Home of the month: Caribbean rum to English malt
PUBLISHED: 11:46 14 July 2015 | UPDATED: 11:46 14 July 2015
After years in Bermuda, a family found the English country setting they craved in a jumble of buildings with a deep history in Much Hadham
When Peter and Sherrall Illston pulled up the drive of the Old Malt House in Much Hadham, ready to move in to the first house they’d bought in their 10-year marriage, there had been no need for a removal van.
Earlier that day in July 2009 they arrived at Gatwick airport with their two young daughters after – in Illston’s case – 15 years of living in rented places in Bermuda. They were carrying two suitcases each. All their possessions were packed into eight suitcases.
They opened the front door and Illston still remembers how shocked they were at what they saw. ‘My father-in-law had hired a cleaner to clean the house, but it was empty. There was nothing in it. We got back in the car and went straight out and bought a bed for us and futons for the girls and that was all we had that first day. But even then, the house felt homely,’ says the chartered accountant who had worked in Bermuda on secondment for his employer Grant Thornton.
‘They gave me the choice of Johannes-burg or Bermuda. I chose Bermuda. I flew out on my 25th birthday. I hadn’t travelled anywhere up to then. It was the first time I’d flown on a commercial plane.’
Being a sporty type, he joined a hockey club and it was on a boat trip with a crowd of hockey players that Illston, originally from Leicester, met an English girl from the East End. By the time they came back to England they were married with two daughters, Carly and Emily.
Like Illston, it was work that had taken Sherrall to Bermuda. ‘I was working for Customs and Excise in London and went out on a business trip. One of the contacts I met while I was there said why didn’t I come and work for them for a couple of years. I said “yes” and it changed my life.’
The couple married at the top of a lighthouse on the island. Initially, they were happy to live in rented accommodation like most of the locals but eventually it was the urge to own the roof over their heads that brought them back to England. ‘In Bermuda, renting is the norm,’ says the financial expert who now owns a consultancy advising companies how to adapt to change. ‘Out there land is at a premium. Prices are prohibitive.’
They decided to focus their search around Bishop’s Stortford because it’s where much of Sherrall’s family live. Illston adds, ‘I also needed somewhere within an easy commute of the City for work but close to countryside. We wanted a place with land because that hadn’t been an option in Bermuda.’
Sherrall, who had been a stay-at-home mum since their elder daughter was born, came over on recce trips. ‘I must have seen 30 houses,’ she says. ‘Most of the properties I looked at had about three acres. We put offers in on two and missed out on both, which was really disappointing, but with the benefit of hindsight we were so pleased because finally we discovered the perfect place.
‘I found the Old Malt House just before Peter and the girls came over to join me. We loved it from the moment we saw it.’
Family and friends rallied round to lend the newcomers the essentials. ‘We were plagued with wasps when we got here,’ Illston remembers. ‘They’d got into gaps between the peg tiles on the roof. We called in the local wasp chap to sort it out. He came into the house, saw it was empty and came back with an antique table he’d had in his garage strapped on the back of a trailer. We became good friends. He’s a great guy. I’ve never had any trouble with wasps since.’
The table given to them by the wasp eradicator was passed on to another family in need after Illston’s cousin, who is a skilled carpenter, made them a bespoke dining table from a piece of oak he’d been saving for something special. ‘It seats 10, it’s magnificent,’ Illston says proudly.
Gradually, the Illstons built a home out of donated items and new finds. ‘We bought the basics from Ikea,’ Illston recalls. ‘The furniture is practical and stylish and good value. It saw us through until we found exactly what we wanted. We’re into reclaiming and recycling’ he emphasises. ‘I love DIY. Absolutely love DIY.’
People who come to live in the Bishop’s Stortford area generally like it so much that even if they move away they return. That was how it was with the couple who owned the Old Malt House before the pair who sold it to the Illstons.
‘Roger and Margaret Stainton moved to Ely after they left here and bought an apartment in Majorca. They still have that but they’ve moved back to this village because they missed it,’ Sherrall explains.
It was the Staintons who told Peter and Sherrall about the history of the malt house.
‘It’s one of the classic old houses in the area,’ Illston says. ‘The central part was originally the barn where the maltsters kept the hops. The surveyors put a date of 1760 on it, but there are parts going back to the 16th century. When you look at the beams in the barn, you can see they have been used and re-used.
‘According to Roger, the barn was turned into a dwelling in 1899 though our surveyor says it was 1880. We did some work recently and discovered old husks and old grains of barley when we were exposing the beams.
‘We’ve done quite a few things to try to give the house back its original character. We pulled up carpets and found beautiful wood floors, and stripped off paint to expose the original wood. We also opened up the kitchen area to make more light – I took time off work to do it. We removed partitions and false ceilings and repositioned windows to get more light in and more views of the garden. We loved the country kitchen the Staintons put in with the oak units, black granite worktops and red Aga. The extra units we’ve added are partly oak to link the old and new.’
The main living room has a wood burner in the exposed brick fireplace. Illston has added surround sound and hung the television set on the wall.
The original barn is now a dining room with ample space for Illston’s cousin’s table. Above the dining room is one of the four bedrooms on the first floor.
The Illstons’ master bedroom with its big bay window is at the front of the house, which was built-on at the end of the 19th century. There’s also a bedroom in the attic.
The double garage and workshop with two rooms above which were added by the Staintons have also been upgraded by the Illstons.
‘We got planning permission to convert the workshop into a home cinema and the two rooms upstairs into a bedroom and office. We kept the original double garage and built an additional garage for my motorbikes – I’m also into motor bikes,’ Illston grins.
What with the DIY, the bikes and running a successful girls’ football team, they’re now pleased they ended up with a house with just over a third of an acre instead of the rolling acres they originally envisaged.
The Bishop’s Stortford under-13s team, with Illston as coach and his wife in charge of administration, swept the board in county and national competitions last season. The finest moment was when Emily, their younger daughter scored the winning goal in the final of the girls’ indoor football national championship for their age group.
Next season however the family will be thousands of miles away because they are moving back to the Caribbean. Carly has a place at Ridley College, the prestigious private boarding school in Toronto, Canada, while Emily will be going back to the school she left in Bermuda before the Illstons came to England.
Sherrall will be masterminding the refurbishment of a holiday home the family have bought in Majorca – ‘It’s five doors from the Staintons’ apartment, what a coincidence’ – and Illston will be running his business.
So back to renting then? ‘Yes, but we’ll own the house in Majorca. We’ve just discovered its name is El Faro, Spanish for lighthouse. We’ve squared the circle. We like island living. We might retire there.’
The Old Malt House is for sale through Savills, Chelmsford, priced £1.3m