Article by Janice Morley
Life’s journey has led contented downsizers Debbie and Martin Vowles right back to where their eldest daughter, Lesley, was born – the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot, a magnificent, Grade II-listed Victorian building on a hill overlooking Hampshire countryside.
At the time of Lesley’s birth 34 years ago, the hospital provided maternity services for the surrounding community, including the nearby market town of Farnham where Debbie and Martin were living. Now the hospital itself has been reborn as Gun Hill Park, a Weston Homes development of 140 new houses and apartments in an impressive 12-acre site. And the couple – whose first introduction to the now-familiar building was when Debbie was rushed in to give birth to the first of three daughters – have found the ideal house here to enjoy a semi-retired lifestyle to the full, now that their girls are grown and gone.
Of palatial proportions and with a landmark clocktower, Cambridge Military Hospital was opened in 1879 and built on Florence Nightingale’s design principles, its grand rooms, long, wide corridors and tall, elegant windows delivering air, light and constant temperature. It was world-renowned, received injured soldiers from the Western Front and was much-visited by royalty. A centre of national excellence, it went on to become a forerunner for plastic surgery.
But as time and technology overtook this crumbling, yellow-brick and Bath stone heritage hospital, it closed in 1996. The Ministry of Defence declared it surplus to military requirements in 2001. Property developers steered clear, alarmed at the size of the challenge to convert this neoclassical giant – until 2019 when Bob Weston came along. The chairman of Weston Homes bought the site and, with impressive architectural vision and a small army of stonemasons and expert builders, set about a £60 million conversion project, creating new homes both within the hospital – retaining as many original features as possible – and including some new-build properties in the landscaped grounds.
It was one of these remarkable heritage features that stole Debbie’s heart. The entire front of their new home has an almost heraldic romance about it. It has not one but two loggias – long and wide balconies of golden stone stacked one on top of the other, each held up by four pillars. The bottom balcony, now enclosed, forms the roomy entrance hall of the couple’s home, leading on to their two ground-floor en suite bedrooms. Upstairs, the drawing room has double doors opening to the second, picturesque balcony and magnificent views beyond. This lovely space is where you will find Debbie most days.
Semi-retired from running her racecourse hospitality business, Debbie nevertheless remains fully committed to Shout mental health charity, while Martin now works part time as a special needs consultant for independent colleges.
When they saw the house that would become their new home, cleverly carved from one of the former hospital wards, they decided it was “the one”. Martin says: “This home ticked all the boxes. We wanted a smaller house so we could lock up and go travelling, a garden, separate kitchen, a balcony and a view. We did a lot of house hunting but this had it all.
“We could not get in to look at it, as it was going to be a show house. It had scaffolding all over it but we could see it. We knew it was our house.” They made their bid on New Year’s Eve.
They were renting in Epsom at the time, having chosen to return to the area, when Debbie read in a local newspaper about Gun Hill Park, the Weston Homes development in the exciting new Wellesley neighbourhood. “It appealed to me immediately. There was so much grandeur.
“We loved the quality of everything on offer, and the area, too, but most of all it was a perfect commute to London. All our daughters are in London and we wanted to be near them. We can walk to the station and be there 50 minutes later, and they can come to Sunday lunch and go back in the evening. That makes a huge difference to our lives.”
Meanwhile, a six-minute train ride takes the couple into Farnham when they fancy eating out close to home. As Martin says: “The train fare is cheaper than the car park.”
A SPARKLING NEW HOME – WITH GREAT NEIGHBOURS
They definitely wanted a new home. No more renovating for them. They had brought up their horse-mad daughters – Lesley and twins Katie and Mary-Ann, now 26 – in a perfect, 300-year-old country cottage with outbuildings and barns in Dorset but when the children flew the nest, the parents decided to follow. The only decisions Debbie and Martin had to make in their new home involved choosing what sort of accessories they wanted. Debbie was thrilled with what was on offer, right down to kitchen door handles, while Martin, the cook in this household, was spoiled with two ovens. And the couple were both impressed by all the kitchen luxury goods that came included in the price.
Debbie especially loves the fitted wardrobes in both bedrooms and the designer mirror in the downstairs loo. “There is so much we have not had to buy. When the twins come down they say it is like living in a luxury hotel.”
Gun Hill Park offers another huge advantage, in the shape of a growing new community. Martin says: “We had lived in Dorset miles from neighbours. Now we have so many friendly neighbours to meet in our little courtyard. We have all moved in together and begun new lives and we are all so different. There are young families, couples, retired people, single people.
“We visit each other’s houses and chat about shutters and curtains. We have a WhatsApp group. With such massively high ceilings at 14ft, we sometimes need a ladder. But one neighbour has the ladder and we borrow it. At Christmas we all had drinks and we share address books – our electrician has got seven more jobs on now.”
Many of the older couples and singles enjoy travelling and vigilant neighbours here look after each other’s property when they are away. Martin says this was another reason for buying at Gun Hill Park. “We have lots of friends in South Africa, and places we want to go to.”
Soon they plan to head off to California and Mexico, safe in the knowledge that they’ll return to the home they have fallen in love with: a small slice of a grand Victorian hospital ward… who knows, perhaps it’s even the one where their daughter was born.
PHOTOGRAPHY By Juliet Murphy