Council’s once-prized listed building Heathfield House left to rot

Signs of neglect: Heathfield House has been left to rot by owners Croydon Council

CROYDON IN CRISIS: The borough’s built heritage is crumbling into a worrying state of disrepair, with no one at the council seemingly aware of the seriousness of the situation.
By PEARL LEE, our south of the borough correspondent

Any Croydon residents who settle down this Sunday for the BBC’s new dramatisation of Great Expectations might be forgiven for thinking that, in the later episodes of the series, the rundown and dilapidated house of horrors into which old spinster Miss Havisham has withdrawn looks a little familiar.

Because after more than a decade of wanton neglect and what amounts to civic vandalism by current owners Croydon Council, that is close to the state that Grade II-listed Heathfield House now finds itself in.

Heathfield and its once admired ornamental gardens, standing in prime position in the Addington Hills at the top of Gravel Hill, with sweeping views across farmland towards New Addington, was once the home of millionaire philanthropist Raymond Riesco.

Today, it is betraying all the sad hallmarks of being run by Croydon Council, an organisation as bankrupt of imagination as it is of money.

Bodge job: the wooden bridge is unsafe, and unrepaired

After the council acquired the house and its 18 acres of gardens and rhododendron-lined woodland walks in 1964, following the death of Riesco, the buildings were used for little more than a council staff training centre… yawn.

Most recently, the house has been closed for more than a year, since Cressey College’s short emergency stay as tenants of the council could not be extended. The private education institution’s plans to erect an ugly nine-foot tall steel security fence, bisecting the Italiante villa’s terraced gardens, mercifully failed to win support from Croydon’s planners.

The fence “would constitute inappropriate development in the Green Belt causing harm to the openness and visual amenities of the Green Belt,” the planners said. Few questioned the suspiciously generous rental terms that the cash-strapped council offered to Cressey: a modest £5,000 per year, for an education business with a £31million annual turnover.

Since Cressey’s stay during covid, also now locked out of the property has been the nature conservationists at the Croydon Ecology Centre. They had used rooms in the building for fundraising and ecology fairs.

No one at home: the unopened mail is stacking up

Now letters and leaflets pile up in the locked front porch.

Worn signs point out that this used to be a training centre for council staff.

The car park on Riesco Drive stands uneven, with lots of flooded pot-holes that would put visitors’ vehicle suspensions at risk.

The grubby notice that warns that the car park is closed “half-hour before sunset” has been rendered irrelevant, as in fact the area is permanently open, with one of the gates off a hinge. Residents living nearby suggest that the car park has become a hotspot for crime and anti-social behaviour.

The walkways around the grounds are all overgrown. Trees have begun to enclose benches. The ornamental pond behind the house is hopelessly clogged.

Boarded up: windows and doors at Heathfield House show evidence of emergency repairs

The once immaculate lawn that runs down to the walled garden lies unmown and untended, with a forlorn wandering path across it where people have trampled some of the longer grass. At least it is shorter now than last summer, when it had been allowed to grow thigh-high.

The ornamental gardens of which the Riescos were so proud are strangled by brambles, the ornamental bridge now so rickety it has been closed off for safety at each end by a couple of thin nailed planks which looks very much like a bodge job.

The garden’s borders are barren, except where they have been allowed to become overgrown with grass.

But it is the state of the house itself that is the most depressing. Inside Croydon has previously reported on the failure of the council to properly maintain the building, which was built in 1837, and provide the care and attention that such a listed building requires.

Five of the windows and doors are boarded up. When we visited at the weekend, we were unable to get inside the building itself, but it is clear through viewing through the windows that ceilings inside sagging – a sign, perhaps, that the roof is leaking.

We never close: the unsecrured car park at Heathfield now attracts ASB, and worse

It is as if the place has been left to fall into ruin.

In among all the dereliction, those views to New Addington from the house’s veranda are not as pleasant.

Heathfield House’s history is outlined and it is still listed on the council’s website among the collection of parks and open spaces, with its “facilities” described as “Woodland and rhododendron walks”, and “Ornamental gardens and ponds”.

But that seems to be about as far as the council’s commitment goes to this important piece of the borough’s built heritage – and in this year, too, when Croydon is supposed to be the Mayor of London’s Borough of Culture.

There’s unlikely to be any money available for the council to conduct the repairs urgently required to weatherproof the building, or for gardening work to be done to bring the grounds back to their former standard.

Garden rescue: the once-admired grounds at Heathfield, with damaged walls and abandoned flower beds, is a sorry sight

Nor has the council’s leadership yet managed to come up with any ideas of how to make best use of this valuable public asset, before their own negligence sees it collapse to a state beyond repair.

The council has already pillaged and plundered part of the borough’s inheritance from the Riescos, in the ill-conceived and botched auctioning off of part of the valuable ceramics collection that the millionaire had left in trust for the people of Croydon “in perpetuity”. The fear now is that further council incompetence will lead to the loss of another important public asset.

Some individuals who have seen the sad decay of Heathfield House believe it is long past time that the dysfunctional council seeks outside help.

They want to see Croydon acting now, before it really is too late, by handing the house, its gardens and grounds, over to English Heritage or the National Trust, competent organisations that could take the required actions and secure the future of Heathfield House for generations to come, and before the council manages to squander any more of the public’s inheritance.

Read more: Public outcry as council tries to off-load historic Heathfield House
Read more: Riesco objections: Croydon Council’s squandering our heritage
Read more: Council’s botched attempt to airbrush Riesco from web history

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Addington, Art, Croydon Council, Croydon parks, Environment, Gardening, Heathfield House, History, Property, Riesco Collection, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Council’s once-prized listed building Heathfield House left to rot

  1. Gavin Palmer says:

    Well said a far better custodian and used to the management of such buildings. A good idea for the executive mayor and for the benefit of Croydon.

  2. Sheila Hollingworth says:

    Come on Croydon make your voices heard to save thus once beautiful asset that is free for us all

  3. Bou says:

    This is heartbreaking. What happened to Lorraine who used to run the ecology centre?

  4. Wouldn’t be surprised if it ‘accidentally’ caught fire and had to be demolished. Horrified yes, surprised no

  5. Steve Greetham. says:

    I worked in the grounds of Heathfield in 1969 and served part of my apprenticeship there as a gardener. I also lived in the big house with my parents in late 70s and 80s in one of the large flats before they moved into the garage maisonette. It’s such a crying shame to see the house and gardens in such a run down state. It really hurts after all the hard work done by all the gardeners over the years to see it live this. It breaks us old gardeners hearts.

  6. Emma Birkett says:

    The state of this once beautiful house and gardens is an absolute disgrace – the fact that we are London’s ‘borough of culture’ is an absolute joke… I spent many a wonderful childhood Saturday exploring the garden and having picnics there. At this point I wouldn’t trust Croydon Council with a pencil – they should be made to hand it over immediately. Perhaps some of my 15% council tax bill could aid in that?

  7. Lewis White says:

    Croydon needs to really think about the value of the house and site in both financial terms and aesthetic . And-for goodness sake–ACT, in the best interests of the house and gardens.

    My gut feeling is that part of the grounds (the walled garden area) could be redeveloped for a high quality flatted development. The coach house converted too.

    The council would have to give itself planning permision– not easy as I think it is perhaps Green Belt?

    What to do about the house?

    Sell it off, but to the right kind of buyer. And not at a give-away price. Or ling term lease it, but with really tight clarity about who maintains the structure, and to waht standard.

    As Arfur T. said above, the danger is that it just gets torched.

    Having looked at the site last year, and really thought about whether it would be possible to integrate public access to the formal gardens near the house, while using the building as aschool, or similar, I have to say that it is a real landscape and functional/ personal safety design challenge.

    The real problem is that fences are needed to keep the public away from the building if it is a school or anything needing security for the occupants. Fences on their own cut up a landscape, which is ugly. Fences with hedges to scren them block out views, and create spots where anti-social behaviour is possible.

    I hate to say it, but I think the time has come for the council to sell it– but with legal safeguards as to the building and landscape. And an eye to profit sharing if possible.

    It needs someone with Riesco type wealth to restore it and maintain it.

    In the 1960’s, maybe it could have been the HQ of the council Borough Engineer or Parks departments… but now, we live in a cash strapped world.

    This building and its setting need to be loved, and funded. Only the private sector can probably do it.

    I don’t think it is suitable for council use any more.

    Sell it–or see it crumble through neglect and underfunding. It would be a tragedy if it got torched, or just fell down in 10 or so more years.

    If the council can’t afford to look after its parks, it can’t afford to look after this quirky rich man’s villa. Sad, but I think, true.

    • Not sell it, Lewis, but GIVE IT AWAY, to the National Trust. They will be saddled with the refurbishment costs. But it would be a project which the NT could turn into a suitable attraction, while getting it out of the hands of negligent Croydon Council.

  8. Lewis White says:

    Good thinking, Inside Croydon ! I hope that the Council read Inside Croydon, (even if they are banned from doing so, or face disciplinary action if found with a dog-eared photocopy in the loos), and will take note of this very sensible, sustainable proposal.

    The National Trust could perhaps also take over the beautiful sweeping landscape of the adjacent open fields (if these still belong to the Council) as this would safeguard them from building.

    The Trust would also have the design skills at hand, and property management skills, and –hopefully– people who can see the potential for two things, and designing them to co-exist, which is buy no means simple, and can be controversial.

    first, allowing public access to the gardens and the areas with views over the adjacent countryside (the latter is an amazing survival) while making sure that the house is not accessible to vandals and thieves. Maybe the area immediately round the house

    second- looking creatively at the coach house and the walled garden area, and devise a form of refurbishment and redevelopment which could go towards paying for restoration of the house and gardens.

    You are right– a benevolent owner is needed, and maybe the National Trust could be that owner.

    The Selsdon Park Hotel is of course an even bigger heritage building set in a beautiful landscape. How can these magnificent buildings survive and thrive ?

    They need good uses, that generate money, now.

    It’s no good living in the past– new uses for old buildings for new times. That might mean some compromises, but with the right new owner, and right designers and cost advisers, maybe they can live on ?

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