Â£2m plans to restore Merchistoun Hall in Horndean to its former glory
The row of white pillars peeping through the trees are a commanding feature off the busy Portsmouth Road.
A stranger to Horndean might imagine this is the home of a wealthy aristocrat, or some kind of upmarket hotel.
But Merchistoun Hall, with history going back more than 350 years, is a thriving community centre.
It hosts 53 weekly and monthly groups, including dance classes, dog training, council meetings, fencing, yoga and it even has its own pre-school.
And numerous weddings have been held at the hall over the years. After all, who could resist such an impressive backdrop for photographs?
Within the building’s walls and ornate features lies a fascinating history.
During the early part of the 19th century the hall, then known as Qualletts Grove, became a popular residence for high-ranking military officers and was described as a ‘desirable modern villa’.
It boasted some of the best ‘mod cons’ of the day with a large hall, bath with a closet, a large kitchen and four spacious bedrooms with water closets.
In 1836 Qualletts Grove was bought by the then Captain Charles Napier, who changed the name to Merchistoun Hall in honour of his distinguished family home in Scotland.
Fast forward to the 1950s and this amazing building was on the market.
Horndean Community Association, formed in 1946, was looking for a home.
Every house in the village was visited and a community whip-round raised the £5,000 needed.
The centre was officially opened on January 31, 1956, by the then chairman of Hampshire County Council, Alan Lubbock.
The rest, as they say, is history.
And it’s the community centre’s intriguing heritage that has come into focus in recent years.
Now the centre is looking to enter a new chapter by launching Heritage Lottery bid for almost £2m.
The paperwork and research has been done and the application is ready to be sent off.
If successful, the cash could help return the building to its former glory and restore previously demolished buildings, such as the garage, scullery, glasshouse, and walled garden.
The community association wants to develop a small museum to promote the history of the Horndean area.
Pride of place in the new museum will be a portrait of Admiral Murray, the man who spearheaded the fundraising campaign to buy the house in the 1950s.
An education programme could bring history to life for hundreds of schoolchildren.
The idea is to enhance Merchistoun’s role in the community, as well as make it a visitor attraction to bring people to Horndean.
It’s an exciting time to be at Merchistoun Hall, says centre manager Brendan Charles.
‘We are looking to submit the bid in the spring,’ says the 52-year-old, who lives nearby in Cowplain.
‘A lot of work has gone into it.
‘It’s been really interesting putting it together.
‘The root of this is celebrating the culture and heritage of the building itself and the people of the parish and the history of Horndean.
‘Now is the best time to do it.
‘Merchistoun Hall is a unique building for a community centre.
‘I have travelled across the country and people find it very bizarre that we were bequeathed an old manor that became a community centre.
‘It’s a local landmark with a lot of heritage.’
Brendan said the attitude of Sir Charles still runs through the ethos of the centre more than 150 years since his death.
‘He worked towards making sure there were better living conditions for sailors in and out of service,’ he explains.
Two projects at the centre are of particular note.
Students from Highbury College have helped to build a charming bandstand in the grounds of the hall.
The bandstand should be ready by the spring.
‘The board of trustees are going to be looking at how we can make it an all-year round attraction,’ adds Brendan, who says ‘jazz in the park’ and outdoor theatre are being considered.
The centre also ran a befriending scheme with the help of Age Concern and the pilot scheme was so successful that more volunteer befrienders are now needed to continue the project.
The volunteers help lonely older people in the Horndean area over a period of eight weeks in order for them to become less isolated.
Potential volunteers are invited to come to the hall on the weekend of February 13 and 14 when there will be open days to showcase all the community centre has to offer.
The comments book speaks for itself.
Praise includes ‘Many of our guests said Merchistoun Hall was the best community centre they had ever seen’, ‘You change people’s lives’ and ‘Merchistoun Hall has been a lifeline for me’.
Brendan says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
‘I absolutely love it,’ he says.
‘No two days are the same.
‘There’s something about the hall that you can’t help but fall in love with.
‘A lot of people are here for a long time and if they leave it’s more necessity than out of choice.
‘It’s kept me here for over 20 years.
‘It’s a beautiful place.’