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Restoring a historical coaching inn in Hatfield

PUBLISHED: 17:36 05 March 2018 | UPDATED: 11:17 30 April 2018

Nothing but a four-poster would suit a bedroom of these proportions (photo: Fine & Country)

Nothing but a four-poster would suit a bedroom of these proportions (photo: Fine & Country)

Fine & Country

The romance of a grand inn on the old Great North Road led to a couple abandoning a new build and setting to work restoring a piece of Herts’ history

St Michaels, for centuries a refuge for drinkers and travellers, has many stories to tell (photo: Fine & Country)St Michaels, for centuries a refuge for drinkers and travellers, has many stories to tell (photo: Fine & Country)

Few people having a house built change their mind midway through and buy something else. In 1994 company director Steve Tollman and his wife Madeleine did just that.

On a Friday morning the founder of a baby products manufacturing company was talking to his PA when she mentioned a beautiful old house that had just come on the market. He remembers: ‘I was intrigued because it seemed to have everything we’d been looking for, particularly outbuildings – there was a coach house in the grounds. I was tempted. The house we were building was proving to be a real headache.’

Even so, he wasn’t expecting his secretary to make him an appointment to view St Michaels, a 17th century former coaching inn at Woodside on the edge of Hatfield at 11 o’clock next Monday morning.

‘It was only up the road. I wanted to be polite so I said I’d go. When I drove up and saw this huge place I thought this is a bit rich for me. Then I began to like it. It needed a lot of work but the property as a whole was fantastic.’

The office in the spectacularly-roofed coach house (photo: Fine & Country)The office in the spectacularly-roofed coach house (photo: Fine & Country)

Steve is South African. He’d studied accountancy but never really wanted to make it his career. When he and his first wife arrived in England in 1977 he was working as the distributor of the Italian Chicco brand, a leading name worldwide in the baby products business. It wasn’t long before he was spotting opportunities to go it alone which led to the launch of his own company, Vital Baby.

It was against this background that in 1994 fate intervened and he found exactly the house for his growing family – two sons from his previous marriage and his daughter Sonni with Madeleine, known as Madzy, who were followed by three more sons. By the end of that Monday viewing only the legal transactions needed to be completed for the couple to become only the sixth owners of St Michaels in 400 years.

Now, 24 years on it was a decision he and Madzy have never regretted. With six reception rooms, eight bedrooms and a garden of just over two acres backing on to parkland belonging to Hatfield House, it is a magical place to bring up a large family, now ranging in age from 40-plus to their 10-year-old youngest.

‘We enlisted the help of real craftsmen to help return this lovely old house to its former glory,’ says the entrepreneur who has worked from the first floor office of the renovated separate coach house to launch a stream of enterprises.

Who has wandered up these steps to bed over the buliding's centuries as an inn? (photo: Fine & Country)Who has wandered up these steps to bed over the buliding's centuries as an inn? (photo: Fine & Country)

On the domestic front it’s been a huge source of satisfaction for both of them, particularly Madzy who after marrying Steve studied for a degree in environmental science, that the restoration of both the main house and the outbuildings has enhanced what was there before, largely because of the exclusive use of salvaged materials. ‘We stripped back layers of paint to reveal all the beautiful old woodwork,’ Steve explains. ‘In one room we discovered stunning stencilling on the beams and cornices. The coach house was almost completely derelict when we came here.’

A pair of highly skilled furniture makers, two brothers from Poland, did all the joinery. ‘They didn’t use a single nail or screw. They used dowels and joints just as the craftsmen would have done when it was originally built.’

The ground floor still has the wide entrance where the coachmen would park up and turn out the horses into the stables. The stalls still have their tether rings, cast iron harness hooks and drinking troughs. Upstairs is Steve’s 30ft office, also a living room, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom.

The units that line the farmhouse-sized kitchen in the main house were also hand built by the Polish brothers, again using reclaimed wood to match the rest of the original carefully restored wooden features in the house. The ground floor layout of the main house hasn’t been altered, only updated.

Layers of paint were removed to reveal the beauty of the wooden structure - it threw up surprises including ornate stencilling (photo: Fine & Country)Layers of paint were removed to reveal the beauty of the wooden structure - it threw up surprises including ornate stencilling (photo: Fine & Country)

Not surprisingly, Steve finds it immensely satisfying that the fusion of old and new has resulted in a home with genuine historic character that fires on all cylinders in the modern age.

‘We still have the butler’s pantry and a traditional green baize door separating what would have been the staff areas and the still-existing staff staircase from the main living area. The dining room, music room and living room are separated by large double doors that can be opened to create one fabulous entertaining space easily accommodating more than 50.’

The list of former owners only came to light a couple of years ago after Steve commissioned Kevin Ward to delve into St Michaels history. A member of the grandly-named Academy of Experts, he’s a leading authority on tracing the documented history of old houses, land borders and routes. Thanks to his investigation they know who laid claim to the property at Woodside in the past and where the boundaries are.

Despite its name, St Michaels was never an ecclesiastical building. In the mid 1800s the lobby of a church in the north of England was moved and rebuilt here. There are several features in the house with ecclesiastical origins including the original double church doors from the lobby to the main entrance hall, stained glass windows, and pews which make heavenly window seats in the hall.

Grand rooms flow from one to the other - the original layout downstairs remains intact (photo: Fine & Country)Grand rooms flow from one to the other - the original layout downstairs remains intact (photo: Fine & Country)

The land on which the house stands was mapped as early as 1608 when it was occupied by two substantial houses each with their own enclosed gardens.

The owner of the site before 1679 was a brewer, Thomas Searancke, which explains why the two houses in 1608 morphed into an ale house and eventually became a coaching inn – a stopping-off point for the stage and mail coaches travelling on the Great North Road from London to the north via Hatfield.

The name of the pub changed several times in the course of two centuries. By the time it was delicensed in 1870 it had become known far and wide as The Greyhound. At that point it had been owned by the Church family for a century. After the shutters went up, their descendants lived in the house they’d converted from the inn and named St Michaels until 1981 when Sir Geoffrey Church sold the property to Steve’s predecessor. The Church family were held in high regard. Sir Geoffrey was High Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1936, his father Sir William Selby was president of the Royal College of Physicians from 1899-1904 and also the president of the Royal Society of Medicine between 1907 and 1910.

Now, with only their youngest child living at home full-time, the sixth owners of this historic property are planning to move on.

‘It’s a house that deserves to be enjoyed by another family’, Madzy says. ‘It’s been an incredible place to live for the past 24 years, an extremely happy home – it will be a wrench to leave.’

There is one question the couple could not find an answer to about the house – whether there’s any substance to the legend that the former coaching inn was once the haunt of passing highwaymen – including Dick Turpin. No concrete evidence has been discovered thus far. The current owners will pass on that hunt to the next ones.

*St Michaels is for sale through Fine and Country in Brookmans Park for offers in excess £4m.

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