United Kingdom

Parnham House went up in smoke in a suspected insurance fraud. Now a music mogul has grand designs

Even by the standards of the super-rich, the cost of restoring Parnham House is eye-wateringly steep. The Grade I listed, 38,000 square foot, 30-bedroom stately home, destroyed by a fire in 2017, needs a new roof, for a start — along with new ceilings, walls, electricity supply and, well, new everything else.

Insurers estimated rebuilding the ravaged interior would cost £38 million — and that was before further water damage to the property was found and two more ceilings fell in.

‘We’re having it re-costed at the moment,’ explains James Perkins, 52, the rave promoter turned property developer who has taken on the gargantuan project. ‘The scaffolding bill, I think, was £1.2 million.’

£1.2 what? ‘Well, this is the point,’ he says. ‘When people are grumbling, they don’t seem to understand the financial commitment I’m making.’ Yet grumble people are about this project, which has prompted fury among those living nearby.

Even by the standards of the super-rich, the cost of restoring Parnham House is eye-wateringly steep. The Grade I listed, 38,000 square foot, 30-bedroom stately home, destroyed by a fire in 2017, needs a new roof, for a start — along with new ceilings, walls, electricity supply and, well, new everything else. Pictured: James Perkins outside Parnham House

Almost 100 objections were lodged against Perkins’s application to Dorset Council for a 24-hour drinks and entertainment licence that would eventually allow him to turn his home into an events venue — quite something, when you consider the population of Beaminster, the Dorset village that borders his estate, is just 3,000.

Only three of the 97 letters submitted from residents were in favour of the application to allow events — from weddings to wrestling — to be held. Such was the ‘unprecedented’ scale of the opposition that a remote two-day, at one stage bad-tempered, hearing was held by Dorset Council licensing sub-committee last week.

It’s just the latest saga for a house that has had its fair share of drama. Its previous owner, Austrian-born financier Michael Treichl, was arrested on suspicion of arson after the fire broke out in April 2017 — leaving the home a blackened shell of its former glory.

Treichl was found dead in Geneva two months later in a suspected suicide. Until then, the 16th-century pile had been a multi-million pound labour of love for Treichl and his wife Emma to restore.

The house had originally been owned by the Strode family since the mid-1500s, remaining in the family for 200 years, in a guardianship that included the death of the then Lady Strode in 1645 while trying to defend the pile from Parliamentarian soldiers during the Civil War.

During the 1920s Parnham had become a country club, until it was requisitioned during World War II for the U.S. Army, then became a nursing home. After standing empty for three years, in 1976 it was bought by John and Jennie Makepeace, who turned it into their School for Craftsmen in Wood.

Its previous owner, Austrian-born financier Michael Treichl, was arrested on suspicion of arson after the fire broke out in April 2017 — leaving the home a blackened shell of its former glory

However, it was only when the Treichls bought the pile in 2001 that the Herculean task of turning the building back into a family home begun, under the watchful eye of English Heritage. Work included removing corridors and stud walls to recreate the original larger rooms, and reproducing a wall of 18th century panelling. The finished transformation gained the approval of locals and history buffs alike. Until, that is, it all went up in smoke.

Now Perkins is facing his own challenges to restore it to something resembling its former glory, insisting they are ‘trying to sell a beautiful, quiet recreational experience in a high-end establishment where like-minded people can share fun and good times without keeping everyone awake at night’.

They say they will probably limit their large events to ten to 15 a year, with up to 120 guests

Yet locals claim Perkins — who at his previous property hosted shindigs for celebrities from Stella McCartney to Kate Moss — will introduce ‘disruptive wild parties’. They fear he’ll clog country lanes with the resultant traffic, keep the largely-retired community up into the small hours with rave music, and ruin local businesses.

Underpinning their worries are Perkins’s as yet unsubmitted plans for the property’s restoration. After all, he has made no secret of his ambition to turn parts of his Elizabethan manor into a ‘Batman house’, with a space theme and adventure wonderland. And that’s before you get onto outdoor extras such as guest houses shaped like beehives.

Drunk drivers and vulnerable, unsupervised children roaming the 131-acre grounds were among the other potential ramifications of the licence, locals said. ‘The whimsical notions of one person cannot sensibly be encouraged if they permanently corrupt the local environment for so many people,’ claimed one objector.

Another perhaps best summed up the sentiment of critics when they fumed: ‘Let’s be realistic, this application is nothing to do with providing an amenity for West Dorset people, it is an opportunity to acquire a fire-damaged, historic property at a bargain price . . . and to hell with the local residents.’

Nonetheless, the developer — who bought fire-ravaged Parnham House last March for £2.2 million — was granted his licence last week, which will allow the 24-hour sale of alcohol and indoor entertainment to take place up to 2am from Thursday to Saturday, and midnight the rest of the week.

But how does he feel about the character assassination that accompanied its approval? And do his new neighbours have a point?

‘I wish they would have a bit more positive energy but the reality is that people of a certain age are going to have concerns aren’t they?’ says Perkins, a charismatic — if exasperated — man. He is, he admits, ‘disappointed’ by the criticism, insisting he has no plans to throw any all-night raves, ‘despite the fact I might have done that when I was 21’.

His most famous project to date has been the restoration of Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a 28-bedroom mansion he bought in 2006, where his family lived until last year and which he ran as an upmarket wedding and party venue

Unfortunately, Perkins’ reputation as being party preoccupied precedes him. He started planning parties as a teenager, and was throwing raves at stately homes for more than 22,000 people by 22. A stint as a record producer followed, after which he became a property developer.

His most famous project to date has been the restoration of Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a 28-bedroom mansion he bought in 2006, where his family lived until last year and which he ran as an upmarket wedding and party venue. With a taxidermy collection including a giraffe and a zebra, and a giant white plaster statue of Hercules, the interior decor was as eclectic as his celebrity network. Mick Jagger’s daughter Jade married here, and at one party Bob Geldof fell asleep under a table.

Perkins admitted he’d stay up partying six hours later than wife Sophie, 36, so she could be up to look after their children, Beau, 14, Lyon, nine, and Luna, five. So to say wild parties won’t happen at Parnham House might sound a bit of a stretch.

‘I have changed a bit,’ he says, but concedes: ‘I think we probably are likely to want to do the same sort of things as the last house.’

In terms of hosting events for hundreds of people, he says ‘never say never’ — but stresses that any gatherings would be something akin to a daytime food festival.

In any case, he says he received no complaints from neighbours at Aynhoe Park, which was located in the middle of a village ‘less than 25 metres from the next house’. ‘We didn’t upset anyone,’ says Perkins. However, he agrees concerns about noise emanating from Parnham House are ‘not unfounded, because it’s so peaceful here’.

He has already restored ten of the eventual 30 bedrooms, complete with four-poster beds and marble bathrooms. Pictured: The interior of one bedroom in 2001

Yet, despite his 24-hour licence, he points out he only has permission to play music outside until 11pm. And given there is not yet enough roof to constitute an inside, concerns over any later disruption are, he says, ‘a bit irrelevant.’

Granted, his idea to invite bands to ‘relax’ after they perform at nearby Glastonbury festival sounds somewhat boisterous. But he says as well as installing soundproofing, ‘they do have rather thick walls, these buildings . . . I mean, a metre thick. Noise is not a problem once you get a roof on’.

When that might be is his biggest bugbear — permission has been delayed for up to 20 weeks so far thanks to Covid-induced delays.

He insists traffic congestion would be a ‘non problem’ because ‘we’re not going to be having 50,000 people a day’. And, while many objectors claim Parnham House — if joined by the restaurant Perkins wants on the estate — will take custom from local businesses, he insists the opposite is true, and that he plans to employ ‘up to 100 and then all sorts of independent contractors’.

For all the objections, he says, slightly defensively, there was hardly a stampede of other buyers looking to salvage the property. ‘Do you want to do it?’ No thank you! The astronomical costs involved in renovating and running such a property are, of course, part of the reason plenty of country mansions have fallen into disrepair, or been converted into flats.

Even with the income he hopes to generate from turning Parnham into an events space, it’s still a colossal undertaking. ‘I’m a glutton for punishment, perhaps, but I quite like to fix, restore and reimagine old properties.’

Almost 100 objections were lodged against Perkins’s application to Dorset Council for a 24-hour drinks and entertainment licence that would eventually allow him to turn his home into an events venue — quite something, when you consider the population of Beaminster, the Dorset village that borders his estate, is just 3,000

He decided to buy Parnham House after inspecting it for just 15 minutes last year. ‘I mean, I couldn’t go inside, could I?’ he quips. ‘I thought for a minute I was being crazy, but I was overwhelmed by the setting.’

So damaged it was deemed at risk of collapse, Historic England placed the building on the ‘Risk Register’ and Perkins’ designer requested he undertake a spiritual cleansing ceremony to deal with the house’s tragic past. Did he? ‘Probably not. I probably said let’s spend the money on the roof.’

The family moved into a cottage on the grounds this February and Perkins and his architecture team polished plans for the ‘magical’ restorations. He’s initially reluctant to discuss what they are, given he isn’t handing in his planning application for some of them for a fortnight.

But he is, it seems, too excited to keep totally schtum. As well he should be, because they make even the most ambitious Grand Designs project seem as mundane as redecorating a cupboard. Among his plans are six wooden guest houses in the shape of beehives in the orchard, five other geometric shaped houses ‘nestled away’ on the estate’s river and a ‘decorative pond that doubles as a pool’.

As for the Batman theme that has got locals’ backs up, he explains: ‘I connected with Batman as a child. I wanted to create something that’s as exciting for a young generation as it is for creatives.’

To that end, there will be three secret doors — one leading to a library, the other a games room and the third a ‘secret cabin downstairs in the original wine cellars’.

There will also be a space theme involving star-gazing: ‘We are looking to other planets more than ever, with all these billionaires wanting to send rockets into space.’ He admits he would ‘love’ to do that too — though presumably his bank balance is preoccupied for the ten years the restoration could take. Does he ever worry about running out of money? ‘Um, no, don’t worry,’ he mumbles, sounding slightly taken aback.

‘I have very different dreams to most people, I would think.’

There has been plenty to get on with so far, including the three-acre walled garden — once so overgrown it was near-impossible to enter, but now a ‘fully functioning’ plot producing everything from beetroots to ‘absolutely superb’ Mexican chillies.

He has already restored ten of the eventual 30 bedrooms, complete with four-poster beds and marble bathrooms.

Since lockdown, the ultimate party thrower has been ‘enjoying the Covid quietness.’

Is he retiring at 10pm with herbal tea then, rather than raving around the clock? ‘I couldn’t possibly say,’ he jokes. ‘It’s more likely the truth — but you might damage my reputation.’

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