Peek inside this grand property in Standon
PUBLISHED: 09:48 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 20 June 2017
© chris rawlings 2016
A house swap meant a couple avoided the often painful process of moving home, and gave them the opportunity to enhance a grand Arts and Crafts property in Standon
Horror stories about house purchases are unfortunately two-a-penny. Once in a blue moon you hear about a transaction which sails through without any headwinds and threatening waves. For John and Jeannette Williamson they were sailing on a millpond. The couple met while competing in the 1967 British Water Ski Championship, the year the nationals were held in Kirkcaldy on the banks of the Forth of Fife in Scotland.
‘I wasn’t in the same class as Jeannette,’ John says. ‘I was good club standard, Jeannette Stewart-Wood was world-class. She’d just been crowned the first British overall champion of the World Water Ski Championship.’
Between 1964 and 1968 his future wife was European slalom champion three times and jump champion four times but it was her success in the world championship in Canada in 1967 which secured her place in the international water skier hall of fame.
Although she continued to make appearances at events following their marriage, Jeanette didn’t have time to devote to top level competition when she became a stay-at-home mum.
Fast forward to 1990 and Jeanette, John and their four children are living in Braughing in East Herts, in a home bursting at the seams.
It was at this point, John recalls, that ‘some friends alerted me that Balsams was coming on the market.’
The large Arts and Crafts house standing in 10 acres in Standon - a village not far from where they were living - sounded ideal. As well as having the space they needed, the children wouldn’t have to change schools.
‘We asked to see the owners on the Friday and by Sunday we were shaking hands on the purchase. When the conversation moved on to when we could exchange contracts they said they had seen two properties but didn’t much like either of them so we suggested “how about ours in Braughing?” By the following Thursday we’d agreed a house swap. They moved into our old house and we moved into theirs with a cash payment on our side to make up the difference in value. It all went through without a hitch. It was quite unusual.’
New owners always want to put their own stamp on a house, no matter how much they like it when they buy it. The Williamsons looked further than decorating however. Their first major project was to build a two-storey extension. Looking at the house now, the wing they built so closely matches the original you can’t see the join. Upstairs it added two bedrooms and a bathroom, taking the overall tally of bedrooms to seven – eight if you include one on the second floor which doubles as a playroom – and it increased the number of bathrooms to three.
Downstairs, the extension incorporates a large utility room with wall-to-wall built-in cupboards – two for coats and one designed for shoes and wellies. Each cupboard has a radiator inside that works independently from the central heating to ensure no matter how wet the coats and shoes are when they go in. they are warm and dry when they come out.
Next door to the utility room and also part of the extension is a pantry with marble shelves for jams and chutneys. It’s also where hot dish left-overs can be parked instead of in the fridge. ‘Being north facing and well ventilated the larder is always cool,’ John points out. He drew up the blueprint to enlarge the kitchen as part of the initial improvements.
As a director of a portfolio of companies he aims to spot business opportunities. I suggest he has used the same skills to make the most of this property’s potential. He just laughs however and gives his wife all the credit for being able to dress a room, which has created the elegant home they’ve loved these past 27 years. But it did give him ‘huge satisfaction’ to come up with the blueprint for how to structure the basic design.
‘I don’t cook but I do like sorting out layouts,’ he says, before confessing with a grimace that ‘one of the worst times for my wife was when we were changing the kitchen.’ However, once the kitchen was rebuilt by a company called Woodstock, domestic harmony was restored. ‘We both thought it was the bee’s knees.’
Today the house has four reception rooms plus a superb garden room designed by architect Jamie Griffith. He has now retired from the Cambridgeshire practice Cowper Griffith but not before he designed and oversaw the building of not just the oak-framed garden room with its solid roof but also a swimming pool complex which includes a sauna and gym, and a garage block and tractor barn that incorporates John’s home office. All of it in keeping with the house’s Arts and Crafts ethos of traditional materials and skills. The property now has an overall living area of 9,337 square feet.
The couple say the garden room gives them ‘huge joy’, especially when the lights are on at night and reflected down the garden.
Despite having ten acres, when they moved in the outside space seemed surprisingly small. ‘The garden was almost claustrophobic,’ John remembers. ‘It seemed like just half an acre of grass, not 10 acres. Most of it was woodland. It had been planted as saplings by our predecessors’ predecessor and by the time we arrived it was a fully grown wood. It completely blocked out the glorious view. I was walking through the garden one day and suddenly I realised what we were missing and why. Beech and spruce trees had been planted in alternate rows, it was a striped woodland. I felled the lot. I had a daughter in tears because I was cutting down trees but fortunately when she saw the view she understood why. It’s one of the main features of the house but until then you couldn’t see it.’
John has since planted between 60 and 70 specimen trees to make up for removing the woodland. He also dug out what some would describe as a lake but John calls ‘the bottom pond’ (there’s a second smaller pond at the top of the garden) because ‘lake’ sounds too grand.
‘The water is crystal clear. When the sun shines on it, the water sparkles and the light bounces back to the house, it’s magical. There used to be a natural spring in the garden. It’s evident that at one time there was a hand pump in what was the maid’s room on the second floor to pump water up to the house.’
The present incumbents at Balsams have also reinstated an old tennis court. ‘When our first son got married we used the court as the base for the marquee for the reception. I had it resurfaced. It’s strong enough to land a jet bomber on now,’ laughs the commander-in-chief of operations at Balsams going on for 30 years.
‘I love this house,’ he says. ‘My wife wanted us to move 10 years ago but I resisted. However last year I began to think she was right.’
Clearly it’s going to be a wrench to leave but there’s one aspect which fires his enthusiasm. He’s currently engaged in doing up two houses – ‘One in Braughing which will always stay in the family, and a 17th century house in Bishop’s Stortford we bought three years ago where we’ll be downsizing. I’ve been working on a new staircase for it to improve the space.’
Balsalms in Standon is for sale through Knight Frank in Bishop’s Stortford at £3m.