When we last checked in on the colorful and decidedly non-musical dialogue between London-based Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and London-based former Take That singer Robbie Williams, whose prodigious mansions are side by side in London’s affluent Holland Park neighborhood, Mr. Williams had applied, and gotten approval for, digging what Londoners have dubbed a “mega-basement” underneath his house, including a capacious man-cave and a swimming pool.
And who wouldn’t want that? Everybody — especially those excellent marketers who design and build the things — loves a good man-cave, the more outrageous the better. Want to get your rough-n-ready Humvee outta the rain just like Bruce Wayne keeps the Batmobile? Some of those London boys and their backhoes can fix that for you.
Some background is in order: Mega-basements are the well-heeled Londoners’ architectural accessory of choice, increasing the footprint of their stand-alone mansions without seeming to. They became the rage as the first through were shoved by unsuspecting planning commissions in the better neighborhoods of West London in the Naughty Nineties, until, that is, the councils and their planning commissioners caught on to the new celebrity-real-estate game. Nevertheless, most crucially, vast underground expansions do often still have a way of slipping around the forbidding landmark rules and the other ordnance-related weaponry that London’s feared “councils” wield. On the bright side, the megabasements can be argued to bring ducats to the neighborhood, increasing the tax base of the real estate values as they do.
But all that comes at a collateral price: There is the water table to worry about, among other environmental-impact issues, so that those owners with dreams of underground ballrooms with barrel-vaulted 20-foot-ceilings and Louis-XIV chandeliers from which to swing still cannot just ask their contractors to dig out an extra hangar for their two choppers willy-nilly. They do, still have to present and register the plans. Publicly. Depending on the celebrity, and the vastness (read: invasiveness) of his or her megabasement plan, the subsequent public debate can be quite tough. Any excessive architectural expression of ego — which a mega-basement by definition also can be said to be — is routinely excoriated by the British press. Translated, that means: Everybody lawyers up quite heavily.
And precisely that was the rub four years ago between Messrs. Page and Williams. To be precise: When Mr. Williams’ architects presented the pop star’s plans, it took nary a minute for everybody, including the Kensington and Chelsea council responsible for Holland Park, to realize the sheer amount of digging this pool-cum-recreation-cum-man/family/spa cave — including a tunnel from the house — would require. So: In Mr. Williams’ proposed design, this meant an enormous excavation, roughly that required by a multi-level underground garage for a handful of cars, but, instead of having that work happen on a patch of problem-free commercial ground, this structure would be dug out on a postage-stamp of earth with cheek-by-jowl neighbors in an inner London residential area composed of some of the priciest real estate on this earth.
An idea of the location for United States readers not so familiar with London can be had by saying that Melbury Road, where both Mr. Page’s Tower House and Mr. Williams Woodland House are, lies just below Holland Park itself, a few hundred yards west of Kensington Palace and its vast garden park, the notable residence of William and Kate, the family next-in-line to the throne.
Put simply, it wasn’t the Williams’ design, per se, that was the problem. It was that the process of realizing it meant months of ripping and snorting, and that posed environmental danger.
Enter the legendary Mr. Page, a very close neighbor of Mr. Williams and the owner of a rare Grade 1 mansion, Tower House, designed by no less a famous Victorian architect than William Burges. Burges was England’s precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright in the sense that he designed all interior details, doors, furniture, hinges, shelves, and exquisitely planned finishes and painting. Although we can see hints of the modern age in Burges’ work, unlike Wright, Burges came square out of the maw of Victorian England and all that Victorians desired in fanciful festoonery, which in Mr. Page’s case is to say that the Tower House is in (the Victorian view of) the French neo-Gothic style, with the red brick tower and its conical roof limning a chateau and a church.
Most of the furniture Burges designed for the Tower House is in museums — such as the Victoria and Albert, for such is the fame of Burges — and some is in private hands, but of the details, suffice it to say that Burges ‘themed’ the rooms of the house, including the entry hall, whose theme is Time. After Cardiff Castle, the main entrance door is bronze, as is the door out the back to the garden. The famed English actor Richard Harris owned Tower House for a while, after which it fell into disrepair before Mr. Page bought it.
In fairness, the Williams family’s named, Grade 2 pile, Woodland House, at 31 Melbury Road is no slouch of a thing. It, too, is a huge Victorian confection, if not as quite as gloriously eccentric as the Tower House, but it bears a thoroughly aristocratic/artsy list of inhabitants/tenants/owners and was central to the development of the neighborhood when it was built in the 1870s specifically for noted British Belle Epoque artist Sir Luke Fildes and his family, who lived in it until his death in 1927. A couple of aristocratic owners down the line from there, the British film director Michael Winner was the owner from whose estate Robbie Williams bought it in 2013. Woodland House has 47 rooms.
But it was Winner — the British producer/director of Burt Lancaster’s Scorpio, the Death Wish series with Charles Bronson, and of Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep — who bought Woodland House from his parents and really took it over the top, presaging what Robbie Williams would do to in his mega-basement. As we know, the Williams mega-basement did in fact get permission to be built and there has been work, but it’s uncertain whether it has actually been finished. It had to be dug out by hand, with court-ordered seismic-measuring devices viewed daily by Mr. Page so that the vibrations of the digging would remain negligible on his side of the fence.
And so the piquant news dropped on December 5: The current discussion has come down to the fence. Specifically, Robbie Williams’ architects are now petitioning to add a trellis to the low, original brick wall between the properties, and to the wall facing the street. In the sketch as submitted by Williams’ engineering firm, the proposed addition to the boundary wall between Page’s Tower House and the Williams’ Woodland House is far higher and more complex than the proposed addition to the wall bordering the back street, Illchester Place. In short, whatever else his trellis does, Mr. Williams seems to be walling out his view of the Page property, and/or walling out the Page view of the Williams property. Take your pick.
On the surface, a modern extension to a older late-Victorian barrier might seem to be a routine sort of improvement. And as reported, the application suggests is strictly based on buttressing certain privacy concerns — the original brick wall is in fact low because it was not thought to matter back in the day it was built. It wasn’t thought to matter because it was built when the neighboring mansion owners led routine, discreet, and arguably more amicable lives than Messrs Williams and Page currently do. It was also built well before anyone on Melbury Road dreamed of anything like a “mega-basement.”
The wall also predates modern security concerns, which, though they aren’t specified in the “Williams trellis” 2-D application renderings, can be one of the several good reasons that the trellis has been estimated by a delighted Fleet Street press to be in the neighborhood of 2 million sterling ($2.4 million, give or take). If this estimate bears the scrutiny of further reporting — which is up for grabs, but if it does — even by pop-star standards, $2.4 million is a goodly chunk of change. The point is that the construction is bespoke and, apparently, of some complexity — Mr. Williams’ London contractors will not be popping down to the capital’s equivalent of Home Depot for a few dozen panels of treated lattice and some sturdy masonry screws to slam that thing onto the brickwork. The fencing addition will not, also, be anything fast.
Since the December 7 news drop, there’s been no word from the council or the Page camp on whether, or what, any possible objection might be. Mr. Page has been well-educated in the last four years of legal tussles to earn the protection of Tower House, so it’s a safe bet that he and/or his designated advisors will be taking a close look at the details of the fencing “solution” suggested by Mr. Williams.
Mr. Page objected, citing the immense architectural value of his Grade 1 landmarked house, and that it would suffer from the vibrations of the large excavation. Naturally, everybody had to go to court. That was in 2018. The court sided with Mr. Page. The decision was that to preserve Mr. Page’s house, all that digging had to be done by hand.
That’s all done now, and presumably, four years and some several million pounds later, Mr. Williams and his wife are disporting themselves in their swimming pool quite nicely.
Word to the wise: Mr. Williams has learned from his previous travail> The fence is modest.