Timeline of the £14.5m Northamptonshire heritage attraction that took 17 years to open

The attraction opens to the public tomorrow - Saturday, October 23

By Alison Bagley
Friday, 22nd October 2021, 7:00 am

It's been one of the longest-running and most contentious projects that Northamptonshire has ever seen with bankruptcy and fire thrown into the saga.

The long time it has taken for Chester Farm Estate, as it now known, to come into being might be seen to be appropriate as the site's history spans over 10,000 years.

It is only fitting that such an important place should have such a remarkable modern history as well as from the Palaeolithic period, through to Romans, Saxons and the present.

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The whole Chester House Estate project has cost £14.5m

Bookings for free entry into the much-anticipated Chester House Estate for car park spaces at the £14.5m attraction have been snapped up with the opening day 'sold' out.The long-awaited opening of the nationally-significant heritage site on Saturday, October 23, will allow guests to finally glimpse how council taxpayers' cash and lottery funding has been spent.

Here's the timeline of the plans for the site:

2004 - the Chester Farm - house and buildings - just off the A45 between Wellingborough and Rushden, close to Irchester and over-looking the River Nene is bought for£900,000 by the now disbanded Northamptonshire County Council in recognition of its unique historic environment and character.

2006 - Northamptonshire County Council received £1.2m of Government funding for the project. In November 2006, Northamptonshire County Councillors discussed the future of the house and how its future could be ensured.

The 2010 fire

The then cabinet member for culture, county and civic heritage Cllr Andre Gonzalez de Savage, had said: "Chester Farm is an enormously significant part of our county’s heritage and we have a great responsibility to make sure that we preserve it. We recognise the need to identify a way of developing the site and that includes looking into how it could attract outside funding to ensure it’s long-term preservation.

"Whatever happens we will make sure that whatever develops it will be in keeping with the environment and ethos of the site."

In February 2007, a meeting was held by the organisation the Wellingborough Partnership to discuss how to preserve the Roman site 'in relation to mineral extraction and waste development'. The group gathered to discuss the best way to preserve and manage Chester Farm, and discuss plans for the town’s minerals and waste development framework.

Forum chairman Jenny Dixon had said: "This meeting is a really good opportunity for the people of Wellingborough to learn about the future of Chester Farm and minerals extraction and waste management facilities in the borough."

2013 - site visit by l-r Cllr Bill Parker, Cllr Paul Bell, Sarah Bridges, Cllr Heather Smith and Cllr Jim Harker

In March 2007, residents' opinions were being sought to shape the future use of the former Roman settlement site. ArchaeoEnvironment, specialists in environment and heritage management projects, had been asked by Northamptonshire County Council to create a ‘statement of significance’ regarding Chester Farm.

Senior archaeologist Penny Middleton had said: "The site was bought by the council in 2004 in recognition of its unique historic environment and character. The authority aims to protect the area while also exploring ideas to ensure the long-term sustainability of the site. We need to know what makes Chester Farm important to the community."

Replies were used to create the ‘statement of significance’.

Later that month in March 2007, residents became alarmed to see what looked like for sale signs outside the entrance to the site off the A45 but reassurance came from the county council saying that 'the remains of a Roman village will not be sold'.

Chester House Estate is ready for visitors

A spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council had said: "We are carrying out market research to see what interest there is in working with us to develop the site’s potential.

"This includes advertising in a range of publications and putting boards up at the site asking for expressions of interest, but it does not mean the site is for sale."

Expressions of interest being considered were to include the cost to the county council, securing the long term preservation of the area’s historic asset, and providing a community amenity, including public access, in conjunction with a potential commercial offer.

In December 2007, NCC announced that the site could be sold for 'protection'. Leading councillors argued the authority did not have enough money to improve and safeguard the area and should sell it to someone who can invest in it and stop it falling into disrepair.

County council cabinet member Andre Gonzalez De Savage said the area would only be sold if the new owner agreed to preserve the historic environment and would ensure the public would still have access to it.

He had added: "The farm buildings require about £500,000 of work to bring them up to standard and we’re really quite concerned about the poor condition of the buildings. We’re doing our very best to find a good use for the buildings and not let them decay."

Councillors survey the site in 2013

The sale of the site could have put the authority at risk of losing the £1.2m grant it received from the Government but it believed the proceeds from the sale would cover it.

At a crunch meeting on December 12, 2007 Chester Farm was branded 'surplus to requirements' by Northamptonshire County Council because the council did not have enough money to improve and safeguard the area.

The council said the land would only be sold to a buyer who could 'secure the preservation of the site’s outstanding historic environment in the long-term'. The authority will also reinvest the money from the sale into the site, which it hoped would cover it against the risk of the Government wanting back its original grant.

Councillors ruled on the farm’s future at a meeting of the county council’s cabinet. At the meeting, Ian Nunney from Wellingborough Museum told councillors: "It’s a site of national importance, not only because it has a Roman town to the east but because there is a Saxon settlement and evidence of pre-Roman occupation. Part of the site has already been damaged by extensive building. From the point of view of Wellingborough Museum, we would love to take the site on but obviously, as a charitable trust, we haven’t the finances. If the county council would like to hand it over to us we would be quite happy to take the site on."

Chairman of Wellingborough Civic Society Judith Thompson had said: "There must be interested groups which can get together to apply for lottery funds."

Cllr Ben Smith had said: "This is an important site of great architectural status and costs are incurred to preserve and maintain that important situation. The county council doesn’t have any money, how many times do we have to say that?"

Cllr Andre Gonzalez De Savage had added: " Anyone who expresses an interest can develop a tender and submit it."

After three years in February 2010, it was announced that up to £250,000 had been set aside to open up the 'crumbling' historical farm site to the community.

Northamptonshire County Council had earmarked the cash for Chester House Farm, which had been on the English Heritage at risk register for 12 years, with the spend announced in their 2010-11 budget.

A spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council had said: “Chester House Farm is a unique piece of historic landscape with quality listed buildings set within a scheduled ancient monument.

“This investment will be used, alongside growth funding of £155,000 to draw further investment from other sources to support the development of this historic site. Our long-term objective is to open up Chester House Farm as a key heritage and education asset and visitor attraction for the public.”

English Heritage named the current condition of the farm buildings as 'poor', listing the main problems as water penetration, caused by rainwater, stonework erosion, timber rot at window bases, invasion from vegetation and a collapsed roof and vegetation damage in the green house.

The late Cllr John Bailey, who was leader of Wellingborough Council and a county councillor, backed calls for the investment.

He had said: “The county council was award a large sum of money by the Government to purchase Chester Farm many years ago and it’s quite disgraceful it’s done nothing with it. We have now got a plan for it and this will be a terrific educational and tourist attraction.

“People will have heard of Hadrian’s Wall – I’m quite prepared to guess Chester Farm will not be far short of that because it is an important Roman attraction.”

Fellow Wellingborough councillor Graham Lawman had added: “Once we have done this work we can start going for funding for the site. I cannot wait to see the tourist attraction sign being put up for it at junction 15 of the M1.”

Irchester Parish Historical Society chairman Jon-Paul Carr had said: “It’s excellent news that this site will be made accessible to all and will provide a wonderful resource to celebrate part of our county’s, and national, history.”

However, tragedy struck in the early hours of May 4, 2010, when the historic farmhouse was ravaged by fire just one month before major restoration works were due to be completed.

After six-months of hard work to bring Chester House Farm back to life, the grade II-listed building was badly damaged by a midnight blaze.

The fire had been so severe that a large part of the roof and the half of the first floor of the three-story house had completely collapsed, with just three lone chimneys remaining standing.

Cllr Andre Gonzalez De Savage, cabinet member for customers and communities, had said the council’s £250,000 works to renovate the farm building, including repairs to windows and the roof and structural renovations, were just one month from completion.

He had said: “It’s devastating. Chester Farm has undergone significant renovations and a lot of investment has already gone into it. We’ve done all that work and now it’s all lost.

“It really is a very special site and it’s very important to the area’s heritage.”

June 8, 2010, The future was looking brighter for the fire-damaged grade II-listed Chester Farm after the county council revealed it was in talks with groups planning its restoration.

A spokesman for the county council had said: “We have been following up expressions of interest we have received regarding Chester Farm with a view to taking forward possible plans to create an operational board to look at the future of this important site.”

In November 2010, Northamptonshire County Council’s cabinet approved contracts for the main contractor who would be responsible for the work needed to make Chester House safe.

But opposition councillors had raised concerns about spending money on the site in light of the enormous cuts being made to public services across the county that faced a £70m budget deficit.

Labour group leader John McGhee had said: “I believe in the importance of the culture and heritage of Northamptonshire. But we’ve got another £8m of savings to find, we’re cutting services back for the elderly and the vulnerable – I don’t think it’s the best time to fund this project.”

Cabinet member for customers and communities Cllr Andre Gonzalez de Savage had said the council had entered into an agreement about the site’s future when it received £1.2m of Government funding for the project in 2006.

He had added: “When we received the money we committed to delivering a public heritage asset to the county. We’d be at risk of losing the money if we don’t use it for the benefit of the county. We have secured additional funds too.”

December 13, 2010 Conservative-controlled Northamptonshire County Council approved a controversial budget for 2011-12 containing £73m of savings, but the Chester House project retains its funding.

April 1, 2012 The late 16th century farmhouse looked set to be stabilised and made watertight after its owner, Northamptonshire Country Council, received a £1.9m insurance award.

The authority had also been considering what to do with the site in the future.

In a report, Cllr Jim Harker, chairman of the Chester Farm Project Board and leader of the council, had said: “The Chester Farm site represents a unique piece of historic landscape of high importance preserving a wide range of archaeological and historic features spanning several thousand years.

“A number of potential uses of the site have been examined and evaluated and it has been agreed that a mixed use option will offer the most potential for success. More detailed planning is currently in progress on the options.”

The options had included using the site as a visitor learning and educational experience, as office or conference space, as heritage allotments or community orchard, or as grazing space for sheep.

Cllr Tim Maguire, a parish and borough representative in Irchester, had said: “The Roman settlement at Chester Farm is very much the heart of the community in Irchester. I am very much looking forward to seeing the end product.”

In October 2012, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced it had awarded a grant of more than £135,000 to the project.

In November Cllr Jim Harker had said that the building is now in much better shape than it was before the fire after a report presented to the county council outlined the next stage of development. Officials had sought to open up the site for tourism and education purposes. The report marked the first stage of an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund which they hoped could be worth a total of £4.1m.

Cllr Harker, leader of Northamptonshire County Council, had described the presentation of the report as a “milestone” in the development and that he was optimistic the full award would be given by the HLF, but that it was reliant on “two or three months of really hard work” to put the best case forward.

In January 2013, members of the public had been asked to complete a survey about their views on Chester Farm as part of a project supported by Heritage Lottery Funding.

On July 29, 2013, The Chester Farm project was awarded £3.97m of funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Carole Souter, chief executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund, had said: "We know that heritage is a huge draw for visitors from home and abroad. More than a quarter of all UK holiday activities undertaken by UK residents now involve heritage. These projects all offer the public the chance to explore and enjoy our rich and complex history."

Leader of the county council Cllr Harker, had said: "Chester Farm is a spectacular asset that has remained unexploited for far too long. I am so pleased that the Heritage Lottery Fund has recognised this in their award today."

September 2013 - Residents were finally given anopportunity to look around the site with a weekend guided tour.

Cllr Heather Smith, county council portfolio holder for heritage, had said: "The long-term plan for the site is for it to become a nationally - or even internationally - recognised centre of historical and archaeological interest, with everyone from specialists to beginners being welcomed."

July 2014 - Archaeologists unearthed more than two dozen skeletons in an ancient cemetery at Chester Farm.

Project manager at the dig Jennifer Sherrey had said archaeologists had an inkling they might find skeletons at the site as several had been unearthed very nearby in a dig two years ago.

Sha had added: "Chester Farm is a really important site as we have evidence of about 10,000 years of habitation."

March 2015 - Work had begun to create a visitor access to Chester Farm in preparation for a future project to turn the site into an education centre.

March 2016 - A website had been set up by Northamptonshire County Council to tell the story of the Chester Farm project. A timescale of two years was given for the project.

County council deputy leader Cllr Heather Smith had said: "We want to share the stories of this fascinating heritage site and tell people about the journey we are on to open it up for everyone’s benefit and enjoyment.

"This is a very important stage of the project and the launch of the website is perfect timing as we uncover more and more detail from the past."

The launch of the website had coincided with the discussion of a report on the future of Chester Farm at a meeting of the county council’s cabinet.

April 2016 - The grounds of a new "£12.7m" heritage site were to be opened to the public for walks. £4.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund had begun to transform the site with building work "expected to be completed by 2018".

In 2018, when Northamptonshire County Council were making huge numbers of redundancies the project was supported 'through gritted teeth' The authority had put in a further £2.2m to the Chester Farm project during 2018 so that the scheme could be finished.

August 2018 saw the opening of Chester Farm delayed by another 'year' as the project ran behind schedule.

A spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council said: "Construction work on Chester Farm was due for completion in September but there has been a slight delay. The site is scheduled to open to the public in spring next year."

The reasons for the delay had not been made public and the the construction firm doing the work Shaylor Group had declined to comment on the reasons why the build was running behind.

Money spent by Northamptonshire County Council on the project had totalled £7.1m and the Heritage Lottery Fund has also put in just under £4m towards the project.

June 2019 Shaylor Group, the construction firm that had been tasked with redeveloping the jewel in Northamptonshire’s heritage crown, had gone into administration.

Raj Mittal, from administrators FRP Advisory in Birmingham, had said: "Despite the efforts of the directors, the financial issues facing the company were not able to be resolved and resulted in the decision to place the business into administration. We will also be working closely with clients to ensure the smooth transfer of sites."

In December 2019 the then Northamptonshire County Council Cabinet agreed to support a further capital investment of £1.374m following a comprehensive options appraisal.

The Chester Farm project was now set to cost Northamptonshire County Council in the region of £10m, with the cash-strapped authority having no choice but to put in another £1.3m or risk paying back millions.

The authority said mothballing the behind-schedule heritage project, which was the brainchild of former leader Jim Harker, could under the terms of an agreement mean handing back just under £4m to co-funders the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF).

A report to the Conservative cabinet had set out a new business case, which scrapped the already agreed community interest trust to govern the scheme and instead proposed the asset to be managed by the council. The trust had already been set up with Jim Harker and the then Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire David Laing appointed as directors. The council’s latest advice had said that the sustainability of the site would have been 'at risk' with the trust model.

May 2020 - Jack Pishhorn, current Chester House Estate manager, starts his role on the project with ambitious plans to move the project forward.

February 2021 - The Chester House Estate is named as the new brand for the project.

April 2021 - The county’s valuable Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre (ARC) opens.

Business manager Jack Pishhorn said: “We have a very challenging 10-month build ahead and we are due to open the site fully in time for the October half term.

“This is a unique project with key stakeholders from all over the country; it is history in the making and we can’t wait for the community to get involved.”

Jack Pishhorn was recruited to head up the Chester House Estate project