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Property: Where kings hunted

PUBLISHED: 12:03 24 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:13 24 February 2015

Dining room in the original 1600's part of house

Dining room in the original 1600's part of house

Clive Tagg

The Old Palace in Royston was once a royal hunting lodge of James I, where he escaped the pressures of court to indulge his passion. Pat Bramley talks to the man who has restored it from a wreck to a property fit for a king

Rear exterior view across the gardenRear exterior view across the garden

The Windsors wouldn’t have been too keen to add The Old Palace at Royston to their property portfolio 20 years ago when it was bought by the present owners. By then it was Grade II listed but the roof was falling in.

But this house with its classic symmetrical Georgian-style frontage has a strong connection to the British royal family, as James I’s hunting lodge from the date of his accession to the English throne in 1603 until his death in 1625. In fact, it was while en route from Scotland to London to be crowned king of England – he’d been king of Scotland since the age of one in 1567 – that he saw Royston for the first time when his entourage stopped off to break the journey.

Stepping out of his carriage he may have said something along the lines of ‘By Gad. What a damned fine place this is, perfect country for sport and not that far from the capital’.

He was so taken by the sylvan spot in the east of Hertfordshire that he stayed three nights instead of one and vowed to return as soon as matters of state were sorted. That he did. Creating a hunting lodge fit for a king.

The majestic master bedroomThe majestic master bedroom

The landmark features of the palace today are the two huge chimneys at the front of the house on the wall facing the road. These were part of the central structure of the original wooden beamed double-gabled building, which projected eight metres into the street. This building, forming two inns, was greatly enlarged by James and clad in brick – which according to a nearby information board was ‘because of his great fear of fire.’

Satisfied that his country retreat would suit his needs, the monarch turned his mind to where key members of the court could be accommodated during stays.

Further properties in Kneesworth Street were acquired to house the King’s Guard, his equerries, domestic servants, stable boys and horses. Kennels for hunting dogs were built behind the grounds of the lodge in Dog Kennel Lane. 
James was at the lodge in 1605 when ministers in London were made aware of a plot to topple the government, what would later be known as the Gunpowder Plot, (he was informed of the threat on his return to London on October 31). And it was here at the desk that now stands behind the present owners’ elegant pink sofa in the drawing room that he signed the death warrant of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618.

After James’ death, his son Charles I came to Royston less often. Charles’ last visit was when he was paraded through the town in 1647 as a prisoner of Cromwell’s New Model Army. Two years later the king was executed on a charge of treason and the monarchy abolished.

Fireplace in the master bedroomFireplace in the master bedroom

After that the royal hunting lodge fell into disrepair. In the early 1700s it was partially altered to facilitate the construction of a turnpike road and by the end of 1866 all properties in Royston owned by the Crown had been sold off.

When Australian civil engineer Peter Franks and his wife Pam discovered The Old Palace for sale in 1994 it had been occupied by sitting tenants and was in a bad way, as Peter explains: ‘The rent wasn’t enough to maintain it up to scratch so the building had fallen into a shocking state of repair. Masses of water from the roof had come into the kitchen. The day we bought it we had to put on wellies because the water was three inches deep. You could see the sky through gaps in the roof.’

Peter and Pam met in Australia. Pam, originally from England, had gone over as ‘a £10 pom’ – when the country was so keen to attract immigrants from the UK the cost of passage was cut to ten pounds.

‘We came back to Britain and married in the Church of England church in Baldock, then we returned to Australia for a short while but after Pam had our first child, she got homesick for her family – she’s one of six – so we came back and I decided to use the move for a change of direction in my career,’ Peter says.

First floor sitting roomFirst floor sitting room

Instead of using his skills to map out new roads and streets as he did as a civil engineer in Australia, he switched to renovating period properties.

By the time he found The Old Palace he had years of experience as a restorer of houses. But what is arguably Royston’s most historic property wasn’t going to be a speculative project as most of the others had been, but a family home for the couple and their two teenage children. ‘We intended to make it our home, there was never any intention to do it up to make money.

‘We couldn’t live in the house as it was when we bought it. The priority was to repair the roof. The timbers were pretty average, I guess we replaced three or four rafters The main timbers just needed re-enforcing. After that, all the peg tiles had to be put back.’

Once the roof was rehabilitated, the family moved in and set about restoring the rooms one by one. The house has six bedrooms, two bathrooms and three principal reception rooms. Like all old houses it had been altered and extended several times over the centuries and its history can be read through the character of the rooms.

The kitchen combines old with newThe kitchen combines old with new

The sitting room on the first floor is where Pam and Peter spend most of their time when it’s just the two of them. The drawing room and formal dining room on the ground floor have vast open fireplaces and the two oldest doors in the house. Peter thinks they’ve probably there since the late 1600s. ‘The paneling in the drawing room also dates from the 17th century,’ he adds. ‘It has early stenciling with wreaths of flowers round the borders. The fireplace in the dining room has a salt cupboard installed by the early owners because salt was expensive and the fireplace was the best place to keep it dry. There’s also a study which the family call ‘the phone room’.

The farmhouse-style kitchen, with 21st century cooking range in the fireplace recess, is part of a 1904 extension. The original kitchen or butteries were in the building next door. There’s also a cellar which has probably been there since the original hunting lodge morphed out of two pubs.

There are four bedrooms and two bathrooms on the first floor and two attic rooms with sloping ceilings at the top of the house, used by the Franks children had when they were growing up.

Just as the house has been ravaged by time, on the family’s arrival nature had also re-claimed the garden. ‘It was a jungle’, Peter says. ‘The previous owners wouldn’t have been able to get a JCB into the garden at the back, there was no access, but by a coincidence we were renovating barns next door and we owned both boundaries so we were able to get the machinery in that way and clear the garden for landscaping.’

Mr and Mrs FranksMr and Mrs Franks

Peter says they have been enormously helped at every stage of the restoration project by Peter Ketteringham, an upholsterer from the town who is a member of the Worshipful Company of Upholders and a Freeman of the City of London.

‘He’s an expert on period interiors. Before he retired he worked for the National Trust and a string of high calibre clients.’ Peter explains. Over the years he has advised Peter and Pam on the décor for the old building and the choice of fabrics for the furnishings. By working together on the house the three have become close friends. The two Peters are both trustees of Royston Museum, and Peter Ketteringham is also chairman of the local history society of which Peter Franks is a member.

Now, with the house fit for a king again, the Franks have been casting around for another place to do up. ‘I’m 70 and my wife is a touch behind me. We feel we’ve got enough life left in us for one last project,’ Peter explains. ‘It’ll be a period house, just not so big, because we no longer need six bedrooms. But we’ll enjoy doing it.’

So with that ambition The Old Palace and all its remarkable history is up for sale for £1.3m through William H Brown in Royston.

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