Hertfordshire home: pretty thatched cottage in Much Hadham
PUBLISHED: 10:28 07 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:28 07 August 2018
Owned by the same family for generations on the historic Moor Place estate at Much Hadham, Yew Tree House and its current remarkable owner are full of stories
When the first managing director of London’s Barbican Centre was having a bad day at the office he had a fail safe way of dealing with it.
Following Henry Wrong’s retirement after nearly 20 years at the helm of Europe’s largest performing arts centre he told friends that when all hell broke loose in the early years of the cultural centre, ‘I saved my sanity by going home and mowing the grass.’
Home was the six bedroom Grade II* listed house on the 800-acre Moor Place estate in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, which had been his wife’s family seat for six generations.
Penelope Wrong, now 84 and widowed since her husband died in August last year, was born and brought up in the mansion bought by her great-grandfather in 1886. She comes from a family of eminent bankers. Great grandfather Frederick was on the board of the Bank of England. Her grandfather’s eldest brother Montagu Norman was governor of the Bank of England from 1920-44.
Her father Mark was managing director of Lazard Brothers, the merchant bank. Her grandfather Ronald was both chairman of the BBC and London County Council.
The distinguished members of the Norman family could have been the real life inspiration for Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga.
The estate was left to Montagu following Frederick’s death but after four years he moved to another estate he’d inherited – St Clere in Kemsing, Kent – leaving the way clear for his younger brother Ronald to take over Moor Place.
Penelope says she had an idyllic childhood. ‘There were always lots of people here,’ she recalls. ‘My grandparents had five children and so did my parents. I was the eldest – I had two brothers and two sisters. There were ponies for every child who wanted them. My grandchildren can’t believe it when I tell them we used to ride across the fields to Woolworths in Bishop’s Stortford each week to get sweets.
‘My first memory of Yew Tree House was when the gardener, the fearsome Mr Brooks, lived here. He always wore a hat.
‘Later an aunt and uncle moved in to run the horsey side of the estate. Another family was here when I was in my 20s but it had been empty for two years by the time Henry and I took it over 49 years ago.’
During the Second World War Penelope and her siblings were sent to stay with Great Aunt Gertrude (Montagu and Ronald’s sister) on her private estate next to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. ‘When we got there Uncle Freddie lined us up and gave each of us one of his nightshirts and a bow and arrow,’ Penelope remembers. ‘He told us we could take a pot shot at anything except Wilfred the pheasant. Wilfred was off limits.’
Back home at Moor Place after the war, the eldest of the children who had been evacuated to Scotland won a scholarship to a college in Wisconsin in 1950 but her American grandmother immediately put a stop to Penelope going there. ‘You can’t send her to Wisconsin,’ she exclaimed, ‘they make beer there.’
‘My American grandmother always wanted me to go to college in Virginia but I didn’t want to. I hated it,’ says Penelope. Chocolate milkshakes, she says, are her only good memory of her time at college.
A chance meeting between one of Penelope’s many relations and the mother of a family in Brussels led to her becoming an au pair. ‘They struck up conversation on a ski lift. The lady from Brussels mentioned her children had seen off the latest of a succession of au pairs. My aunt said “I’ll send you a niece”.’
That’s how the well-bred daughter from a family of leading English bankers came to work first for a family in Brussels and subsequently for families in France and Italy.
After returning home again to Moor Place she took a job in a bookshop. One of her customers was a girl she’d known. ‘She never paid for the books she chose. She said her brother would call in to pay what she owed,’ says Penelope. He not only turned up to pay his sister’s bill, he fell for the shop assistant. Henry and Penelope married in 1966.
Their first home together was in Ottowa where her new Canadian arts administrator husband was a leading light in the Festival of Canada. After two years, and by then with a one-year-old son, they moved to France for 18 months where they lived ‘in a small house I’d bought’. Eventually they decided to return to England where Henry’s prospects for earning enough to support his wife in the manner to which she was accustomed were much greater.
After a short time living in the family mansion at Moor Place they decided it would be to everyone’s advantage if they took over Yew Tree House as a temporary measure. After being empty for two years, it was showing signs of neglect. ‘I remember sitting in the bath watching a mouse scuttle past. I said, “Hello, mouse, your days here are numbered”.’
The dining room, the oldest part of the house, dates from the 1400s. It’s a Wealden house, a medieval timber-framed hall house, the type built for yeomen. The central living area with a hearth in the middle was open to the rafters.
An architectural historian from The Royal Commission for Historic Monuments (which merged with English Heritage in 1999) clambered up into the roof space in what is now the utility room, and originally the outside scullery, and was almost speechless with excitement when he discovered soot on the rafters from the fires in the hearth.
The main part of the structure was built in the 1500s and modernised in 1697. That’s when the ceiling was put into the hall and a further staircase was built up to two tiny bedrooms on the second floor (where the king post with more soot made the architectural historian even more excitable). The secondary staircase led to what would have been the servants’ quarters at the top of the house.
As part of their own modernisation programme, Henry and Penelope made the kitchen and dining room open-plan and installed a red Aga. They also demolished a partition between the two small bedrooms in the attic.
All the ‘interlined anti-draught curtains’ in the house were made by Penelope. ‘I made them on my mother’s ancient Singer sewing machine,’ she explains. ‘She would never have dreamt of using it – it would have been unthinkable for the daughter of a well-to-do household in Virginia to make curtains. I love making things – quince jelly or curtains or gardens.
‘A cousin of mine made the pelmets. She wasn’t allowed to have a proper job so she took up making pelmets.’
The most recent improvement is the new en suite shower room for the second bedroom.
With the house in good shape, and the main estate broken up and sold in the past five years, Penelope has regretfully decided it would be a wise time for her to move on. Two of her three children live in London. ‘They’ve both offered to create a flat for me in their basements. I’ll be loath to leave here but I’ve got to be sensible about it. I’ll enjoy living with a family again.’
Consequently Yew Tree House is for sale through Savills in Bishop’s Stortford as a whole or in four lots. As well as the main property with six principal bedrooms, four bath/shower rooms, three reception rooms, open-plan kitchen-dining room, cellars and a self-contained ground floor annexe, there are two attached cottages currently let on an assured short-term basis (forming lots two and three). There is planning consent for a pair of three or four bedroom cottages on a plot which included the one-time vegetable garden and a large modern barn where the combine harvester was garaged, constituting lot four.
The agent is inviting offers over £1.95m for the property as a whole.