House of the month: A 16th century former Inn in Wheathampstead
PUBLISHED: 15:49 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:26 20 February 2013
When your home was once a charming 16th-century inn, you don't want to completely hide its past. Pat Bramley talks to a couple who have struck a happy balance of character and contemporary style
Inn with the new
When your home was once a charming 16th-century inn, you dont want to completely hide its past. Pat Bramley talks to a couple who have struck a happy balance of character and contemporary style
ONE of the most notorious scandals of the 20th century it led to the downfall of a government minister happened as the result of a meeting in Wheathampstead.
Locals who lived in the village in the early 1960s claim it was at the white painted former coaching inn in the high street that the then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, met the London showgirl, Christine Keeler.
Former professional cricketer Ed Milbourn and wife Angela, who own The Crown House, say the story goes that the minister and the showgirl originally conducted their clandestine meetings alternating between their house, which at the time was a pub, and a nearby private gentlemens club, now a Thai restaurant.
It was only later that Profumo took his lover to meet his friends the Astors at Cliveden and their secret meetings were eventually revealed. The fear was that national security had been put at risk because another of Christines intimate friends was a naval attach at the Soviet Embassy.
The Milbourns knew nothing about Profumos associations with The Crown House until they were planting out the window boxes in the front garden one afternoon.
An elderly gentleman walked past and asked if we were the gardeners. We told him we lived there and he asked if we knew its history. We knew it was 16th century and originally a coaching inn, then it became a pub and more recently it was a Chinese restaurant and thats when he told us that the Profumo affair started off here. This is where they used to meet up.
The owners before the Milbourns were Angelas parents. Her father is an architect and it was he who had the beautifully crafted hand-built furniture fitted in many of the rooms. He also commissioned Mark Wilkinson to create the split level kitchen and added long mirrors between the wall beams in one section to make the 20ft room appear even longer.
We have a sofa in the kitchen, says Angela airily. I love people to sit and talk while Im cooking. Id far rather have a sofa in here than a breakfast table. The children plonk themselves down and chat while theyre doing their homework and friends sit and talk over a glass of wine. This is a wonderful house for entertaining. The rooms flow from one to the other.
The drawing room was originally the saloon bar. It runs across the whole width of the house. Weve blocked off the old oak framed door that was the original entrance to the inn. Its still there but we dont use it. We use the new main entrance which is through the wooden gates on the side of the property.
In the early days the coachmen would have driven the horses through the gates because there were stables at the back. The electric gates we have now are remote controlled. When theyre closed no one passing by in the street can see whats behind here. Thats what we like. We like the privacy. Theres enough room in the drive to park six cars.
Angela says it was the character of the house that attracted them when they bought it from her parents four years ago. Its very unusual. Its not horrible low ceilings like you often get in old places. Ed is 6ft 3ins tall but the beams are very high so he doesnt have to duck.
We didnt want to buy a soulless place. This has lots of period features. We wanted to preserve the character of this lovely old English inn but put our own stamp on it. Weve given it a contemporary feel by the way weve decorated it and opened it up. The big bay windows at the front of the house flood the drawing room with lots of natural light. We put in wood burning stoves in the drawing room and family room. They do a brilliant job. Friends sometimes feel so hot here in the winter they ask us to open the windows.
The Sanderson rocking horse in the drawing room is a future heirloom. Angela explains, I commissioned it for the children. He was hand carved by three men and took three months to make. He can take up to 28 stone. Inside his tummy he has a capsule with a newspaper from that day and bits from the children as a keepsake.
The other keepsake in the drawing room is the wishing tree Angela made for her wedding to Ed, the ex-Warwickshire and Gloucestershire cricketer, five months ago. Instead of guests writing in a book that always gets put away in a drawer, I got the guests to write a wish for us on a luggage label and then you hang them on the branches and read them at any time.
Since giving up cricket Ed has become a director of a training company. Angela is also a company director of a marketing company but in the past has owned three restaurants. No doubt about it, she is immensely artistic and resourceful. When I cant find something in a shop, I make it, she says blithely. I buy the basic elements and put them together. I can see in my mind what would be right for a room or wherever but you cant always find it.
The glass bowl hanging on a wall in the hall which looks like its filled with ice cubes is her work. Its very alternative, she says merrily.
Angela also devised the large clear vase sitting on a chest of drawers which is lit from inside with tiny white fairylights that shine onto slate chippings, giving an iridescent glow.
Ive always loved ceramics and paintings, she adds, pointing to the contemporary painting above the bed in the master bedroom by a well known Indian artist who has a studio in Radlett. She also collects ceramics by her sister-in-law Rebecca Boxer who lives in St Albans. Shes very well known, says Angela in a reverent tone. Her work is absolutely wonderful.
Now, with David, her son, about to go to Bristol University to study dentistry and her daughter Natalia about to go into the sixth form, she and Ed have decided to move on.
I love moving, Angela exclaims, I love the excitement of starting again with a house and planning it all.
This a wonderful home for a family. Its like an Aladdins Cave. Weve got a marvellous cellar which the children have used as a playroom, theres also the family room and I have a study. The ground floor has so much space.
Upstairs there are four good sized bedrooms and two bathrooms when we were ripping out the previous suite in the family bathroom we found a beautiful old brick wall with a beam running through the middle which had been covered up with years of plaster. We have treated it and kept the exposed brickwork as a feature.
I think this house now has the perfect blend of character and contemporary style. Its absolutely lovely.