Property: home of the month - modern meets Medieval

PUBLISHED: 10:10 17 December 2015

English oak is a feature of both the structure and the furniture

English oak is a feature of both the structure and the furniture


Six centuries in the making, Hawkins Hall Farm was on the verge of ruin until a couple spotted it half-hidden behind trees in Datchworth, spurring a 30-year love affair

The view from the front. The front door is back in it's original positionThe view from the front. The front door is back in it's original position

This is likely to be the last year that Denise Gray will spend Christmas at the historic Grade II listed house which has been her home for 30 years.

When she and her first husband Anthony Georgiou bought Hawkins Hall Farm in the village of Datchworth between Knebworth and Welwyn in 1983 it looked very different from the way it does today. When they arrived, the timber frame of the central, oldest part of the structure was on the point of collapse and the west wing had been destroyed by fire.

It was pure chance that the couple discovered the house and become the owners, Gray says. ‘I noticed it for the first time when I was driving my children to school one day, I hadn’t seen it before because it’s hidden from the road by barns. Two weeks later it came up for sale. The timing was fortuitous because we’d just lost a house we’d been intending to buy.’

Following a four-year restoration by a team of top craftsmen, the farmhouse now has six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a kitchen/breakfast room, a 50ft games room and three reception rooms on a par with any you’d expect to find in a five-star country-house hotel. According to experts in the business of period homes, everything has been done to the highest standard and with impeccable taste.

The kitchen-diner takes its inspiration from a granaryThe kitchen-diner takes its inspiration from a granary

The grounds extend to 11.5 acres and as well as a two-acre formal garden there are stables, outbuildings, a tennis court, orchard, pond and paddock. All it lacks is a swimming pool.

The farm is an inspiring example of how the soul can be put back into a building that over 600 years has become an important part of local heritage and yet is a home with the comforts and style many modern families dream of finding.

According to the earliest records of the area, there has been a house on this spot since 1365 when William Haukyn was named as the owner. Thirty years later in 1395 he appears to have built himself the hall house which has morphed over the course of six centuries into the splendid property seen today.

The drawing roomThe drawing room

In the 14th century a hall house was usually owned by yeomen or lords of the manor. It consisted of a main room, open to the rafters with a small hole in the roof to let out the smoke from a fire in the central fireplace. It was where the family lived and cooked and spent most of their time. On one side was a pantry and a buttery to store food and drink and on the other was a bay where the family could shut themselves off from visitors.

In the late 1500s, a wooden floor is believed to have been added to cover the bare earth, by which time the property had changed hands at least twice.

Fast-forward 400 years and the owner before the arrival of Gray and her family were a couple who used their land as a stud to rear pedigree miniature Shetland ponies, which they exported to Europe and America. They were also responsible for adding the rooms in the east wing including the sitting room and what has since become the utility room, and also a bedroom and two of the bathrooms on the first floor.

At some point, the orientation of the house was changed by moving the position of the front door. Gray moved it back to its original position. She is adamant her sole contribution to the restoration project however was the lengths to which she was happy to go to recruit a team that was equal to the challenge. ‘My forte is finding the right people,’ she says.

The back-to-back fireplace connects the drawing and dining roomsThe back-to-back fireplace connects the drawing and dining rooms

Chief among her gang of experts was chartered surveyor Alan Carter, who has since retired, and a master builder who specialised in the restoration of churches and traditional buildings. Their team of highly-skilled craftsmen proved their worth when it was evident that the early timber frame – in what is now the dining room – needed to be dismantled and rebuilt or it would disintegrate. With the blessing and guidance of English Heritage, all salvageable oak and other materials were numbered, restored and replaced, and English oak was chosen with utmost care to replace beams that were beyond repair. ‘I didn’t stain them dark to match the originals. Of course the colour will darken in time but I left them light so you can read the story of how the building has been restored,’ Gray explains.

Moving to the historic home was a departure to say the least for Gray, who until buying the farm had never lived in an old place. ‘I had an ultra-modern house before this,’ she says, laughing. ‘None of our furniture was right. We had to buy everything new. That’s how I came to love antiques, especially oak. Oak furniture of any age is handmade. You can see the craftsmanship. It’s like handwriting. Every piece is different.’

She spent many happy hours trawling through architectural salvage yards and going to auctions and country-house sales to find the right pieces. ‘I like things that work with the building. I don’t follow trends. I go for timeless classics.’

When they arrived, the floor in the dining room was covered in Victorian encaustic tiles. But it was obvious their days were numbered. ‘They were too damaged to be reused. In any event we were going to lay a proper damp course, so we replaced the tiles with oak floorboards.’

The 50-foot barn is now a games and party roomThe 50-foot barn is now a games and party room

As well as creating two new staircases to fit the reorientation of the house, they extended the 1970s wing with a new kitchen/breakfast room in the style of a granary to fit with the agricultural origins of the property. And in the footprint of the west wing destroyed by fire in 1927, they built a splendid 30ft drawing room with double doors through to a study that’s more on the scale of a library.

‘When the timber frame of the dining room came down, the chimneys collapsed,’ Gray says matter-of-factly. ‘So we now have back-to-back inglenook fireplaces between the dining room and the new drawing room with matching firebacks that were made for us with a wildflower design by a very talented lady blacksmith in Edinburgh. I chose wildflowers because it picks up the theme of the wildflowers in our fields. Alan went to enormous trouble to find handmade bricks which replicated the colour and style of the original Tudor fireplace. The new inglenooks have become the focal point of both rooms. Only the bressumer beam is original.’

Upstairs, the master suite in the new west wing has vast cupboards. In fact, all the bedrooms have plenty of hanging space. Four of the five bathrooms are ensuite. And there is a lot of marble on display. ‘I don’t like tiles. I like splashbacks,’ Gray explains. ‘I like Persian tiles but they are difficult to incorporate in modern design. I think simple is best – keep it simple. Keep to classic lines. I believe in going with the house rather than what’s fashionable. When I get home after being away, I want to walk into the house and feel warm and comfortable.’

The games room in one of the barns is centrally heated via the low sill that runs round the edge of the floor. ‘We’ve had great fun in there. It’s a wonderful room for parties. It’s easily large enough for a full-sized snooker table and a table-tennis table.’

The restoration of the farm also included a redesign of the large formal gardens by a landscape designer who previously worked for the National Trust.

The horses the family once had have gone but the stables are still there, as are the paddock and the hard tennis court. ‘The previous owners weren’t into gardening. We’ve planted a whole lot of indigenous broadleaf trees. I love trees,’ Gray says.

She has remarried and decided the time has come to make a break with the past and move on. ‘We’re leaving while we have the energy to do another house. We’d quite like to build an eco house, but we have to find the right plot...’

Hawkins Hall Farm is for sale for £3.5m through the Country House department of Strutt & Parker in Berkeley Square, London.

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