Creating a home from home in Stanstead Abbotts
PUBLISHED: 10:52 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 February 2013
Antonia and Neville Reeve transformed a run-down 400-year-old farmhouse into a modern, welcoming and spacious home from home, as Pay Bramley discovers
ANTONIA Reeves is an Alastair Sawday type of landlady. Shes the calibre youd expect to meet if you select a b&b listed in the travel authors highly esteemed Special Places To Stay books.
What shes absolutely not is the old-fashioned stereotypical battleaxe, the butt of jokes in summer shows at the end of the pier.
Over the past 20 years, the range and style of bed and breakfast establishments has expanded as much as any sector of the travel industry.
In the old days the b&b market was mainly limited to providing budget priced holidays for working class families in seaside resorts and theatrical digs for touring actors in provincial towns. Today there are about 20,000 b&bs in Britain and the choice of overnight accommodation is huge, from lofty four-posters in a castle to a comfy divan in a former farm labourers cottage.
Antonia and her husband Neville, a retired fund manager in the city, are newcomers to the business of welcoming paying guests to their 400-year-old farmhouse at Stanstead Abbotts.
In their first three months after starting in April they clocked up 30 letting nights not bad going considering most of the bookings were the result of local recommendations.
We moved here seven years ago but weve lived in the Hertford area for 17 years, Antonia explains. Previously we had a house in the centre of Hertford which we bought as a wreck and renovated. It was in a most awful state when we found it but we brought it back from the brink.
Ive always loved houses. My backgrounds in property. My parents were both involved with property. Ive never been frightened of buying a wreck. I can see beyond the decay if the shape of the house is there. I think its lovely if a house still has its integrity.
The previous owners of Newlands were the parents of schoolfriends of the Reeves two sons.
We got to know them through the children. They invited us to a drinks party and I thought wow, what a wonderful old house. They re-roofed it and carried out necessary repairs on the exterior walls but after two years they moved on. One day I saw the house was for sale. We were so pleased to be able to buy it.
At that time, in 2003, the interior of the 17th-century farmhouse hadnt been touched for 30 years. Although the structure was sound, inside the decor was still as it was when it was last decorated in the 1970s by their friends predecessors and as for the six acre grounds, the skeleton of a very beautiful garden lay hidden under at least two decades of weeds.
None of that mattered to the Reeves. Antonia couldnt wait to get started on a sympathetic makeover.
Im not an interior designer, she says, I just know what I like. I love renovating old houses and restoring their integrity but it is a full-time job. You do have to be there. Fortunately she is able to give each of her projects the attention it needs because since shes had the boys she hasnt gone back to her previous career in educational administration, shes been a full-time mum.
When they bought Newlands, there were eight bedrooms and three bathrooms over the two upper floors, now there are seven bedrooms and six bathrooms five ensuite.
But until 18 months ago they had no thoughts of turning over three of the rooms on the first floor to bed and breakfast guests. A chance trip to visit a friend in France last year made Antonia think shed like to give it a go.
As she explains, I went to see a very good friend Ive known for 20 years who has moved to Provence and is doing b&b and it just looked such fun.
She also had at the back of her mind that her sons Rowland and Gil, now 18 and 16, will soon be taking off. I dont want the two of us to be rattling around in a huge house. I want it to continue to be like it is now, full of life with lots of people coming in and out and enjoying it and having lots of laughs. I thought if I started b&b in a small way, maybe in three years time when the boys probably wont be living at home as much as they are now I could have built up a nice little business.
By May last year when the decision was made, all but the middle floor rooms had been sorted. I hadnt been able to work out what to do with the bedrooms on the first floor. There are two staircases and it had always flummoxed us. We couldnt think what to do to give the rooms a purpose but once wed decided that three would be set aside for guests it all came together.
Decor and furnishings are English country house style with the odd quirky feature for a surprise because as Antonia says anything cutting edge contemporary or minimalist wouldnt be in keeping with the period character. A lot of the furniture is mahogany, pieces that have been in the family for generations or something that has caught her eye in an antique shop or junk shop.
I dont normally splash out on expensive stuff none of it is terribly precious, more shabby chic, thats what I like, something you can use and enjoy, although I did make an exception for the two table lamps in the drawing room because they make a focal point. I got them and a few pictures and various other bits and pieces from Cromwells in Sawbridgeworth. The three large matching sofas in the drawing room came from John Lewis.
Having two staircases turned out to be a blessing. The main stairs from the limestone flagged entrance hall take you up to the first floor guest suites and from there theres a further flight up to the boys rooms and their bathroom in the attic.
The second staircase leads to Neville and Antonias master suite and the fourth bedroom. Although the owners have a dressing room and the attic rooms are fitted with Ikea furniture for the boys, the guest rooms with their fireplaces and big comfy beds are also furnished with large Victorian wardrobes bought from an antiques warehouse in Suffolk.
Downstairs, the drawing room and dining room are mainly for the guests although the family use the rooms when there arent any visitors. When there are, they confine themselves to the morning room, breakfast room, study and games room. The drawing room looks out onto the garden - its the most relaxing room in the whole wide world, Antonia declares blithely.
For 40 per person per night or 50 if you stay in one of the double bedrooms with an en suite bathroom instead of a shower room, youre free to wander through the garden and use the tennis court and in the evening youre welcome to help yourself to a drink in the drawing room where theres an honesty box. In the morning, theres a continental or full English breakfast and guests also enjoy home made jam and marmalade served in pretty glass dishes.
Antonias friends have since told her they thought shed hate opening her home to visitors but I absolutely love it. Weve had such delightful people. I just want them to feel at home here and enjoy the house and garden and relax.
Shes hoping her application to be included in Alastair Sawdays Special Places to Stay 2011 edition will be approved by the inspectors. Theyre very choosy, she says nervously. Ive heard most applicants are rejected without even an inspection and of those that are inspected only a small minority are accepted.
No special places in Hertfordshire are listed in the 2010 edition.
Hopefully that will be rectified if Newlands passes muster with the judges. It certainly should.