Home of the month – A door into English history
PUBLISHED: 17:09 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 17:09 17 March 2014
clive tagg 2014
Built from the ruins of the Armada, a one-time-church for religious rebels, cowshed and finally a family home, Chapel Barn in Welwyn has English history steeped in its timbers. Pat Bramley explores its past and present
In the 17th century, Chapel Barn in Welwyn was one of the few buildings in Hertfordshire registered under the 1689 Act of Toleration for Religious Worship.
After 100 years of repression following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, non-conformist Protestants such as Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians who had dissented from the Church of England were able to hold services in registered buildings as long as they swore an oath of allegiance to the crown.
One of the places sanctioned was Chapel Barn – largely built with timbers salvaged from ships scuppered in the Armada – which belonged to the Manor of Sisvierne, a mile from Welwyn village.
Fast forward several centuries, and for the past 25 years Chapel Barn has been home to former racing driver Mike Kimpton and his wife Anne.
Mike, a member of the British Racing Drivers Club, owns Mountney, which as anyone in the car industry can tell you, is a Banbury and Leighton Buzzard-based manufacturer and distributer of spares and accessories to the motor trade.
Anne is a former art teacher and ceramics specialist. She has researched the history of the Grade II listed barn and loves everything about it.
‘Barns were traditionally created on farmland with beams donated by the king or the lord of the manor for services to the crown,’ she says. ‘This one was twice registered under the Act of Toleration.’
She knows exactly which timbers among the majestic supporting beams came from ships damaged beyond repair in the Armada. ‘You can see the notches. They still have bolts and bits of iron sticking out. They’re in the best condition of any of the beams here.’
The conversion of the barn to a grand family home had just been completed when they discovered the building on a wintry day in 1990. It was up for sale by a builder from Harpenden who had bought it with the intention of living in it himself but had changed his mind.
The Kimptons had a pressing reason for wanting to move, Anne remembers. ‘We were living in a fabulous Scandinavian-style house with a reverse living arrangement – the bedrooms were on the ground floor and the main living area was on the first floor – but by then we had two babies and the design was hopeless for young children.
‘We drove here one miserable Sunday afternoon with a six-month-old crying in the back and a lively son of three-and-a-half chattering away. We couldn’t see where the barn was. We went down the drive wondering what was at the end and found the builder. He was locking up the five-bar gate and was just about to leave.
‘He said, “Would you like to have a look?” He opened the enormous front doors – medieval doors from a church in Yorkshire – we stepped inside, looked up and just said “Wow!”’
They decided to buy it there and then – although it was five months before the sale was finalised.
‘We moved in on July 31,’ Anne remembers. ‘The next day was our daughter’s birthday and I held a party for her here. There were about 20 of us, toddlers and parents. Everyone said I was mad, holding a children’s party the day after moving to a new house. It was a boiling hot day and we sat in the garden under a walnut tree.’
Now, 25 years on, she laughs at the memory of the birthday tea. ‘I burnt the sausage rolls because I wasn’t used to the Aga. They were like charred briquettes, but we had a lovely afternoon.’
Being newly converted, there was nothing that needed doing to the home, which was just as well as Mike wouldn’t have had much time for building projects. He was more focused on his next race at Silverstone.
Despite its early designation as a house of worship, the huge weather-boarded barn had become a cowshed before it was bought by the builder.Adding to the character of the building, each floor is on a slightly different level, with some rooms either two steps up or two down from the next.
The spectacular 30 ft by 27 ft drawing room with its magnificent beams, floor-to-ceiling inglenook fireplace, double-height vaulted ceiling and minstrel gallery, leads via two steps down into the 26 ft morning room where double doors open on to the garden. The morning room continues in one direction to the 24 ft sitting room and in another two steps down to the dining room. The kitchen is in a farmhouse style with exposed brick surrounding the vast green Aga which cremated Anne’s sausage rolls.
There is no need for curtains because the house is not overlooked, but the former art teacher says her style of furnishing and décor is to create a comfortable home. ‘To make the rooms cosy I have massive, terrifically expensive curtains in the drawing room and some in the sitting room but we actually have very few curtains. Upstairs, all the bedrooms have blinds except for ours.’
The main feature upstairs is the galleried landing. The space on one side is easily wide enough for one of Anne’s large sofas. ‘I love to sit up there and look out over the garden,’ she says. ‘It’s beautiful.’ The staircase leading to the gallery was made at a sawmill near nearby Brocket Hall.
One of the bedrooms, with en-suite cloakroom, is separated from the others by the galleried walkway – and gives guests a private space if they want to sleep in on Monday morning after staying the weekend. All the bedrooms are doubles – two more are en-suite – and there’s also the main bathroom.
The property’s grounds amount to just over two-and-three-quarter acres, with a flagstone terrace, a wide expanse of lawn interspersed with trees and shrubs and a paddock separated from the garden by a post-and-rail fence. The double garage has been converted into an office and studio but that still leaves lots of parking space in the drive.
Anne says their son and daughter had an idyllic childhood at the home. ‘We still have the quad bikes and go-karts they used to race about on,’ she laughs. ‘Louise was married from here in 2012, that was another magical day. And I’ve held lots of wine tastings and coffee mornings and social events here to raise money for Macmillan. On wine tasting days I’ve had over 100 people in my drawing room. We’ve had a fabulous life at the barn.’
Now she and Mike with their two Westies (both named after cars – Sadie [Mercedes] and Riley), are ready to move on to a new chapter in their lives and have put their much-loved property on the market.
Chapel Barn is for sale through Hamptons International in St Albans for £2.2m.