Country club to country home
PUBLISHED: 11:31 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:31 30 September 2014
A former wedding venue near Brookmans Park has become a grand yet homely space for family life. Pat Bramley visits the beautiful Woodside Hall
Lawyer Mark Stewart and his wife Nicol initially thought Woodside Hall wouldn’t be worth looking at when they were searching for a larger house back in 2003.
At that point, the couple were living in a house in New Barnet but wanted more space for their three children. ‘We were looking for something further out in the country for walks but not remote,’ Nicol explains.
Woodside is countrified but not miles from anywhere. It’s not far from Brookmans Park, with its mainline station and trains that get you to Moorgate in 34 minutes.
Nicol says, ‘We drove past and noticed the for sale sign. It said ‘country club’. We thought they were selling an on-going business. We said to each other “Do we want to live in a country club?” And we both said “No!”
What they hadn’t realised was that the former country club, a popular venue for weddings bordering the Marquess of Salisbury’s 1,500-acre estate, had been bought by a developer about a year earlier and rebuilt as a country house. It was waiting for a family like the Stewarts to move in and turn it into a magical home.
While it incorporates the latest advances in building technology and contemporary decor, the architectural style of the house, which stands in one-and-a-quarter acres at the end of a 200ft drive, is derived from an earlier mansion built in the 1700s by John Church. The saga of Church, the son of a labourer, is a fairy story come true. He went to London to find his fortune, came back to his home village, bought the estate of Woodside Place which included the cottage where he was born in 1724, and built himself a mansion fit for the gentleman he had become.
The modern-day Woodside Hall, home to the Stewart family for the past 14 years, owes much to the vision of the 18th-century architects who designed the country house for the local boy made good. The 9,000 sq ft living area of the new house is spread over three floors. It includes a ballroom – at 64ft long.
Nicol remembers, ‘When we eventually came up and looked at the house, Mark realised he’d been to a wedding here – his cousin was married at the country club. He also remembered coming to discos here as a youngster when he was living at his family home in Arkley in Barnet.’
Woodside Hall was certainly larger than what they’d been looking for. It has six bedrooms, each with its own bath/shower room, and a total of seven bathrooms in all. Four of the bedrooms, including the domed master suite with dressing room and twin terraces, are off the first floor galleried landing. The other two en-suite bedrooms, as well as a games room with the seventh bathroom, are on the lower ground floor, where the developer ensured the below-stairs area with its dramatic bricklined vaulted ceiling – previously a bar in the country club – is flooded with natural light.
The house has solid oak floors throughout the ground floor, air conditioning in the bedrooms and underfloor heating on the lower ground floor – all put in by Mark and Nicol.
The former legal secretary, who grew up ‘in a tiny little house in Cornwall’ before moving to London and joining the law practice where she met her husband, says the house was a challenge: ‘I’d never made a home on this scale before. It was a little daunting.’
One of the Osborne family of the Osborne and Little wallpaper and fabric dynasty came round to give her valuable advice about how to make a vast space homely. With his country-house background, he was able to suggest various ways to arrange the rooms. ‘Mr Osborne was amazing. He told me about grouping furniture to create different settings to make it cosier.
‘One option, he suggested, was to put pillars in the ballroom to break up the space visually but we didn’t want to do that. He had a very keen eye.’
The secret to furnishing a ballroom when it’s not needed for a ball is getting the proportions right, Nicol explains.
‘We had to have a lot of furniture specially made. There was nothing I could buy that would have been on the right scale.’
Fortunately she knew just the carpenter for the task. ‘I’ve known Paul Young for 30 years, since he was an apprentice. He’s just got better and better.’ Paul made a series of pieces for the room that aren’t dwarfed by the setting.
‘We’ve never actually had a ball in the ballroom,’ Nicol adds, ‘But we’ve had endless parties. We both came from >>> fairly big families and they always came to us for Christmas.’ Each year, a 15ft Christmas tree was brought home on top of their jeep. Some of the paintings in the hall were ferried home in the same way, tied to the roof rack of the car. ‘We picked them up from all over the place on our travels,’ Nicol remembers with a laugh.
‘The three-quarter sized billiard table at the far end of the ballroom was made for us by a company in Knebworth. And the music cabinet took six men to get into the house because it was so heavy.’
The oversized sofas. which can seat five apiece. came from Harrods. Most of the home accessories Nicol bought from the Knightsbridge store were made in the studios of designer Nina Campbell. She has special affection for the vast rug she found for in front of the fireplace. ‘It was in the sale. What with that and various discounts, it was £4,000 after it had been £15,000. It would be far too big for a normal house.’ The chandeliers in the ballroom came from Italy and were painted to be an exact colour match with the curtains and soft furnishings.
Unlike stately homes that are often papered with heavily-embossed silk wallpaper, the walls at Woodside Hall are painted in various shades from the Farrow and Ball chart.
‘With three children and a dog (12-year-old Jack Russell Joey) in the house, wallpaper would have been impractical,’ Nicol explains. ‘It’s easy to put on a fresh coat of paint and dogs are always welcome here. Mark’s sister had four or five dogs at one time. You can’t be precious with a house like this. It’s a home, not a museum. We have farmers all around, lots of farming friends.
‘If the floors get dirty, when people have gone I just get out my huge furry mop and give them a wipe. It’s a dead easy house to keep clean.’
Fortunately, the kitchen was well planned when the hall was reinvented as a country house. ‘It’s north-facing, much better than a south-facing kitchen, which can get so hot in the summer.’ Nicol says. ‘This one is very nice to work in – with its granite work surfaces and big American fridge.’
Nicol was half-hoping one or both of her daughters would be married from the hall. ‘They’re 27 and 25 now and both wrapped up in their careers, so it doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen. Our son is 20 – he’s not here often either. All the kids have more or less gone. This house needs another family to enjoy it. It’s been a wonderful family home, it has potential for all sorts of other uses, but it’s time for us to move on.’
>>> Woodside Hall is for sale through Statons in Brookmans Park for £3.8m.