Undershaw latest - my support reluctantly withheld

Last week I read articles in both the Haslemere Herald and Surrey Advertiser re the collapse of the deal between Stepping Stones (SS)/DFN Foundation (DFN) and the Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT).

Both articles were one-sided - the side being that of SS/DFN. The deal struck between them and the UPT required that plans be sent to John Gibson by a stated date. When they did not materialize Mr Gibson was forced to lodge an objection to the plans (as there was a deadline for such objections). This was described by the Herald as a U-turn.

It was claimed, in one of the aforementioned articles, that the required plans had been sent by email and that the deal had been adhered to. The article went on to say that if Mr Gibson had wanted hard-copy he should have said so.

What a nonsense! Mr Gibson is not on the internet in any way shape or form. It is others who run that side of the UPT operation. All his direct communication with DFN has been, as I understand it, telephone and letter based (and it was letters in which the deal was laid out) so he would naturally expect plans to arrive in the same fashion. I don't see why it would even occur to him as a possibility that DFN/SS would use any other medium.

Why on earth, therefore, did DFN choose that moment to send something via email? What made it think it was suddenly an acceptable route? Did anyone phone to check the plans had been received? The lack of attention on its part suggests that SS/DFN did not hold the deal to be that important.

I wrote a letter to the Herald with the intention of placing it here in the event it was not published. Unsurprisingly it wasn't. It would appear that the Herald only wants to print pro-school and pro-DFN/SS angles. Today there's one from the head of SS and one from MP Jeremy Hunt. The other side of the equation does not get a look in.

Toys out of the pram Stepping Stones?
In his letter (and he also gets space in a front-page article) the head of SS announces that the deal to save the well and stables is now off the table due to the UPT failing to hold up the deal. It's a disappointing and immature response and shows a complete failure to admit their personal error in not checking that the plans had been received. SS would have come across a lot better if it had maintained the amended plans regardless instead of throwing its toys out of the pram.

I restate that I have no objection to a school if the plans can be made sympathetic to the house but I cannot support an organisation that refuses to take responsibility for its own mistakes and, effectively, hides behind the argument we're doing it for the kids and you're trying to get in our way. A lot of the anti-UPT sentiment I have seen on social media runs along these lines and it's no wonder when most of the press presents only one side. Remember that if SS/DFN had taken care to ensure receipt of the plans the present situation would not exist.
Apparent press attitude to UPT position

Both history and the children can be served admirably. It's not one or the other and I cannot endorse the plans of an organisation that has announced, in a childish tit-for-tat way, its intention to remove protection from two historical elements of Undershaw describing it as "non-essential work" (Haslemere Herald 7/Nov/2014 front page).

Of course, SS doesn't care two hoots whether it has my support or not - why would it? There is a lot of support for its scheme. I've seen the letters available on line. If the amount of support is anything to go by its scheme will probably get waved through in spite of the objections of the UPT and English Heritage. Most of the support comes from people who clearly care/know little, if any, about the historical aspects of the house. The arguments "he only lived there ten years" and "you had plenty of time to buy it" have been voiced.

The duration someone lives in a house is irrelevant. It's what events take place there. Conan Doyle's EH blue plaque is on his former house in South Norwood - a house he lived in for three and a half years. A Westminster City plaque is on his former medical practice at 2 Upper Wimpole Street where he worked for three months. Duration of residence is irrelevant.

At Undershaw he resurrected Sherlock Holmes, he drafted his first Sherlock Holmes play, he drafted parts of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He was resident there at the time of his knighthood and his first wife died there. More importantly it is the only former residence that we can do anything about. It is the last chance to preserve something sizable of his material life. This is why it is important to get Undershaw's future right.

As to no one else having bought it - the asking price was artificially astronomical and well out of the reach of the UPT to raise. It's a sad fact that people care about Sherlock Holmes and would put their hands in their pockets for him but are less interested in his creator. That said, there are individuals who have shown an interest in the house if only the price had been appropriate to current market conditions and reflected not only the present condition of the house but the work required to restore it.

In its latest article SS mentions how it will eventually open Undershaw to visitors. But what will those visitors actually see? Will they be able to see something of Conan Doyle's world or will they simply see a shell with nothing of relevance inside? As far as I can see, all the UPT is trying to do is ensure it is the former rather than the latter.

Is that so bad?

Written by Alistair Duncan
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