Town & Country

Living the rural dream, yet within walking distance of a vibrant town community are surely mutually exclusive ideas. Paul and his wife Jane certainly thought so, until a 17th century moated property nestling off a busy Wealden High Street, reached out and stole their hearts. "I can clearly remember Jane and I sitting in a tea shop in the town discussing our next move, not realising the property we were dreaming of was just a stone's throw away," reminisces Paul. "We had been living in Goudhurst for 10 years, where Jane was a teacher at Colliers Green Primary School and all four of our children went to Cranbrook School. We saw this property on the Internet at Easter 2008 and I said to myself, if I can stand up in it, then we might be onto something." Paul is certainly not challenged in the height department himself, but his son James is 6ft. 8ins., so low beams can present something of a challenge!

Sadly, at the time of their move in August 2008, Jane was terminally ill. Together, they realised that to make the property work for them, it would need sympathetic alterations to accommodate Jane's illness. With two barns in near proximity to the house, the obvious plan was to convert one of them into an annexe consisting of a bedroom and en suite bathroom, which Jane could use when the need arose. "We also extended the kitchen as it was very small and contained an enormous four oven gas Aga," explains Paul. "We basically extended the house out towards the barn in order to create the kitchen and added a linking room which joined the kitchen to the converted barn." And it is in this light and airy link, which is more akin to a relaxing garden room, that Paul and I settle down in two comfy armchairs to chat about the creation of this exceptional house. "Prior to the building work we needed to have an archeological survey done, which was fantastic because we uncovered the provenance of the house. It is actually built on the location of the town's original rectory, dating from the 1300s. The current building dates from 1650 and was originally two cottages belonging to the church farm. The church had built a new vicarage next door, which is now the museum.

"Interestingly," continues Paul, "the beams in the house are much older than the property itself and are medieval. There is a good possibility they were taken from the original rectory and reused. There are various carpenter's marks on the beams confirming the age of the medieval timbers and there are also Brentwood marks dating back to the 1600s." The previous owners of the property were notable British poet Hubert and his wife Diana. It was Hubert, a former English master at Cranbrook School, who carried out major renovations to both cottages in the late 70s, converting them into one sizeable dwelling. Not short in stature himself, Hubert lowered the ground floor by almost a foot, resulting in a classic beamed property with an enviable amount of headroom. "The firm Hubert used for the original conversion, AT Palmer Ltd of Smarden, also did my extension," recollects Paul. "Coincidentally, one of the guys who worked on my extension also worked on the original conversion and ours was his last job for the company. He remembered the original job well as he fell through one of the ceilings!" As we sit in the glorious late autumn sunshine, a bluetit continually dives past the floor-to-ceiling windows. The gardens surrounding the house are a haven for wildlife including a resident badger who at this time of year scrumps fallen apples, and a kingfisher, who swoops from a tree onto his perch at the edge of the pond.

The moat which surrounds the house is fed by two streams, one of which was a mill race. With almost an acre of land, the grounds are laid to lawn with country beds at the front and divided into segments at the back including a large vegetable garden. In 2000, Hubert added two barns behind the house and a granary which greets you as you pass over the moat at the entrance to the property. After gazing into the garden, we extract ourselves from the enveloping warmth and Paul guides me around the annexe. Filled with the most beautiful natural light and overlooking a delightful courtyard garden, this room radiates tranquillity. However Paul assures me this is not always the case when it is filled with teenagers home for the weekend! The smooth, honeyed tones of oak used throughout the conversion exude warmth, while at the same time reflect the natural light. Painted in soft cream like the rest of the house, and with oak floorboards, the annexe boasts two large oak wardrobes on either side of the entrance to the en suite bathroom. Designed specifically for Jane's needs, this spacious facility which features natural stone tiles throughout, accentuated with white porcelain fittings, would not look out of place in a five star hotel. Retracing our steps through the link room into the spacious, country kitchen filled with the comforting aroma of good coffee, Paul becomes animated when describing how satisfying it was designing the kitchen. "Schofield & Crafter designed and installed the kitchen and did an absolutely brilliant job. Before, there was a little galley kitchen with this enormous Aga which just threw out huge amounts of heat. The extension now includes underfloor heating and it is a really warm, yet energy efficient house to run. Having the Aga in the middle of the house means the radiators hardly ever come on and heat radiates around the building with vents taking the warm air from the Aga upstairs."

Light grey granite work surfaces and grey slate floor blend effortlessly with the ivory-coloured units and pewter handles. A large double butler sink looks out onto the courtyard and a smaller, circular sink is cut into the granite on the other side of the kitchen. This is very much a social house and farmhouse tables and chairs appear in three of the downstairs rooms - places to gather and chat as well as to eat. Stepping down into the brick-floored dining room, your eyes are immediately drawn to an impressive inglenook fireplace, one of two in the house. Now used as home for a large comfortable cream sofa, the presence of two such fireplaces supports the theory that the property was originally two cottages. "Both fireplaces have been used to cook on which wouldn't be the case if it was a single dwelling," explains Paul, "and parish records also show two tenements being built around 1650 in this area." Candles, hidden away in the fireplace's ledges and alcoves, add a relaxed amber glow to the room, highlighting the mellowness of the room's antique pine and oak furniture. "A lot of the furniture throughout the house was sourced during our time in the West Country in the late 70s and early 80s, when pine was really popular," says Paul. An 18th century pine dresser takes pride of place in the dining room and holds a collection of pieces mapping out Paul and Jane's life together when they travelled the world for Paul's job. Copper serving dishes and exquisitely engraved coffee and teapots are the result of shopping trips in various Middle Eastern souks. There are also some delightful examples of Staffordshire pottery castles, the collection of which was started by the Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Paul's alma mater. "Jane and I were married in the chapel at Peterhouse and the night before our wedding, the then Dean, Edward Norman, gave us a Staffordshire pottery replica of Peterhouse Chapel along with some wise words on married life," laughs Paul. On our way through to the sitting room, Paul points out the impressive oak doors made from floorboards from the original cottages and which appear throughout the house. Lifting the wooden latch we find ourselves in an oasis of country style. The second inglenook fireplace shows clearly where Hubert lowered the floor and an efficient Chesney woodburner provides additional warmth. Two comfortable tapestry sofas in rich plum tones, complement delicately patterned curtains made by Bell House Fabrics. A selection of watercolours and paintings from Jane and Paul's time in Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Devon and Kent adorn the walls with family photographs liberally placed on occasional tables. A stunning pine grandfather clock from Cornwall, stands proudly in the corner keeping time on proceedings.

Leaving the lounge we head towards the green oak staircase which is centrally positioned within the house and directly opposite the front door. Green oak was used to make the stairs, primarily for its inherent flexible qualities which allowed it to mould around the huge central chimney and move with the varying temperatures within the house. Passing open-face brick walls with small ledges holding more Middle Eastern coffee pots, the staircase gently turns and delivers us onto the middle floor. Here, the neutral calming tones of the downstairs décor continue. In James's room his extra long bed is dotted with magenta pink cushions with a pair of killer heels on the floor. Paul tells me his daughter Sally, an illustrator, has just returned home and has commandeered her brother's room. James is still present though in the form of an adorable painting of a yellow teddy bear signed by him from many years before. An open fireplace on the landing is yet another hiding place for family treasures and as we pass the family shower room, once again tastefully tiled from floor-to-ceiling with natural stone tiles, one soon realises that every available nook and cranny within the house is never wasted. Outside Sally's original room, a large alcove within the brickwork has been used to great effect as wardrobe space. Entering the spacious master bedroom you are immediately hit by the most beautiful light pouring out from the crystal white Italian marbled en suite bathroom. A large white and gold ewer and basin sitting on top of an antique pine washstand, is surrounded by luxury toiletries and adds an air of Victorian charm. The bedroom, with cream carpet and linen, is perfectly accentuated with rich contemporary drapes and cushions. The bed affords the perfect view of the pond where Paul can lay back and watch the kingfisher swoop from his perch. A huge antique pine mirror and yet another large open fireplace, on top of which are candles and family photographs, magically expand this room even further. As we climb the stairs to the top floor we pass a delightful row of soft toys sitting on a window ledge looking out on unsuspecting visitors as they walk up the garden path. "This custom was started by Hubert's daughters, and Jane and I thought it would be fun to continue it," says Paul. Paul tells me the house has always had a top floor, and this is where Will and Ed still keep their rooms despite having 'officially' moved out. At the top of the steep staircase, we enter real teenage territory. The larger of the two rooms is really two rooms in its own right. With a large comfy seating area as you enter and an enviable footprint despite the sloping ceilings, you climb two oak steps to reach the bedroom. Several guitars, a keyboard, rope lighting wrapped around the beams, posters and colourful memorabilia collected over the years, make this room the perfect teenage hideaway.

With Will having just graduated from Durham and shortly off to Kentucky to work and Ed in his first term at Liverpool, Paul admits he's having to get used to empty nest syndrome. But with Sally back home and Christmas fast approaching, he knows it won't stay that way for long. "What I like is that I can compartmentalise different parts of the house. You've got the annexe which can be a separate entity and with the boys away, the empty bedrooms on the top floor can be forgotten about. You just live in the parts you want to. The combination of living in the country, but right in the middle of town, just makes it an incredible place to live."

Address Book:

  • words Dawn Frosdick-Hopley
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming