A gothic tale: inside a Much Hadham mansion
PUBLISHED: 10:52 11 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:52 11 September 2017
Inspired by the extravagance of gothic, a couple found the perfect place in Much Hadham to create a fantasy home. Pat Bramley visits
The gothic house with the grey slate roof and turrets in Kettle Green Lane, Much Hadham looks like a château in a wine region of France. Appropriately, owner Colin Sullivan says he and his architect designed it one evening over dinner and two of bottles of red.
‘We drew it on a sheet of paper. The finished result isn’t that much different. I still have the original sketch.’
If that sounds a bit off the wall, the pair were well qualified to dream up the fairytale property. Colin is a builder. Today he focusses on commercial buildings, ‘but in a previous life I restored listed buildings,’ he says. ‘I have a complete affinity with them. Historic stuff is done for love.’
In his ‘previous life’ his architect worked for English Heritage. He and Sullivan first teamed up in the early ’80s. Architect and client were already on the same wavelength when he drew up the plans to remodel the first property Colin and his wife Jane bought together when they married 31 years ago.
They’ve owned their present gothic pile, Wheatfields House, since 1991. It stands in 11 acres on an elevated spot on the west side of the village. Jane found the site.
‘We were looking for somewhere with land,’ Colin remembers. ‘There was a 1955 chalet bungalow on the plot. We bought it without looking inside – just from viewing the exterior. We knew as soon as we came through the gates it was what we were looking for. Too much acreage can be a burden unless you’re going to work the land on a business basis. There was enough land to give us a high degree of privacy which was important to us and it’s in a fantastic position. What it was like inside was irrelevant.’
He’d already decided on the design of the house he wanted – one with deep roots. As he points out, the gothic style – typified by vaulted ceilings and arches, pillars and towers has been around since the 12th century in England. It first reached its peak in church building in medieval times, then continued in a diluted form from the 1500s through to the early 1800s when the gothic revival provided an aura of grandeur for grand buildings such as castles, palaces, guildhalls, universities and the Houses of Parliament.
Colin explains that his Much Hadham home is not gothic through-and-through. ‘It’s only gothic on the outside. It provides the envelope for a modern country house. If my architect had had his way the interior would have been in keeping with the period but it’s not. It’s contemporary inside.’
In every respect – except one – Colin and Jane were in agreement over the design of their home and what went into it.
Jane is a professional photographer with a background in fashion. Friends thought the inside of their new home would be a vision of the latest trends in interior design. If they did they were wrong. ‘My wife wanted a comfortable family home, not a statement,’ Colin explains.
So what were their priorities? ‘We wanted a grown up sitting room/drawing room/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. We wanted a proper dining room and we particularly wanted real open fires and a dining-kitchen.’
Planning permission to largely replace the existing bungalow with a family home for the 21st century encased in classic gothic elevations came through reasonably quickly.
‘I was confident I could make the house beautiful,’ Colin says. In matter of fact, he tells it like it is.
‘It has taken the thick end of 20 years to get it to what it is now, however. We built two extensions but we were continually updating and making improvements in the light of the experience of living here.’
Today there are five bedrooms and five bathrooms in the main house – ‘It could have had six bedrooms but we changed one into a fifth en-suite,’ – and two more bedrooms in a cottage in the grounds. The overall constructed area including the main house, cottage and garages is 7,263 sq ft.
An orangerie was added 15 years ago. It’s hexagonal, built of stone and a main feature of the kitchen-breakfast room.
The most recent addition is a turret at the front. ‘We did it for external aesthetics. It was the full-stop on the construction.’
The circumference of the tower, which rises from the dining room to the master bedroom, doesn’t add much space to the inside of the rooms, says Colin. Rather it’s there ‘just as a piece of sculpture.’
There’s a second turret on the first floor, a pepperpot turret. ‘It was the only way to create the space to reach the dressing room and the en-suite bathroom from the second bedroom, there wouldn’t have been enough room otherwise.’
Much of the building material for the house is recycled – sourced from architectural salvage yards. ‘We went to France to find the secondhand wood floors for the parquet in the drawing room and the kids’ sitting room. The railings are original, so are the gothic gates at the end of the drive, they date from 1860. The roof is tiled in secondhand Welsh slates. They’re big. We needed so many of them.’
There are three principal reception rooms, all with fireplaces. The drawing and dining rooms each have an open fire. The former playroom adjoining the kitchen – now called the kids’ sitting room – has a wood burning stove. The only room without a fireplace is the study.
Like everything else, the kitchen was planned with precision but it was here that there was a divergence of opinion between husband and wife. Colin says, ‘My wife specifically wanted an Aga. She loves it but I’m not a fan. I prefer modern kit.’ Result: both are catered for. The kitchen has an Aga and a Siemens electric oven.
As for the grounds, they were landscaped by one of the most successful garden designers in the world, Professor David Stevens. His medal haul from the Chelsea Flower Show includes 11 golds and three Best in Show gardens.
The gardens have a walled garden for the swimming pool and a separate enclosed garden containing an all-weather tennis court.
‘Tennis courts are lovely things to have but awful to look at – who wants to look at a quarter acre of Tarmac? Ours is behind a yew hedge.’ There’s also a tennis pavilion, a go-kart track and the cottage – designed in gothic style like the main house – which also contains a gym.
The Sullivans’ two children both grew up at Wheatfields. Their daughter, the elder of the two, was six months when they moved in. She was six weeks away from having a daughter of her own as this interview took place. Their 22-year-old son is still based at home.
Family has always been important to Colin and Jane. That’s why, now the kids have grown up, they’ve bought a farm where they intend to live in the style of an extended family, except here each member of the clan will have their own space. As Colin says ‘We won’t be on top of each other but we won’t have to get in the car to meet up.’
Wheatfields House is on the market through Mullucks Wells in Bishop’s Stortford for £3.65m.