Property: A sudden conversion
PUBLISHED: 12:04 19 May 2015 | UPDATED: 12:09 19 May 2015
Copyright 2015 Clive Tagg all rights reserved.
When a couple bought a delapidated barn and farmhouse near Welwyn, love for the place turned a property development into a business opportunity. Pat Bramley reports
When construction company boss Mark Tant and his wife Katie moved to Ayot St Peter in May 2013 their priority was not the listed farmhouse they’d bought. Instead, their immediate aim was to convert a derelict 19th-century barn in the grounds into a home, sell it when they’d turned it into a showpiece, and use the proceeds to pay off their mortgage.
When the couple bought Home Farm there was planning permission in place to alter the farmhouse and planning consent to convert the barn. The timber framed outbuilding was in a state of collapse, fit only for the flights of doves roosting there.
Two years on the Tants have finished the barn conversion, but the building has not been put on the market and they still have a mortgage.
It is kitted out as a home-from-home for people away on business or couples wanting a weekend break in the country, the sort who’d rather return at the end of a long day and look after themselves in stylish comfort than go back to an impersonal hotel room.
So what triggered the change of strategy from property development to country retreat?
Katie says it happened because after building work began, ‘we realised how lovely the barn was going to be when it was finished and how awful it would be to watch someone else knock it around, especially after pouring so much money and effort into it. We overspent hugely’.
Tant, managing director of Wates Construction’s housebuilding operation in the London region, suggested using it as a B&B but his wife was having none of it. ‘I’m a miserable wotsit in the mornings,’ she laughs, ‘I don’t like to talk, let alone cook food and be nice to other people. Even the dogs know not to approach me until I’ve had my coffee.’
The move to the pretty village near Welwyn was a gut reaction. ‘It was a bit of a mad moment really,’ Katie confesses.
‘I happened to call in to ask an estate agent friend of ours what a rental property we owned would fetch if we sold it. On his desk were these sales details for a barn. “Oooh, that’s nice,” I enthused. “Wouldn’t be right for you,” said my agent friend. ”If you’re really thinking of moving, first of all get your place valued”.’
At the time, the Tants were living in a 1930s’ house in Wheathampstead which they had remodelled. ‘It was a really ugly house from the outside but it was beautiful inside. After seeing the details for the barn, I got our place valued and it was worth more than we thought so I went on Rightmove and found this proper farmhouse with an 1800s’ listed barn in two-and-a-half acres and planning consent to convert it.’
She asked her mother-in-law Marion to go with her to view it as ‘she’s amazingly switched on about these things’. ‘I walked in the hall of the farmhouse and knew immediately it was right. I looked at Marion and she looked at me. We were both excited. When you see something with obvious potential it sort of smacks you round the face.’
However, not even a couple like Mark and Katie with a detailed knowledge of the construction industry were prepared for the extent they would go to make the best possible job of converting the barn. The structural engineers they brought in to advise on the project told them at the outset if they didn’t get scaffolding up the timber-framed structure wouldn’t survive another winter. It would be gone.
‘It completely blew our budget,’ Katie says. ‘The previous people had taken the roof tiles off. The timber frame was sitting on a brick wall which was crumbling away.’
From November 2013 to the following July, the main structure was enclosed in plastic sheeting tied to the scaffolding, which was bolted to steel, providing extra support to hold the precarious main structure together. The timber frame was raised from what remained of the wall and a raft of concrete was laid to give the barn a solid new foundation, then the main part of the structure was lowered back on to its footprint. During the restoration, each timber was numbered, dismantled, restored and refitted.
To cut costs, Katie and Mark did all the painting inside. ‘There was masses of cutting-in to do,’ Katie explains. ‘Weeks of my life were spent cutting-in, to avoid getting paint on the beams. We had to scrub down each beam before applying hard wax oil. Mark couldn’t wait to get to Sunday night, because he was really pleased to go back to work on Monday mornings,’ Katie laughs.
The couple chose Dulux Almond White emulsion for the walls and ceilings. ‘It has just the right amount of yellow in it to go with the oak,’ Katie says. ‘I wanted the wood to be the most obvious feature. That’s why we went for white for the décor and the bedlinen and crockery and all the accessories.’
The oak for the floors was salvaged from another renovation project, ‘It was going to be put into a hotel but the interior designer said there were too many knots in it so it was going to be skipped. We got it for free. It’s in beautiful condition.’ Katie says.
All the internal doors had to be made specially because each doorway in the barn is a different shape. Ternex at Ayot Green supplied the wood used in the barn, including the cladding. M&F Bryant of Flamstead were the builders. ‘They’re good people, very detailed, very precise,’ Katie says.
On April 1, Whitehill Barn at Home Farm opened for business. There are three bedrooms each with a flat-screen TV, desk, underfloor heating, free internet access and en suite shower room ‘with a big, decent, dinner plate shower head’.
‘We bought the beds from Premier Inn,’ Mark states. ‘Premier Inn’s advertising slogan is a Great Night’s Sleep Guaranteed. We thought that’s what we want for our clients so we bought the beds from them. They sell them new. They’re fabulous Hypnos pocket spring beds, very comfortable. The bed linen is hotel quality from John Lewis.’
Two of the bedrooms are on the first floor, one is on the ground floor. Prices range from £70-£90 a night. Also on the ground floor is a stylishly furnished living area which opens on to the guests’ private garden with seating area and barbecue for DIY alfresco meals.
The barn kitchen has an oven and hob, dishwasher, washer/dryer, espresso coffee machine and fridge/freezer with ice dispenser for drinks.
Says the new landlady: ‘The fridge is stocked with everything guests would expect for a full English breakfast including newly-laid eggs from our own Buff Orpington hens and pots of my homemade marmalade and jam.
‘The only difference between us and a good hotel or a B&B place is that we don’t cook it for them. We’ve supplied lots of cooking utensils so that when there is more than one guest in the barn, no-one will be held up because something is being used by someone else.’
The barn is in a rural location, but close to major amenities, Katie says. ‘Some of my townie friends come here and say it’s so remote,’ Katie laughs.
‘Remote! It takes me eight minutes door-to-door to get to John Lewis in Welwyn. How can they call that remote?’
Accommodation at Whitehill Barn can be arranged by contacting Katie Tant on 07779 249117 or firstname.lastname@example.org