From Condemned House to Home for a Hollywood Star
When I first visited Highwell House (then called Steep Park) it was like a derelict museum. Furniture, paintings, shoes and clothes from the 1960’s, even a cheque book and some aspirin, All in situ in the house like someone had left yesterday. I couldn’t wait to find out what had gone on.
However the last owners were the one’s that really interested me. The last owners to live in the house was James Francis Walford born in 1913 to Leopold Walford, a London shipping magnate and an Andalusian Duchess. Having enjoyed a successful career in the City Walford turned his hand to pottery and ceramics becoming a founding member of the Craft Potters’ Association of Great Britain. In 1957 he married Muriel (rumoured to have been a ballerina). The couple married late in life (James was 44 and Muriel 51) so had no children but had a string of dogs whose graves we uncovered in the garden. Mr Walford had two great passions in life: art and rare orchids. In 1959, possibly aided by a bequest from his late father, he bought Steep Park, which allowed ample room for both passions.
Originally named Higher Steep, the house was built in 1890 for Robert H. Halford, a London jeweller and silversmith who lived there with his large extended family and staff including a cook and gardener. It passed through a few more hands and by 1928 the estate was owned by W.B. Woodrow, who added landscaped grounds, glasshouses and a winter garden and renamed it Steep Park.
Walford wasted little time in setting up a plant nursery, studio and craft pottery there and soon established himself as a major authority on orchids and a successful potter. He was also an enterprising inventor and developed his own water system for the property. He painted extensively, being best known, unsurprisingly, for his painstaking illustrations of orchids, although we found other works in great numbers.
Shortly after a fire caused by a defunct boiler, Walford died, aged 88, his wife, alone except for the servants and her visitors, left the now crumbling house for a care home. She lived for another 20 years and died in 2015 in a local care home.
With no direct heirs to look after the estate, the contents stayed and the house and it fell into ruin. It was put on the market and bought by a developer who failed to get the planning he wanted.
It then became derelict over 10 years of being visited by people both photographing the house and by local teenagers hanging out there and having party’s with even the odd vagrant taking residence.