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Home of the month: Restoration man and wife

PUBLISHED: 17:08 28 May 2012 | UPDATED: 21:25 20 February 2013

John Groom

John Groom

Changing three flats back into a family home in Hitchin was just the latest in a series of projects for John and Betty Groom, as Pat Bramley discovers...

JOHN Groom sits at the kitchen table at his house in Hitchin and reels off the countries where he was based during the 25 years he worked for what has since become the worlds largest pharmaceutical company.


He joined Smith Kline and French, now Glaxo SmithKline, in the UK as a newly qualified accountant and rose through the ranks to become president of their international division.


When he set off on his first posting overseas to Pakistan he was already married to the girl he had met during his accountancy training at Murphy Radio.


After Pakistan, he and Elizabeth (Betty to family and friends) moved to India, then back to the UK, then to Brussels, then to Philadelphia.


By then wed had enough of travelling and I was able to retire at 47, he says. This is what he did. He packed in the day job and although he still retained business interests elsewhere he was a free agent that is, until he received a call from a start-up bio-technology company based in South San Francisco who wanted him to join their organisation as president and chief operating officer at a time when they were setting out to discover new drugs to treat neurological diseases using the then new science of molecular biology. This led to spending the next nine years in San Francisco and subsequently six more years in Dublin.


John had had lots of offers to get back into the industry since hed retired but this was one he couldnt refuse though, it has to be said, Betty took some persuading.


I dragged my reluctant wife with me, he admits, she thought we were resettled in the UK. Even so she upped sticks and lived again in America very happily.


In each of the countries where they were posted, her natural home-making instinct was given full vent. She loved a bargain, shed drive 22 miles to buy something at a knock-down price yet most times she wouldnt think twice about splashing out money on the home. John laughs, wincing at how the cash flowed out of the account when his wife got an adrenalin rush. I set myself a goal that I would always earn a pound more for each pound that Betty spent, he says. It didnt always work.


Sometimes they bought a property in a foreign city, sometimes they rented. Regardless of whether it was temporary or not, the high flyers wife did a wonderful job of turning what were occasionally quite unpromising surroundings into a place anyone would be proud to invite friends back to.


She had a gift for combining old and new. She had an eye for it. In India she completely restored a bungalow that dated from Winston Churchills time in Bangalore. When we were living in Philadelphia we had the oldest residential house in the city which dated from 1735 and with the help of Ivan Clarke she brought it up to date without losing the character and transformed it.


Ivan Clarke was an architect friend from back home in Hertfordshire.
One of the Grooms first homes in the UK was an old pub which had been owned and restored by Ivan. The Old Chequers had been a pub since 1515. Ivan researched the history and traced all the past landlords and owners. He had them listed on a chart. The descendants of a lot of the people on the list still live in Welwyn. I wanted to replicate that idea when we bought this house in Hitchin. I wanted to trace whod lived here since it was built in the 1730s.


John and Betty had long since moved on from the pub when they bought their most recent house in Tilehouse Street.


In between times theyd bought the Manor House in Woolmer Green. As John says, despite spending much more time abroad than in England, Ive always felt that my home in inverted commas was in the UK.


John was born in Welwyn Garden City and grew up there; he attended the local grammar school, Stanborough. His grandparents and parents didnt have a lot of money; in fact his grandfather was gardener in 1921 at the Manor House which three-quarters of a century later was bought by his grandson.


In the 1920s, the property dating back to the Domesday Book had been rented by the widow of Sir Howard Frank, senior partner of the highly regarded estate agency Knight Frank & Rutley. John says, I remember as a child driving past the manor with my mother and she would say in a hushed voice, thats where Mrs Frank lived.


Consequently, when the property came up for sale in the 1990s, it wasnt surprising, given the family background, that the grandson of the Franks one time gardener by that time at the top of the tree in the pharmaceutical industry says he made sure it was his. Both my grandfather and mother were born in Woolmer Green. The Manor is a beautiful house. It dates back to the Domesday Book. I couldnt resist buying it.


Despite buying the house hed always wanted, he never gave up the habit of trawling the internet to see what other properties were on the market and thats how he spotted the Tilehouse Street house. I looked on it as somewhere we could retire to. The manor was pretty large and had seven acres of land; the maintenance would have been too much.


However, the chance to buy the property in Tilehouse Street wasnt initially what hed thought. It had been split up into three flats and was being sold by the vendor, Neil Trodden, who intended to retain part of it and still live there.


For the buyer it was all or nothing. I made Neil an offer for the whole lot, John says and he accepted it.


Fortunately at that stage he and Betty still owned the Manor House because Tilehouse Street needed months of work to restore it to its original purpose as a residence of quality for Hitchin worthies, as the generations of two eminent families of local doctors, the Fosters and the Shillitoes, who have lived there over the centuries can aptly be described.


Sadly many of the period features they would have remembered had been ripped out, first by people who had earlier turned the house into offices and more recently when it was divided up into flats.


Again it was Betty who masterminded the restoration. With her enthusiasm for sensitive renovation, she rescued it from a sad example of how practical concerns can destroy architectural details which should be saved. These artefacts are part of our heritage. They were everyday items when George III was on the throne and Stevenson was designing his rocket.


Today, thanks to a huge investment of cash and much love, No 13 Tilehouse Street is a house where the architectural details of past eras have been re-instated but in an idiom which reflects 21st-century taste.


The lofty rooms on all three floors are predominantly painted white, flashes of colour coming from treasures and furniture Betty in her wisdom bartered for in markets or chose in a moment of ecstasy for a beautiful object to grace their home. Everything from fireplaces of the period to replacement deep skirting boards has given the house back its soul.


Sadly in 2007 the woman who had derived so much enjoyment from the project contracted lung cancer. It was diagnosed in February and she died five months later in July.


Throughout her illness she had continued to keep a handle on the choice of fittings and worked with Tommy Booth their builder who had helped them restore the Manor House to make Tilehouse Street as fine a house as theyd ever owned.


I think it was the best house she did, John says. The restoration was completed in August 2007, a month after her death. He admits, I hadnt a clue how to arrange the furniture. I just looked at pictures of how wed arranged it at the Manor and followed that. Even when she was very ill, Betty had chosen the lights for this house. Extraordinarily, when we put them up, they were exactly right.


Hes still on the move, living mainly in the States and Spain where his business interests are and in Australia.


I only get to spend a few weeks each year in the UK. Fortunately I have Keith Manning as my property manager who lives in the house keeping it safe and in great order for my eventual retirement.

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