Hertfordshire House of the Month: Windmill House, Arkley
PUBLISHED: 10:11 12 November 2015 | UPDATED: 11:59 17 November 2015
One of Hertfordshire's most iconic country houses with its accompanying windmill has gone on sale for the first time in 40 years. Pat Bramley talks to the owner about what makes Windmill House so special
As garden ornaments go, you won’t find better than a Grade II* listed windmill - and that’s exactly what you get at the iconic Windmill House in the village of Arkley, near Barnet.
Arkley Windmill (also known as Barnet Gate Mill) was built in 1826 and is one of the oldest in the south of England. Although it ceased to be a working mill during the First World War, it has since been restored twice, and sits in Windmill House’s six acre grounds.
Current owner Pauline McNicholas is the widow of Bernard McNicholas, a man regarded as a legend by his peers in the construction industry, and many others in the business world besides. She says the first owner to give the local landmark a new lease of life was a man called William Booth.
‘In 1929 he bought both the mill and what was then the mill house on the site. He pulled down the mill house, replaced it with the current house in the Arts and Crafts style and restored the mill at the same time,’ says Pauline.
A millwright called Thomas Hunt from Soham was commissioned to do the work on the windmill. He made a new cap, fitted a new fantail and built the present gallery.
When the mill was first built, the sails were powered by wind power alone. Steam was added as a backup in 1895 and by 1930 the number of sails had been reduced to two.
Fast-forward to 1974, and the house, grounds and windmill were bought by Bernard McNicholas, at that time in his early 30s. As a 21-year-old he had taken over his late father’s engineering firm and turned it into a household name company. By the time he sold McNicholas Construction to the Swedish multinational development company Skanska in 2006, Bernard’s family firm had a £200m turnover. The workforce, which was 50 when he became the boss, had grown to 2,000.
From 1974 to the day he died, Windmill House was the house of his dreams. He and his first wife Patricia raised their four children here until her death in 1998, and seven years later in 2005 he married Pauline, a dental surgeon.
‘We met at Hendon Golf Club,’ she recalls. ‘I joined the club in 1974 and Bernard was one of the members there when I arrived. ‘
After her husband’s retirement they travelled the world playing golf, supporting charities and enjoying life together, but what cemented their relationship was their place of origin: Bernard was a proud Mayo man and Pauline’s roots are in County Limerick, and their love of the family home at Arkley.
Bernard provided the mill with the two sails it had been missing, and also relished making interior improvements to the house.
‘Bernard was never one for knocking down walls, so the layout is largely unchanged,’ Pauline says. ‘He updated it and redecorated – he was always thinking of ways to enhance it, but tastefully. He enclosed the swimming pool to make it an indoor pool and put the fountains in the lakes. He adored the house and so do I. Actually, I don’t like to call it a house – I like to call it a happy home.’
‘The Windmill’ as the McNicholas family call it, is family HQ, and somewhere that really comes to life when they are all at home. Bernard’s son Sean and daughters Siobhan, Fiona and Lucy all live in Fulham with their partners and eight children - Johnny, Charlie, Olivia, Mathilde, Jack, Freddie, Harry and Alfie - but they come home to Arkley as often as they can. ‘Usually there are 18 or 19 of us here for Christmas,’ Pauline says with a smile. ‘There’s not one room that’s not used. There are no rooms that have been shut off – we use every inch of it. Bernard loved his garden – we played tennis on the court, and loved everything we had here.’
Most days she’s up at 5.30 for her exercise routine; she does half an hour on the treadmill in the gym followed by 40 to 50 lengths in the 70ft pool – it’s no wonder she stays trim – before heading off to her Preston Road dental practice in Brent.
In the main house there are four reception rooms and five bedrooms. The oak front door opens onto a vestibule that leads into the hallway which, along with most of the ground floor reception rooms, has a decorative frieze where the walls meet the ceiling. The drawing room is double aspect, the sitting room is triple aspect and there’s also a dining room and a study. The wine room leads via a curved hallway to the leisure complex, with that fabulous pool plus a gym, Jacuzzi, steam room and twin changing rooms.
The grand staircase in the main hall rises up to the first floor where the master suite has elevated ‘his and hers’ dressing rooms, which are reached via a separate staircase.
There are four further bedrooms plus a family bathroom, shower room and a night cloakroom, as well as a secondary staircase creating a shortcut to the kitchen – this a great house for hide-and-seek.
As well as the main property there’s a detached cottage in the grounds with three reception rooms downstairs and three bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. You reach the cottage either from the garden or via a lane on one of the garden boundaries. There is state-of-the-art security in place.
After many happy years, the whole place – main house, cottage, barns and windmill – is up for sale. And it’s put Pauline into something of a spotlight. ‘It’s not me,’ she admits, ‘I’m not showy. One of the people who came to look round said “You have a special house.” But every house is special to the owners,’ she says emphatically. ‘The most special is the one-bed flat bought when a young couple is first married because you’ve had to work so hard to get it. Everyone’s home is special.’
She adds – and it’s something she repeats several times – that it was a privilege to be married to Bernard and a privilege to live here. ‘He was a wonderful man. I adored him.’
Not only was he successful in business – he won the AIB Businessman of the Year award in 1994 – Bernard was also a philanthropist. He was among the group of Irish businessmen who founded the Children’s Welfare Research Foundation, a charity for which he was chairman for 30 years, and which continues to raise millions of pounds for youngsters around the world.
In recognition of his efforts to help those for whom life is tough, he received a papal knighthood and an honorary doctorate from Galway University. Despite all this, Pauline says ‘He was a very modest man. He never forgot his working class roots - never forgot where he came from.’
Bernard is buried in Glandore, a coastal village in County Cork, close to where he and Pauline enjoyed many summers together at Kilfinnan Castle; their holiday home which he bought as a ruin and turned into a palace.
She says his death left a dreadful void in the lives of everyone who loved him. ‘I was lucky’, she says philosophically. ‘I was old enough to realise how happy I was. When you’re younger you’re bound up with all kinds of things and the fact you are happy can be taken for granted, but as you get older you grow to know what’s important and how lucky you are to have a happy family life and be married to a wonderful man.’
Pauline has lived on at the family home with staff, some of whom have served the family for more than 30 years, but she feels it’s a home that needs a couple with young children to enjoy it. ‘I’d love to see kids running around’, she says.
Windmill House is on the market through Statons in Totteridge with a guide price of £9.5m.