1922, and then Top Meadow, until their respective deaths in 1936 and 1938.
In their will, the Chestertons left both Overroads and Top Meadow to the local Catholic diocese. The will stipulated that the properties were to be used as a seminary, convent, or temporary resting place for Anglican clergymen who had converted to Catholicism. Eventually, however, the diocese sold the two houses. Today both houses are privately owned. Although Top Meadow is recognized as a building of historic significance and therefore is classified as a “listed building,” enjoying some measure of protection, Overroads has no such status; hence it is still under threat of demolition.
Although Gilbert was very much a Londoner, the Chestertons’ 1909 move from London was something they both wanted. Moving from Battersea to a country town was seen as a chance to recalibrate their lives. At the same time, Beaconsfield—with its good rail connection to London, both then and now—ensured Chesterton would not be cut off from Fleet Street and the literary life of the capital even if he lived some distance from its center.
The years Chesterton spent at Overroads were to prove a period of intense creativity. The Ballad of the White Horse, Manalive, Magic, and The Flying Inn—to say nothing of countless essays and journalism—were all written at the house during the 13 years the writer lived there.
Between 1901 and 1913, Chesterton published a regular column in the now long since defunct Daily News. In one of these articles, entitled The Dickensian, (later collected and published in Tremendous Trifles ), Chesterton wrote: “There are certain writers to whom humanity owes much, whose talent is yet of so shy or delicate or retrospective a type that we do well to link it with certain quaint places or certain perishing associations. It would not be unnatural to look for the spirit of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill, or even for the shade of Thackeray in Old Kensington.” Might not the good-humored spirit of G.K. Chesterton be said to amble the streets of Beaconsfield?
For many, the only reason they know of Beaconsfield and have any affection for the place is because of Chesterton. Without Chesterton, Beaconsfield would be simply another nondescript town north of London. It would certainly never have become a place of pilgrimage for legions of Chestertonians the world over who come and stand between Overroads and Top Meadow to give thanks for the writer who has entertained and enlightened them.
But this is modern-day Britain. These days Chesterton is perhaps better known and more loved outside his own country. The latest series of Father Brown mysteries is currently airing on British television, but there are few who would connect these dramatizations to their author, or who, on hearing the name Chesterton, would have any knowledge of the rich and varied output of this great British man of letters.
Earlier this month, having contacted the local authority about the proposed demolition of the house, I was treated to a blast of officialese telling me little that I didn’t know already. As evidenced by this response, and indeed the whole Overroads affair, England appears to be a land that neither cares for nor knows her prophets of old, but is intent rather on calculating the possible short-term profits to be had from knowing the price of something but not its value.