Modern barn conversion in St Ippolyts
PUBLISHED: 10:15 28 February 2017 | UPDATED: 16:48 07 March 2017
A barn in St Ippolyts once used for cattle is the heart of a courtyard complex that marries ancient building techniques and the surrounding environment with contemporary design. Pat Bramley reports
How many friends do you have who knew from the first meeting that they’d found their future partner? Something clicks and they’re hooked. That’s them sorted. They’re off the market, certainly for the foreseeable future. It’s the same with buyers and houses. Experienced estate agents can tell in a couple of minutes whether a viewing is likely to lead to a sale. It was like this for Sue Cheshire when she was house-hunting 15 years ago. As soon as she saw the Grade II listed barn for sale in St Ippolyts, she knew it had everything she’d been looking for. The conversion had been carried out some years earlier by the firm of architects whose practice had been based in neighbouring outbuilding which had previously belonged to Pound Farm next door.
Sue loved the village setting – surrounded by farmland a mile from Hitchin – and outwardly Green Oak Barn was still recognisable as the shed where calves had once been reared. Inside, within the framework of oak beams, the architects had created a living space that was both contemporary and functional but at the same time cosy and homely. A further barn called the Coach House on the opposite side of the courtyard was included in the price.
Unfortunately for Sue, there was a snag. The owners had agreed a sale with another buyer. She was gutted.
‘Eventually I thought, well, perhaps it’s fate, I’m not meant to have it. I tend to be fatalistic in this kind of situation, you have to accept it and move on but I made sure I registered my interest with the agents.’
The decision to keep her name on file paid off. Despite her fears to the contrary, the gods were on her side. The sale to the previous buyers fell through.
Today, she lives there with her husband, Kent Allen, a Canadian. The couple have been together for 16 years. They run an organisation for chief executives and industry chiefs called the Global Leaders Academy. It’s a platform for the cross-fertilisation of ideas to spark renewed impetus for development and expansion at the top level of management, Sue explains.
Their historic home is bigger today than when it was bought. The first major expansion project for Sue and Kent following their marriage 10 years ago was to create a link between the main barn and the coach house. Despite its name, it had never been a coach house, Sue points out.
‘It was just one room mainly used for storage. We turned it into a home office/leisure suite. It’s 43 ft long not counting the kitchen and bathroom, which gives it the potential to become a self-contained annexe, especially as it has an entrance from outside.’
To design the link between the two former outbuildings, the couple commissioned one of the architects responsible for the original conversion, Stephen Boddy.
As a partner in the BBR practice now based in Hitchin, he was already on their wavelength. On a practical side, he knew where all the main services were such as the water supply, electrics and drainage system, and he had a clear idea of how the two barns could be connected in a way that would be successful aesthetically and as an extra amenity.
‘Some of the beams date from the 16th century. We’ve been told they were salvaged from sunken ships. Others are new but they are all oak as far as I know. There are only two walls without beams in the main part of the barn.’
The showpiece feature of the property, and the room where the couple spend the most time, is the new kitchen/breakfast area largely enclosed with glass. The kitchen was designed, custom made and fitted by Hitchin firm Planet in the space created by the architect. It’s an example of how 21st-century contemporary design can look at home in a rural setting if the new building respects the landscape. With its glazed ceiling and bi-fold glass doors it encloses the third side of the courtyard and creates an inside-outside living area.
The predominant colour for the walls is lilac – not a colour you often find in kitchens. But Sue had a reason connected to the building’s environment: ‘I chose it because it’s the exact shade of the pebbles in the courtyard when it rains. When they’re wet, they get this gorgeous lilac sheen. The floor of the kitchen is paved with the same stone as the courtyard – when the doors are folded back it’s like the same space.’
She says that the new kitchen has changed the way the couple live. ‘Everyday, whatever the weather, we watch the wildlife in the courtyard. It’s magical.’
The overall living area of the complex is now in excess of 3,500 sq ft.
Most of the doors on the ground floor are double width if not bi-folds for ease of access when large furniture needs to be moved or there are lots of guests for a party. The rooms can still be closed off when visiting children want their own space or dogs with muddy paws need to dry off to avoid leaving a trail across the cream carpets.
Animals are a key part of the couple’s lives and they’ve always had dogs. Their white retriever Willow is eight. There’s also a cat, Shadow, who they adopted as a stray six years ago after she was discovered by refuse collectors.
‘She was one of a litter of kittens abandoned in a black bin liner. The dustmen noticed the bag move, opened it and there they were. We named her Shadow because when she was a kitten she followed my husband everywhere.’
There are three staircases in the barn – one at each end of the oldest part of the building and a spiral staircase that winds up the side of the central fireplace to the mezzanine above the dining room at the opposite end of the sitting room.
‘We hardly ever light the fire,’ Sue says, ‘we have underfloor heating upstairs and down – you don’t need any back-up heating.’
At times like Christmas the chimney breast is garlanded with fairy lights and greenery from the garden, while the staircase comes into its own for parties. It’s the perfect vantage point for star turns such as the special occasion when an opera singer was on the guest list. ‘It was a real treat,’ Sue recalls. ‘He climbed up the stairs and sang to us from a top step.’
She and Kent have family and friends all over the world and it was on a trip to South Carolina that they were surprised to find a dining table that was a perfect match for the period of their Hertfordshire home.
‘I’ve never seen one like it in the UK. It’s a Tudor design and seats 12 when it’s extended. One of the family group we were with said he had a container going back to the UK from the States, it wouldn’t be a problem to ship it home, so that’s what he did, it came back in his container. A barn like this needs a few large pieces. You can’t put normal-sized furniture in it – the scale has to be right.’
There are four bedrooms in the property, two on the ground floor alongside a family room and two – the master suite and guest room – upstairs.
The super luxurious main bathroom is in the wing they still call the Coach House. Like the kitchen in the main part of the barn, it was supplied and fitted to match Sue’s specification by Planet.
The Coach House also incorporates a triple car port and the secondary kitchen that Kent uses in the summer when the Aga in the main barn is turned off – in his spare time he’s a keen cook.
However, despite their love for their home, 2017 looks as though it’s likely to be the year they move on. They’ve decided to look for somewhere a bit smaller which will open up new opportunities, while, as Sue puts it, ‘We still have the energy and enthusiasm to enjoy a new challenge.’
Green Oak Barn is for sale through Michael Graham in Hitchin for £1.25m.