When a grand house falls into decay, there is rarely any shortage of worthy bodies and individuals to rush to its rescue, lavishing cash and compliments and ensuring it’s saved from the bulldozers. There are, however, hundreds more properties, more modest but still an integral part of our heritage that crumble away, unseen, unsung and unmourned. Such could have so easily been the fate of Roses Farm. Life started well for Roses Farm, built as it must have been by a prosperous farming family, probably around 1285. It was originally a jetty-ended Wealden long house, the forerunner to the more familiar Wealden hall house. The two houses were very similar in style. At either end there were storage rooms and sleeping quarters, while the space between was a spacious hall in which the family’s day-to-day living would be done. A simple hole high in the roof would have served as a chimney, the smoke drifting up freely through the rafters from a central fire. “Smoke was alleged to dissipate through the tiles over the rafters: no evidence was ever found for a hole. Some were vented, like a dovecot on the roof, but fire was a big risk,” Comments Johnny. The only essential difference is that the long house was built on a slightly more practical scale.
However, its days having begun with promise, Roses Farm’s journey through the centuries to the present day has been anything but easy. In Tudor times, the great central space was divided into three floors and the separate rooms created around the newfangled chimneys. But farming practices and ownership changed, it lost its status as the principal dwelling on the estate and was divided, none too gently, into three labourers’ cottages. By 2002, only two survived in habitable condition with the centre cottage derelict and in serious danger of collapse. It seemed that Kent was to lose one of only three remaining end jetty long houses without even knowing of its plight. And then, quite suddenly in 2002, there appeared a guardian angel. And not only an angel but one with the skill, knowledge and vision to appreciate not only what the property was but what it could again become. The angel’s name was Johnny Martin, an architect, writer and passionate conservationist. At last Roses Farm’s luck had changed. “When we first saw Roses Farm, it was in a seriously sorry state,” he says. “The ground floor, once the centre bay, was in a terrible state with virtually a river running through it. The Tudor floor tiles had been smashed to provide hard core beneath cement with lino laid over and, both upstairs and down, the entire back wall had been concreted over, covering both original doorways and windows.”
Not only was Roses Farm in need of shedloads of expertise and TLC but it needed it immediately. Local planning authorities are not known for their ability to move quickly in any direction and Johnny was concerned. Enter, however, a second guardian angel, this time in the shape of Brian Hayward of the Buildings at Risk department. He took one look at the building and, knowing Johnny’s credentials as both architect and conservationist, was very helpful.
“The depth of Hayward’s knowledge and his sympathy for buildings such as this was legendary and he had always commanded huge respect from everyone who worked with him,” said Johnny. The local authority, however, dug in its heel until a compromise was reached in order to comply with section 5 of the Danger to the Public act, and work finally began. Johnny did much of the work himself and when he dug up the centre bay floor found the original medieval fireplace along with some animal bones and what might have been a deer’s skull. “We have preserved the fireplace and re-laid the new oak floorboards over it,” says Johnny. “We also left the skull – it may have been from a slaughtered animal but it may also have been some kind of talisman and I didn’t feel like messing with some long-dead shaman.”
Today, one enters the house through what was the medieval storeroom, now a dining room. In pride of place in the inglenook is a venerable Aga and above it a crowded rack of pots and pans, many of which look as though they might have been used by the shaman. The floor around the Aga – and fireplace in the drawing room (which Johnny calls the ‘hall’ in honour of its origins) – made from the few Tudor tiles that Johnny managed to salvage from the hard core. It is not, however, any of these details that first strike one as one walks into this room. It’s the wealth of ancient curios, both large and small, that hang, sit and lounge around the room. Every nook and cranny is home to some fascinating and much loved item, many of which have tumbled down through the generations to be caught gently by their present owner. “We’ve bought very little in this house – it’s all come from ancestors – either my own or my wife, Sarah’s,” he explains. To the rear of the dining room is the kitchen, its floor 18-inch wide oak boards, its cupboards made from the Victorian dado that was once holding up the rotten plaster in the drawing room, and the work surface great elm slabs from the local estate. The kitchen leads to a study, a structure that looks as though it has stood for centuries but was in fact added by Johnny when he found evidence that such a structure once existed.
“At first, the planners were reticent but there is a wonderful piece of legislation – the Listed Building and Conservation Areas Act 1990 as Amended 1993 – which has been the saviour of so many old buildings,” says Johnny. “Essentially, it says you can put a building back to its former state if you have the evidence of this state – plus building regulations and planning of course – and I had found the evidence.” The ‘added’ structure is a library (as in fact, is every room in the house), a study and final resting place for another 101 treasures. The study leads on to the drawing room or ‘hall’ dominated, perhaps a trifle smugly, by a massive and handsome grandfather clock that once belonged to Sarah’s grandfather. In the corner, stands a wonderful Jacobean oak chest-on-chest that once graced the palace of Johnny’s great-uncle, a bishop who was responsible for building Cork cathedral. Upon it – with much else – is a human skull once owned by Johnny’s surgeon grandfather.
The whole rear wall of the room was concreted when Johnny first saw it but when the concrete was removed the original oak mullioned windows were revealed and Johnnny was able to divine the exact size of the original lead lights. He replaced them by creating a frame which attached to the mullions but could be removed to see the remains of Tudor leadwork.
Upstairs, past a visiting statue of the Buddha, is the main bedroom, its rollercoaster of a floor testament to the building's movement through the ages. The vast cranked tie beam supporting the king post above lurches some 18 inches at one end. At the head of the bed is a superb Victorian Honduras mahogany headboard.
There are two further first-floor bedrooms and a bathroom where reclines one of Johnny's pride and joys, a six-foot full-length roll-top bath from Symonds Salvage in Bethersden. "Fantastic place," observes Johnny.
To reach the second-floor rooms – a spare bedroom and two storerooms – one has to retrace one’s steps to a turn in the main staircase and a blank wall. Or, apparently, a blank wall. In fact, it’s a secret door that swings away to reveal a sharply turning stair up into the bedroom, in the centre of which is a repaired king post of Tudor origin. “The original king post is above the cranked tie beam and consists of an oak octagonal pier topped with a bell-shaped abacus with moulded capital and base.” Johnny points out.
However, perhaps the most fascinating part of the room is a small piece of Tudor plaster which has been pargeted – the pattern traced by a small and delicate hand, probably that of a boy apprentice, said the carpenters. “There is not much more satisfying than being able to do what we’ve done here,” says Johnny, as we sit down to a cup of lapsang suchong/Earl Grey hybrid tea, the front door open to the sunshine and wild garden. In the doorway appears a ridiculously tame vole. “Oh, hello,” says Johnny. “Welcome home.” After its long and perilous journey through the centuries, he might have been addressing Roses Farm.