Owners Angus and Fabienne Hanton talk about their plans
It is clear from the start that the Hantons have long admired Bell House, the large Georgian house built by a former Lord Mayor of London in College Road. Fabienne knew it well from a course she took there in garden history under the tutelage of Dulwich College housemaster Ian Senior when it was still a College boarding house. They missed out when the house was put up for sale by the College in 1992 when boarding numbers dwindled. This time they got it almost by chance. While casually enquiring at a local estate agent about a flat, they noticed details of Bell House, placed on sale that same day. Naturally, the agent was somewhat surprised when a £400,000 enquiry suddenly changed to the new property priced at a significantly higher sum, but a viewing was arranged for the following day. The Hantons were both quite certain in their minds that Bell House was the only house in Dulwich which could meet their demands and they agreed the asking price on their first visit . And their demands were something quite unusual.
Some years ago they discovered that the eldest of their four sons, then in Year 3, was perhaps dyslexic after his form teacher suggested that something might be wrong. To get a psychological assessment meant travelling to Hertfordshire, to then receive teaching support required arriving at Clapham at 7am or travelling even further to Greenwich for classes. A tiring and trying burden, in addition to a normal week’s school for a 7 year old. As with Richard Branson and Albert Einstein, both dyslexics, things sometimes work out and their eldest son went on to Durham University (being allowed to sit a modified entrance exam) and is now a lawyer.
The Hantons then had to go through the process for a second time with another of their sons. They found that while the boys could not write legibly, and certainly could not read what they had written, they could successfully use a computer. Angus believes that as a consequence, actual handwriting improved.
It was these experiences which led to them set up an educational charity three years ago to help young people with dyslexia and which has now received registration from the Charity Commissioners. What then hampered progress was finding suitable accommodation for the project. Thus, when Bell House suddenly presented itself, both Angus and Fabienne were convinced that this was the ideal place - plenty of space and well detached from surrounding houses.
They have a vision of running Bell House as a specialist centre for dyslexic educational needs, including specialist teacher training. They propose to have services for the assessment of dyslexia and providing a wide range of tools including information technology, art and film-making to provide support. In addition they would like Bell House to be a hub for courses appealing to a wider public. These courses would finance the dyslexia work although places on the courses could be subsidised if there was need. By means of social media they intend to post films of the courses on the internet to reach a much bigger audience. Film-making is not new to Angus who has made countless films in connection with his woodlands enterprise. During this year’s Dulwich Festival, Bell House was the gallery space for a number of artists showing in the Open House exhibition.
Still less than a year after their purchase, and despite a deluge of bills from roofing to fences, their love affair with Bell has continued to blossom - the ha- ha in front of the drive has been exposed reminding the passer-by that the house once enjoyed wide-ranging views to the west where sheep and cattle could safely graze without them endangering the flower beds. There are 25 rooms and 12,000 square feet of space. Considerable internal conversion will be required for the lecture theatre accommodating 100 persons, a lift and two disabled toilets which are part of their plans. Even a café is being considered.
They live in seemingly blissful confidence that it will all work out . And who are we to doubt? Angus’s business ventures, an esoteric mix of off-the-wall enterprises ranging from manufacturing outsize chess sets for garden play, organising the sale of woodlands for individuals to enjoy, providing storage facilities in apparently unusable railway arches have all been huge success stories. He has a track record of social responsibility, demonstrated recently when he spoke out nationally in support of more affordable homes being built in the countryside to halt the generational fossilising of villages - Angus is co-founder of Intergenerational Foundation, a charity that campaigns for fairness across age groups. For Fabienne, her work as a molecular biologist has led to her starting a PhD at Imperial College in how bacteria affect premature births, a step she took on almost the same day as their offer on Bell House was accepted. Their motto might well be ‘Carpe Diem’ - seize the day.
They have found much support, from neighbours, and also from John Major and Madeleine Adams of the Dulwich Estate as well as from a range of people with specialist skills. Some of these have joined the strong management committee which includes a garden designer, a lawyer, graphic designers and artists. Angus describes them as ‘can-do’ people. A dyslexia steering group has been formed. Angus says, “People can see what we are trying to do and they particularly like the social mission, to offer free or subsidised places on all the courses, to make sure Bell House is available as much to state schools as the private ones. Some of the support has been practical with volunteers helping to clear and maintain the garden and others offering their specialist skills and enthusiasm.” They are keen to hear from others who might be interested in helping with the project.
If that is the objective, one has to ask, how will it be achieved? They hope for capital cost funds to come from running self-financing viable courses, lettings and from donations. They also intend to apply for a National Lottery grant. The maintenance of the house will be financed by letting out the flat in the Lutyens designed stable block.
This is such a worthy and commendable enterprise that it deserves every support.
More information on Bell House and how to volunteer may be found on its website - bellhouse.co.uk
Sharon O’Connor, a member of the Dulwich Society’s local history group has done intensive research into the people who have lived at this fascinating house. Her research can also be found on the website.