Property: A dragon in the countryside
PUBLISHED: 12:14 06 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:14 06 January 2015
Dreams of a gothic castle intertwined with a country house were the catalyst for an extraordinary rural home near the village of Much Hadham
Once upon a time, a bungalow stood on a glorious spot close to the centre of one of the most desirable villages in Hertfordshire. In 1999 it was discovered by a businessman and his wife. The property was exactly what they had been looking for – so they knocked it down and built in its place, well, something special.
From one angle, with its towers and turrets and castellated walls, you’d think you’d come across a fairytale castle. The transformation from relatively humble single-storey dwelling to Victorian-style gothic mansion didn’t happen overnight. The project in Much Hadham in East Herts took four years – two years of negotiating with planners and the local authority and two years to build. Marc and Ann Verona moved into their palatial new home with their two young sons just before Christmas 11 years ago.
People who see this extraordinary country house for the first time stare at it in wonder. It’s the stuff of dreams. So was Christmas 2003 the best ever for the Verona family? Ann laughs. ‘We were exhausted,’ she says. ‘We were too tired to throw a big party. Afterwards I couldn’t remember much about it. It went by in a blur. We’d talked of little else for four years and suddenly we were living here.’
‘I still love sitting in the garden, looking at what we’ve achieved,’ Marc admits. ‘We employed the best available craftsmen and used the finest materials. It was all finished to the highest possible standard.’
As for replacing the bungalow, that’s only half the story, his wife points out. ‘It was a big building. It had five bedrooms. It was a smallholding really. We built our house on the footprint of the bungalow as well as three large chicken houses and one or two other outbuildings.
‘The previous owners had lived here for about 30 years. They loved it but they were very understanding about what we wanted to do. It was a tricky situation. We offered them the full asking price on condition that we could get planning permission and they agreed to wait.’ No-one realised quite how long a wait it would be. ‘They were wonderful,’ Ann says.
The Veronas had previously owned a 16th-century thatched cottage in the High Street at Much Hadham. ‘We loved the village’ Ann says, ‘but after I had our first child I was worried about living so close to the road – it was pretty busy.’
They couldn’t find anything suitable for sale in the village, so they bought a house in nearby Widford and spent two years there. That was followed by another couple of years in Aldbury on the other side of the county, by which time they’d decided they definitely wanted to move back to Much Hadham. Then they spotted the bungalow and its potential.
Ann remembers, ‘It was on a four-acre plot within walking distance of the village. As we drove up, we looked at it and said “This is it”.’
Having agreed the deal with the owners, they drew inspiration for their dream-house design by driving around and noting the bits they particularly liked about houses they admired. There was one particular house near Cambridge with blonde bricks – that went in the book.
The deciding factor, when it came to the overall design for what became Dragons Hall Farm, was commissioning an architect whose specialist subject was Victorian gothic. ‘I lived for about two years with plans pinned up on the walls in our previous house, just looking at them all the time and tweaking them’, Ann says.
‘The house actually has a split personality. Seen from the front, it looks like a traditional country house. From the back, it looks completely different. The turrets dictated the gothic design. From a distance the house looks huge, but in fact there aren’t that many rooms, although they are a good size.’
In all, there are six bedrooms on the two upper floors, four dressing rooms and what seem to be countless bathrooms. The leisure complex on the lower ground floor includes a pool, a gym and an incredible wine store, which was built of brick on a rainy afternoon when the bricklayers weren’t able to work outside. ‘They said they had never done anything like this before,’ Ann laughs.’
Her instructions to the architect at the outset of the project were founded on the need for space and light. ‘I needed light, lots of natural light. The rooms had to flow, we didn’t want corridors everywhere. The rooms come off the central hall – it’s not a house with a rambling layout. Ceiling heights were very important. They are in proportion to the style of the house. If they had been too low, the result could have been very claustrophobic.’
She adds, ‘Although the design is a blend of Victorian gothic and English country house we put in all the mod cons – there’s music everywhere, we have a multi-room surround-sound system and we hired a Lutron specialist to do the lighting. Installed lighting was second only to a design that lets in lots of natural light.’
There’s also underfloor heating and concrete floors upstairs and down. Ann explains, ‘The house had to be solid. My husband can’t bear creaky floors.’ (Being one of the brains in the shoe industry, he probably doesn’t like squeaky footwear either).
The solid oak for the floors that went on top of the concrete came from Belgium. A group of carpenters came over from Belgium and camped out in the orchard while they laid the floors. It took them about two weeks.
The windows are also oak, some are sash. All the oak windows and oversized gothic doors are bespoke, from ‘a lovely little company in Cambridge’.
Ann adds, ‘The limestone flags for the floor in the hall and galleried landing are fossilised inside. They came from a company called Artisans in Wiltshire, they were very good.’
The Venturas were delighted with the kitchen designed and installed by Mark Wilkinson. ‘We knew we wanted a central island and I didn’t want any cupboards on the wall as they spoil the feeling of space. And I had to have a walk-in larder. We had the fireplace specially built as a setting for the Aga – I love the Aga – everyone who comes to the house says how warm and welcoming it is. It’s a family home.’
For all the turrets and gables, the castellated roofline and the grounds landscaped by award-winning garden designer David Stephens, the stand-out feature of Dragons Hall Farm is the double-height hall with polished plaster walls and stone cantilevered staircase with iron balustrade sweeping up to the first floor. All this leads up to the real scene stealer: the dramatic domed ceiling made of oak. The craftsmanship is awe-inspiring.
‘Our architect wanted a wow factor,’ says Ann. ‘You walk into what is a very small porch, then the front door opens and you come into this amazing hall.’
Now with their boys grown up and no longer using the home as a permanent base, Mark and Ann are ready to move on, too. The house which they built and where their sons grew up will always be special to them, of course. Etched in the brickwork in the porch are their initials with notches to show the boys’ heights and the dates when they were measured over the years. Marc sums it up: ‘It has been a fabulous family home.’
. Dragon Hall Farm is for sale with Mullucks Wells for £3,950,000.