House of the month: Greyfriars, an Edwardian home in Hitchin

PUBLISHED: 15:50 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:27 20 February 2013

House of the month: Greyfriars, an Edwardian home in Hitchin

House of the month: Greyfriars, an Edwardian home in Hitchin

Restoring the faded grandeur of an Edwardian home was a labour of love for racehorse owners Tony and Jane Else, as Pat Bramley discovers

Restoring the faded grandeur of an Edwardian home was a labour of love for racehorse owners Tony and Jane Else, as Pat Bramley discovers

SOME houses seem to be forever on the market. Others stay in the same family for generations. Take Greyfriars at Hitchin Hill: this grand Edwardian seven bedroom house standing in one-and-a-half acres close to the centre of Hitchin has only changed hands twice in 100 years.

The first owners were the antique dealers who established Phillips of Hitchin, still one of the best known businesses in the town.

The Phillipses had the house built to their own demanding specification in 1903 and lived there until 1924 when they sold it to an Army officer and his young bride. The Oldhams were blessed with three sons and lived at Greyfriars all their married life.

By the time the property came up for sale again 13 years ago, Mrs Oldham had died after living there as a widow for some years and the interior was in need of a considerable amount of work to restore lustre to its fine features.
None of the faded grandeur deterred the new people who were overjoyed that what was essentially a beautiful period home hadnt been ruined by any hideous makeovers.

That would have been a nightmare, says racehorse owner Tony Else, founder of Hertfordshire-based Else Refining and Recycling, a specialist company which safely disposes of spent computers and IT equipment for UK and international clients.

Tony and his wife Jane knew of Greyfriars through one of the Oldhams sons who had become a successful racehorse trainer. Consequently, when Tony opened his FT one morning and spotted Mrs Oldhams house in his home town of Hitchin was for sale he was onto the agent as fast as a favourite leads the field all the way to the finishing post.

Tony was born and bred in Hitchin. He and Jane previously owned Pirton Hall at Shillington two miles up the road so they werent daunted by the idea of taking on a pretty sizeable property.

Having sold the hall to live in London, a tremendous amount of the furniture theyd acquired for the big house had to be put into store Pirton Hall is now a BUPA-owned nursing home for the elderly.

Jane explains, When Greyfriars came up for sale wed been living in rented accommodation and we were desperately looking for another family home. This was such a lovely house.

For the first six months they lived with builders. Tony says, The Oldham family knew the house would have to be sold so theyd left it as it was. The old lady wouldnt have wanted the upheaval of having work done. What we did was bring it back to life.

The restoration took from September through to the following March. We stupidly decided to live in the house while the builders were here, says Jane, wincing at the memory. Most of the refurbishment was done by a local builder who had previously worked for us at Pirton Hall.

The only major change they made to the structure was the remodelling of the kitchen which involved amalgamating two or three rooms to create a fantastic 30ft new model. A kitchen specialist from Letchworth did the job. Although the streamlined refitted kitchen has integrated modern appliances including a larder fridge, theyve retained the walk-in larder and pantry.

They also updated the bathrooms, rewired and replumbed but other than that, the rest of the work was to restore what was there originally.

Beyond the main kitchen is the gardeners cloakroom and a boot room with a large enamel sink for doing the flowers. But best of all is the butlers pantry which has been there since the house was built. It still has the original butlers sink with wooden draining board and the fitted dresser and wooden cupboards where the glasses, silver and crockery were kept.

The old breakfast room along with the Edwardian scullery were probably both sacrificed to make way for the new layout but the present breakfast area adjoining the main business area of the kitchen is still large enough to be able to walk round the table without pushing in the chairs.

Surprisingly there wasnt a servants bell board on the wall in the previous kitchen. Jane believes Mrs Oldham probably never went into it. She had a bell (to summon the maid) under the carpet where she sat at the dining table in the dining room.

Under previous regimes, the best china was on show in the leaded light display cabinets either side of the fireplace in the dining room. The cases are still there but the carpets gone. Its been taken up to reveal the polished original elm floorboards.

The present owners have also retained the many fireplaces throughout the house. There are handsome open fires in each of the three principal reception rooms as well as a carved stone fireplace thats the central feature in the hall.
Upstairs there are fireplaces in four of the six bedrooms on the first floor and another in the study on the top floor.

The other main feature of the ground floor is the oak panelling in the hall and the gothic-style oak staircase. The wood panelling up to dado height in the sitting room and dining room has been painted white. It was far too oppressive to have too much dark oak panelling. The Georgians painted wood panelling white.

Even though Greyfriars is in a town, it is furnished like an English country house. Some of the pieces were inherited and passed down from both sides of the family but a lot of the furniture has been bought at country house sales.
The club fender in front of the fire in the drawing room came from the sale of contents when Offley House (now a country house hotel) in Hitchin was sold.
The long case clock came from another house sale. Tony has great affection for it because it was made by Robert Berry, a clockmaker in Hitchin in 1740. It has a seven day movement and it still has the original weight.

Back in the 60s, Tony played rugby for Herts and captained the county team. He also played for Bedford Rugby Club and, later, for the senior side. The family recycling company now sponsors Hitchin Academy of Youth. Were very thrilled to be championing mini rugby.

At Greyfriars theres a chest full of rugby kits and press cuttings to remind him of his days on the pitch. It was worth keeping them, when I look back now. Some of my friends are very envious.

His wife has had to throw some of his stuff out. These are the things you have to sort out when youve collected as much as we have over 40 years. Its knowing what to keep thats the problem.
It was her uncle who was a well known figure in horse racing who was largely responsible for them making their first purchase.

Theyve owned a string of horses and won 13 races since they bought their first horse in 1978.

The high spot of their career as owners so far was when Dunbrody Millar won the Topham Chase at Aintree two years ago. Tony and Jane usually co-own their horses in partnership with friends because its more fun that way.
Jane can ride but she doesnt much now, says her husband. What about him? Im 68, Im six foot five and I weigh 19 stone, he guffaws. Their present hope, Dunbrody House, is with a trainer in West Wales. Theres no opportunity to have horses here.

Despite not being large enough for stables and a paddock, the garden at Greyfriars is another of Janes passions. She maintains it with the help of a weekly visit from her gardener wherever we go, hes coming with us. We love the garden and the birds. We particularly like the walled kitchen garden. Theres a large asparagus bed which we love and a fruit cage.

However, the house along with the seven-room lodge at the entrance to the main drive could be on the verge of welcoming its fourth set of owners.
Tony and Jane have decided to spend more time at their other home in Majorca and other sunny places abroad which means theyll need to look for somewhere smaller in Hitchin. You cant lock this place up and leave, Tony points out.

Consequently the property is for sale through Bryan Bishops Welwyn office as a whole or in three lots.

The main house with 1.3 acres is 1.6m, Greyfriars Lodge, lot 2, has a guide of 300,000 and the walled kitchen garden is 100,000. We wont sell the lodge and the kitchen garden until the main house is sold because the buyer may well want to buy the whole property, confirms the agent Martin Bishop.

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