FOOD FOR THOUGHT (a text dating from 1982. The building in question stands, of course, at the eastern end of Bruton High Street and is our Bruton Town website photo).
The Old Post Office/Grants Restaurant stands at the hub of the first major Conservation Area to be declared in East Somerset and is surrounded by listed buildings.
Its facade dates from about 1770 and was listed Grade II in 1953, when it was ‘unoccupied and becoming dilapidated’. Behind the facade was a group of small shop-dwellings, with a number of staircases, with some possible evidence of a jettied building of an earlier period, and beside it, an adjoining cottage, no.1 Patwell Street.
Its condition in 1970 brought about the existence of the Bruton Trust. Years earlier it had been offered by the then local owner, to the Parish Council for a nominal sum – but was refused because the Council ‘feared concomitant obligations. In 1965 the Area Planning Officer unsuccessfully sought the help of owners in restoring the facade. Unacceptable plans were submitted. By 1970 the CPRE was agitating for implementation of the 1967 Act; but the owners were stalling, awaiting the building of a relief road, which, with necessary purchases, could have been linked to rear access to the small, problematical triangular site.
The town rightly rejected the proposals for the road and this building seemed doomed to gradual collapse.
By 1970 No. 1 Patwell Street had become a ‘dangerous structure’ and the Rural District Council was considering action under the Public Health Act 1936 (as amended in 1961). No new use for the adjoining Post Office was envisaged, though the owners produced unrealistic plans, probably arising from Local Authority pressure. The CPRE again objected to demolition. The County Council decided against a Repairs Notice ‘because the building had deteriorated so much’. By November 1976 re-building costs, estimated by the County Council, had risen from £27,500 (1970) to £57,750.
The newly formed Bruton Trust was repeatedly attempting to get the County Council involved. Many uses had been canvassed; old people’s flats, gardens, clinics, part-museum, lavatories. None was viable or acceptable and throughout the year beginning December 1971 the local Youth Club attempted unsuccessfully to get the owners to allow them to paint it. Two years later proposals were made for conversion into flats and, the owners ‘repainted’ the building after pressure from the Trust. In 1974 the buildings changed hands, and it needed three letters to get the former owners to reveal the identity of the new one. The new owner ignored correspondence, then offered it to the Trust and the CPRE, but not the open market. In November 1975 he made an application for demolition, without supporting plans for redevelopment. Despite objections from the CPRE and the Bruton Trust a two-part demolition order was issued, but fortunately only the first part, under the Public Health and Safety Act, was implemented. The owner was continuing to temporise, failing to support applications.
In 1978 Bruton was declared an Outstanding Conservation Area, and the Honorary Secretary of the Trust was able to interest a potential buyer, who had very skillfully converted listed buildings opposite the Old Post Office, in the prospect of grants from the Historic Buildings Council; and the remains changed hands. Grant towards the facade of the Post Office was offered and also towards the reroofing of No. 1 Patwell Street. This promised money tipped the balance and bank finance was found. Because of the lack of space for deliveries and storage, the organisation of the site was difficult and only a determined builder working for himself could have done the job.
The front wall of the main building was first stabilised, and the architect’s plans for restoring the facade were made using remaining details, old postcards and other drawings. The pediment was a happily proposed addition.
In April 1982 Grants Restaurant was opened and returns on the first months have been above expectations.
The streetline has been saved, the area revitalised and the environment enhanced.
John Bishton (This appeared in Civic Trust Magazine in 1982)
Find out more about the Bruton Trust.