Victorian villa has survived likely helped by its formal listing by English Heritage

Torbay Weekly

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: Normount Villa (Bishop Court Hotel)

This blue plaque was one of my earliest as chairman of Torbay Civic Society and it honours a building - Normount Villa - not a person.

Today, unlike so many of the Victorian homes built between the 1840s and 1860s for the Palk family through the land agent William Kitson, this villa has survived likely helped by its formal listing by English Heritage during the mid-20th century.

The property sits in a conservation area which is relevant, after what became the Mansion House Hotel was greatly added to by new development to a garden hotel with dozens of rooms, suites and even a coffee lounge dedicated to an association with Agatha Christie and eventually formal gardens and tennis courts.

The extended villa and its grounds then traded as the Bishops Court Hotel and one past purchaser, Mr and Mrs R Marks, in taking over this substantial complex already included extensive health and leisure facilities and a popular private members based club all within the property.

The original villa was constructed by the Harvey Brothers in 1844 and 100 years after became a Grade II-listed building before, in 2001, Ray Marks and family purchased the complex.

Although then known as Bishop Court Hotel, its neo-classical Italianate villa was still considered as one of the finest homes of its type that had survived in Wellswood area and was indeed worthy of a blue plaque.

Having met the family and then visited Torbay Council, I was pleased when the conservation officer later gave permission for a plaque to be fixed on the entrance area of the villa, within the complex.

In appreciating no specific person would be included on the plaque itself, the villa in its long history had been used or visited by many famous people - the Princess Marie Louise, Agatha Christie, Sir Gordon Richardson, Ella Rowcroft - and, indeed, the property had also been owned, or maybe leased, by Captain Nelson Clover during the Victorian era.

Finally, as late as 1975, Lady Price, widow of the man who founded the Fifty Shilling Tailors, of Burton's had lived within the villa for two years.

With sponsorship assured and the wording of the plaque and literature written by local historian Joan Nott and myself, the formal unveiling date was to be on Thursday, February 27, 2003 at 11.30 am.

The event was one of those few occasions when a town conservation officer attended the event and having learned he wished the plaque to be erected on the right side of the entrance or its portico, rather than the left as we preferred, you can guess we were specially careful our builder mounted it the 'right' side.

The day of the unveiling went exactly as planned with Torbay Council mayor Heather Buckpitt and her escort in attendance with civic society president Mrs Ena Hocking and the hotel owners Ray and Alexis Marks and their daughter Vicki also in the photocall, which also included society treasurer Keith Mears and myself.

With the formal unveiling complete, everyone was invited to tour the extensive complex which must have been a real eye-opener to those that had never previously visited the property. Finally, a finger buffet and a copy of our literature was provided.

Today, the site remains sealed off to the public although since 2008 a number of planning schemes have been submitted - we counted 50 - though no start made.

The present architects are based in Cirencester and the owner trades as Ascena Company Ltd. We understand the latest plans, which we support, include the villa being developed to make five quality apartments and the 14 bed-sitter apartments re-developed into four quality houses.

To these add ten quality homes with double garages and a separate house for a resident caretaker. With the developers Section 106 contribution paid, we understand a start may be made this year with homes likely available next year.