It’s a quiet Wednesday afternoon in Britain’s most expensive market town, and there’s a sense of foreboding in the air. Well, there is if you’re a G.K. Chesterton fan. South Bucks District Council is about to decide whether Overroads, the house where the author lived from 1909 to 1922, will be demolished and replaced with a block of flats.
A Londoner until the age of 35, Chesterton moved here on a whim. He and his wife Frances, in a spirit of adventure, went to Paddington and asked to buy a ticket for the next train. It was going to Slough. (‘A singular taste,’ he remarked in his autobiography, ‘even for a train.’) From there they wandered to Beaconsfield, and liked it so much they never left.
It was at Overroads that Chesterton first developed his most enduring creation, the priest-detective Father Brown. But the biggest protest against the demolition plan has come not from the crime fiction community, but from the academy. Thirty-nine scholars have signed an open letter asking the council to defend ‘so important a piece of national and international cultural heritage’.
In Jungs Bakery I meet Alison Wheelhouse and Kari Dorme from the Beaconsfield Society, a local amenity group who do everything from litter-picking to scrutinising planning applications. Dorme says the council has a poor record with protecting local heritage: Enid Blyton’s former house, for instance, was knocked down in 1973. ‘We could have had a world-famous heritage site,’ she says. Robert Frost’s old bungalow, meanwhile, was demolished in the 1980s. So does Overroads have a chance? ‘Oh yes,’ says Wheelhouse. ‘We’re very hopeful.’
Chesterton’s house has more than just literary significance. Overroads has been immortalised by his biographers as an innocently bohemian haven where friends were always welcome and strangers soon became friends. Literary parties, garden parties, children’s parties, charity fundraisers and amateur theatre productions filled the calendar. ‘The benevolence and love in the air were unmistakable,’ one neighbour later recalled, ‘and irresistible.’
Overroads was too small to contain the Chestertons’ social life: they eventually built a bigger house in a similar style, directly across the road, and moved into it. That second house, called Top Meadow, is itself now a listed property — a point which its owner Ken Sladen has stressed in making the case against demolishing Overroads. Knocking down Chesterton’s first home, he says, would affect the character of the second.
Finally the council decides: Overroads will not be demolished. ‘We’re very, very pleased,’ Sladen tells me down the phone. (The developers, when asked whether they would appeal, declined to comment.) Sladen says he’s been heartened by the public response, both locally and internationally. It isn’t always the case when cultural landmarks come under threat, he observes. ‘You often notice when it’s too late.’