House of the month: A Medieval home in Little Gaddesden

PUBLISHED: 15:48 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:41 28 February 2013

House of the month: A Medieval home in Little Gaddesden

House of the month: A Medieval home in Little Gaddesden

As well as being a much-loved home, Peter and Pat Allen are well aware their house is a historic treasure, as Pat Bramley discovers.

As well as being a much-loved home, Peter and Pat Allen are well aware their house is a historic treasure, as Pat Bramley discovers

BY any standards todays certainly John OGaddesdens House at Little Gaddesden on the edge of Ashridge Forest is a beautiful, welcoming and comfortable family home. Its also a national treasure.

To buy a medieval property which is Grade II* listed on account of its architectural and historical importance is quite something. Physiotherapist Pat Allen remembers going to view it as a prospective buyer and taking her three young daughters with her.

Her husband Peter, a chartered accountant, was in bed at home, not feeling well after returning from a business trip to Africa. I remember we rushed back and told him he just had to come and see it.
And although he was still feeling awful Peter responded to the urgency, eased himself out of bed and went to see it. And he agreed it was wonderful, so the Allens became the next owners. That was 25 years ago.

From the outside, the six-bedroom house with its Tudor chimneys and neatly clipped knot garden at the front forming an impressive parterre looks like a well preserved architectural landmark from the days of Merrie England. Not surprisingly it has undergone a lot of changes in the course of 700 years but fortunately very few to its detriment.

John OGaddesdens House has a history which is as romantic as youll find in any of the great houses in the English countryside.

The house is named after, and almost certainly was first owned by, the court physician to Kings Edward I, II and III. He was a son or relative of John OGaddesden, the squire with the same name who was one of the original sponsors of the College of Bonhomes at Ashridge, now Ashridge Management College.

John junior studied medicine at Merton College, Oxford. After he qualified, he completed a treatise on the practice of medicine, a tome which became a major reference book for the profession throughout Europe for 300 years.

Having risen to eminence in the medical world John took Holy Orders and served a succession of monarchs, ending up in the entourage of Edward IIIs eldest son, the Black Prince.

One of Johns contemporaries at court was The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer but at that time he was merely a page. Chaucer is believed to have used John as the model for his Doctour of Physick in The Doctors Tale as well as mentioning his friends work in the Prologue.

In the 1880s John OGaddesdens House was divided into two cottages but later changed back and 100 years later, the house belonged to the singer Sarah Brightmans parents. Sarahs mother, Pauline, was a dancer and her father Geoffrey was a builder. He built the present garage with two bedrooms and a bathroom above.

But the owner responsible for the greatest changes was Edward Rawdon Smith who bought the property in 1932 for 1,000 and 20 years later transformed it into more or less what it is today.
To say he extended it by adding a couple of wings to the original medieval structure would be a gross understatement: he travelled the country looking for two available buildings of suitable antiquity to dismantle and rebuild at the house in Little Gaddesden.

Present owner Peter Allen originally trained to be a theoretical physicist before going on to qualify as a chartered accountant and ending up as deputy chairman of Coopers Lybrand. He says the dedication of Edward Rawdon Smith in sourcing the buildings was a labour of great love and ingenuity.

It took him four years to find and dismantle the buildings and find ancient door latches, nails, windows, glass, firestacks, flooring, iron casements and so on and a further 18 months to construct the two new wings, says Peter.

The team who dismantled the buildings and rebuilt them were all local craftsmen who worked on the house piecemeal as the materials were discovered.

Peter continues, The main south-west front wing of the house as it is now came from a yeomans house in Hawstead, Suffolk. It was originally a 15th-century open hall with a great tie beam across the centre and a king post above it to the rafters. A first floor ceiling had been inserted in the 16th-century which possibly came from the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds it had been demolished at that time. In the bedroom of this wing is also a 16th-century fireplace which came from a house in North Essex.

Our main landing and the new north-west wing incorporating what became our kitchen with bedrooms and bathrooms above are William and Mary, about 1700, from Wrestlingworth Manor in Bedfordshire.

The main staircase came from Lee Priory in Essex which was built in 1540. The remainder of the staircase is oak in the 16th-century style.

Sadly, Edward Rawdon Smith only enjoyed the advantages of the larger house for a short time. He died in December 1957, three years after the work was finished.

For many years prior to the sale to Rawdon Smith, John OGaddesdens House belonged to the Ashridge Estate owned by the Brownlow family who allowed the building to be used as a village reading and meeting room and youth club.

Youngsters from the village played billiards in the first-storey hall until the Brownlows wanted the house for one of their relatives. A reminder of the social club era is the charring on the main ceiling beam caused by the lantern that hung over the billiard table. The 30ft room has always been known down the ages as the solar, the old name for the upper chamber in a medieval house Peter and Pat have made several significant improvements of their own during their 25 years.

It was the Allens who took down a false ceiling in the solar to open it up to the ancient rafters. The couple we bought the house from used this as a bedroom, we use it as a drawing room. Its wonderful at Christmas and for family weddings and christenings. When there are just the two of us, we use the rooms downstairs but when we have a party we always hold it up here.

The couple commissioned kitchen manufacturer Martin Moore from Old Amersham to redesign the kitchen. They also gained listed consent for a new utility room and storage area, all built with materials sympathetic to the original building.

Pat sought advice on how to furnish the interior of their new home when they first moved in. For many years she has been one of the leading lights in the Ashridge Decorative and Fine Arts Society. She says, Wed owned an old house before but nothing as old as this. It was close carpeted downstairs when we arrived but I wanted to reveal the old floorboards. I went to Chenies Manor and asked Mrs Macleod Matthews opinion. The Macleod Matthews have owned the Elizabethan manor house at Chenies since the 1950s.
The wide floorboards with the patina of centuries-old oak restored by polishing are now part of the character of the house, along with the oak panelling, huge open fireplaces and oak mullioned diamond pane leaded light windows.
Progressing from room to room through the sitting room which originated in Suffolk to the panelled dining room, into John OGaddesdens room, onwards through a hall which was part of the original building that leads to a study, then up a short flight of narrow stairs into the incredible solar drawing room and from there up another oak staircase to the master bedroom and beyond, is a bit like being a time traveller except theres a natural flow of oak and age and one wing fuses into another without you being aware of crossing frontiers.
The over-riding impression is of
a home. The house is used. Its not
a museum.

On the ground floor, the oak furniture is country house-style, and the space between the wall beams is wide enough for paintings by favourite artists. Upstairs the beams in the solar are closer together. Pictures wouldnt fit so we found a set of wall hangings. Theyre reproductions of tapestries made at that time.

The acre of garden surrounding John OGaddesdens House was professionally landscaped by Georgina Craig to her clients brief. Pat wanted the layout of the garden to be in keeping with the age of the house.

Now, having owned the landmark house for a quarter of a century, the Allens are looking for another family to succeed them as trustees. With a house like this, youre custodians of a small piece of English heritage, say the couple. We feel we should move on before we reach a point when we dont have the energy to give to it. Its a lifestyle. Its not somewhere you go away and forget about. Weve always felt it was a privilege to live here. We just want to find a successor who will love it as much as we have.

John OGaddesdens House at Little Gaddesden is for sale through Aitchisons in Berkhamsted with a price guide of 1.975million.

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life