Property: Home of passions
PUBLISHED: 20:42 17 August 2015 | UPDATED: 21:26 17 August 2015
Former home of human rights campaigner the duchess of Bedford, and with a garden created by eminent designers, Woodside House not only makes a beautiful home but plays a part in the nation's history. Pat Bramley visits
If Horace and his sidekick Herman wanted a quiet life they’d have toddled off to look for a family of stick-in-the-muds. As it is, the pair of exotic tortoises have lived a remarkably exciting life with Paul and Sarah Mussenden for 18 years - not a couple to let the grass grow under their feet.
The lawyer and his wife, a chartered accountant, along with their son Harley (all pictured left with family poodle Noodles) and daughter Kazia have lived at Woodside House in Chenies for six years. They hadn’t been planning to move in 2009. ‘We lived just up the road in Latimer. We used to drive by this house and look over the top of the wall and say if it ever comes up for sale we’ll buy it.’ As soon as they discovered it was on the market they didn’t think twice. They went for it.
The 18th century house with wisteria gracing the front wall is historically important for two reasons. In the late 19th century and the early part of the last, what is now the Mussendens’ home was the central section of a large country property with the same name – Woodside House - owned by Adeline, Duchess of Bedford.
Adeline bought it in 1893, the year her husband, the 10th duke, died at the age of 40. It was Adeline who commissioned Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll to design the garden - ‘possibly their first partnership’ according to Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England - which accounts for the garden as well as the house being Grade II listed.
The duke’s widow was much admired. Those who knew her eulogised about her kindness to those in need (she was a regular prison visitor) as well as her ‘queenly dignity, exquisite tact, unfailing graciousness and her wonderful smile of welcome’. But it was her pluck and willingness to stand up to tyrants that thrust her into the limelight in 1913 when, to everyone’s surprise (not least her own), she led the British protest against the cruelty of political prisoners in Portugal- ‘without which,’ wrote The Spectator in 1920 ‘the battle could not have been won or the victims freed.’
After her death in 1920 the house was leased and eventually bought from the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates by Air Commodore Benson, grandson of the owner of Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire who planted many of the specimen trees at Woodside.
The house was split into three separate residences about 50 years ago.
The Mussendens’ has four/five bedrooms, two bathrooms including a master suite with dressing room, and four reception rooms. One of these is the orangerie with glazed triple double doors. Another is the new dining room with partially glazed ceiling and bi-fold doors. It has created an open-plan extension to the kitchen/breakfast room.
The magical three-quarters of an acre garden planned by two of the most revered names in architecture and landscape design includes a secret woodland dell, specimen trees, wide herbaceous borders and manicured lawns running down to the River Chess. ‘It’s maintained by two gardeners who looked after it for the previous owners,’ Paul explains, ‘They more or less came with the house and do a wonderful job,’
The Mussendens were scientists before they each branched into different careers. ‘We met in a lab,’ Paul says. In view of recent comments by an eminent scientist that sounds a rocky route to romance. However their relationship flourished.
Sarah’s now the finance director of a housing trust and he’s a lawyer – general counsel, company secretary and head of strategic affairs for a leading pharmaceutical company.
Away from work nothing gives them more of a buzz than a renovation project. Having done quite a few, they’ve learnt from experience what’s what and who to go to for a first-class job.
Like most parents choosing where to live, location is uppermost and the need to be close to good schools is the first consideration. Both Latimer and Chenies are in the catchment area for grammar schools in Bucks.
‘My son was already at Dr Challoner’s in Amersham and my daughter was hoping to go to Dr Challoner’s (girls high school) in Little Chalfont, so we were constrained to a degree in where we could move to. At Woodside House it was love at first sight. ‘We’ve always loved old properties,’ Paul emphasises. ‘We’re drawn to houses with real character and a story. This house has history. We mobilised as soon as we saw it was for sale.’ They immediately commissioned architect Jane Duncan of Little Chalfont to draw up a design for the interior that would be contemporary but in keeping with the building’s origins.
They didn’t encounter any major problems in their dealings with the planning authorities when they embarked on the Chenies venture who recognised the house needs to evolve but in a way that shows respect to its heritage.
‘They were very interested in working with us in what we wanted to do,’ Paul says. ‘We applied for planning permission for three projects and got consent for all three but only went ahead with two because in the end we found we didn’t need a fifth en-suite bedroom.’
What they did do was knock out an existing window in the kitchen to make it partially open-plan to the new dining room. The planners’ policy on the extension was not to mimic the style of what is there already but to create a fine example of current design and craftsmanship. The new dining room at Woodside House is just that.
Their choice of décor is 21st century Knightsbridge: sophisticated muted shades from the Farrow and Ball palette, lots of natural light – no need for curtains here because they’re not overlooked – and clever use of mirrors and lighting. Add to that silver and chrome accessories and accents of zingy colour such as the pink chair that matches the flowers in the painting in the orangerie, and you have the classic Homes and Gardens backdrop for modern lifestyles.
But now the couple are ready to move on. ‘We’ve got itchy feet again’, Paul says with a laugh. ‘We’re looking for another project.’
The next house will have to be in the same area because their daughter Kazia is 16 and still at Dr Challoner’s.
It will need to be a pretty exciting prospect to match what they have in Chenies. The grounds here are like a wildlife sanctuary. Paul says, ‘We have owls and we’ve seen kingfishers down by the stream, also woodpeckers and badgers. When we did the work on the house I removed some old outside shutters and found bats roosting behind. When we dug up the patio to build the dining room extension we also found some glis glis (edible dormouse) hibernating. Building had to stop while we had the animal sanctuary relocate them.’
How will the family pets adjust to change? Noodles, the family’s chocolate coloured four-year-old poodle, enjoys her view over the garden from the comfort of her white cushion in the orangerie. ‘As long as that goes with her she’ll be happy’, Sarah says.
Horace, the larger of the Mussenden’s two tortoises’ is a Sulcata from South Africa. He weighs about 30kg. Herman, the smaller one, is a Leopard tortoise. These two old pals take their accommodation with them. They should acclimatise to new surroundings pretty quickly.
In the meantime Woodside House is on the market through Savills in Rickmansworth with a guide price of £1.75m.