Property: Calm in a storm
PUBLISHED: 18:21 12 January 2015 | UPDATED: 18:21 12 January 2015
Christina Rees is a remarkable woman. A leading advocate for equal rights in the Church of England, having campaigned successfully for the right of women to become vicars and now bishops, she grew up on a boat sailing the oceans and has been a regular inspirational voice on BBC Radio. Pat Bramley explores her life and her special home in Barley
‘There are times and seasons in life,’ muses Christina Rees. ‘When you know the time is right to move on. I feel I’ve squared the circle. I’m ready for a new endeavour.’
This is two days before the Church of England gives its final seal of approval to women clergy becoming bishops. It is 25 years since Christina, an American-born theologian married to a BBC radio and TV producer, embarked on a high-profile campaign to allow deaconesses to reach the first stage of equality with male aspirants in the CofE and become vicars. That goal was achieved in 1994. But it has taken a further two decades for the ardent campaigner and others like her to win the right for women clergy in the English church to be ordained as bishops.
Pretty well all that time, she and her husband Chris have been living in a house called Churchfield set against a backdrop of rolling hills in East Hertfordshire.
Churchfield in Pudding Lane, Barley, a village two and a half miles from Royston, appears on the 1542 map of English glebe land, although the current property here wasn’t built until 1948. The story of how it came to be built is as extraordinary as the story of Christina’s childhood.
Her family home was in Bridgetown, Long Island but from the age of five until 15 she and her elder sister and younger brother sailed the world with their parents in a wooden schooner. ‘It was a Dutch design, We kept it painted bright sunshine yellow.’
Christina and her siblings didn’t go to a formal school at any point during the 10 years they were sailing the oceans. ‘My mother was a teacher and my father was with the Oxford University Press, they made sure we followed a very disciplined home schooling programme.’
The daughter who grew up to become a lay member of the General Synod says the self discipline she learnt on the boat helped her stay on course when she was chairman of the controversial campaign group Women and the Church (WATCH). She adds, ‘My parents were very enthusiastic about our education. They had us learning all the Latin and English names for the fish we caught and the shells I collected – I still have a large collection.
‘I have very few memories of living on dry land until I was in my mid-teens. I grew up looking at the ocean. The scenery from our house gives me a similar feeling of a never-ending vista. We have a beautiful view of where three counties come together – Cambridge, Essex and Hertfordshire. I couldn’t live feeling hemmed in. Another thing I have valued here is the sheer amount of storage – you don’t get much of that on a boat!’ she laughs.
The couple are only the second owners of Churchfield. Their predecessor had a reputation as something of a Del Boy in the village. ‘He’d run a hardware shop in north London during the war,’ Christina explains. ‘He was someone who knew where to get things that were in short supply. After the war ended he decided to move to the country. He drove out from Barnet with his bits and pieces and found Barley. He decided he’d like to build a house at the top of the hill overlooking the valley. He asked the dairy farmer if he’d sell him five acres of pastureland – it was land for goats – but the farmer said no.’
Undeterred by the set-back, he built himself a basic place to squat measuring about eight feet by 10, put a single bed in it and a pot bellied wood burning stove, and hunkered down to bide his time. After he had been living there a year he went back to the farmer and asked him again if he’d sell him five acres, This time the farmer agreed.
Christina made friends with the man who built Churchfield long before she and Chris bought the house in 1990. They were living in the village in another cottage nearly 10 years before it came on the market after his death.
‘Everyone knew Bunny – he was always known as Bunny though I think his real name was Lesley. He was a big man, about six-foot five.
‘He kept pigs here and ducks, all sorts of animals. He had a greenhouse with grapevines in it, he grew vegetables and flowers, he became the man to go to in the village for seedlings and young plants. I bought seedlings from him. He was an interesting man. He was well into his 80s when he died.’
Christina says Churchfield was ‘like a Peter Rabbit cottage painted pink. We moved in with our two young daughters, a little yellow Lab puppy, cats and one sheep – I had just got a ram because we knew we were coming here, I bought him from the wildlife park.’
The couple lived in their new home for three years without doing much to it. Then they built the first of two extensions which have tripled its size. ‘We put on three extra bedrooms and two new bathrooms, one en-suite, to accommodate my family from America when they come over to stay. After that we waited about 15 years or so and we thought what we’d really like now is a big lovely family room off the kitchen, then we’ll have the space to have parties. ‘We told the architect we want no ceilings, we want the room to go up to the rafters, we want space and light.’
And that’s what they have. Today Churchfield, once a two-bedroom cottage, has five bedrooms and three bathrooms – two en-suite. There are two formal reception rooms: a drawing room with French doors on to the terrace and a formal dining room. And there are two studies, one for each of the owners. Christina’s was fitted out as a recording studio during her years as a regular on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought on Radio 2.
The kitchen they refitted about 10 years ago now flows into the showpiece family room where a plaster of Paris statue called Pastorale by Christina’s paternal grandmother Olgo Popoff takes pride of place in front of a mirror. ‘She did all the statues and paintings in this house,’ her granddaughter says.
In the grounds are two 100ft-long outbuildings which Bunny used as piggeries when he set up his smallholding. Today, 150 Chinese lanterns hang from its ceiling, reminders of a wedding reception they held when the Rees’s elder daughter, Angela married last summer.
‘We’ve used the outbuildings for all kinds of things. When the children were young they could run free in here. As teenagers they could play their music as loud as they liked and no-one could overhear it, We’ve had Guy Fawkes parties with mulled wine in there, parties for local organizations – this place is a patch of paradise,’ says Christina smiling.
Like Bunny, they’ve shared their life with umpteen animals – as well as their original furry and wooly friends, they’ve raised free range chickens and guinea fowl, peacocks, rare breed sheep and goats, puppies, kittens. ‘At one time we had 27 kittens.’ For nearly 25 years it has been a sanctuary, a parallel life to her front- line campaign for equality in the church.
‘Other than seven peacocks we no longer have any animals,’ she says. ‘The girls have their own lives. Chris and I are senior partners in a media and communications training consultancy. There are new things to explore.‘
Churchfield is on the books of Mullucks Wells in Bishop’s Stortford for £1.25m.