Hertfordshire home: A pretty converted power station near Ware
PUBLISHED: 12:29 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:29 16 July 2019
The Modern House
With a baby imminent, a couple with a vision took on a former power station near Ware and set about realising its potential as a family home
The Electric House - how's that for the first line of an address? Twelve years ago, when Darren Bender spotted it listed on an estate agency website it wasn't the prospect of living in a converted power station which fired his imagination, so much as discovering the property had a cinema room. Darren and his wife Celia Taylor are in the film business. Cinema rooms are fairly common in the upper tier of the property market today, back then they were a rarity.
At the time Celia was a freelance producer for independent production companies and broadcasters. She and Darren met when she hired him as director for a car programme. Since then her career has soared into the BAFTA orbit. She's now MD of a film company with Question Time election specials on its list of credits.
The hunt for a property in Hertfordshire followed the sale of their farmhouse in Norfolk. 'We were looking for a very similar type of house, somewhere commutable because my wife works in London and close to an airport for flights to Spain to see Celia's mother who was living there at the time,' Darren explains. 'Anything similar in Hertforshire to our farmhouse in Norfolk was double our money, so we started to look for something we could do up.'
At the time Celia was heavily pregnant with their first child. 'By this point she was saying, "Just get me a house!".'
The urgency of the situation helped Darren persuade his wife to view Electric House in the 200-acre grounds of Hanbury Manor. At the beginning of the last century the building housed the steam engine that pumped water from a well to supply electricity to the family who lived in the manor house in the village of Thundridge near Ware.
The old power station is one of a group of buildings in Poles Lane that previously belonged to the manor. Like Electric House they have been sold off and converted by new owners into a cluster of character properties. The manor house is now a Marriott hotel and country club. The facilities, including golf course, swimming pool and gym are open for locals to use through a membership scheme.
When Darren and Celia viewed Electric House his only disappointment was the absence of the promised home cinema.
'The so-called cinema room was a semi-derelict barn leading into another semi-derelict barn,' he remembers. 'They were attached to the main house but weren't habitable.'
The previous owner, a sculptor, had embarked on converting the barns but there was still a lot of untapped potential. The artist was using them as a workshop to store wood and tools to create life size sculptures to display in the double height room he used as a gallery in the main house.
Despite the absence of the cinema, Darren and Celia were sufficiently intrigued. A look around was enough to convince them it was the project they'd been hoping for.
'There were no windows on the outer walls of the barns,' Darren says. 'They weren't capitalising on the fabulous views over the countryside. That was what sparked our imagination.
'On the downside, it would be a very big project which could take years. We'd never done anything like it before. Our main concern was that buying the house would take all our resources and there wouldn't be any money left to fund the work it needed to realise the potential.'
What swung it for them was the imminent arrival of the baby.They moved in and immediately set about finding an architect. 'We saw several,' Darren remembers. 'All of them wanted a great deal of money to design and manage the scheme. We'd already seen a set of plans drawn up by a previous couple who'd shown an interest in the house. Their design looked great from the outside but we knew from living here for six months that the interior layout wasn't practical. When you're drawing up plans for a house you need to do it from the inside out.'
The solution for the couple was to hire a draughtsman. 'We told him our ideas and he did the drawings. It worked brilliantly and saved us a lot of money. By hiring a draughtsman who lived and worked locally, we thought he'd know what the local planners were likely to accept and what they wouldn't and that's what happened.'
The old barns have been converted into a showpiece kitchen and dining room with long windows along one side giving mesmerising views of the surrounding valley and woodland.
The 30ft main sitting room, a couple of steps up from the dining room, has many of the industrial features which have been preserved to protect the historical integrity of the building.
A valve sticking out of a wall in the sitting room was part of the original steam engine. The well it drew from has become a particular attraction since the new owners fitted a glass lid and a 20 metre rope light to illuminate just how deep it is.
'Guests quickly hop off when I switch on the light,' Darren laughs. He found the light on eBay. It had previously been used for a mobile disco.
Making the most of the architecture and with a sense of fun, visitors can also swing across the room on the end of a rope suspended from a spindle in the ceiling beams. The couple's two children use it as a short cut to their favourite spot in front of the wood burning fire.
The home is full of reminders of its past. High up on one of the walls of the kitchen is a tank that stored water for a pair of steam-powered fire engines. Following a fire at the manor, two Merryweather vehicles were housed in the barn where the kitchen now is.
Elsewhere on the ground floor is a family room, a study and a further sitting room used as a playroom by daughter Roxy and son Beau when they were younger.
Between the ground floor and first floor is 'a secret room'. Behind what looks like the entrance to a cupboard in the night cloakroom half way up the stairs is a vast storage area.
'It would originally have been built into the roof to make better use of the space in the high-ceilinged rooms downstairs,' Darren explains.
At the top of the stairs is a galleried landing with two bedrooms at each end and a further flight of stairs to the second floor master suite with dressing room and shower room.
During the children's formative years Darren worked as a film producer and director based at home. His most recent production for TV is a dark love story called Ferryman. 'It's the first one I've written, produced and directed.'
Having spent four years bringing it to the screen as a freelance producer, he's keen to work for a mainstream film company again. It's partly for this reason and to be closer to the senior school of their choice for their son that they're planning to move the family including their two dogs closer to Letchworth. The Electric House is for sale for £1.35m through the London office of The Modern House.