For sale: Home they saved to share with the public

Sarah and Robin Pennie inside the Fielden Building in Todmorden. Picture by Simon Hulme
Sarah and Robin Pennie inside the Fielden Building in Todmorden. Picture by Simon Hulme
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Damp, dry rot and vandals had devastated the Fielden School building in Todmorden and a battle to rescue the historic property from demolition seemed doomed to fail.

It was saved thanks to an astounding act of altruism by campaigners Sarah and Robin Pennie, who bought the building in 1996 to preserve it for community use.

Sarah and Robin Pennie inside the Fielden Building in Todmorden. Picture by Simon Hulme

Sarah and Robin Pennie inside the Fielden Building in Todmorden. Picture by Simon Hulme

The couple, who spent a small fortune on the renovation and sold their own home to move into the premises, are now appealing for a like-minded buyer to take on their remarkable legacy.

The grade two listed property, which is on the market with Brearley Greens for offers over £450,000, is one of the town’s most admired buildings. It sits on the edge of Centre Vale Park and includes the Master’s House, which has three bedrooms, and the Old School House, which has two bedrooms. Sandwiched in the middle is a 1,691sq ft community centre, which hosts everything from a mother and baby group and art classes to Age Concern meetings and functions.

“It is a highly unusual property in a lovely location,” said estate agent Simon Brearley. “The owners want to sell it as a whole to preserve what they have created.”

Fielden School and its schoolmaster’s house was built in 1871 by Samuel Fielden and was left to the town with a covenant stating it had to be used for the community’s benefit. It became an art school and was used by the local education department but the council boarded it up in 1992 and it was left to decay.

The Pennies, who ran the town’s bookshop at the time, helped campaign to save the building from the bulldozer.

“It was in such a state and it wasn’t commercially viable, so it looked likely that it would be knocked down and sold to a developer. We lived close by and were involved in trying to save it and looked for a benefactor but it was hopeless. Then some money became available to us and we thought ‘why don’t we buy it and be the benefactor,’ ” said Mrs Pennie.

The restoration soared way over budget and became a ten-year project but the couple managed to fund the renovation of the homes and the roof. A charity, The Fielden Centre Association, was formed to run the community hall and the volunteers were able to apply for grants to refurbish the space. The association has 17 years left on the lease and pays £2,100 a year rent.

“It took so much longer and cost many times more than we anticipated. Financially it was never going to be a good investment but that doesn’t matter. Saving the building has given us an enormous sense of satisfaction,” said Mrs Pennie.

“People thought we were mad when we bought it and some didn’t trust our intentions. They said we would pull it down and build flats on the site but we proved them wrong.”

Living next door to the Fielden Centre has never been an issue for the couple who are selling to retire and downsize.

“It is a beautiful spot and you don’t feel like you’re living in a public building,” said Mrs Pennie, who lives in the Master’s House.

“Yes, we could have done other things with our money but we have never regretted buying it. We are really proud of the work done by local trades to restore this beautiful building and of the dedicated volunteers who run the Fielden Centre. But after almost 18 years we are very tired and must begin to think about handing on the building to others.”

• The Fielden School Building is for sale through Brearley Greens.www.brearley-greens.co.uk