Home of the month: The good life on a grand scale
PUBLISHED: 12:42 23 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:42 23 June 2015
Copyright: David Davies
A tired 17th-century property in East Herts became the focus of a lifetime's dream for a couple wanting to help wildlife and live an ecologically sustainable lifestyle. Pat Bramley visits
The earth moved and the orientation of the period house bought by Martin and Kate Slack has gained a new perspective since they arrived in Hertfordshire 14 years ago.
As soon as they turned up to view the property with 20 acres at Dassels, a hamlet not far from the village of Braughing in east Herts, ‘we had this feeling it was right,’ Kate says. ‘We’d been looking for a place with land. I had horses in livery and we wanted somewhere with stables so we could have them with us.’
She adds that the couple have always been keen conservationists and that framed their decision: ‘We didn’t just want to enjoy our life here, we wanted to put something back.’
The oldest part of Dassels Bury is the timber-framed heart of the building which dates from about 1600. The tall chimneys were built in the mid-1600s at the same time as a kitchen at the back. An historic building report states, ‘The five interior fireplaces with the chimneys survive in a remarkable state of preservation.’
The red-brick front facade was added in 1715 at the time the original mullioned windows were replaced with glass in wooden sash frames.
As Kate points out: ‘It was built when the B1368, which passes the house, was the toll road from London to Cambridge. Consequently the main windows overlook the road, which would have been important then.’
Unfortunately, almost 300 years later, it created a major drawback – none of the inside rooms had a decent view of the land that belongs to the house.
To some that would have been a deal breaker. Not for the Slacks. And they began a remarkable project to change how the interior of the building worked. ‘We turned the house round,’ Kate says simply.
The new owners knew from the outset they would need to build a large extension. The two-storey cream rendered wing they built in 2002 was part of a fundamental overhaul of the entire property.
‘We got on very well with the planning and conservation officers. They worked with us to get it right,’ Kate explains. ‘The house looked rather tired when we bought it. There was no insulation, the wiring was rather poor, it had a small dark kitchen and I wanted a big modern family kitchen. We went through the whole house – it took several years.’ The kitchen is now big enough for sofas and can seat 10 people for lunch.
Along with the new kitchen, the house now has three modern bathrooms; the main staircase was restored by keeping the original treads but replacing the spindles and handrails; and there are six bedrooms and three principal reception rooms. The dining hall has a vast inglenook fireplace. There’s another inglenook with a Tudor arch in the drawing room, and a study lined with bookshelves. There’s also a cellar and a boot room. ‘We were both brought up in country houses,’ Kate, a mother of two and grandmother of five, says, ‘We’ve always loved them. We’ve done up a few. They have such great character; beautiful beams, lovely fireplaces.’
Doing up Dassels Bury was no mean achievement but it’s the changes they’ve made to the surrounding land which has given them even more satisfaction.
When the couple arrived, most of the property’s 20 acres had been given over to grass with a few old outbuildings such as pigsties from a previous existence dotted around. Kate drew up an ambitious design for the land and hired professionals to come in to execute it.
In the course of landscaping, she and Martin oversaw the redistribution of many thousands of tonnes of earth to create terraces with steps to different levels as well as slopes for machinery to trundle in and out. They’ve planted more than 6,000 trees, created hedgerows and a croquet lawn. There’s also now a wild flower meadow and ponds.
‘We were thrilled when our garden was named a Local Wildlife Site after a survey (by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust),’ Kate beams. ‘We attract barn owls, red kites, hedgehogs, dozens of sparrows, frogs and toads, rare newts and, in the summer, swifts, swallows and house martins. We are surrounded by heavily-farmed agricultural land. We wanted greater diversity on our own patch to attract more wildlife, especially birds.’
The couple have opened the gardens to visitors as part of the National Garden Scheme, raising tens of thousands of pounds for charity.
As for accommodating their horses at home, which set them on the house hunt, the new stableyard has four hardwood lined stables, a covered area with a horse shower and a tack room with hot water and plumbing for a washing machine. Kate adds, ‘We also have a top-of-the-range arena with a Martin Collins surface you can use down to minus 10 degrees. And 100,000 bricks were used for the hard landscaping.’
They still have a cob they look after for World Horse Welfare and a Dartmoor pony for the grandchildren. Otherwise, these days it’s mainly the family’s alpacas that enjoy the paddocks. ‘Like sheep, they eat the grass,’ says their owner. ‘We used to have six but now there are just four. We get wool when they cut the fleece. I have friends who knit it into scarves and hats.’
The kitchen garden and orchard keep the couple self-sufficient in fruit and veg throughout the year. Martin says, ‘At the start of the growing season we put three inches of well rotted manure on the borders and vegetable beds. Our soil here is clay and flint. Fifteen acres are rabbit proofed, not just to protect the vegetable garden but also to stop rabbits getting into the paddocks and digging holes. Animals can injure themselves if they get their hooves stuck down rabbit holes.’
Even heat-hungry fruit like peaches and figs do well in the couple’s Victorian-style top-of-the-range Alitex greenhouse.
The sun is also important in running the home. It’s been that way for the past five years since photovoltaic panels were installed in a south-facing position in one of the fields, screened from view in the landscape by a high hedge. ‘They generate about 10,000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to give us free electricity and also provide us with an annual income of about £4,000 from the excess we sell back to the National Grid,’ explains Kate with justified satisfaction.
What with that, a good supply of their own wood for the log-burning stoves, a vast rainwater tank under the terrace for watering the garden, plus a back-up supply in a 26ft-deep well, the couple have realised their dream of an eco-friendly, self-sufficient family home in a historic building.
‘With a house like this you’re custodians,’ says Kate, ‘It’s all part of creating something which is for the future. We didn’t want to take things from the environment but give things back.’
However, the couple don’t plan to be here to enjoy the fruits of their labour much longer. When they open the garden at Dassels Bury on June 21 in aid of the British Red Cross, it may be the last chance for the public to enjoy the beauty and ingenuity of the house and gardens which have been the focus of their lives for the past 14 years, because Martin and Kate are selling up to move closer to their daughter and her family.
For those dreaming of the good life on a grand scale, the property is for sale through Mullucks Wells for £2m.