It could become a Hilton, claims owner of stately home Shrubland Hall
PUBLISHED: 09:19 11 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:06 12 May 2019
The owner of one of Suffolk's most spectacular stately homes claims it could reopen as a Hilton - despite facing concerns it was becoming a "blot on the landscape".
Muhammad Farmer, who bought Shrubland Hall, to the north west of Ipswich, for more than £6m in 2009, said he was in talks with experts to find a viable future for the site, including a possible Hilton hotel franchise.
But the Hilton group said it had no knowledge of the proposals. And people living near the estate said they were taking his claims "with a pinch of salt", given the failure of other recent ventures.
Dr Farmer's previous attempt to launch a luxury hotel at the site - Shrubland Royale - was short lived.
It closed in September 2016, less than a year after opening, following negative customer reviews.
No plans for the 18th century Georgian mansion have emerged since.
Meanwhile, investigations have been launched by Historic England into the condition of the estate, including the hall and its 175 hectare gardens.
Neighbouring communities, who still have fond memories of its time as an exclusive health resort, which appeared in the James Bond film Thunderball, say they are concerned by its apparent deterioration.
Barham Parish Council chairman Stephen Carr said: "It was such an iconic site but now it seems to be almost a blot on the landscape rather than the fantastic attraction it could be for the area."
Vice chairman Gordon Musson said the village had been saddened when its previous owner, Lord de Saumarez, was forced to put the 1,300 acre estate on the market to cover an inheritance tax bill in 2006.
But he said he had "high hopes" when Dr Farmer took it over.
"He seemed to have a lot of intentions to bring it back to its former glory," Mr Musson added. "But all of the ventures have fallen through."
Mr Musson said no one in the council had heard from Dr Farmer during his time as owner.
Following complaints raised by the parish council, Historic England visited Shrubland Hall to assess the condition of the gardens and Grade II listed hall.
A spokesman for the public body said the park had been on its 'Heritage at Risk Register' for many years.
"We had positive discussions with the owner of the hall, who is also the majority owner of the gardens," the spokesman added.
"We are in agreement that a strategy needs to be developed to address the deterioration of structures within the estate and to safeguard the site for the future."
Historic England said it was offering specialist advice to the landowners to find a way for the site to "thrive again".
Mid Suffolk District Council said it was also in discussion with the owner about "unauthorised" building works, which had been noted during the site visit.
Dr Farmer claimed the building works identified by MSDC were within "accepted development" and did not affect the listed status of the hall.
He said a lead surveyor had told him Shrubland Hall "is still among the most preserved historic sites in England".
Although the Hilton group said it was unaware of any discussions about Shrubland Hall, Dr Farmer claimed it remained part of his strategy to involve the hotel company and "experts were looking into its viability".
He said the hospitality industry was going through a challenging time and any venture would have to be carefully planned, with the current preference being for a "unique and boutique" hotel and health spa.
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Mr Musson said he took Dr Farmer's claims with a "pinch of salt", having seen other ventures fail to get off the ground, including plans to host large functions and entertainment within the grounds.
Customers at the Sorrel Horse Inn, which is opposite the hall's main entrance, were also doubtful about the future plans for the estate, which they said needed more maintenance.
"It's such a shame, because it used to be so beautiful," said one visitor.
"I'd been around the place when the de Saumarez family still had it - the stuff they had there was unbelievable," they said.
"They used to host shooting parties and Lord de Saumarez would always come here to join them afterwards."
Shrubland Hall's previous hotel venture launched in 2015, offering to welcome "prestigious guests ... on a journey back to the future".
Muhammad Farmer had bought the iconic building as part of plans to expand his company the British Institute of Technology, England (BITE), a higher education provider based in London.
BITE's director's report for 2015 said the business had been "further strengthened" by new developments, including Shrubland Royale.
He applied for permission to host weddings and announced plans to modernise the building.
But despite a positive start, guests' reviews became increasingly negative. By September 2016, signs outside the hall had been removed, the gates were closed and booking attempts were declined.
Management claimed a "celebrity" guest had booked the entire hotel for the rest of the year. Its website was taken down.
Dr Farmer claims BITE has spent £5m on the estate.
Shrubland Hall has led a varied existence in its 250 year history.
Built in the late 18th century, the Georgian mansion occupies a dramatic site atop a steep hill in the estate.
In later years the hall's famous gardens began to take shape. Designed by Sir Charles Barry, who was renowned for bringing Italian-style gardens to country homes in the 19th century, they included a series of terraces linked by flights of steps and decorated with ornate features.
The hall passed to the fourth Baron de Saumarez in 1882, whose descendants owned it until 2009.
It was used as a First World War convalescent home and a brigade headquarters during the Second World War.
A health clinic was set up at the property in the 1960s. It featured in two James Bond films - Thunderball and Never Say Never Again.
Lord de Saumarez put it up for sale for £23m in 2006. It was sold in 2009 after being split into 42 separate lots.