Home of the month: A restorer's dream
PUBLISHED: 11:25 21 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:01 23 March 2016
First seen on Christmas Eve, a coach house dating from the 16th century and in need of love became the gift of a lifetime for a couple looking to start a family. Pat Bramley visits the romantic Standon home
Richard Fiddes heads the building consultancy team at the third largest partnership of chartered surveyors in the UK. When it comes to the acquisition of property, the restoration of important buildings, problem solving and project management, he’s one of the best in Europe.
He and his wife Adelaide live with their two children in a converted coach house in the village of Standon in east Herts. They fell in love with the place the first time they saw it on Christmas Eve in 1996.
The details for the property landed on the mat while they were waiting for a removal van to take their belongings from their London house to a rented flat in Berkhamsted. ‘The funny thing was neither of us could remember registering with the agent,’ Adelaide laughs.
She describes herself and Fiddes at the time as ‘the typical north London couple living in Islington’. The idea of moving further out was prompted by their plan to start a family. ‘I didn’t want to bring up children in London, simple as that,’ says the farmers’ daughter. ‘We’d looked at Herts and Bucks because of family connections but we’d drawn a blank, so we decided to go into rented accommodation.’
They pinpointed an area where Fiddes’ commute to his West End office would be easily doable. It now takes him an hour door-to-door.
He says, ‘We’d sold the Islington house, all our furniture had gone into store except for the bare essentials we’d need in the flat, then these details turned up. The house looked interesting. It’s in a part of Herts we hadn’t been to before. We didn’t know it was here.’
His wife adds, ‘We travelled up the drive with the river on one side and we knew before we got to the house we wanted to buy it. It’s a magical setting; utterly tranquil.’
‘You know what they say if you’re looking at a house you’re thinking of buying,’ says the property expert who has advised the Crown Estate, church commissioners and major corporations and institutions all over the world. ‘They say think of all the reasons to do it, then all the reasons not to do it. Immediately we saw the house and the setting, the reasons to do it were overwhelming. We knew it was the place we had been looking for. It was near enough to the village to save it being out in the sticks but far enough away to be in the country.’
The property they fell for is the Coach House. It dates from the early 16th century and was originally part of the neighbouring manor house, Standon Lordship. It now stands apart in private grounds of just over an acre with lawns rolling down to the river Rib. It was converted to a family home about 50 years ago.
‘The elderly owners had cranked up the boiler to boost the heating for us but the boiler had conked out, so it was pretty chilly,’ Fiddes remembers. ‘It was evident there was a lot of work needed but the potential was there and we could see that we could do it in stages because we didn’t have a bottomless pit financially. We could do the heavy structural work first then the other improvements bit by bit.’
His wife adds with a grin, ‘‘Of course we didn’t tell the owners we’d decided to buy it before we’d even been inside the house. And then we had an agonising wait from Christmas till New Year hoping no-one had seen it after us and we’d lost it.’ Fortunately, the housing gods were with them.
To find craftsmen with the skills to make a good job of the restoration, they looked up a journal of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Here they found a roofing expert to repair the peg tiles on the roof who also knew all about lime mortar for the brick repointing.
‘We camped out at one end of the house for about a year,’ Fiddes recalls. ‘We moved in after six months but left everything in store for the next year while we tackled the next stage. It’s much easier to make progress when there’s not a lot of stuff to keep shifting about.’
When they bought the Coach House it had five bedrooms, one bathroom and a single-storey extension with a flat roof. That end of the house was demolished and replaced with a two-storey extension with a pitched roof matching the original building. This provided the scope for a new farmhouse kitchen/breakfast room along with a utility room and what the Fiddes call the snug but is more the size of a family room and a further large room upstairs, which the couple use as an office.
As a result of the rejig there are now six bedrooms (two en-suite) and a main bathroom. All three bathrooms, like the kitchen, are new.
There have been other big changes. The Fiddes installed oak flooring running through most of the ground floor rooms, while the stone flags (salvaged from a stable) that had been in the drawing room when they arrived have been reused to pave a courtyard outside.
The oak for the floorboards is recycled. It was previously used on Adelaide’s parents’ farm in Devon. Silage was stacked up in a barn enclosed by huge timbers like railway sleepers. ‘We hired a truck and made two or three journeys to transport them,’ Fiddes explains. ‘We took one of the logs to a local merchant who sliced it to prove it was good quality oak but their equipment couldn’t have coped with the whole job. For that we found a guy who worked for the National Trust. He had a heavy-duty saw. He was able to slice the wood into planks and chamfer the edges to turn them into floorboards.’
When you find top-quality craftsmen for one job they can usually recommend others for other jobs because they work together, Fiddes says. ‘It happened like that when we had the oak staircase made to replace a smaller modern one that had been put in by our predecessors. After we enlarged the hall we wanted a staircase appropriate to the style of the house. Ours was made by Gunstock Joinery in Buntingford and the chap who did that recommended a French polisher who could probably have recommended a first-class brickie and so on.’
After completing the upgrade of the coach house, the Fiddes went on to build a detached annexe in the style of an outbuilding incorporating garage space, a workshop and a wine cellar large enough for a table for wine tastings. ‘We’d always wanted a wine cellar,’ Adelaide says.
The outbuilding also contains a potential granny annexe. It has a kitchen and shower-room downstairs and what the couple describe as a recreation room upstairs.
With the living quarters sharing a dividing wall with the workshop, there’s potential for a self-contained flat either for boomerang children, an au pair or elderly relatives who want to live close to the family but still retain their independence.
This will be an option for a future owner of the Coach House however, because, after almost 20 years, the Fiddes are ready to move on. Their son is now 14 and at boarding school, their daughter is eight and would like a pony and her parents reckon they’d enjoy doing another project to suit their changing needs.
The Coach House is for sale through Savills and Mullucks Wells with a guide price of £1.7m.