Hertfordshire home: Grade II* listed medieval hall in Hunsdon

PUBLISHED: 11:12 11 February 2019 | UPDATED: 11:12 11 February 2019

The property retains its original late medieval hall plan with additions over the centuries (photo: Fine & Country)

The property retains its original late medieval hall plan with additions over the centuries (photo: Fine & Country)

Fine & Country

With its roots deep in the medieval period, this Hunsdon former hall house makes a surprisingly comfortable, open and bright family home

When Ciara Hoban and her husband Nick bought their late medieval hall house in the Hertfordshire village of Hunsdon six years ago they were a couple of young professionals moving out of London in search of the ideal property in a semi-rural area where they could bring up a family.

‘We had a one-year-old daughter and another baby on the way,’ Ciara explains. ‘We wanted to find a place where the children could enjoy a country childhood free from the restraints of living in a city.’

Nick chips in: ‘We chose Herts and centred our search between Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford because I’d worked here in the past and liked the area. Our only reservation was that for work reasons I needed to be close to a mainline station with a good service into Liverpool Street.’

But the daily trawl through properties on Rightmove hadn’t produced a suitable one, Nick remembers. ‘We must have viewed six or seven properties over a period of a month or so. The day we discovered The Old House by accident we’d been out with an agent. After we’d seen the last one on her list we asked is there anything else coming up for sale in the near future you could show us? Initially she said no, then she added, “Well, there is one. You could go along and look at that if you like.” I think she was pretty fed up with us by this point,’ he adds, laughing.

18th century inglenook with multifuel burner (photo: Fine & Country)18th century inglenook with multifuel burner (photo: Fine & Country)

Ciara says they knew straightaway it was what they’d been looking for. ‘We were drawn to its homely feel and how light it is because the living area is dual aspect, and of course we loved the period features.’

The Old House is Grade II* listed and dates from the latter years of the 15th century. It’s one of the oldest houses in the pretty village midway between Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford. The settlement was mentioned in the Domesday Book and several of the properties here are late medieval hall houses. The Old House, otherwise known as 6 Widford Road, is one of them.

The basic layout of the original hall house remains. The front door in the porch opens on to the oldest part of the ground floor – a small hall where the kitchen and dining room to the right of the lobby form the horizontal part of the L-shaped hall house. The living room on the left hand side of the hall forms the vertical line of the L.

The ground floor was extended in the 1950s when the house was owned by Keith Attenborough, brother of world famous wildlife expert David and actor and film director Richard.

Beams have been expertly restored. The inglenook in the dining room has been given a modern twist with industrial lockers (photo: Fine & Country)Beams have been expertly restored. The inglenook in the dining room has been given a modern twist with industrial lockers (photo: Fine & Country)

Keith and his wife Jean lived here from 1958 to 1984. With the consent of English Heritage and the local planning authority they added a fourth bedroom/additional reception room and a shower room downstairs as well as a utility room for the kitchen and a family room.

As you’d expect, a property of this antiquity has undergone a good many changes both in the fabric of the building and its use by successive owners over the centuries.

The fireplaces and chimney stacks weren’t part of the original structure. They were built over the course of the following 200 years or so, as was the first floor – which today comprises three bedrooms and a recently refitted main bathroom with freestanding designer bath. Originally the ground floor would have been open to the rafters.

One of the chimney stacks was built in 1681. There are two inglenook fireplaces, both originals – one has the date 1687 etched into the lintel.

Open plan living medieval style (photo: Fine & Country)Open plan living medieval style (photo: Fine & Country)

In the early 17th century the house was called Tippings. The owner then was a wealthy cattle farmer called Cuthbert Wharley. Locals referred to him (perhaps not kindly) as The Butcher.

Future generations of his family were influential in the development of the village. After Cuthbert’s death, his son Henry inherited Tippings. Having no need for it himself he let it to a couple of bakers, first Henry North, then Jonah Killhog (now there’s a name you don’t hear much anymore...).

Following Henry’s death, ownership of Tippings passed to his brother Edward’s son, another Henry who turned it into a pub called The Wheatsheaf. The plaster mould of a wheatsheaf on the front wall of the house is a reminder of these years.

Both Henry and Edward were Quakers. It was another of Cuthbert’s descendants, one Daniel, who built The Quaker Meeting House in Hunsdon.

The ground floor bedroom and en-suite shower room is ideal for guests (photo: Fine & Country)The ground floor bedroom and en-suite shower room is ideal for guests (photo: Fine & Country)

After Henry Jr died, ownership of The Wheatsheaf passed to Henry’s cousins who in turn left it to their son John. Unfortunately by the time John died it was in a very bad state. The pub closed and the building was converted into two cottages.

Over the next century a stream of tenants lived in the cottages until towards the end of the 1800s when the then owner Charles Phelips sold the whole house to John Johnson. He hung on to it until 1912 when it was bought by the Pawle family who owned it until the 1950s, during which time the house was home to the village school headmistress, Mrs Stubbington, for a while. By then the former Wheatsheaf had been renamed Ye Olde House.

The latest owners, who now have three children, say the house and the area ‘has completely surpassed our expectations.’ What they particularly like about the interior layout is that the rooms flow one into the other. It’s a formula as popular with families now as it evidently was in medieval times. Little space is wasted on corridors upstairs or down.

Ciara says there were things that needed attention. ‘There were exposed timbers on the front elevation when we arrived but it emerged the beams shouldn’t have been exposed to the elements. They were a later addition, unsuitable for exterior use. Due to this and previous poor repairs they’d suffered irreparable damage.

The modern annexe - a light-filled multi-purpose space (photo: Fine & Country)The modern annexe - a light-filled multi-purpose space (photo: Fine & Country)

‘On the advice of specialist surveyors, architects and Historic England we employed a highly skilled team who used traditional techniques to extensively renovate and render the outside in the most appropriate way to conserve the house for the future.’

The most ground breaking addition they’ve made to the property is the self-contained annexe that plays multiple roles as a garden room, playroom, home office or guest suite. It was built on the footprint of a demolished garage in the quarter acre grounds. Sliding glass doors open the space to the garden.

Before they submitted the annexe’s contemporary design for planning consent they held an on-site meeting with a heritage expert, expressly to give them advice about any features which might cause the plans to be rejected. As a result the plans sailed through.

Now after six happy years in Hunsdon, as so often happens when you’ve settled in for the long term, the couple’s future plans necessitate moving to a new area. Consequently The Old House is for sale through Fine and Country in Ware for £1.1m.

The rear of the property showing the annexe - styled externally to match the historic architecture (photo: Fine & Country)The rear of the property showing the annexe - styled externally to match the historic architecture (photo: Fine & Country)

So what exactly is grade listing?

Listed buildings are those considered nationally important and have extra legal protection in the planning system. They are on the National Heritage List for England compiled by the publicly funded body Historic England.

Of the listed buildings in England, 91.7 per cent are designated Grade II, defined as a building of special architectural or historic interest. Those listed Grade II*, signifying a building of ‘more than special interest’, make up 5.8 per cent. While 2.5 per cent of listed buildings in England are Grade I, denoting a building of ‘exceptional interest’.

English Heritage separated into two organisations in 2015. The charity English Heritage continues to care for the National Heritage Collection of more than 400 historic places, while Historic England provides advice to private owners on listing, grants, value and care of historic properties.

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