An Agricultural Gem

Converted oasts can be rather like those childhood Christmas presents from Great Aunt Hermione - they look the biz from the outside but inside they are too often architectural socks. Oasts are, after all, industrial buildings built for hops not people and a truly outstanding conversion requires serious courage and imagination.

So how wonderful would it be to be able to take a vast triple kiln oast and to create a home from scratch, a home for the long term, a home where one would raise one's children, from which they would sally out into the world and which would finally be the joy of one's later years?

Well, this is just the opportunity that Jenny and David were given in the mid-1960s - an age, glorious in memory, when, provided one didn't set out to trash single-handedly the country's entire national heritage, the authorities pretty well left one to one's own devices. True, not the most wonderful idea if you were an architectural vandal but perfect if, like Jenny and David, you had real vision and the determination to create a unique home and garden that would be a joy to anyone lucky even to visit.

"When we moved down from London, we hadn't thought of an oast," says Jenny. "I was rather thinking of a ready-made, rose-clung cottage but a brief look at our finances revealed that if we wanted something really special, we were going to have to put in a lot of hard work of our own."

When they first saw Home Oast and its three square kilns, it was derelict and its garden just a patch of field delineated by stakes. Today, it is difficult to judge which is the greater triumph, the elegant house or the garden that complements it so beautifully. What strikes one first about the house and which differentiates it from so many later conversions are its windows. Overlooking the main lawn are no fewer than eight soaring Georgian windows framed by wisteria and clematis, roses and honeysuckle. In keeping with a traditional agricultural building? Probably not. A bold concept that immediately lifts Home Oast above virtually every other oast conversion I've seen? Certainly.

Needless to say, the windows are not just a pretty face. Inside they run the length of a truly spectacular double aspect drawing room, 36 feet in length with a soaring barrelled ceiling, flooding it with light and inviting in the garden. And as for the furnishings? "There's nothing new in here - in fact there's nothing new in the whole house," says Jenny, pointing out that neither of the sofas cost more than £20 and the armchair - which her children always called the 'witch's chair' - just £4.

The lovely dining table, made by David from a single slab of elm, is surrounded by Chippendale country chairs and nearby stands a tiny and rare hawthorn chair. By a glazed door that leads out onto a paved terrace is a slim and elegant Georgian oak grandfather clock by Thomas Sharp of Stratford-upon-Avon and beside it a large and glowing wooden statue of a Mongolian pony that came from Afghanistan.

At the other end of the drawing room is a modest-sized, shaker-style kitchen with a pleasing little alcove breakfast table for two. "Personally, I don't really need a large kitchen. But if a later owner ever wanted to expand it, all they would have to do would be open the existing kitchen through into my workshop!" Jenny says as she takes me through into a huge adjacent room in which she works on her 'roothouses', wonderful intricate fantasy houses carved from the roots of trees. The houses are only the latest turn her artistic career has taken; she began as a potter and a silversmith but her real love was pottery and she ultimately became known as one of the best makers of handmade and painted real porcelain miniatures which has now made its way into doll's houses around the world - and of course into her own roothouses.

Both upstairs and downstairs hallways are considerably more spacious than most oast conversions both because the overall size of the oast allowed this extravagance and because Jenny and David were determined that nowhere would seem 'pokey'. The downstairs hall is far from pokey and is home to a treasure trove of fascinating goodies from a collection of antique irons to a superb polyphon - just one of the couple's extensive collection of music boxes - and, in pride of place, a grandfather clock by the Derby clockmaker John Whitehurst to whose family David is related.

Off the hallway is another large reception room, home to a handsome brick fireplace, the couple's collection of musical boxes, a rare orchestrelle, a pianola and a barrel organ. And then as one moves through, one is in a fantasy land of roothouses. It is impossible to convey the level of intricate workmanship that has gone into each of these houses. Some have taken more than two years to complete. Not only are the exteriors incredibly detailed but the interiors even more so. And sections of outer wall can be removed to reveal the secret interiors.

And then it's back to the real world and up an impressive, cantilevered almost art deco staircase, half reclaimed wrought iron, to the upper floor where Jenny and David have combined space with a wide landing and corridor with intimate and unexpected twists and turns. They've tried wherever possible to keep the original levels which has resulted in perhaps half a dozen little staircases each leading to its own little world.

First, on the same level as the hallway is a pretty guest bedroom gathered around a lovely old brass bed in which all their children were born and which they bought in the Portobello Road for £4. A stride across the landing and one finds a self-contained one-bedroomed flat they once let. Off the landing are also two sets of stairs leading up to two of the kiln rooms - a spacious double bedroom and an equally spacious family bathroom. To reach the third kiln bedroom - the en suite master bedroom - one enters a secondary hallway and, passing a fourth bedroom, an old hop press and walls festooned with old farm tools past, one climbs up another little staircase. The master bedroom is as generous as its neighbours and features a wonderful full-size double bed suspended from the ceiling. Both the kiln bedrooms are double aspect thanks to the pretty dormer windows the couple installed and the views they give over the garden and surrounding countries are superb.

The result is that now, surrounded by a local ragstone wall, is a mature garden shaded by soaring pines, birches and chestnut all grown from tiny saplings, none, at first, more than six inches tall. "The first thing we did was to plant 100 pines, birches and chestnut trees, none of which could you stand under, at a cost of £60 and then added some 500 Lawsons and another 500 beeches, six inches high and 6d each, as hedging," she says.

Today, the garden is divided very roughly into three areas of lawn broken by interconnecting islands of trees and shrubs. Within the latter is a magical water garden of five ornamental ponds. It's truly a garden that might house fairies. "Absolutely not - no fairies, no pixies," says Jenny adamantly. And then, relenting just a little, she concedes she might, under sufferance, accept "perhaps just the odd faun." Modern planning regulations very rightly exist to protect our rich architectural heritage but every building is different, each one unique and there are times when one regrets that each project is judged not on its individual merits but by the rule book - for if the current book had existed in 1965, Home Oast would not exist in its present lovely form today, which would be a great deal more than just a shame.

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming