Through the keyhole of a renovated Elizabethan hall in Rickmansworth
PUBLISHED: 12:09 08 September 2017
One of the oldest homes in Rickmansworth, a one-time Elizabethan hall, has been sympathetically transformed into a characterful 21st century family home
Looking at Neil and Suzanna Sebba’s house from the road, you get no idea of what it’s like inside. Neil hasn’t forgotten his father’s reaction when he first saw it.
Knowing how much they’d paid for it, he couldn’t hide his surprise. The house is part of a terrace and faces the street. From here, it doesn’t look half the size it really is. Neil, a financial director, remembers the look on his father’s face as they approached the house.
‘He looked at the frontage – it’s not very wide. I could see what he was thinking. Then he said, “I don’t know why you bought this house.” Then we opened the door, he stepped inside, and his expression changed. “Now I do,” he said.’
Neil and Zanna’s house is one of the oldest in Rickmansworth. An Elizabethan hall house, the earliest part was built for a yeoman in the 1500s. At one stage it became an inn. Then at some point in the 19th century, a fancy goods shop. No one is sure when it reverted to being a private residence.
The double-fronted Grade II listed property on the Uxbridge Road at Mill End is the first home the couple have bought together. When they met, Neil had just become the proud owner of a two-bed bachelor pad in Bermondsey in south-east London which he’d bought with one of his best mates. ‘It didn’t stay our bachelor pad very long,’ he laughs. ‘The week we moved in I met Zanna. My friend bought my half when Zanna and I moved to Rickmansworth.’
Zanna, a primary school teacher who’s been taking a career break since their son Daniel, now three, was born, says, ‘We’d been looking for somewhere with character and personality. When we saw this we knew straightaway it ticked all the boxes.’
The couple moved into the house two days before Christmas in 2009 and the fact it was snowing made it all the more special. One thing that was immediately apparent was the change is living space. ‘Coming from a small flat we didn’t have much furniture,’ Zanna says. ‘It seemed like we hardly had any when it was spread out in all the rooms we have here.’
In the eight years they’ve lived in the property they have transformed the interior. An extension at the rear has created a contemporary open-plan living area that flows out from the rooms on the ground floor and bi-fold doors remove the barrier between outside and in. They’ve added a palatial master suite in what was the loft, and they’ve completely refurbished the other rooms upstairs and down. The property now has five bedrooms, three bathrooms, three reception rooms and a vast kitchen/breakfast/family room.
The refurbishment has resulted in a family home for the 21st century, but at every stage they were mindful of the history in its bones and the importance of preserving all the nuances and features of how domestic architecture has evolved over the centuries. Throughout, they were guided by experts in building conservation both architecturally and in their choice of specialists who carried out the work.
‘It’s been a steep learning curve for us,’ Neil says. ‘Before we did anything radical we consulted the conservation officers in Hertfordshire. We told them what we hoped to achieve. They were amazing, very helpful, very practical and imaginative. They came up with ideas and recommended companies who are experts in building conservation.’
The couple divided the project into two phases. The first half of the project started with commissioning architects and initial building works in the summer of 2010. Then builders returned the following summer to complete the project by October 2011.
‘During that time they built the extension, refurbished what was a dated kitchen and converted what had been an outdoor privy and a coal shed behind the garage into a utility room and conservatory which are now part of the house,’ Neil explains.
Zanna adds: ‘We didn’t move out during the first project because there were just the two of us but I was pregnant when we embarked on the second project so we rented a place down the road for six months while the loft was being converted and the rest of the house was being refurbished.’
It was the work to create the master suite in the loft that excited everyone most, especially the conservation officers when soot from the fire in the central hearth of the original Elizabethan hall house was found on beams in what would have been the open roof space. The builders also discovered Roman numerals etched on the timbers, showing how the early craftsmen had numbered the beams to mark their position.
The house now has a new roof over the old one. No part of the original roof structure has been lost, but a section of one of the cross beams has been removed so that those using the master suite won’t bump their heads when they move through to the dressing area at the far end of the bedroom.
Neil says he would have had to bend double to get to the dressing area if the structure had been left intact. ‘The heritage builders who carried out the loft conversion cut notches in the cross beam so that it could be put back at some point in the future if needs be. It will just clip back in, like putting in the last piece in a jigsaw. I use the section that has been taken out as a bedside table.’
The restoration also uncovered panels of wattle and daub in the brickwork and hidden fireplaces in two of the reception rooms.
The builders who worked on the first project also designed and built a studio on the top terrace of the garden, which Neil uses as an office when he’s working from home. It’s only a couple of steps from the main house but far enough away to blot out the normal distractions of a home environment.
When the Sebbas first arrived, the back garden led directly to the river Colne. They have riparian rights, giving them ownership of half the width of the river where it crosses the property boundary. On the opposite bank is a nature reserve that’s part of Rickmansworth Aquadrome.
Zanna says once Daniel was born it became a priority to hire a garden designer and landscaper to make it child friendly before he started walking.
There’s now a low fence and a gate closing off the bottom tier of the garden to stop children wandering close to the water. Decking beside the river is designed like a landing stage for boats, and makes a lovely spot to relax with a glass of wine, Zanna says, especially as ‘we can dangle our feet in the stream.’
A small pond on the top terrace is similarly child friendly. It has a guard fitted under the surface, which also stops herons pinching the fish.
After eight years the Sebbas are looking forward to renovating another old house. The 38-year-olds are moving to a village a few miles away, opening up the chance for new owners to take stewardship of what some describe as Rickmansworth’s best kept secret.
The Elizabethan hall house is on the market through Fine and Country in Hazlemere for £1.25m.
A who’s who of the renovation
Furniture & fittings
Blue basin in master suite: online retailer Jazz it Up
Clear glass table in breakfast area: online retailer Furniture Market
Gel chairs: John Lewis
Wave shaped glass pendant light in the kitchen was made by an artist friend of Zanna’s, Claudia Phipps
Bespoke glass kitchen splashback: Steve Robinson Glass
Wrought iron light fittings in dining room: Nigel Tyas Ironwork
Green bed in loft: Italian designer Molteni
Floor tiles and paint in main bathroom: Fired Earth